Borders and What We Lose When We Forget the Land

Illustration by  Eddie Stok

Illustration by Eddie Stok


WHEN IT COMES TO THE SHARED BORDER between the Republic of Ireland and its northern counterpart, opt out of conventional wisdom. Don’t start at the start, not here anyway.

Charting a painful history that begins in 1536 is just that, painful. So much of my nation’s history is characterized by the shadow of colonialism and the struggle for identity that inevitably followed. Today, the imaginary line that runs between Ireland and Northern Ireland retains symbolic power far greater than the shift from kilometers to miles, from the euro to the pound. It’s a monolith of sorts. A seemingly permanent reminder of the division between one people and another.

In all of that heady symbolism, the land itself is so often forgotten. The artifice attached to the border alienates; what connects us is the land. This is the takeaway from Borders, the forthcoming collaborative LP between Ryan Veil and Eoin O’Callaghan, a.k.a Elma Orkestra.

Numerous politicians, activists and artists have said more than a lot about that same alienation. Veil and O’Callaghan are following in the footsteps of Heaney and Kavanagh in returning to the soil we share.

In our show, we celebrate the beauty of this island, North and South of the line.


O’Callaghan elaborates on the ethos behind Borders. “In our project, we take a step back and we look at the world through a wider lens,” he tells me. “When you zoom out you realize that borders become invisible. You realize that the line on the map does not dictate where nature’s beauty begins or ends. Beauty spills over the lines. In our show, we celebrate the beauty of this island, North and South of the line.”

Largely instrumental, Borders forgoes the bias of the spoken word and frames the land in the context of evolving electronic soundscapes. O’Callaghan seems adamant about this, saying, “For me the most successful music is music that conveys a true emotion. So often people use lyrics to tell their story. I certainly have in the past. The challenge in my work as Elma Orkestra has been to try to get that same emotion across using only melodies and production.“

“When you remove lyric, you have to be even more critical with the musical aspect of your work,” he continues. “You have to ask yourself, will people feel the emotion that I want them to feel, only by listening to this phrase or building sequence? You have to create tension. You have to try to plant a seed of hope, fear, empathy, love all without saying a word.”

The inspiration behind Borders is self-evident. Both Veil and O’Callaghan grew up in and around the border, having experienced life in the north both before and after the seminal Good Friday agreement, which ended the violent period of inter-community strife known as “The Troubles.”

The border has become a sticking point once again in Anglo-Irish politics because of Britain’s ongoing divorce from the European Union. This collaborative LP comes at a time when it’s essential that we keep the focus of any border discussion centered around the land and the people who share it, rather than on nations. “This project is very personal for us,” Veil explains. “We are both raising our families and living here.” The Borders album has been written here at the border and recorded here. The live show features a huge cinematic visual element that was filmed where we live. It’s not just an art project for us, this is our home.”

The album is an immersive journey along one of the most iconic stretches of Irish land. What will happen in the aeons-old, north-south Irish issue remains to be seen.

Yet, what Veil describes as the takeaway message from Borders provides the ideal empathetic framework for approaching the issue. “The message is to respect each other and the land we share,” he says. “We are the ones that live here, we are the ones that can make a change.”


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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