Sarah Kay with a piece on a lighthouse at Newry.
One of the many professional hazards that come with the practice of law is the lack of time dedicated to reading anything not related to legal commentary, let alone fiction, or, God forbid, linked to a hobby. It was with that sense of transgression that I exited Daunt Books in London last month with a curious opus under my arm, Tom Nancollas' lyrical, poetic and unique Seashaken Houses. Little did I know, I would still find what a national security lawyer in the Brexit era would need in it.
Seashaken Houses relates to off-shore lighthouses scattering the coasts of Britain and Ireland, and tells the stories - from the early days of engineering in the late 1790s to solar panelled lanterns of today - with reverence, respect, and complete abandon. Growing up in Ireland, lighthouses are not just a permanent fixture of the landscape, they also let us know we are home. My fascination with lighthouses pre-dates my identification of a memory in time, so that book was a treat. I noticed it had a chapter on Haulbowline, a lighthouse in Carlingford Lough, near Newry.
Haulbowline means a lot to me for several reasons, to the point that those who know me know the lighthouse tattooed inside my left arm is not just a symbol overly present in traditional tattooing, but a realistic, perfect rendition of Haulbowline. It is one of many signs that mark the border, this fault line that has been so indelicately treated and considered since the 2016 Brexit referendum. And as Boris Johnson planned to displace the controversial and simmering fault line into the Irish Sea, I thought of Haulbowline.
Haulbowline is the light that flashes once every ten seconds in the darkness where Irish and Northern Irish waters meet, at the mouth of the lough, a formerly haunted - or so it was said to be - granite stone tower standing 111 feet tall and fully automated, powered by solar panels in a country that knows little of sunshine, off the border town of Newry. The Twitter account that has kept both the republic and Ulster sane during those last three years of being evoked as a problem - reminiscent of a painful Irish Question - @BorderIrish, just released a book, that should be by my door in a few days. The Border, given a voice, a personality, friends and foes, speaks of history, of bloodshed, and of the freedom contained in "freedom of movement". This Border, invisible, crossed every half hour or so by The Enterprise railway, but very real, also exists in the sea. It is no less difficult and no less wrought with history because it is in the water, changing and moving, ebbing and flowing, as opposed to drilled into terrestrial grounds.
The piece I mentioned above contains this paragraph, noting later that the EU 27 continue to rule out any form of border checks between the Republic and Ulster:
hauliers taking goods across the sea would have to let inspectors check their lorries to ensure their loads comply with EU rules. They may also have to fill out customs declarations, if Northern Ireland ends up staying in the European customs regime while Great Britain draws up its own rules.
The Government says these checks may take place at factories and warehouses, rather than at ports, to avoid delays at key infrastructure points.
Said points would be Holyhead, Liverpool, Belfast and Larne, not mentioning Greenore, more disaffected than operating, from which one would wait for a high tide to reach Haulbowline. It would not be the first time that the seas around the terrestrial border would have seen strife. Tom Nancollas, Welsh by origin, familiarized himself - to the extent he could and would - with the conflict and found in Kew's National Archives that, if he hadn't noticed bullet impacts in Haulbowline, it may be because he didn't specifically look for them.
At the beginning of the Troubles, starting under Operation Banner in the summer of 1969, the seas were also patrolled under Operation Interknit, during which Royal Navy ships would patrol contested seas and would be granted power to stop and board any vessel they considered to be suspicious. He found declassified notes from the Ministry of Defense from that era - he does not specify a date, but context places it between 1972 and 1973 - stating:
Carlingford Lough has long been a traditional route for smuggling livestock, food and dutiable goods from the Republic into Northern Ireland. Since the start of the present IRA campaign in 1969, a number of intelligence reports have suggested that this route has been used for smuggling arms, ammunition and explosives into Northern Ireland, and that the option to use this route again is always under consideration by the Provisional IRA.
The events that transpired in June 1974 when a small and private yacht numbered 183L led to the demands placed by the sailor - who saw himself boarded by the Royal Navy and threatened with further action - to exactly denote where Irish waters ended and where Northern ones, under British jurisdiction, started; it had always been accepted that south of the Lough would be southern waters, and Haulbowline marking the partition. Nancollas notes, "I began to see the lough itself as a kind of swollen borderline, its waters a shadowy no man's sea in which only force prevails." It is difficult, as one pauses after this period, to understand the possibility of customs checks in the Irish Sea as no less than a poor man's understanding of border politics, believing that an element would be better equipped to keep violence at bay than another. It was certainly not the history of the Carlingford Lough in 1974, and would not be in 2020.
Haulbowline itself was boarded by the Royal Navy. Automated in 1967, the tower had no keepers, only maintenance operators employed by Irish Lights. No one resided in there permanently, as generators had replaced manual lights, which it appears would have made the tower an even more suspicious location. A lighthouse, defined by Nancollas and likely others as being one of the earliest constructions in human history to be motivated by altruism, avoiding needless and untimely deaths in constant shipwrecks, was suddenly politicized, turned into an instrument of insurrection, an unmoving element of conflict, one that truly pre-dated its construction, but betrayed by its location.
We can deduct this from communications between the Ministry of Defense and Irish Lights, the latter alleging forced entry that had damaged the lighthouse, specifically the lantern, the very purpose of its existence, and that the captain of one of the Navy boats patrolling the border in the sea, HMS Vigilant (the other being HMS Alert, to keep in tune), had been forceful and disrespectful with Haulbowline's attendant when asking for the keys. As with the recollection of events with the private yacht, the story from the MoD's perspective and the Irish attendant differed widely.
The communication ends on a conciliatory note, saying the Commander of HMS Vigilant would "make his peace" with Mr Cunningham, then the lighthouse attendant, whatever that could mean.
Knowing the very presence of a granite tower standing at the entrance of the lough to prevent shipwrecks and aid navigation had become an instrument of war in the hands of the MoD, I struggle to think of how a border in the Irish Sea could be any less controversial and alleviate any concerns repeated ad nauseam by Northern Irish residents over the end of the Customs Union. It has certainly not been helpful to have a border in the sea at the times of the Troubles, and it would not be long until Haulbowline - its residential floors empty, its lantern mechanical, its interiors covered in flaking paint - turned again into a symbol that no one truly wants to resurrect.
⏭ Sarah Kay is a human rights lawyer, Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/K_interarma