The Rule of the Land: Politics, Landscape and Identity on Ireland’s Border

Impact: Cultural Impact, Societial Impact, Other Impact

Description of impact

The heart of the research is my book The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border (Faber & Faber 2017, pp.312), a non-fiction work illustrated by my own maps. It has inspired media work, public appearances and gallery exhibitions. The research transforms Ireland’s border from an abstraction into a living place, with its own character and history. It has found a prominent place in international media discussions around Brexit, nationalism and landscape. I have developed a strong profile on international radio and television, and the book has been abridged by BBC Radio 4. Press coverage has included The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and The New York Times. Reviews from journalists and the public indicate the book can affect a change of mind-set in readers. I curate an exhibition of maps from my book along with those of other independent map-makers that has received extensive press coverage. Audiences testimonials reveal the transformative effect of the work.

Who is affected

The end-users and stakeholders are the gallery-goers and large international audiences of non-academic readers, listeners and TV viewers from the UK, Ireland and beyond. Other stakeholders are the communities of the borderland, policy makers and media professionals concerned with the impact of Brexit on the ground.


An objective of The Rule of the Land was to transform the border in the public consciousness, taking it from a conceptual line on a map to a living place with its own history, nuances and possibilities. This objective was given further urgency as the UK voted to leave the European Union, raising questions about the future of Ireland’s border. The Rule of the Land is, in part, about reading the power dynamics in a landscape so is particularly apposite in the current political climate. Extensive research underpins the book: literary, political, geographical and historical. Online bookseller Amazon have categorised The Rule of the Land as ‘Irish History’ as well as ‘Ireland: Travel’ (it was number 1 bestseller in these categories as well as ‘walking’ for most of March 2017 and has frequently been in their top twenties since then).

The maps illustrating The Rule of the Land emerged from a dissatisfaction with how Northern Ireland is represented in maps. One topic, the distribution of Protestant and Catholics, is charted so often that it seems to suggest this is the normal way to look at our landscape and neighbours. Furthermore, designers often chart our population and voting patterns with the orange and green cliché, reinforcing stereotypes. I have been making and exhibiting alternative maps since 2008, supported in part by an £10,000 award from the Centre for Cross-Border Studies. This brought me into contact with other independent map-makers. I gathered the work of fourteen together for an exhibition called ‘Mapping Alternative Ulster’. Most of the works had never been seen in a gallery context before. The map-makers included urban planners charting Belfast, local historians detailing townlands in Fermanagh, older people recording the fading place names of Donegal, an artist collecting nicknames for parts of Derry/Londonderry and a community activist mapping a village in south Down. All the maps challenge sectarian divisions but there is more to the show: I wished to reveal multiple ways of seeing Ulster’s landscape in order to promote fresh thinking about our relationship to it. The show is subtitled Rethinking the Land. All the maps chart realities in the lived environment or draw attention to local ways of seeing that are overlooked in official maps. ‘Mapping Alternative Ulster’ has run three times in different Northern Ireland venues. Feedback indicates it succeeded in its aim to transform the way audiences think about Ulster and the border region.

The Rule of the Land appeared just as a new curiosity about Ireland’s border sprung up internationally, gaining the book an extensive platform across international media. In Ireland and the UK, the way the book has been embraced suggested there was a hunger for a deeper – and perhaps more optimistic – consideration of Ireland’s border than was previously available.

Several new creative propositions emerged in The Rule of the Land. One was simply that the border should be looked at as a place, rather than an abstraction, a line or a tactical problem. The book also argues that Ireland’s border did not just divide Ireland into two parts but three: the north, the south and the borderland. I used the term ‘borderlander’ for people living along the line, and this term was widely discussed and found a place in the lexicon of journalists and commenters.

The exhibition ‘Mapping Alternative Ulster’ was supported by two awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, totalling £6,500. It first ran in the Ulster Museum, May—June 2014 (The museum as a whole received about 1500 visitors per day during the run). This led to invites to the Alley Arts Centre Strabane, June 2015 (receiving 40 visitors per day) and the Marketplace Gallery Armagh, December 2016—January 2017 (receiving approximately 750 people over the run). Launches, lectures and other events associated with the exhibition were also well attended. These included contributions from QUB staff member Keith Lilley, urban planners and artists. An artist called Seamus Duncan had work in the show. He and one of this maps was featured in BBC Ulster television’s ‘Walk the Line’ (29 June 2015) as a direct result of being showcased in ‘Mapping Alternative Ulster’. One of my own maps in the show formed the basis of a half-hour BBC Radio 4 commissioned documentary called ‘Charting the Border’ (30 June 2014). I wrote and presented the programme. A section was broadcast again on Radio 4’s ‘Pick of the Week’.
Impact statusOngoing
Impact date30 Jun 2014
Category of impactCultural Impact, Societial Impact, Other Impact
Impact levelEngagement