- Crossing the Lines:Borders, Transgressions, and a Spot of Smuggling
Although I grew up in Deansgrange on the south side of Dublin, I was never let forget that we were blow-ins to the big smoke. My mother from Collooney, County Sligo, and my father from Warrenpoint, County Down, made sure that their respective counties and provinces loomed large in a childhood that seemed full of borders.
There was the one created by the Shannon, which, when crossing, my mother would say "to hell or to Connacht, here we come!" and there was the more serious one between North and South. That one created a place that others called "Southern Ireland," a place we were deemed to be from by visitors from England and further afield. But I knew it as a place that did not exist in any legal entity, but one nonetheless that made the south "Southern" even though it remained more northerly in parts than some places in what we called "the North."
There were other borders, like those that were drawn around the idea of Irishness, which I was emphatically not to cross. These were defined by my dad who said he'd turn in his grave at the thought of me marrying an Englishman or going to Trinity College.
And then there were others, subtler and sometimes hardly visible: the borders of behavior, when people seemed to cross the apparently fixed tribal boundaries with ease, or the implied transgressions on the edge of the family stories. Had we really converted from a Scottish Lutheran sect to Roman Catholicism as my grandmother sometimes hinted? And had we done so in order to run betting on horses and gambling on cockfights, and to convene the occasional nighttime hare coursing event?
One thing was clear—the Ireland I grew up in was full of sleights of hand, sideways glances, and statements that meant the opposite of what they seemed. My small family of two adults and two kids was Dublin-based. But to reach any relatives, we had to go west—to Sligo and the coast—for unfamiliar people my mother, a Kelly, and her aunt, a Helly, made us call "uncle." As an only child she had few blood relatives, save those who lived in America and rarely returned. Or we had to go north, to the large extended family of my father's home place in [End Page 11] Warrenpoint and their next-generation outpost in Newry, both in County Down. These were the exotic relatives—Gran, my father's brothers, and sometimes his sisters back from London where they worked, and their various spouses and offspring. Their different accent and their way of expressing themselves by not quite saying, but implying, what they meant, left a big impression. These relatives seemed the repository of histories that we never heard in the South.
Crossing the border over and back to spend time with them became the punctuation points of my growing up. Each summer trip as I changed from 'tween to teen, and each New Year trip in the cold and the sleet was both different and the same.
Back then, in the early 1970s, going north meant Cadbury's Aztec caramel bars and multicolored Opal Fruits, sweets we couldn't get down south. There were soda farls off the griddle that left a strange floury feeling in the mouth and there was always baked ham cut off the bone and piled onto white buttered toast. We ate this off blue willow-patterned plates that my grandmother minded with a fierce determination. She remembered the story of each chip and crack, including those the fault of Uncle Hugh, who'd chipped her last precious serving bowl when he bumped the dresser on his way in when drunk. It was special, she said, because instead of the flying blue bird appearing inside the willow pattern frame around the edge, this one had an errant bird, an escapee who had broken out of the ordered pattern but who was now wingless forever. It seemed a metaphor for her own life. She was a rare bird, interested in fashion and in style as a way of...