Tuesday, April 23, 2024



IN Spike Milligan’s comic novel Puckoon, the small village of the title is haphazardly split in two by incompetent boundary commissioners when Ireland is partitioned in 1924.

It leads to all sorts of hilarious situations, with the parish church put into the new Irish Free State, but its adjoining graveyard situated in Northern Ireland. So after a funeral service, a dead man needs a visa, renewable annually, to be buried across the border.

Meanwhile, drinkers are crowding into one small corner of Puckoon’s pub which has been put into Northern Ireland. Beer there is 30 per cent cheaper than in the rest of the hostelry – which has been placed in the Free State.

Now it’s not quite as bad as Puckoon here in three-tier lockdown Britain at the moment. But, with all the confusing convolutions of the coronavirus clampdown, you could be forgiven for thinking that things might be heading that way.

For instance, the small coastal community of Staithes, North Yorkshire, has been split by the latest regulations. One side is in Tier One, but take a short stroll across a footbridge to the other side of the village, which comes under a different local authority, and you’ll face tougher Tier Two rules.

It’s the same in Bures, a village straddling the Suffolk-Essex border a few miles from Colchester. One of its two pubs, the Eight Bells, is in Tier One Suffolk, but just 350 yards away, the Three Horseshoes is in Tier Two Essex.

Even more bizarrely, at Llanymynech Golf Club, Powys, players tee off in Wales, where a two-week Tier Three circuit-breaker lockdown is in force, but cross into Tier One Shropshire as they play each hole, finishing back in Wales. Because the clubhouse has a Welsh licence, that may have to be closed, while the course could stay open.

There are many more such local anomalies as we grapple with the seemingly ever-changing lockdown regulations.

Mind you, it could be worse. In Puckoon (published in 1963 and still gloriously funny and un-PC), the boundary commissioners, having broken their surveying equipment and desperate to get to the pub before closing time, simply grasp a red pencil between them and draw a line on the village map.

In real life, the partition of Ireland did indeed leave some Puckoon-like absurdities. In Gortineddan, between Fermanagh and County Cavan, the border bisected the home of the Murray family. One half of their house was in Ireland, the other in the United Kingdom.

The community of Drummully, Monaghan, was left as a salient of the Free State jutting into County Fermanagh, inaccessible except through Northern Ireland.

One side of the village of Pettigo was in County Fermanagh and was blacked out at night during the Second World War for fear of German air raids. The other side, in County Donegal, was in the neutral Free State and kept its lights burning.

Border brouhaha isn’t confined to Ireland. It’s remarkable to see how much of today’s wider world has been formed by those in charge just drawing lines on maps, creating or cancelling whole countries at the stroke of a pencil. 

In America, several of the western states came into existence in the 19th century by simply delineating their borders along lines of latitude and longitude.

Similar methods were used during the ‘scramble for Africa’ by the European powers in 1885. They met in Berlin and, using a big map, carved up most of the continent among themselves, creating artificial countries that bore no relation to historic tribal boundaries, or ethnic and religious groupings.

After the Great War ended in 1918, France and Britain parcelled out the Middle East possessions of the collapsed Ottoman Empire between themselves with a line drawn across a map by diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. Again, little account was taken of existing territorial nuances and intricacies. 

In 1945, North and South Korea came into existence when the Soviets and Americans drew a line along the 38th parallel of latitude. In 1954, Vietnam was divided into north and south by a line along the 17th parallel. War eventually ravaged both regions.

Perhaps the most tragic line on a map was that drawn by British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe for the rushed partition of India in 1947. As millions of Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus towards India, riots, massacres and disease ensued, with a possible death toll of up to two million.

In Britain now, it’s the contentious lines being drawn up because of the coronavirus crisis that are reducing us to tiers. And it looks like things are going to get tougher for all of us in the coming weeks. 

So if you do find yourself headed towards Puckoon, at least try to ensure that when you get there, you end up on the cheaper side of the pub.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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