Some Irish borders

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Volume 26

Brexit or no Brexit, the Irish border is a subject of interest to many. People have been killed as a direct or indirect result of its existence and it has facilitated criminality for generations. There is, however, a lighter side.

By Cormac Bourke

It would make for instructive television to challenge unionists and nationalists to draw the border on an outline map of Ireland. Such is its complexity that nobody would get it right. The border exists not just because there is a unionist minority in Ireland but because that minority is concentrated geographically. Had the unionist vote been distributed equally throughout the four provinces in the general election year of 1918 we would not be where we are today. And it is diverting to consider what the map of Ireland would look like if the Plantation of Ulster that gave rise ultimately to partition had happened somewhere else.

An alternative border?

Munster, which saw an earlier plantation on a smaller scale, has the distinction of being Ireland’s only six-county province. Imagine Waterford (or Londonwaterford) as Derry, with its county annex on the north bank of the Suir notching County Kilkenny in another province and another jurisdiction. Imagine Cork as Belfast (complete with shipyards) and Limerick as a greater Newry. Imagine the Munster River between Tipperary and Kilkenny below Slieve Ardagh marking what the Ordnance Survey of Ireland would call an ‘international boundary’ on its Discovery Series maps.

Ireland has known many borders, not least that with the pre-Christian otherworld, a world accessible only through specific border-crossings like the souterrain of Oweynagat (‘cave of the cats’) at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon. A cave on Station Island in Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, was a Christian counterpart, a gateway to a place or state understood to be Purgatory.

More mundane borders (including linguistic borders) were everywhere in medieval Ireland, among them that of the English Pale, the area of Crown rule and assured loyalty in north Leinster in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and, as it happens, the area of our lowest rainfall). But what was once a major border of earthworks and towers (including church towers) has faded from consciousness and is hardly more than locally remembered. One contributor to the Schools’ Collection in the 1930s knew it as the Double Ditch near Enfield, Co. Meath, some kilometres west of its line as indicated by historical sources and archaeological fieldwork, and it would be useful to collate these different strands. Indeed, the Schools’ Collection itself reflects the modern Irish border, in that what was intended by the then Irish Folklore Commission to be a national survey was confined to the 26 counties because the Stormont regime withheld cooperation.


Rivers have also been major borders, although there is little awareness now of the significance of the Ulster Blackwater in the days of Hugh O’Neill and Elizabeth I. Some rivers still are; a nice exam question for students would be ‘The Shannon is the Irish border: discuss’. Eamonn Kelly suggests that victims of human sacrifice were sometimes buried on borders in the Iron Age, perhaps to serve a protective role but anticipating, disturbingly, the fate of some of our own ‘disappeared’. More benignly, the curative power of ‘mearing water’, i.e. of water dividing farms or townlands, is on record in the Schools’ Collection. For all that Ulster is sometimes held to be a place apart geographically, there is a nice irony in the subversion of its apartness by the Erne. That river flows extraprovincially from Lough Gowna, Co. Longford (where the woods of Erne Head will catch your eye), and the whole system has been a corridor since Ireland was first peopled. Political borders come and go and nationalists might take heart from the fact that partition differs from pregnancy; although partitioned, Ireland today is only a little bit partitioned (in constitutional terms at least) by comparison with the medieval scheme of things.

Today’s border might have been custom-made (though not, of course, to everyone’s satisfaction) if the two-way transfer of jurisdiction recommended by the Boundary Commission had been implemented in 1925. But the ‘provisional border’ was retained instead and is nothing more than the line of demarcation between various counties as set down definitively on paper for the first time by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s. And since counties are aggregates of baronies and townlands, the border consists by definition of hundreds of townland boundaries attached end to end in a highly irregular line. It would be interesting to see the border depicted in these terms—as a chain of some 600 corresponding townlands stretching from coast to coast. For the record, the western (strictly the northern) pair are Muff, Co. Donegal, and Culmore, Co. Derry, the eastern pair Ringmackilroy, Co. Down, and Drummullagh, Co. Louth.


