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.
The section of Pettigo that was created by partition 100 years ago on the Fermanagh side of the border is officially named Tullyhommon. The locals fondly refer to it as ‘High Street’.
The area has faced many name changes, until the late 1700s it was known as An Tearmann- translating as ‘a place of sanctuary’. Just 7km from Pettigo lies the island of Lough Derg – ‘the sanctuary of St Patrick’ which annually attracts thousands of Christians for pilgrimages.
Lough Derg’s clerical office is located in Tullyhommon, a weathered sign outside the village reads ‘Spiritual refreshment in changing times’ - in this border region changing times loom on the horizon as the Brexit deadline of October 31 approaches, and with it the risk of the return of a physical border.
Today there is an invisible border between the villages of Pettigo and Tullyhommon. An Ulsterbus service runs three-to-four times daily from Enniskillen to Tullyhommon; the sign at the bus stop in the Co Fermanagh village reads Pettigo. A BT telephone kiosk located in the Northern Ireland side states “euro also accepted here” while at the petrol station on the Donegal end of the village the price of fuel is displayed on two signs – one in euro and the other in sterling.
The communities - made up of 239 people in Pettigo according to the 2016 census in Ireland and 63 based on the 2011 census in Northern Ireland - are united in many ways.
The villages are well served by Christian churches with an Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian Church covering the population’s spiritual needs. One of the local clergy is Reverend Günther Andrich, new to the parish from South Africa.
Rev Andrich’s Presbyterian church lies on the Tullyhommon side of the border. He estimates that there are currently 35 families in the congregation with the vast majority of them living in Northern Ireland. He said, “there are some folk who live on the Belleek side of Pettigo and they have family spread across both sides of the border”.
“There is a sense of conflict in the farming communities and uncertainty as Brexit approaches. But they are very resourceful people and have become accustomed to uncertainty.”
Within the congregation and across the wider community “they are keen to get past October and there is a sense of commitment to make things work post October. There is a lot of goodwill between communities.”
Rev Andrich has found working in the locality to be very interesting, one of the oddities of the area is how frequently the border is crossed in his clerical work. He recounted one experience: “The funeral began in the Presbyterian church in Tullyhommon and due to the interconnection of the families in the area we had to walk across the border with the funeral procession for interment in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Pettigo.”
He enjoys living here and finds it similar to the rural part of South Africa that he used to work in before moving to Capetown. His children enjoy day trips to the nearby Rossnowlagh beach in Co Donegal.
Despite its idyllic surroundings, Pettigo/Tullyhommon has seen its share of violence over the years. In 1922 the village became occupied by members of the Irish Republican Army as part of the Battle of Pettigo and Belleek, due to tensions in the area as a result of partition. Belleek – 12 miles away - became part of the new Northern Ireland and Pettigo remained part of ‘The State’.
The volunteers were met by member of the British forces who had crossed Lough Erne in order to meet the threat. Casualties have been estimated as three IRA men killed, six wounded, four captured, alongside one British Solider and two civilians who were also killed. Other reports have placed the death toll at 30 but the true number is unknown.
A memorial stands on the Belleek Road to those who "died fighting against British forces in Pettigo 4-6-1922" - just a few metres away another memorial remembers those "who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918".
In 1973 a British Army soldier, staff sergeant Ronald Beckett was killed in Tullyhommon whilst trying to defuse a Provisional IRA bomb left in the post office. He was 37.
On the same site where the bomb disposal officer lost his life lies M.J Johnston, a garage operated by father and son Mervyn and Karl Johnston. As you approach the premises that straddle the border, a gleaming red rally car sits outside - a union flag on the driver side window alongside the name Karl Johnston.
Inside the garage having recently turned 80, Mervyn Johnston is working away on a Mini engine. He is a former four-time Irish championship tarmac rally driver who was renowned on the circuit for his vintage Minis.
The pensioner still competes in hill climbs and sprints every couple of weekends and keeps a collection of vintage Mini Coopers.
Mr Johnston said that “he’s not worried at all” about Brexit and remarked “I don’t think it will ever happen.” A return to a hard border would be “very inconvenient for locals and strangers alike”.
As Mr Johnston reflected on The Troubles, he was adamant that at the height of the conflict, “there was no animosity in the town, it was business as usual.” He recounted how he crossed frequently into Pettigo to go to the pub.
The former Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) member told anecdotes of how when he was rallying “down south” there was disbelief on the rallying circuit that he had crossed the border. “Most of them were too scared to cross the border in fear of getting shot and couldn’t believe I crossed it every day.”
As he sits in his office, decorated with model cars, old accounting books and newspaper clippings relating to the area he has always called home, the Termon river flows behind – the much-discussed border that divides this area.
Mr Johnston believes that if a hard border returned it “will bring back trouble again.”
He said: “There will always be individuals wanting an excuse to return to the old way.”
On the morning of 8th November 1987 an IRA bomb detonated in Enniskillen during the Remembrance Sunday parade, it left 11 people dead and hundreds injured. Ronnie Hill later died from his injuries after spending 13 years in a coma.
Meanwhile 20 miles away in Tullyhommon, the IRA had planted another bomb, it also was due to explode at the war memorial during the Remembrance Sunday parade. The 150-pound device, almost four times the size of the 40-pound Enniskillen bomb, failed to detonate.
Pettigo stands as a frontier, formerly the Donegal village was a thriving transport hub. The railway stopped passing through in 1957.
Many cross-border roads in the area were closed as a result of the Troubles which had devastating effects on the economic prospects of the rural area.
