Review: Garrett Carr – ‘The Rule of the Land’

Lesley Martin reviews The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border by Garrett Carr, which launched on February 2nd in Belfast.

No Alibis, the inauguration venue of a host of projects in Belfast’s literary community, is perhaps the perfect launch venue for The Rule of the Land. Carr describes it best himself: it is a shop that is somehow much bigger than its own walls, with its own community that surrounds everything, both the shop itself and all of the people involved with it. Carr touches on this parallel in his own brief introduction, and it resonates strongly among the people who have gathered to listen to him speak and read from this, his first book of non-fiction. The book takes us on our own walk along the border, getting to know its varying landscapes, its people, and the peculiar sense of community that ties the borderlanders together.

The Rule of the Land is a book that can be opened up at any chapter; each is its own vignette, a titled story with its own theme. When Carr reads to us, he is recounting his tale in his own words, allowing the audience to laugh alongside him. It reads the same on the page. Carr is the friend sitting across from you in the pub, a drink in hand, weaving a tale of how he saw this and that, telling the history of one and the geography of the other. It is difficult however to leave the book at only one chapter, one tale. It continually urges us onward, following the border from its beginning and leaving us with Garrett and Paddy, his companion on parts of his expedition, walking wet and tired into a pub in Magillian called The Point, which is a fitting end to their journey. Many ask what the point of a journey such as this one is, but it is usually never the actual end.

For all its conversational style, it is evident that a lot of research has gone into this book. It not only delves into the more recent history of the border, and the violence that is generally associated with it, but history from a range of times: the Neolithic in Emain Macha (Navan Fort), to the nineteenth century Big Houses. There is Irish history and mythology, geography, ornithology, architecture, literature and art, all brought together into a walk along the border, and the people and places found along the way. The book incorporates just the right amount of biographical details, mainly about Carr’s childhood living close to the border.

Glenn Patterson, who introduces the author at the book’s launch, is enthusiastic about Carr’s work, saying that it is “a book for the ages”. While this reviewer would shy away from describing it in such grandiose terms, it does have a sense of timelessness about it. The border, and the people who live there, measure time by their own clock. Set in the aftermath of Brexit, the referendum seems almost like an aside to the main story of this book, added on as an afterthought or perhaps, the cynic in me suggests, tacked on to boost sales through a link to current politics. Take Brexit and its implications away, and you would be reading much the same book.

The merit of The Rule of the Land however does not come only from its words alone. There are also its maps. Each double page on which a map is found is a treat, an extra bit of exploration for the reader to enjoy. They are simple, minimalist, yet intricate and detailed. They map things that have not previously been mapped, dancing places and protests, unofficial connections across the border that Carr takes great delight in, with a few of the more memorable having accompanying descriptions and photographs. It is a worthwhile journey, and spending it in Carr’s company is to share in his delight of the connections that makes a community out of the border; a thing that is designed to separate, but for all its history, only serves to make it a great tale to tell.
The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border is out now from Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571313358, £13.99.

Lesley Martin

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