Above: Richard Bartlett’s 1602 map of Ulster’s Blackwater valley. There is little awareness now of the river’s significance in the days of Hugh O’Neill and Elizabeth I. Between Benburb (bottom left-hand corner) and the Callan confluence (top right-hand corner; now the Tyrone/Armagh county boundary), it marked O’Neill’s southern line of defence against the forces of the Tudor Crown, a militarised zone, with English forts and O’Neill’s ‘trenches’ (marked ‘C’ on the map). (NLI)

It is worth noting, since not everyone will know, that no Irish townland is cut by a county boundary but that several are cut by parish boundaries: Foulkscourt, Co. Kilkenny, is split between Fertagh and Erke; Ballybollen, Co. Antrim, between Drummaul and Ahoghill. Some parishes straddle county boundaries: Kinawley lies in both Fermanagh and Cavan, Errigal Trough in both Monaghan and Tyrone. Dioceses—established long before counties—transcend county boundaries and straddle provincial boundaries too; both Armagh and Killaloe reach into Leinster.

Townland boundaries are not quite immutable things and, as J.H. Andrews has explained, were sometimes subject to revision (notably in County Derry) after they were first surveyed. They often follow streams and rivers that flow in meandering courses, and loops of meanders have been cut off both by human agency and by natural changes. The definition of some townlands was adjusted in the nineteenth century to take account of such changes, but the sizeable piece of Ferbane, Co. Offaly, that once lay north of the River Brosna is still recognised cartographically and is surely remembered locally as part of Ferbane, although now locked in the embrace of Gallen on the south side of the river as a result of nineteenth-century engineering. Part of Tobermore, Co. Derry, is similarly locked into Ballynahone Beg on the north side of the Moyola for the same reason.

Above: Looking south along the N1 in north County Louth—the car on the right is parked in the ‘Foughill Etra Salient’ (circled in the map) in County Armagh.

The phenomenon of teardrops of land changing sides when a river realigns itself has an extra dimension when the river separates, say, Donegal from Tyrone. The Leaghany River does just that above Lough Derg and provides a good example: a teardrop of Slievedoo, Co. Tyrone, that now lies south of the river as part of Croaghbrack, Co. Donegal, and that Coillte has tactfully left unplanted. The Blackwater, too, has changed its course between Emyvale and Caledon, causing a curvaceous field that belongs to Monmurry, Co. Monaghan, to migrate northwards to Anacramp, Co. Tyrone. There are numerous other instances, and they call to mind the shift in the course of the River Meuse/Maas that prompted the Dutch and Belgian governments to exchange small parcels of land in 2016 (whereby the Netherlands got bigger and Belgium smaller!). The areas are uninhabited, as in the Irish instances, but any such exchange would surely be (and the metaphor is inevitable) a bridge too far in our circumstances.


Roads, too, can separate townlands, and a boreen in mercifully unsuburbanised country near Clones that separates Clonfad on the one hand from Clonkee and Cavanagh on the other is the border, since the former is in Monaghan and the latter are in Fermanagh.

Those contemplating hard border controls in the event of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union should study the phenomena I describe, as well as the Map of Connections made by the cartographer Garrett Carr. They should look at the former Jonesborough Church of Ireland church in Foughill Etra and the adjoining graveyard in Drumad, the one in Armagh and the other in Louth. While in north Louth they should study, too, the line of the new N1 dual carriageway. The border as one heads north is marked by signage on the boundary of Carrickarnan and Killeen, in Louth and Armagh respectively. But the traveller has already visited the latter county. A projection of Foughill Etra (Fóchoill Íochtarach, ‘lower underwood’)—let’s call it the Foughill Etra Salient—is traversed by the road where it intersects the Flurry River near Jonesborough, some 2km south of the border; it reaches across the median traffic barrier and ends in a point on the southbound side. Anyone driving north (including members of An Garda Síochána, the Irish defence forces and customs officers) will pass through in seconds, but to park on the hard shoulder is to park in County Armagh. This looks less like something conceded (as in so-called ‘concession roads’) than something ceded, and the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom may not be so absolute after all.

Cormac Bourke, a Dubliner resident in Belfast for 35 years, specialises in the archaeology of the early Insular church.


J.H. Andrews, A paper landscape: the Ordnance Survey in nineteenth-century Ireland (Oxford, 1975).

Garret Carr, The rule of the land: walking Ireland’s border (London, 2017).

Dervla Murphy, A place apart (London, 1978).

Schools’ Collection,


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