The Rule of the Land: a review

by frankbeswick

The Rule of the Land gives a penetrating insight into the Irish border.

This book makes not only good reading, but touches upon an area of the life of the British Isles that has been plunged into the spotlights because of the implications of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. The book is not only enjoyable but politically significant. Yet as one who dwelt a year on the Irish border many years ago it enabled me briefly to revisit youthful haunts. This is a well-written book easy to read and informative.

Photograph courtesy of Bernhard_Staerck

The Journey

It is always good to read a walking book that is written by a well-educated person who is happy to share their thoughts with readers, and Garrett Carr easily falls into this category. A lecturer in Creative Writing at Belfast University, he writes in a fluent style easy to read and manages to sustain the readers' attention. 

The book takes us on a journey along the Irish border from Carlingford Lough right through to the Fermanagh lake country before it turns north through the writer's native Donegal. There is a blend of personal experience of encountering people and places and history, with  a little Geology as background, all expressed in the clear language that is the trademark of an accomplished writer. Eschewing the  romanticising of Ireland that bedevils some people, he gives a "warts and all" view of the places that he has visited. He is ready to speak of gun battles and murders that have occurred, and he is prepared to tell you when the terrain through which he walks is difficult and boggy and hard  to cross. Yet he balances the accounts of the difficult bits with some powerful writing which opens up the landscape to  readers. 

Several stretches were travelled by canoe with a companion, including one of my favourite lough, Upper Lough Macnean on the borders of Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim. Indeed, it was  the prospect of making a literary journey through my old haunts that drew me to the book. 

The book can be read for leisure, but in the present febrile  climate of the United Kingdom it has an undertone of immense significance. Put simply, the foolish British nationalists who have misled the people into voting to leave the European Union did not take into account the problems that leaving would cause on the still vulnerable Irish border. Or did they care? Probably not. The locals have become used to crossing the border without checkpoints, and all are thriving in this peaceful regime which gives strength to the Good Friday agreement. But with the hard exit from the EU favoured by the right, border controls will have to be erected again, and they will be countered by the  traditional Irish pastime of smuggling. The Rule of the Land tackles this issue through the personal experience of the writer, and he does it well. 

The border people whom he meets en route strike you as very ordinary and mostly friendly folk, and it is their voices and histories that we hear when Carr recounts their speech. We discover their fears and hopes for  a peaceful and safe future, and as a border dweller for a short time I share their fears of a return to violence. 

Landscape

I was not disappointed in my hope that I would vicariously reconnect with the landscape that I knew years  ago around Cavan, Leitrim and Fermanagh. Carr takes us on a walk over Cuilcagh, a mountain that straddles the border. Mentally I journey with him as he treks the mountain, but he also  explores the labyrinthine caves that twist and turn under the mount to emerge as the source of the Shannon, which gushes out from Shannon Pot on Cuilcagh's western slopes.  Here there is powerful writing, for while he explores the caves not from his own experience but from accounts of cavers, the reader can relive the fear that accompanies this dark and constricted endeavour.  Yet he lightens his account of what I know from personal experience to be a dangerous and difficult mountain with details of the Cavan Burren, a stretch of limestone territory along the western side of the mountain blessed with natural  features and megalithic remains. 

Taking us by canoe along Upper Lough Macnean I was delighted that he spotted my old theological college by the southern shore. Sold off in 1970, it is now an open prison. Carr imagines life in the college and what it would have been like for the student priests, and he thinks that escaping  from this Catholic seminary would have been harder than escaping from the open prison! I have written to him to put him right on that score and one or two other points.I used to go out for a night walk to think in peace about philosophical problems, and none thought it wrong or tried to prevent me; and I left on good terms, through the front gate rather than over the fence, which did not in any case exist. 

