ALVAREZ PRIETO Ignacio‘Border Lives’ project gives voice to the untold stories of the frontier
by Ignacio Álvarez PRIETO for Northern Ireland Foundation
24 November 2014

Tyrone Donegal Partnership has recently made the ‘Border Lives’ project, a storytelling project that merges over 90 participants’ narratives about how their respective lives and of their community were affected by the Troubles period and up to recent times, due to their presence and living in the border region between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

This project is run by Tyrone Donegal Partnership and funded by the European Union’s PEACE III Programme, from the EU themed ‘Acknowledging and dealing with the past’. The project team is composed of Conor McGale, the Project Manager, and of Project Officer, Sarah Bryden.

The core development of this team’s project is the six 30-minute documentaries from both sides of the border. It also has 20 extended interviews with the participants and a purpose-built website containing these films and interviews.

This recorded material gathers the 90 participants’ stories and experiences from both Catholic and Protestant communities, as well as ex-combatants and police officers. It shows how the conflict, such as the routine of security searches and bomb threats, impacted upon their lives, as well as how people adapted to the fear, isolation and uncertainty of the violence. But there is also the humanism, the great expectations and hopes that spreaded after the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as well as the humour, the friendship and community spirit that existed back then.

In fact, it is ordinary people who haven’t previously had the opportunity to tell their stories, quite afar from what would be heard constantly in European media during those times.

The participants came from different backgrounds and faiths, and move along the border, starting from South Armagh. People like Gavin Cumisky, from the Crossmaglen Rangers Team, who explains how the sport clubs to which he belongs, brought many people together again.

And people like Cliodhna Geraghty, who runs Forkhill women’s group, where women from both sides gather across the border and across the community. According to her, nearly every one of these women lost somebody during the conflict, or suffered from it. Most of the women come from just two miles away from the border, but were scared of crossing the border.

This first episode is completed with the testimonies of Brendan Curran, the first Sinn Féin mayor of Newry, who was imprisoned for 15 years, and of Sam Robinson, one of the youngest RUC’s officers when the Troubles broke out, operating in Beshrook, remembering how young the police members were back then.

This video is complemented with “The Fews”, narrating the Protestant experience, particularly of those who belong to the Orange Order, and how the Order became a tradition in most of the Protestant families. For Protestants, living there for almost 400 years, going to the same church and to the same hall where their parents and grandparents went, makes a real sense of belonging.

The project further moves west, to depict how the closure of the borders by the British Army and the closure of the local railway, as well as the migration of Protestant families to the north, economically affected places like Clones and Monaghan, obliging most inhabitants to earn money by smuggling. For Walter Pringle, farmer, people who got involved in the Troubles were normal people, mixed in society, so it brought fear and suspicion to everybody.

Isobel Cleary depicts in ‘the Far West’ episode her testimony of watching a soldier dying in front of her house when a child. She came from a Protestant background and moved to Belleek, which was predominantly Catholic. But she states that in general, there were good relations between people in the city. For most of the interviewers, the terrorist attacks over Belleek were because of economical reasons, since people from County Donegal would come there to go shopping, as it was cheaper. The Troubles started with the border, because almost everybody smuggled, and the people who planted bombs used the same methods as smugglers. The big catalyst was Bloody Sunday, but the real start of fear would be when a UDR soldier was killed, as Rev. Noel Ragan says. He soon discovered after the killing that something like 20 children were taken out of the school and moved further north, making it a huge blow to a small community.

Even with the end of the Troubles, there are challenges to bring back cross-community relations that seemed to be forgotten in peoples’ mind, as described in the fifth episode. In it, Derek Hussey, who was a teacher at Castlederg High School, explains that old fact, and how it was broken during the conflict, actually compelling people to mark their territories with flags. He faced criticism in his community due to his support to the Belfast Agreement in 1998. The root of his decision came from his tiredness of constantly walking behind the coffins of his killed students.

The actions of the British Army were hinted by one of the participants, when Brandon Gallagher, ex-lawyer, described how the harassment and humiliation made by soldiers drove many young people to endorse the IRA.

Derry-Londonderry, a huge city 15 minutes close to the border, is a place where people from both sides would spend their leisure time, as Joe Mahon says in the last film. He also says how after the long delays at the checkpoint, once he crossed the border to the landscape and seascape country he would feel a sense of relief, a kind of escape.

In addition to Facebook and Twitter feeds highlighting this work, the ‘Border Lives’ project has also devised an e-learning course, with the aid of Aurion Learning. It is focused in four modules: Restart, Remembering, Renewal and Reconstruction. It features 18 video clips and case studies of people interviewed for the project, who talk about life during the conflict and how their lives have changes in a post-conflict reconstruction phase.

‘Border Lives’ project was showcased on 30th September 2014 at Parliament Buildings, Belfast.

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