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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 11 August, 2020

'When the border was finally ripped down - hope rose and healing began. We must not go back'

‘Growing up on the Irish border during the 1970s & 1980s was akin to some Bermuda Triangle existence, where people mysteriously disappeared and to this day, were never seen again,’ writes Grace Vaughan from Monaghan.

Grace Vaughan

IF ONLY WE had a euro or a pound for every glazed-over eye when Brexit was mentioned – we wouldn’t be worrying about borders and how we preferred them (hard or soft, ma’am?) because we could emigrate and get the hell out of Ireland altogether.

But as much as we’d like to, we just can’t run away from our past. So we endeavour to move on, to progress.

If we can’t forget the past then for the sake of our children we must forgive it. They shouldn’t have to relive all that hurt and bitterness, not of their making.

But that’s exactly what Brexit is threatening to do, to drag us all back down a dark memory lane kicking and screaming to a non-abating time when every man, woman, fox and child played endless games of ‘catch me if you can’ with gardaí, RUC and customs men. 

Growing up on the Irish border during the 1970s & ’80s was akin to some Bermuda Triangle existence where people mysteriously disappeared and to this day were never seen again.

For the families of the missing, this is what a hard border looks like and feels like – regardless of its physical dismantling some 20 years ago in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The local bog, where children worked summers, was a makeshift twilight zone where British helicopters would illegally fly into unapproved airspace and as an unwitting lookout, you would alert the bog boss, (a deaf IRA man in hiding who lost his hearing in some botched backwater petrol station bombing) about the threat overhead.

And as he scurried off like some cornered rat into the nearest hedge we’d make hay, grabbing the un-surveilled few moments to partake in our own turf war, throwing sods at each other, boys against the girls.

That was our projection, our way of dealing with having to visit burial houses of our fathers’ friends – blown up while out tending to their cattle because they’d refused to pay protection money – still an unfortunate and wholly deceptive racket of a term.

But that’s what fear, anger and hate does, it makes people, including families, turn on their own like disturbed ferrets that eat their young.

Yet through all the bitterness, there was a strange sweet side to the border.

In the forgotten unapproved village of Mullan on the Armagh border, a stone’s throw from our family home in Emyvale, Co Monaghan, we’d cross a little bridge on foot (as no cars had access) and torture the little blind woman who owned the Crow’s Nest, a shop-cum-sibin for sweets that weren’t available in the south.

Like braille, she would slowly rub the coins between her fingers to read the currency to decipher if it were punt or sterling she had just been handed.

At the Co. Tyrone border checkpoint in Aughnacloy, 4km away, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory twist continued with the high rising ironclad watchtowers that dominated the borderland skies and doubled as a giant free for all sweetshop.

Here young soldiers would fire packets of crisps into our car with foreign brands and flavours never to be found in the south, Golden Wonder Sausage & Tomato, Beef & Onion.

That random act of kindness would soon bear a bad taste though, sullied by the shooting dead of a young footballer on his way to a GAA match. 

Suspicion and confusion were rife. As children, we didn’t know who we were but we knew who we were supposed to be for. With identity crisis came shame, shame for preferring the side you shouldn’t – because it offered more colour, more fantasy.

Children innately seek out colour during dark times, sometimes it’s the only protection available when a country’s at war and rightly or wrongly, north of the border with its rebellious red white and blue kerbed streets had more of a lure for a southern child.

There they had fairytale weddings with real princes and princesses but for every Charles and Di poster that hung from a northern telephone pole, different kinds of posters hung from the southern poles that year.

As much as you tried not to look at the emaciated, embattled, hunger striker images of Kieran Doherty during that scorcher of the summer of 1981, you couldn’t help but look and in an instant, all fantasy and hope would die off.

Brexit, like every other issue of national interest on this island, starts with a conversation we can all relate to and bring something to – but as soon as the political heads get their spin on it we’re down another rabbit hole, warbling away about customs unions, single markets and phase twos.

The power struggle we are witnessing this week is all about political careers and not one bit about people’s best interests. The human thread is long cut from the conversation.

Grace Vaughan is a writer and photographer at SkyDaddy Media.

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