Points that Make a Line: Mapping Ireland’s Border by Garrett Carr

The Rule of the Land is about reading the power dynamics in a landscape. To write the book I explored Ireland’s border, but I like to think that I uncovered things relevant to frontiers everywhere. Growing up near the border may explain my fascination with what happens where a country ends, and what springs up along the line. When I began my journey I also started making a map. Among other things, it charts examples of defensive architecture on the border. I was still a child, but I remember the border checkpoints during the Troubles. My father would bring me across sometimes. His journey’s were always to make a deal, buying or selling — borders usually mean a price deferential and in difference profits can be made. When Northern Ireland leaves the EU it is probable that lots of differences are going to reappear, as tempting as ever. Customs huts may be called back into service too. In those days, the 1980s, I knew we were about to cross the line when we passed one of these huts. In the rear-view mirror I’d see a bored customs official sitting in the door, occasionally raising his hand to call in a car travelling from the north. Heading the other way, a hulking military fortress would come into view a few yards inside the United Kingdom. My father would go quiet as we crept along the road between steel walls and spotlights. The nozzles of guns jutted out of dark slots, each probably representing an edgy nineteen-year-old from Manchester or Leeds. These military installations were obvious powerbases, the mechanisms of a state asserting itself along its outer limits. But the flimsy customs hut of the Republic of Ireland also fulfilled this role, it too let you know you were entering a different jurisdiction. It too imposed rules, or aspired to. I knew from day one of my journey that military bases and customs checkpoints would be on the map. But the final map, which now illustrates The Rule of the Land, also includes many elements that I did not originally expect. I had a lot to learn about what power can look like on a landscape.

I began to look further back, to defensive embankments that were built across Ireland in the Iron Age, around the 1st Century. Today, the remains of these defences are raised banks of earth a few hundred metres long, and many of them happen to correspond closely with today’s border. Some people have claimed these embankments were once all linked up, remains of a single project, a sort of Hadrian’s Wall between north and south, but archaeologists reject the theory. There simply weren’t the resources around to build such a thing and then how could it have been guarded? Besides, Ireland was fractured into dozens of small kingdoms at the time. Archaeologists suggest the embankments are actually the remains of lots of smaller projects that couldn’t have stopped any serious invader. They might have been built to rival each other, or just to show off to weaker neighbours — perhaps demonstrating you had the power to build a rampart was the important thing. The walls were statements more than actual defences. Donald Trump’s wall with Mexico comes to mind.

All these building projects give insights in how state or kingly control actually works. Holding sway over a landscape seems to be as much about making a confident statement as your fort’s weapons and capabilities. Some of the biggest statements along the border required no steel or stone, they were cultural claims. Plenty of maps chart the location of army bases, but where is the dissent? Popular movements have shaped countries too, and I didn’t want exclude such actions just because they didn’t have walls and a roof. So, I included notable protests on my map. In the 1960s and seventies they were mainly about civil rights or reunifying Ireland, more recently the rejection of fracking has been the message. Protests leave no physical mark of course, but neither have those army checkpoints, dismantled as part of the peace process.

Once I started thinking this way it was hard to know where to stop: factories, bridges, monuments and manor houses, lots of things seem to be marking one sort of claim or another. I found my map becoming unwieldy as I tried to chart more and more. Why not church steeples? Prisons? I could have gone on, but I had to stop somewhere.

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My journey ended when I canoed to the lip of Lough Foyle, the northwestern end of the border. In a pleasing echo, this is where, in the 19th Century, the Ordnance Survey’s mapping of Ireland began. Ireland’s survey is often remembered as a machination of a colonial power on their small neighbour, but it was actually Irish landowners seeking fair tax rates who lobbied for the survey to take place. The first four trigonometry points in Ireland create an imaginary line that happens to run parallel with the border’s last eight miles. As most hill walkers know, trigonometry points aren’t too imposing, just low concrete pillars with a brass fitting in the cap to hold a theodolite. This first baseline was then triangulated with other points on hills and mountains, creating baselines for more triangulations. Soon a web of imaginary lines covered Ireland, properties could be measured with great precision and their owners taxed accordingly. A trigonometry point, it seems to me, is loaded with a quiet authority; bureaucratic, managerial, impossible to escape. Set in its concrete are two key ingredients of a modern state; taxation and ownership. So, last but certainly not least, I added trigonometry points to my map.

The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border by Garrett Carr is out now.

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