The reopening of these roads in 1998 aided economic upturn despite the villages’ dwindling population. In 1991 the population of Pettigo stood at 370 people. By the 2016 census the population had shrunk to 239 people. Of those 239, 30% percent, are over the age of 65 with almost 21% under the age of 18.
EU funding has been crucial to the locality, which is peppered with derelict buildings. More than €8m has been invested in regeneration projects in Pettigo and Tullyhommon to support greater cross-community and cross-border engagement.
The Termon Complex – which shares its name with the river - lies at the heart of Pettigo. The state-of-the-art centre was opened to the public in 2014 as a result of a collaboration between Donegal County Council, Fermanagh District Council and the Association for the Development of Pettigo and Tullyhommon (ADoPT).
Other developments include a riverside park, construction of a pedestrian footbridge linking the villages across the River Termon and environmental/architectural improvements.
Manager Linda Dunlop praised the Termon Complex as “a community hub” and remarked that it was “the heart of the village and the community.” The centre includes a black box theatre, sporting facilities, pre-school childcare facility, playpark, a welcome centre and cafe.
She remarked how the uptake of the sports classes has been cross-community. “Everyone who attends the pilates classes are all Fermanagh girls” mostly from the nearby villages of Ederney and Kesh.
Work is being done inside the centre to bridge the gap between the now divided settlement. There is a weekly youth drop in centre for local teenagers in the area so they can “chill out” and make new friends.
This is in part due to the schooling of children in the village. Those who live on the Tullyhommon side are likely to be sent to primary school in Kesh and then Enniskillen while those who live in Pettigo opt to be educated in Pettigo and then in Donegal town or Ballyshannon. “It means that some kids who live a mile apart don’t know each other, which is a shame,” she said.
There is work also being done with senior citizens – there is a twice weekly day-care centre in the village. Some groups use the Termon Centre to play bowls or curling.
“We need to look after them too, they came through it [the conflict] and seen it all. It’s important that they can now look back and start to enjoy their neighbour’s company,” said Mrs Dunlop.
Donegal County Council were lead sponsor in the development of the Termon Centre and still support the Termon Complex but “the centre relies on trade to keep it open” explained the manager.
When asked if she was concerned about the centre’s future in regard to Brexit and a hard border, Mrs Dunlop said: “Our gym users cross the border every day. They aren’t going to come here if they spend 10 to 20 minutes in a checkpoint just so they can go to the gym for an hour.”
This sentiment was echoed by ADoPt co-ordinator Natasha McGrath who said, “we spent years getting it [The Termon Complex] here and we want it to be here for the future.”
Mrs McGrath who lives locally spoke at length about her fears for the area. “There isn’t one positivity to come of Brexit.” And she remarked how villages in the Republic like Pettigo that straddle the border will be severely impacted. “It will impact on us the most and we had no say or input.”
“All the hard work from Peace II, Peace III, and Peace IV that has done so much for the area can be unravelled very quickly by those who will not tolerate a return to a hard border,” she claimed.
The mother-of-two quickly added “none of us can go back.” She referenced her children and said she “fears for the youth” and a return to checkpoints.
She recounted how during the height of the Troubles many young people left the area. “We were sending young ones to England and America straight out of school to work. It was safer for them to be away.”
The Termon Complex is home to Pettigo’s local amateur dramatic society, The Borderline Players which has been in operation in the area since 1998. President Siobhan O’Brien, a drama teacher from the Belleek area, recounted how the ensemble has gone from strength to strength producing; a play, a cultural festival, a pantomime, and an annual children’s performance.
Mrs O’Brien commented that religion and the border never interfered with the Borderline Players, “it was natural to be cross-community and cross-border.”
A highlight for the group was in 2008 when 140 members travelled to Florida to perform a production. “We took everyone, kids and adults. It was a great 10 days.” Mrs O’Brien added that the trip was completely fundraised by members and the local community.
“Brexit won’t divide our community but we are quite anxious about the impact it will have on accessibility. When the roads were inaccessible in Pettigo it could take between 45-55 minutes to do a trip that now takes 15-20 minutes,” she recalled.
In Gallagher’s shop, proprietor and post-master James Gallagher said that he has seen an increase in applications for Irish passport forms in the wake of Brexit.
“At the start of the year I gave out 10 times the amount I gave out three years ago.” Those he has given forms out to have come primarily from Northern Ireland. “I would say 95 to 97 percent of applicants are from the North and they are from both sides of the community.”
Those who enter the door of Gallagher’s shop give a variety of reasons for their applications Mr Gallagher said, “younger people are into their travelling and they don’t want to be held up at the airport”.
The uncertainty of Brexit has had an effect on sales in this small village, Mr Gallagher cited the fall of British Pound Sterling due to the Brexit uncertainty as the primary reason.
Father Joe McVeigh is an activist with Border Communities Against Brexit (BCAB). A pressure group that works in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It claims to speak for those who live along the border and who will be most affected by any change to the border. Fr McVeigh’s mother hailed from Pettigo, “so the village is close to my heart”, he smiles.
In discussing the ramifications of a bad Brexit deal he spoke of how “partition terribly affected Pettigo. It was a most neglected area because of partition. It was once a thriving village, with a railway.”
He continued: “Everyone was conscious of the division until 1998. But since 1998 there is a huge difference being able to travel freely and the investment in the community,” he referenced the Termon centre in particular.
When considering the future of Pettigo in relation to Brexit he said: “I can only hope a deal will be done on this small island. Our island is too small for division. There are some signs of a change in attitude from the British Government and the DUP; we can only hope.”
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