Note: the interviewee speaks Gaelic, a language I do not speak, my collaborator for this project Dr Francis Stewart however does speak Gaelic, I provided her with the interview questions and she interviewed this interviewee and interviewee 8 on my behalf and translated the interview into English
Thank you for agreeing to take part in this project, as you know I need to make a few things clear at the start. This is being recorded, and I will undertake transcription of any Irish phrases, words, or conversations we undertake. If you want to check through the transcriptions, please just let me know and I will email them to you. You can refuse to answer any question you do not wish to engage with, you can ask for the interview to end at any point, and you can ask for the recording to be stopped or paused for any reason at any stage within this.
Do you give permission for this to be recorded?
Interviewee 7: Yes, that’s fine, please proceed. Maith (good, or all good).
The project is focused on demarcation imagery and understanding. Although you now work at UCC (Cork) you grew up by the borderlands, just outside Monaghan. What influence did proximity to borders have on your childhood, outlook or experiences?
Interviewee 7: Ceist mhaith (good question). I don’t remember not knowing the border was there and that it was a dangerous place, not somewhere for us to play or explore near. It was always present, and not present at the same time if that makes sense. It was uileláithreach (closest English word is omnipresent, but word is closer in meaning to a veil) and although I don’t remember being told to stay away from it, we all knew to do so. It was and was not tangible, it marked an difriúil thall ansin (difference / over there) that was and wasn’t the same as us. Days out where never across it, always around it. I guess it was always just the great unspoken presence.
Did that change as you got older?
Interviewee 7: yes, I became increasingly aware that it was a very gránna (ugly) or leatromach (oppressive) marker or, as you are talking about (although I didn’t use that phrasing back then) a demarcation for older generations of what was taken from us, taken from our land, taken from our culture and casta (twisted) or déanta difriúil (changed / different). Today I would talk about that as a growing realistation that it was the presence of a demarcation of colonialism, of othering and therefore, for older people, growns up at the time, a real place of sadness, anger and fear. My seanmháthair (grandmother) always said “níl gach fál cothrom” (not all hedges are equal – hedges were a common border marker in Ireland) whenever conversation came up about the border or stories came through of things happening there – we increasingly became a popular area for the IRA to cross over at, as the army were not so present there as they were elsewhere along the border.
How do you feel about it now, especially with the prospect of a return to a hard border due to Brexit?
Interviewee 7: I have very complicated feelings about it, I had come to love it, I love walking along it when I return home. I love walking my dog along it. I feel a real sense of hope and change and possibility when I walk it. You can feel what it was, what it meant and at the same time you can feel that it has changed. There’s a real sense of progress, of ag athghabháil na talún, ní an t-am atá thart ach an todhchaí (changing the past, not the past but the future / what could be). Since Brexit, that feeling has been slowly dissipating, fragmenting and that feels horrible. The only way I can describe it is that it feels like an increasingly sharp sense of foreboding. I think this comes from knowing that our country has been free from England for decades and yet we still are not entirely free regardless of whether we are a united Ireland or not. Our freedoms effectively depend on their whims and desires. I know my family are afraid of what this means for them, and especially for their access to family on the other side of the border (my sister moved to Armagh and one of my brothers moved to Derry for work, they married and have kids there). We are not unique in this, this is a reality for many borderland families, and presumably not just in Ireland / Northern Ireland.
Sure, exactly, Palestine and such places as that. What do you think borderlands peoples can offer in terms of N Ireland moving forward, understanding our own history, identity etc?
Interviewee 7: The border is a place of movement, of ag teacht agus ag imeacht (coming and going / mingling) it is not as hard and fast of marker of demarcation as say the political murals and peace walls you have in Belfast and Derry, its more porous which is what we need to become as a people. Many border people live in such a way as to cross the border multiple times a day, work school home shopping and so on. That’s a really valuable thing and should be protected, cherished and considered as a part of moving forward, of understanding who we are, or who we are capable of being. We also represent that change takes time, it happens slowly but that’s what makes it work. There’s a famous, well worn phrase: ní réabann tú daoine teorann (you don’t rush border people), its true it really is. We matter.
That’s very powerful. Shifting focus slightly to think about demarcation and borders in a slightly different way through spirituality and Celtic mythology, how do you think about things like faery rings / circles, dolmens, troll bridges and what not?
