Look at a map of Ireland and the large triangle of Lough Foyle seems to deserve attention. It is a sandy bay with steep hills on both sides. Fishing villages hug the shore and it often teems with birds. On still summer days the water is like a mirror, but storms roll across Lough Foyle too. Some people like to blame Manannan mac Lir for these storms, a Celtic sea-god associated with the lough. Such gods can feel real when waves crash through the narrow opening from the Atlantic.
Lough Foyle is also the final stretch of an international border. One shore is Northern Ireland and the other the Republic of Ireland. That border was drawn in 1922, leaving Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom when the rest of the island became independent. For decades the line between them bristled with military watchtowers and customs facilities. I grew up near there and remember them well. Then, in the 1990s, two things happened: a peace accord brought stability, and the European single market was created, and included both countries. All border infrastructure became redundant and was dismantled. The demarcation became invisible. For 20 years now people have been crossing the line unhindered, to shop, work or see friends.
Britain’s impending exit from the European Union threatens this delicate arrangement. Britain leaving the EU or, more specifically, leaving the customs union will make the border a trade barrier and so require controls. It is hard to imagine how this will work with the land border – it has more than 200 crossing points – but at least we know where the line is drawn. The border at Lough Foyle isn’t even charted, a deliberate oversight to avoid an argument that would have run and run. Officially, Britain claims the whole body of water up to the high-tide mark and, officially, the Irish government rejects this claim. In reality a cross-border agency manages the lough and neither side attempts to assert ownership. Demarcation ends where the lough begins, with 15 miles still to go until the open ocean. With both sides in the single market and customs union this has been manageable, but if the full force of EU trade legislation is enacted on the lough then that helpful ambiguity may not survive. The exact co-ordinates of the border in Lough Foyle would have to be decided, reawakening an old conflict we thought we had escaped. Landscape and history meet in this bay and are pushing us towards an uncertain future.
As soon as I turn off the main road from Belfast every second vehicle I meet is a tractor. I drive first to Northern Ireland’s side of the Foyle. The road’s direction is straight, although rising and falling with low hills; a landscape of pasture, hedgerows, Orange Lodges – halls for Protestant unionists – and small but perfectly formed churches. There is a sense that not much happens here – and people like it that way. Nature provides the biggest dramas: flocks of rooks flying low over the road and, up ahead, Binevenagh, a mountain that is always impressive, with great crags of basalt rock jutting from the slopes. These give it a mythological look, not quite real. It is used in location shooting for “Game of Thrones”, with no need for computer-generated imagery.
The second-world-war relics near the town of Limavady would be a great location to shoot something post-apocalyptic. There are abandoned barracks, workshops and a control tower. Given the absence of a borderline, such relics are one way to denote the two Irelands: the Republic was neutral during the war; Northern Ireland had an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic and the liberation of Europe. The barracks are covered in thick ivy, so smothered that some buildings have no defining edges. In one I find 80-year-old graffiti left by engineers or pilots; a boot with wings and a tubby creature called Coastal Command Gremlin. Outside I attempt to push open a shed’s sliding door and it does not budge. I step back, look up and feel foolish: the door is layered in three sections, about 60ft wide (18 metres) and almost as tall: it was a hangar for Wellington bombers.
I hike miles of shore. Strand, water and distant hills are all shades of blue-grey. I cross concrete dykes and mud plains. Everything is flat and the sky is massive. I find the exposure disconcerting. Ireland’s landscape is usually a series of discoveries: sights you stumble upon, hidden bays and sudden vistas. Here you see everything all at once, miles of it. Inland the fields are like snooker tables. Garden lawns are the crop these farms produce. They are even exported; their shade of green has international appeal. Flocks of Brent Geese crowd together on these green expanses, black and white and noisy. At Roe Estuary Nature Reserve the welcoming signage also carries a variety of warnings: “Deep Water”, “Livestock”, “Sink Holes”, “Trains”.
A couple of miles farther on a windsock tells me that the wide field I’m crossing is an airstrip, now used for gliders. I meet a glider pilot called Garry McLoughlin. He explains that wind comes off Lough Foyle, hits Binevenagh and rises, “giving good lift”. Binevenagh can set him up for flights across Northern Ireland although changing conditions have forced him into “land outs”, unplanned landings in fields, he says. The farmers he drops in on usually enjoy the novelty. “They take you in for tea,” he tells me.
I arrive at the north-western tip of Northern Ireland. The beach is golden and constantly shifting, the fine sand swapping back and forth between countries. Dunes are held together with clumps of rushes that all lean inland. I am on the lip of the sea now; the breeze blusters and cajoles. I walk to the water and my phone pings, claiming I’m in the Republic. Opposite there are hills crowded with houses, quite unlike the flat and silent area where I’m standing. Dusk falls and I watch lights coming on in the homes of Donegal.
