borders and the body

Recently I was at a one-day conference titled ‘Borders and Borderlands’ at Glencree in Wicklow. I took part in a panel discussion with Garrett Carr and Kapka Kassabova, chaired by Catherine Nash.

I spoke a little about my work on Irish Border/lands between 2005 and 2008. During the project I talked with 80 border people, building up an idea of the lived experience of the border. I developed an interest in how the operations and atmospheres of the border are affected by its topography. This idea came into sharpest focus in relation to the Troubles. Then, west Tyrone’s remote hills and bogs, and monocultures of Sitka spruce, became sinister, suggesting the possibility of ambush. West Fermanagh’s patchwork of small fields, hedges, ditches and boreens was subject to blasting and cratering and where people had once moved easily across the border, now they were brought up short.

Bryonie Reid, detail from ‘(re)writing’ 2012

Activist Caoimhe Butterly showed a film, made in a refugee camp by the Syrian-Turkish border. Border guards are shown periodically announcing that the border will remain closed, while refugees speak to camera about their journeys thus far. In discussion after the presentation, Joe Robinson raised the idea of the border as a place of stoppage, and asked what effect that would have on the compulsively on-the-move refugee body. In reply, Caoimhe spoke eloquently about the distress experienced by people who had fled their homes, swept on a wave of effort and fear, only to be stranded at a line on a map. She explained that at these forced stops, trauma surfaces in the mind and body, but without safety or support. Some are driven into movement that goes nowhere, circling the camps, or pushing at the border.

One of my interviewees described his home place as having been turned into a cul-de-sac by the cratering of the border road. He observed this physical obstruction growing into an intellectual and emotional obstruction, creating a narrow world in every sense. Poised in a new uncertainty about the manifestation and meaning of the Irish border, it is a time to consider what we do to ourselves and others when we attempt to make a border impenetrable.