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Water Borders

The borders that are formed through politics are a few who draw the maps. As I sit along the border within a border I'm lead to question, what is a border but a fiction of mind that the masses buy into.

As I spent time I'm the North of Ireland, I realised that some of the peace lines were formed along the rivers that ran through the town's. The peace lines or peace walls are a series of separation barriers in Northern Ireland that separate predominantly republican and nationalist Catholic neighbourhoods from predominantly loyalist and unionist Protestant neighbourhoods.

Rivers have long been used to divide lands. Waterways as political borders is not such a strange concept. Since rivers often sit between states, cities, and counties, they are routinely at the center of complex political controversies involving dams, hydropower, irrigation, flood management, and water pollution. The continents where European powers established colonies and exerted great influence tend to have more borders defined by rivers because European explorers, cartographers, politicians, and diplomats found rivers to be a convenient way to divide territories.

Closer to home in Belfast, the river runs underground and cannot be seen but yet it divides the two religions. The long-lost River Farset that gave Belfast its name still flows silently through the heart of Northern Ireland’s capital. In fact, Belfast, or Béal Feirste (‘the sandy ford at the mouth of the Farset’, in Irish). Yet it's existence has fled the mind of many.

The river Bann is used as a dividing line between the eastern and western areas of Northern Ireland, often labelled the "Bann divide". Towns, councils and businesses "west of the Bann" are often seen as having less investment and government spending than those to the east. It is also seen as a religious, economic and political divide, with Catholics and Irish nationalists being in the majority to the west, and Ulster Protestants and unionists in the majority to the east; and with the financial and industrial capital of Greater Belfast to the east with the west of the Bann being more agricultural and rural. The plan in the 1972 Cabinet papers on Northern Ireland was to divide the North into exclusive Catholic and Protestant zones, although mercifully not put into practice. The civil servants who dreamt it up obviously did not take into consideration what transferring thousands of citizens between an east/west axis with the River Bann as the dividing line would actually entail. To create an all-Unionist sector in the east would have meant forcing the entire population of West Belfast to vacate the area.

In reality, this would have meant using British Army snatch squads not to arrest rioters anymore but, rather, to pull entire families out of their homes, round them up and transport them against their will to a part of Northern Ireland few of the urban Catholic population knew anything about.

The River Blackwater or Ulster Blackwater is a river mainly in County Armagh and County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. It also forms part of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, flowing between Counties Tyrone and Monaghan, intersecting into County Monaghan briefly. Its source is to the north of Fivemiletown, County Tyrone. The river divides County Armagh from County Tyrone and also divides County Tyrone from County Monaghan.

In Newry, where the peace lines were formed, it was along the river. When building the council halls they decided to build the main office on an island in the center of the river so neither side would have ownership.

The Termon river is 10 miles long, beginning in Scraghy, Co Tyrone and winding through the Irish countryside dividing Fermanagh and Donegal before merging into Lower Lough Erne. One location that feels the river’s divide is Pettigo.

Pettigo in Co Donegal is the only village on the island of Ireland to be divided by the international boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Throughout the seventeenth century, the river Shannon was used in the Irish Confederate Wars to divide the locals from the English Parliamentarians, who struggled to cross it. It was again important in the Easter Rising of 1916, when the Irish used it as a barrier against the English, although this time the English pushed on, breaking the ‘line of Shannon’.

A little stream near the town of Muff in Co. Donegal, north-west of Derry/LondonDerry, marks the westerly starting point of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Beginning where the stream meets Lough Foyle, the border here marks the division between Co. Donegal in Ireland and Co. Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

From this point the border follows the stream’s upstream course to Liberty Bridge, at the southern end of Muff. From here the border runs south-west along the stream before turning at a sharp right angle towards the north-west, turning again to run along another stream, to skirt around the hills north of Derry/Londonderry and then descending to cross the valley of the Skeoge River north-west of the city. The busy area of filling stations at Bridgend in Co. Donegal just across the border on the A2 road from Derry/ Londonderry to east Donegal marks the border at this point.

From here its line goes roughly south to the summit of Holywell Hill west of London/derry, descends, bisecting a small lake and following the downstream flow of Liberty Burn to Kildrum and Killea Bridge, before leaving the stream course to run south to the River Foyle at Drumnashear.

The border then follows the upstream route of the River Foyle south to where it separates the town of Lifford in Co. Donegal from the town of Strabane on the eastern side in Co. Tyrone.

A river ford on the River Cladagh divides the Irish border between County Cavan and County Fermanagh, viewed from Northern Ireland towards Ireland near Swanlinbar, County Cavan

When Ireland was divvied up between the North and the Republic in the early 1920s, Derry’s waterway — the River Foyle — was a logical border. These days, the once divided city sees itself as a shared city. The symbol of that recalibration is the Peace Bridge across the River Foyle. This pedestrian span, built with European Union funds, is intended to bring the two sides together: east bank and west bank, Irish and British, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist. And to the surprise of locals, it’s working.

How do we reframe those things? If the river divides us, how does it join us and how can we pull people together who want to think about peace differently and difference differently?”

At the same time, Rivers have long united people, so much so that a world without rivers would be unrecognizable. By providing fresh water, fertile land, and food—along with a convenient way to transport goods—rivers have long determined the locations of towns, cities, and ultimately entire civilizations. Water is innately and consistently true to its nature, it creates life.


The history of philosophy and the rites of ancient cultures and religions confirm it: in all of them, water is a symbol of life, of purification and hope, values that are a common denominator that unites us and that we should take into account much more. Water can physiologically and psychologically benefit people because of its therapeutic nature. For thousands of years it has been known to help cure illness, refresh the body and relax the mind. Since those ancient times water has been one of the most effective elements in combating illness and injury

There are two reasons for disputes about boundaries: we do not know where the line is, or we do not like where the line is. Boundary uncertainty can occur because the line has never been drawn or never been accepted by both parties. The border line goes through the middle of the river at the time the border is decided. However the border is permanent and never changes. The river, however, is constantly changing. It erodes bedrock and/or sediment in some locations and deposit sediment in other areas. Moving water, in river and streams, is one of the principal agents in eroding bedrock and sediment and in shaping landforms. Using the landscape… we can get different kinds of answers and hear stories from people about the significance of the rivers as a division but also a unification.

Could active participation with this unifying substance be a way of bridging the gaps? If we trace the source of these rivers and show the honour to the spaces that come from a place where the land holds it before the water divides it.

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