“How far do you live from the English border?”

One summer in the 1990s while I was a student I did what many other students do and crossed the Atlantic for gainful holiday employment.

I spent a hot, humid festival season amidst the mosquito-infested lakes, pine forests and flatlands of rural Michigan where I slaved away scrubbing pans and mopping floors in the kitchen of a children’s summer camp with a number of other students from Slovakia, the Netherlands, England, Australia and Canada. Our passports had been confiscated on arrival so we couldn’t do a runner and in effect we were being exploited as cheap foreign labour. There was also effectively a social apartheid between us plebs in the kitchen and the other camp staff. I won’t go into further detail on this, but if you want to read more about it you can do so in my book On Square Routes – specifically in the chapter entitled “Once upon a time in the Midwest”.

In a conversation with an American co-worker known as Raz, a student like myself about my origins I explained that I was from a smallish town about an hour and a half’s drive from Belfast. Given the high international profile Belfast was receiving in the world media at the time I assumed this would help put things in context. But as he hadn’t heard of Belfast this meant nothing to him.

And then came the killer question:

“So how far do you live from the English border?”

Although astonished by this level of ignorance, I went on to patiently explain to him that Ireland is a separate island and is not physically connected by land to England. This came as something as something of a revelation to him. If he were to ask me that question nowadays though, I suppose if I wanted to be pedantic I could roughly estimate the location of the alleged Irish sea border – about halfway between Belfast and Liverpool – and give him an answer based on that.

I should point out though (before I receive a deluge of complaints) I am not in any way suggesting this type of attitude is any way typical or representative of Americans. In fact most Americans I’ve met have generally tended to be quite well-informed on such matters. In the interests of balance there was another member of staff who was quite clued up on the Northern Irish political situation.

Much later on, it occurred to me that if he’d asked my ill-informed friend Raz had asked that same question some 16,000 years earlier when sea levels were much lower, it might not have sounded so ridiculous. At that time of course the landmass which later became Ireland was believed to have been connected to its neighbouring island by an ice bridge – a topic which is explored in this academic paper.

So we don’t have certain animal species which are quite common on the neighbouring island such as moles, weasels or snakes in Ireland because apparently the sea level rose too quickly for them to get across and become established. DIY retailer B&Q clearly weren’t aware of this when they decided to stock mole repellent in their NI branches and then wondered why it wasn’t selling.

Great Britain back then was still a peninsula of continental Europe, an area known as Doggerland back when the Thames was a mere tributary of the Rhine.

This whole scenario raises the question of to what extent have geological events from thousands (if not millions) of years ago determined the course of history and shaped modern politics and international relations.

Had sea levels not risen and had Britain remained attached to continental Europe the chances are that Brexit would never have happened. Had Ireland remained attached to Britain the last thousand years of history may well have been very different. And all that time and money would never have been wasted on the feasibility report for the ill-fated “Boris Bridge” between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Food for thought indeed.

Such speculation is ultimately pointless of course and serves no useful purpose – but nevertheless it makes for interesting discussions on blog posts!

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