Interviewee 7: ag dul isteach sa cheo draíochta (entering the magic mist), love it. Faery rings fascinated me as a child, I loved hearing stories about them, I loved being taken to see Dún Sídhe (faery fort) and imagining all the defensive actions of the fae at them. Apparently, although I don’t actually remember, I used to beg my parents to let me make a fire near them and tell stories but they would never let me, they thought it would be disrespectful and incur the wrath of the fae, who are, frankly, not to be messed with at all. My seanmháthair (grandmother) always said we would be cursed. I suppose in a lot of ways that was an early awareness of borders, of something that can’t br crossed because what lies on the other side or what lies within is not ours.
I grew up believing that those rings and forts were made by, owned by and vital to the fae, they were not for us. They marked a border between this world and the other side, the other land. I don’t think I ever confused it with heaven or anything like that. As an adult I am fascinated by, and drawn to, the liminality that they represent which is a part of being a border. You are neither one place or another, you are both at the same time and neither at the same time. For example, thinking about their role on Samhain. In Irish folklore, the night of Samhain is when the barrier between the human world and the otherworld becomes thin, allowing the dead to come through and walk the Earth. People would leave their doors unlatched and leave food out for their dead relatives who might return to the house on this night. Faery rings are looked to as places of power on that night, we avoid them at all costs fear offending or being captured you know, they are in effect that very tangible border between the two worlds, between the living and the dead, the past and the present.
At Samhain, the fairy mounds called sidhe are thought to open up so that the fairies and other otherworldly creatures can pass into human dwellings and intermingle with humans. The traditional Irish beliefs about fairies include their conceptualisation as the human dead, or the idea that the human dead can be “in the fairies”, part of the otherworld or fairy realm. So, the beliefs about the fairies being in the vicinity of humans on this night and the dead returning could be one and the same.
Due to the belief that this is a time when the symbolic door or border between the world of the dead and the world of the living is open, there is the idea that people may be privy to supernatural knowledge concerning the future, since the ordinary barriers of time and space are considered to be transparent. Many of these hoped-for glances into the future involved marriage on the horizon for an individual, usually a young woman. For example, young women would hang a garment to dry before the fire and watch from a corner of the room to see an apparition of their destined husband come down the chimney to turn the garment over so that the other side would dry.
One of the sites associated with the observance of Samhain is the Hill of Ward or Tlachtga, located near Athboy in County Meath. This hill has a prehistoric ringfort (a circular fortified settlement which dates back to the Iron Age) atop it. Legend has it that druids gathered there to light huge fires as a signal that Samhain festivities should commence. There is evidence that great fires were lit on this hill in pre-Christian times. Tlachtga (hill of ward) is clearly visible from The Hill of Tara in County Meath, one of the most well-known of Irish sacred sites, which was also a significant Samhain site in ancient times. The fire-lighting rituals on the hills were connected. There are references in medieval manuscripts to Feis Teamhrach (Feast of Tara), which was said to take place three nights before and three nights after Samhain.
Sorry, I’ve gone way off topic haven’t I, but as you know – it’s how we met – I love this stuff.
That’s ok, I can talk about all this for hours, but you are the expert on it. We can’t really talk about the fae and borders without talking about Tír na nÓg (land of youth / otherworld). What do you think of it in relation to borders and demarcation?
Interviewee 7: Tír na nÓg (land of youth) or sometimes called Tír Tairngire (land of promise) is the Irish name for the otherworld. In this place, death and sickness do not exist. It was where the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ‘tribe of Anu’, the mythical people associated with the fairies of later folklore, settled when they left Ireland’s surface. Tír na nÓg is described as being underground or under the ocean and in folklore it is said to be accessible by certain special places on the landscape, they are faery rings and forts. Those rings are the literal border markers or ‘checkpoints’ of Tír na nÓg. They demarcate those two worlds.
Do you see a parallel in that and Ireland / N Ireland at all?
Interviewee 7: Oh, yes very much so. Two lands divided, united and existing within and without the same space. That border between the two is as much, if not more so, symbolic than physical. It is the border of colonialism and post-colonialism, of past and future, freedom and control. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s truth in the saying “Agus iad sa tóir ar an tsaoirse, thóg na hÉireannaigh a gcuid príosúin féin. Agus chabhraigh a gceannairí leo é a dhéanamh.” (In their rush to freedom, the Irish built their own prisons. And their leaders helped them to do it. Said by Micheal Lewis – check spelling of name).
Is annamh a thugtar aird ar fhocail ciallmhar (wise words seldom heeded). I’d like to thank you for your time and for sharing your knowledge and experiences. This project is being undertaken with a photography student – Joshua – and so there will be an exhibit in Aberdeen in June based on his photographs taken and created in response to the interview material. If you happen to be attending SOCREL, it will be on then if you want to travel a bit further and see it. Best of luck with the project and I look forward to your update on it at the ISRC next year.