Review of Unapproved Routes by Peter Leary

Leary, Peter, Unapproved Routes: Histories of the Irish Border, 1922–1972, (Oxford: OUP, 2016) [Click on the image to go to]

I saw this advertised somewhere recently and as it seemed relevant to my teaching about Northern Ireland at the minute I ordered it and read it. It’s an attractively produced little volume with elegant typesetting and a number of well chosen and well presented maps, diagrams and photos.

In terms of its content, it is a book version of the PhD Leary wrote at Queen’s University Belfast. Its general topic is the “lived experience” of the border. As the plural “histories” in the subtitle implies, it deals with a number of different events and experiences, all of them in some way connected with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. There are sections about: the 1925 Irish Boundary Commission; the dispute over fishing rights on Lough and River Foyle; cock-fighting and the use of the border to evade the police; smuggling; and the closing and reopening of border-crossing roads.

As such the book operates at the intersection of history and anthropology. It does slightly betray its origins as a PhD thesis, I think: sections on local history (which are testimony to an impressive amount of research in the archives of local newspapers) alternate with sections of cultural theory, some of which is not particularly well integrated and at times gives the impression of being put in simply because that’s the kind of thing you have to put in a PhD. For example, the chapter on smuggling has passing references to Freud, Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival and the theorist of decolonisation Fritz Fanon. Elsewhere Marx, Gramsci and Lefebvre all turn up, alongside a number of (potentially more relevant?) theorists of things such as micro-history and border studies.

It is therefore somewhat of niche publication but interesting at times nonetheless. For example, I hadn’t known that because of the way the Anglo-Irish Treaty refers back to the 1920 Better Government of Ireland Act’s rather imprecise definition of the territory of Northern Ireland, you could make a legal argument that Northern Ireland had no territorial waters and therefore even Belfast Lough was in the Free State (as in fact did the owners of one steamship when they were taken to court in Northern Ireland for selling strong drink on a Sunday).[1] The chapter on cock-fighting also contains the most entertaining quotation I’ve read in any history book for quite some time:

As former H-Block hunger-striker and one time ‘apprentice “bag-man”’ Tommy McKearney later recalled, ‘There are strange ways to learn the idiosyncrasies of international boundaries, but fleeing breathlessly from the Gardaí with a rooster under your arm while looking desperately for sight of a red post-box has got to be one of the oddest.’[2]

Leary, Peter, Unapproved Routes: Histories of the Irish Border, 1922–1972, first edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

  1. See p. 68–69.  ↩
  2. P. 96.  ↩
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