It’s halfway cheating to submit a piece to Being Abroad, because I’m from Northern Ireland and I live in Scotland. Kind of the same country, right? But also, kind of not, as anyone with passing knowledge of either place should be able to grasp. The fact that I don’t need a passport to travel between the two, or that cultural differences may not seem terribly prominent at first glance, is maybe less important than how my identity as a (Northern) Irish person has evolved in the decade I’ve been here.
As for many people, university was what caused me to leave. I was clear that I wanted to get out of Northern Ireland – sick of the all-encompassing political disasters, and also planning, quietly, to look into that whole coming-out process thing once I was in a more queer-friendly environment. Having little connection with the Republic of Ireland, I have to admit that, at the time, it never even occurred to me to study down south. So that left Britain. And although you might be right in thinking that student life in Edinburgh can give very little indication that you’re not in England, not actually being in England was a big draw for me. I admit this to people when they ask me now, but I’m not proud of it and it doesn’t sound good – it hinges on the questioner sharing some kind of unspoken sentiment that of course England couldn’t be appealing. Such conversations don’t lend themselves to a deeper examination of what was putting me off – my own experiences and those of friends and family, of encountering English people who seemed to view us as an audience interested in their Irish jokes, their calling us ‘paddies’, and jolly laughs about the IRA – or, conversely, blaming us personally for “the Troubles” and the extent to which they had been inconvenienced by them. All of this with no recognition that we ourselves might have been affected deeply by “the Troubles”, or that we might conceptualise ourselves and our ethnic identities as slightly more complex.
Although I knew the behaviour of individual English people didn’t represent their entire country, I also knew I would feel safer and more comfortable in an environment I didn’t already have misgivings about. Besides, the Irish and the Scots have a kind of Celtic understanding, don’t we? Plus we can bond over issues like the above – our annoyance at being marginalised by the dominant culture.
What surprised me most, then, about living in Scotland was how little Scottish people turned out to know about Northern Ireland. This was (and continues to be) most notable in so many people’s failure to grasp what part of Ireland I’m from. To me, there’s a huge difference between northern and southern accents. If we must generalise, then the southern accent is the pleasant, romanticised, lilting one employed by endearing film characters and leprechauns, while the northern one is the harsh (yet ‘curly’, as a friend put it) one brought to fame by terrorists, angry politicians, and hard-done-by folk in harrowing films set in Belfast. And yet, if I told people I was going on a trip to Dublin, they’d assume I was visiting my family.
But if my accent is perhaps too vague to go on, then so is mention of Belfast: everyone’s figured out that Belfast is in Ireland, but many struggle to get more specific than that. Is it the capital? Is Dublin in the north? What’s in the bit that everyone’s fighting over? I was amazed the first few times that people stumbled over this kind of thing. Now I just accept it, wondering if I was just unreasonable to expect that our nearest neighbours would know who we were or what was going on. Travel to Northern Ireland, after all, would not have featured in their childhoods as prominently as travel to Scotland featured in mine and many of my compatriots’ (That’s why they call Britain the ‘mainland’, a phrase that I’ve always resented.)
When I first moved to Scotland, I identified strongly and specifically as Northern Irish. I didn’t identify as Irish, not because I was unionist (I don’t identify as nationalist, but I’m more sympathetic to it than to unionism. That, however, is a whole other essay in itself), but because I would always be Northern Irish regardless of whatever might happen to borders and communities, and because I felt that both Britain and the Republic of Ireland were (and are) countries that differ significantly from Northern Ireland. Why, then, would I feel a loyalty to anywhere beyond the province itself?
Although it might seem absurd to an outsider that some Northern Irish people so strongly resent the ‘Northern’ part being knocked off their identity, nationality or affiliation tends to take precedence over geography, and Northern Ireland is a place where people are particularly sensitive about it. But I gradually realised that few people around me in Scotland saw this difference. I was simply classified as Irish, like anyone from the island, regardless of how they might feel about that distinction. So why bother even trying to stress it? I wasn’t as protective over my Northern-ness as a unionist might be, and I didn’t feel British as such – it’s hard to feel that connected to the UK when Northern Ireland is mostly represented as an afterthought.
And I was feeling increasingly awkward, anyway, whenever specifically Northern Irish issues did come up: people were too quick with the whole ‘are you Protestant or Catholic?’ routine, failing to realise that a central reason for my leaving Northern Ireland was the focus on these binary identifications at the expense of all else. Plus, asking me that is just plain intrusive and rude. If people assumed I was from a more trouble-free, politically uninteresting part of Ireland, so much the better, right? Besides, friendships and relationships with people based in Dublin started to open up a part of Ireland I hadn’t previously had much call to visit, and although I was still technically an outsider there too, I felt received warmly, with my identity more immediately understood than it ever could be in Britain.
Over time, I also came to acknowledge that I had been purposely ignoring the political situation in Northern Ireland, which many who had been left behind had no chance to ignore. My class background and privilege had made this relatively easy for me to do. It’s important to stress, though, that although I didn’t ‘suffer’ directly or witness violence first-hand, it was clear to me that everyone from Northern Ireland – whatever their circumstances – was affected by “the Troubles”. We had all encountered bomb scares if not actual bombs; we knew people whose friends or partners or family members had been murdered; we knew the language of sectarianism; we were just moments away from the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing up in the eighties and nineties in Northern Ireland, this was an unavoidable part of our youth. I had exercised the luxury of shutting out the politics, because I could, but eventually I would learn that despite my relatively sheltered experience, even my own family members had on occasion been in at the deep end.
I came from a place that hammered the point home, where the only relevant issue for a political party was whether it was nationalist or unionist, where the news was a relentless barrage of tit-for-tat killings. Leaving gave me the freedom to first shut it out and then to try to make sense of it from outside.
So where am I at now? I don’t know. It’s hard to know what exactly I should say about my situation, and harder still to know whether anyone will understand what I’m talking about, or whether they’ll feel it’s relevant.
I haven’t had many opportunities to properly examine what it means to be from Northern Ireland – especially not according to my own frames of reference and/or in the company of other Northern Irish people. So now that I’m starting to talk about it, I’m afraid of every pitfall.
There is more, but this will do for now.
Nine. If Destroyed Still True.