Opinion: as Brexit rumbles on, few who have lived or worked with the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will underestimate its importance

By Dr Brian Hughes, Mary Immaculate College

Recent attempts by members of the British public to draw the Irish border on a map were met with a mixture of humour and derision in this country (and our own imaginative efforts at doing the same. Ongoing Brexit negotiations have thrust the 310 mile boundary separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland back into the public consciousness on both sides of the Irish sea. Of course, for those living on or near the border, its presence and implications have never gone away.

Over 90 years ago, Edward Saunderson made his own attempt to draw the border. Saunderson was the son of Ulster Unionist leader Edward Saunderson and he came from the substantial Castle Saunderson estate in Co Cavan.

In a letter to the Boundary Commission, which had been set up under the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty to settle the extent of the border between the two new Irish states, Saunderson petitioned to have the "whole demesne of Castle Saunderson…transferred into Northern Ireland." Writing on behalf of his brother, Major Somerset Saunderson, and "all other members of our family interested", he helpfully enclosed a map of a proposed boundary dividing the demesne from "Southern Ireland". 

Edward Saunderson's 1925 letter to the Boundary Commission. From The National Archives (UK)

Castle Saunderson is located on a northern tip of Cavan, right on the border with Co Fermanagh. A hand drawn black line on an ordinance survey map very neatly superceded county lines and brought this one small enclave of Cavan under the remit of the new northern government. In a thoughtful, if naïve, attempt to overcome the difficulty of  "two small farmers residing on the Eastern side, one of whom might possibly object to being transferred", an alternative boundary was also proposed that would leave their farms in the Irish Free State and "remove all objections".

Edward Saunderson's solution to the border issue. From The National Archives (UK)

Saunderson was only one of many individuals, landowners, representative bodies and other interested parties making petitions to the Boundary Commission in 1925. All requested that the border be drawn to reflect their own religious, social and economic considerations and all were rendered meaningless very shortly afterwards. 

The Boundary Commission was tasked with setting the border in line "with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions". The difficulties of resolving the issue on such vague terms will perhaps be familiar to those following the current border debate. So too will the various set-backs and complications that delayed the commencement of the Commission’s work until 1925. When the commission’s report recommending only minor changes to the existing border was prematurely leaked in the Morning Post in November 1925, Eoin MacNeill, the somewhat ineffectual representative of the Irish Free State on the commission, resigned. Shortly afterwards, an agreement between Dublin, Belfast, and London meant the border would stay as it was – following traditional county lines – and the commission’s final report was suppressed.

MacNeill later described the task as "the most disagreeable duty I had ever undertaken…to my mind, it was nothing short of an outrage on Ireland, and may I say on civilisation, to be asked to draw a line across this country dividing it on a basis of religious differences." Neither MacNeill nor the Saundersons could have been happy with the eventual outcome, if for very different reasons.

The Boundary Commission was tasked with setting the border in line "with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions"

Ireland is not unique in this regard and the drawing of any new national frontier inevitably creates unhappy minorities. For loyalists and unionists in Co Cavan like the Saundersons – and their colleagues in Monaghan and Donegal – the creation of the border in 1920 (under the Government of Ireland Act) and the formalisation of six-county partition saw them cast as a defeated political minority on the "wrong" side of a somewhat arbitrary line. 

As six-county partition became inevitable, the loyalist leadership in the "lost" counties of Ulster viewed it as a callous betrayal by their fellow Ulstermen. Three days after the Ulster Unionist Council agreed to six-county partition, leading Cavan Unionist Lord Farnham wrote to his Tyrone colleague Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery lamenting that "what we feel more than anything is that we can no longer call ourselves Ulstermen. We in Cavan were prouder of being Ulstermen than anyone in the whole province." Partition created a crisis of identity for minorities on both sides of the border. In 1922, Somerset Saunderson declared that "now…I have no country!", while northern nationalists similarly found themselves isolated, abandoned and under the control of a potentially hostile government.

The story of the Irish border is as much one of pragmatism and accommodation as grumbling and resistance

Many decided to migrate across the border – at least 145 Protestant individuals and families moved from Cavan to Fermanagh between 1920 and 1925, for instance – but far more were unable or unwilling to do so. Any return to a hard border would repeat many of the original difficulties endured by those whose social, working, or devotional lives were split across two jurisdictions. Roads were closed increasing journey times. Accessing shops, markets, and churches even a short distance away meant customs charges and security police. Postal services and other infrastructure were split.

The story of the Irish border is perhaps, though, as much one of pragmatism and accommodation as grumbling and resistance. But as Brexit marches on, few who have lived with the border or seriously reflected on its long, and often troubled, history would underestimate its importance. 

Dr Brian Hughes is a lecturer in the Department of History at Mary Immaculate College

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