The New Frontier: Reflections From the Irish Border
Edited By James Conor Patterson
“These writers aren’t interested in platitudes or clichés, and the result is an honest, original and urgent dispatch on a subject that should matter to us all a great deal.”
One of the fascinating things about humans is that you can expose a group of people to similar circumstances and each individual’s imagination would process them differently and give their experiences a unique form when they express themselves creatively. James Conor Patterson, poet and essayist from Newry, Co. Down, has compiled an anthology that highlights that creativity and sense of multiplicity through the work of some of our most talented writers grappling with the subject of this island’s land border.
The book is filled with vibrant and arresting pieces, spanning forms and styles. For example, Michelle Gallen’s short story, ‘On The Wall’, is the darkly comic tale of John Smyth, an upstanding and god-fearing “tower of strength in his local church”, who is terrorised by sectarian graffiti and other sinister pranks. While he is naturally distressed, local reporters and police don’t seem to share his concern, which only drives him madder. ‘North South East West’ by Garrett Carr, author and creative writing lecturer in Queen’s University, is an essay that details a trip he took to Larne with the goal of figuring out if it could now be considered a border town since the post-Brexit implementation of the sea border. Carr analyses the ways (other than official customs posts) that towns along Ireland’s land border show their allegiances, like a statue of a gun-toting soldier from the War of Independence in Pettigo or a giant crown erected in Larne to commemorate the Queen’s diamond jubilee.
Another Queen’s University faculty member, Michael Hughes, contributes a standout short story to the anthology. ‘Marcel Marceau’ is a simultaneously gritty and fantastical piece that imagines the border as a metaphysical and malevolent force that will tear apart anyone foolish enough to spend too much time on the wrong side. He describes three brothers who steal a physical chunk of the border and bring it home, where it wreaks psychic havoc on everyone nearby; “Shops were taking both monies, and the mobile signals were cancelling each other out. The dye was hopping in and out of the diesel, the tags were on and off the ears of the livestock, people were talking in a strange halfway accent, part Paddy, part Billy.” Hughes deftly deploys some magical realism to highlight the arbitrary and often absurd implications of having a physical and psychological line in the ground where people act differently depending on what side they’re on. Like the best examples of the genre, it casts new light on a subject that can sometimes seem like a grim and inevitable reality.
In the introduction to The New Frontier, Patterson writes that, “it would be crass to feign neutrality on a subject which has shaped who we are” and that the authors featured are “every bit as opinionated” as he is. He’s right, and this is a very good thing. These writers aren’t interested in platitudes or clichés, and the result is an honest, original and urgent dispatch on a subject that should matter to us all a great deal.
Words: Joe Joyce