“One of the things about borderlands,” remarks author Donald Smith as he takes the stage, “is that they are culturally rich.”
Smith, who is the Director of this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival, opens the Borderlands event at the National Library with some “noncontroversial context” of Irish border history. Central to his remarks is the notion of Ireland as “a mosaic of tradition and local custom,” meaning that hard borders between the Northern counties and the Republic were nearly impossible to draw. There are some disillusioned chuckles in the audience when Smith quips that, “if there’s any obvious geographical border, it’s the sea.”
According to Smith, this year’s Festival is “standing alongside Ireland in a time of threat to everything that people there have achieved since the Troubles.” As one of many events recalling the “shared interchange of culture and language between the northern part of Ireland and western Scotland,” the Irish Border Symposium features speakers from both countries fostering discussion on an issue that has become repressurised in the months leading up to Brexit. Alongside Smith are Dara Vallely, founding member of the Armagh Rhymers folk ensemble, and John McCormack, Projects Manager of Learning for the Scottish Recovery Network.
Vallely, who is this year’s feature Festival artist, talks about his experience as an Irish folklorist engaging with audiences “cross-border; cross-community” for the past 40 years. A reel of photographs show the Armagh Rhymers, often in straw masks consistent with area folk tradition, bringing music and storytelling to schools across Ireland. Their engaging theatrics help sustain the history embedded in the fun.
“History,” Vallely reflects, “is like water that’s meant to go under a bridge. Only it doesn’t.”
McCormack seems to agree, highlighting the “intergenerational transmission of pain” that he has observed in his work with both the Scottish Recovery Network and Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), a partnership between the Health and Social Care Services in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. McCormack describes his work with CAWT in Derry – admitting he’s never quite sure what to call the city – as revealing of the ubiquitous nature of trauma. “Stories tend to get locked away,” he claims, and people inevitably carry their trauma into adulthood and pass it onto their children.
In Northern Ireland, there are more people dead from suicide in the 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement than were killed in violence during the Troubles. “Everyone in Ireland’s got a story,” he says, and the goal of groups like CAWT is to create “a new narrative where people are actually surviving their stories.”
McCormack is cultivating that narrative with a mental health strategy used by the Recovery Network in Scotland for four or five years, wherein people “reimagine stories as therapy.” Instead of recounting what they’ve been through, people are told to ask themselves, “why have I survived what I’ve been through?” McCormack hopes this shift in focus will help people “get in touch with their resilience.”
During the event’s Question and Answer session, conducted with both the physical audience and an online viewership via livestream, a schoolteacher in Northern Ireland confirms McCormack’s observations about transgenerational trauma: “I’ve seen that firsthand.”
“But I think we’ve reached a very healthy situation in the North,” she continues. “The border doesn’t really exist right now. What’s all going to happen to that [after Brexit]?”
But perhaps the most pursued question of the afternoon is: why religion? As one attendee puts it, why is religion still the basis of a conflict in Western Europe in the 21st century? “I’m not sure it has much to do with religion at all,” says McCormack; “I’m not sure many people on either side know the basic tenets of each religion… but you see tribalism everywhere.” The idea of modern Ireland as a mosaic includes religion mainly as a source of tradition and culture. “I haven’t met anyone in Ireland, Protestant or Catholic, who wants [a hard border].”
“There’s a universal feeling: ‘please don’t let this happen again.’”
Borderlands: Irish Border Symposium took place as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. For more information, visit their website.
Image: Scottish International Storytelling Festival