This is the narrowest part of the lough. The ferry sailing from here takes just ten minutes to get across but a woman walking her dog tells me it is cancelled. “Apparently it had some sort of bump,” she says, making obvious her disbelief. The ferry hasn’t run for days, but satnavs in car rentals are still directing tourists here to cross the border. “It’s an embarrassment,” she says.
I drive the long way around, crossing the border near Derry-Londonderry. The only noticeable sign of the separation are the speed-limit warnings converting from miles (the North) into kilometres (Republic). An hour later I’m among the homes of Donegal looking at Magilligan Point.
Moville is a pretty coastal village. There are pots of daffodils everywhere and the remains of posters calling for the Republic of Ireland’s ban on abortion to be maintained. The recent referendum removed this prohibition. But in the posters I think I glimpse Ireland’s border in another of its manifestations. Northern Ireland has barely begun to address such issues. Its traditional values remain set: across the lough people have no access to abortion and gay marriage remains illegal. Meanwhile the Republic of Ireland is undergoing real social upheaval. For many people, the distinction between the two states is really experienced through their rights, or lack thereof. For them, the border is already a hard one.
In Rosato’s pub I get talking to some men at the bar. One spots my notebook and eyes me wearily. “If you try to chat to me about Brexit I’ll run a mile,” he says. But the question of the border’s location in Lough Foyle fires people up. “Everyone around will tell you it’s somewhere different,” says one man. Sure enough, one claims there is no border in the lough at all; another says it runs straight up the middle; yet another reckons it tracks the Republic’s shore. I learn that some oyster farmers on this side of the lough are taking advantage of the unmarked border. Below the tideline the shore is a “no-man’s-land” according to a customer: “Oyster men working the shore aren’t paying taxes and are completely unregulated,” he tells me. This may explain why there has been a massive increase in oyster farming on Lough Foyle lately, with 30,000 oyster trestles sitting below the tideline, compared with only 2,000 a few years ago.
Next morning the wind is up. From my B&B’s breakfast room I watch a red trawler punching through waves. Arrow formations of geese fly overhead. I can see the weather crossing from Northern Ireland: silver patches of sunlight pace across the water towards me, veils of rain following on. “This is a great place for rainbows,” says Patrick McFeely, owner of the B&B. You could happily while away the hours watching light and shade shifting on the irregularities of Binevenagh across the lough. “It’s not every day you can see the mountain,” says McFeely. He tells me about a party of Canadians who stayed with him for four days. Their first three mornings were thick with mist but the final morning was clear. “Hey!” they exclaimed, genuinely shocked, “there’s land over there!”
There is a path along the shore to Greencastle, the next village. This is a marvellous walk, sometimes on sand and sometimes on stone, cutting through banks of gorse that have been sculpted by North Atlantic winds. On a beach I see a curlew, with its distinctive curved beak. For me, an amateur bird-watcher, this may be the highlight of the trip. They were once common but habitat loss has caused curlew numbers to plummet in recent years. There are reckoned to be only about 120 breeding pairs in Ireland now. A curlew’s song is wistful and melodic but this one remains silent. It does not once probe the sand for a worm either, but stands looking out across the lough.
I visit the pier in Greencastle but most trawlers are out at Rockall. “They travel far for whiting,” explains one fisherman. “You have to keep moving to beat the quotas.” But most fishing out of Greencastle stays around Lough Foyle and is for shellfish: green crab, lobster, whelks. I wander over to a large shed. Four boats in various stages of construction or repair stand in the forecourt. I meet Brian McDonald, the sixth generation of McDonalds making boats here. He has built about 40 boats and “had a hand in” a hundred more. The workshop is impressive. There are rows of spanners hung in order of size, dozens of clamps and, stored in the rafters, large templates used to shape hulls. Foyle’s shallows have resulted in vernacular designs such as the Greencastle Yawl, which has a bow at both ends and can be sailed or rowed. It won the McDonalds a design award from Queen Victoria in 1883.
“Have you a seventh generation of boat-builders coming on?” I ask.
“No,” says Brian, “we only have girls and they’re not interested.” He is philosophical about it. “That’s the way of the world,” he says.
I ask him about Brexit. “It’ll affect us surely,” he says, although a hard border is not his first concern. “We do lots of boats for Scotland, especially the isles.” This reminds me that although Northern Ireland is close, Scotland isn’t far either. Climb the hills behind Greencastle and, on a clear day, you can see Scotland.
Climb a hill is exactly what I do for my final walk. Inishowen Head Loop is a waymarked trail that begins at a sandy cove and takes you up high bogland and around sea-beaten cliffs. It is a great hike, both exhausting and energising. I stop a while at a viewpoint overlooking the ten square miles of Lough Foyle. Clouds race by overhead. Binevenagh goes from gloomy and impassive to green and inviting twice every minute. Bands of weather marching across the water are clearly demarcated; sunshine, shower, sunshine, shower. Many fronts, but no sign of a frontier. Instead I think of the border as somewhere among oyster trestles, campaign posters and the war wreckage buried in the sand.