Yet Carr deals with a variety of landscapes well, from the small farms around the South East of the province, through the estates on the borders of Monaghan and Tyrone and more latterly the lonely lands along the Donegal border. He takes us through forestry plantations, boglands hard of passage and industrial sites, such as Sion Mills, the well-planned linen factory once run by high-minded altruistic  owners that formed the basis of a community until unbridled capitalism allowed entry of cheaper goods from the Far East and the enterprise failed.  The site is now in the hands of a local woman who is trying to make it work.    

Identity and Stories

Questions of identity are never far from the surface in Ireland, and let's face it, the British Isles, and in this book the author thinks them through, linking them to both historical and geographical factors. He speculates,probably accurately, that the North of Ireland has always been a zone distinct from the rest of the isle, due to the fact that before modern transport systems the drumlin belt, that swathe of small glacial  mounds, and the bogs made passage from the South to the North difficult, created a distinct community in the North of the isle. Yet identity has been influenced by population movements, including the planting of British Protestants into the north of the isle. We have been living with the legacy of these plantations for many years. This issue inevitably enters the author's discussions, for it cannot be avoided.

Carr tells many tales of  a variety of people, entrepreneurs,engineers, farmers, all of which are told well. Identity cannot be separated from story, and one way, the oldest way, of doing history is storytelling. Yet the creative writer in him allows him to occasionally luxuriate in his imagination. On visiting the spectacular hill fort,  the Grianan of Ailloch,he allows himself a reverie in which he dreams of the life of the daughter of the chieftain who once dominated the hill. This is a pleasant interlude and it makes us ponder how much of history  is imaginary. 

Rule of the Land is a well-written book that is worth reading. I commend it to you.

Updated: 07/17/2018, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick on 09/04/2018

Yes, Derdriu, you have divined correctly that Upper Lough Macnean is a place that I really like.

If you laughed at the bit about smuggling, you will love this one. A colleague of mine was on the border and saw the rather easy going customs officer standing looking eastwards, while behind him to the West a group of Irishmen were smuggling a herd of cattle across the river from Eire into Northern Ireland.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/04/2018

frankbeswick, Thank you for the journey and the products. You have a way with words, such as the phrase that leaves me belly-laughing over the "traditional Irish pastime of smuggling." Is Upper Lough Macnean a favorite of yours before, during or since seminary years?

frankbeswick on 07/20/2018

Now that's a very long trail. I have read a bit about it. I hope that one day you manage to do it.

AngelaJohnson on 07/20/2018

I've never been on a walking tour, although I take a walk almost every day. On the east coast of the U.S., there's the Appalachian Trail, which is 2,190 miles and goes through 14 states. I'd like to try a section of it some day.

frankbeswick on 07/19/2018

Canoes came back to Britain through American influence. They were known in prehistoric times, but fell from favour and were replaced by the rowing boat. But the Welsh kept their coracles.

frankbeswick on 07/19/2018

Brexit gets worse as the incompetent weakling that we have as prime minister stumbles from one disaster to another as she tries to square the circle to make an unworkable arrangement work, while the right wing bullies behind Brexit circle round her putting on the pressure for the hard Brexit that they want.

The intractable issue is the Irish border. The Good Friday agreement insists that there be an open border with no customs controls; a hard Brexit involves our leaving the European Union single market and customs union, and therefore customs controls have to be imposed. These two positions are contradictory and cannot both happen. But the PM is trying to keep her job by appeasing the forty or so right wingers who are threatening to unseat her from her position by voting against her in a leadership election.

Now we find out that the Leave campaign broke electoral rules by secretly overspending beyond legal limits. They have been fined and two leaders reported to the police. Therefore there is now a growing demand for another referendum. And the clock is ticking towards deadline day!

blackspanielgallery on 07/19/2018

Strange that canoe is often associated with Native Americans, yet it comes up in the United Kingdom.
Has Brexit run its course, or is it still a process that remains incomplete? I realize it is complicated.

frankbeswick on 07/15/2018

Thank you.

MBC on 07/15/2018

Well written review. Think I'll read the book.

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