Performance artist John Byrne
updated 3/19/2004 10:08:31 AM ET 2004-03-19T15:08:31

Comedian and performance artist John Byrne’s satirical monologues about the border have become his stock in trade. Born in Belfast but now a Dublin resident, Byrne’s life has straddled Ireland’s frontier, so it was fitting that he would look for laughs on both sides of Ireland’s dividing line.

For one week late last year, a tiny hut made of cinder blocks on the main Dublin-Belfast road just south of the border in County Louth became a major tourist and media attraction. Byrne’s Border Interpretative Center, complete with neon sign, drew crowds of up to 100 people to its opening, as well as a squadron of British troops suspicious of the unusual activity at this normally quiet spot.

Byrne spent a week running the center as a kind of performance stunt. “I’ve been obsessed with the border as far back as I can remember,” he said. “I always wondered why people were reluctant to talk about the border.”

Byrne’s performances play on this taboo. In a spoof educational video, a farmer approaches the camera with a take-off on learning “the facts of life” from his parents: “I remember as a young boy my father gave me the facts about the border. I feel lucky in that. A lot of adults would have left that kind of thing to the school, or worse, for their children to find out from their friends.”

Byrne obtained funding from the Irish Arts Council for his performance stunt. As well as satirizing the border, the event took a sideswipe at Ireland’s burgeoning tourism and heritage industry.

Byrne sold candies shaped like sticks of dynamite labeled “A present from the Border,” postcards showing ominous British army installations framed by fake flowers and even cellophane-wrapped samples of soil dug from the border.

Not surprisingly, some people from neighboring Armagh north of the border were outraged. Yet most people enjoyed the satire — a sign of changed times indeed in Ireland.

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