As many children of the Troubles in Northern Ireland would no doubt agree, the concept of Irishness or Britishness for those of us from the province is often a fraught one. Many – maybe even most – follow the belief of their parents; Nationalist or Unionist, Loyalist or Republican become family heirlooms to be handed down through the generations like a watch or a ring. For others it’s not that simple, sometimes even splitting families. My sister, for example, has always only ever had an Irish passport – up until my mid-thirties I possessed only a British one.
Once upon a time I felt – to the disappointment and consternation of many of those who knew me – mostly British. Growing up in West Belfast during the 1980s, I thought Catholics got a good deal from the welfare state, and so was quite happy to see myself as British. We had – at the time – a world class education system, free up to and including postgraduate level. We had access to a first rate health service, much better than the often church-run hospitals in the Republic of Ireland. Yes, Irish Catholics often had a raw deal in the past. But, I asked myself, was it really any worse than the poor in Liverpool or Glasgow, Newcastle or London?
Growing up in a Republican family meant I was constantly surrounded by a particular version of Irish culture. My father and uncle were both interned in the 1970s, the former on the prison ship HMS Maidstone. The latter also did time for armed robbery on behalf of the IRA.
Through republican songs, books and newspapers, we had a collective societal memory of Irish history. Books and articles and stories about some of the most tragic episodes ever to play out on that island. Failed rebellions. The famines. Emigration under duress to look for a better life, often to the other colonies. Gerrymandering by Unionist politicians to keep Catholics out of power. Discrimination in the workplace, in the provision of public services. Hunger Strikes. There was a strong belief in speaking Irish for its own sake, even though my own father wasn’t really passionate enough about the actual learning of it.
At home and in schools run by the Christian Brothers, the Irish had one enduring attribute which linked all of those episodes together: we were always the victims. There was a single constant in the narrative: our agency was consistently taken away. We starved because food was shipped to England. We were drafted into armies to fight England’s – and then Britain’s – wars, to build an empire for the very people who oppressed us and stole our own land. We couldn’t even hold on to our own language, the majority of Ireland speaking English as a first language by the mid 1800s.
When we did get some measure of independence in 1921 we couldn’t take advantage of it, not really, because others wouldn’t let us. Partition ensued. In the north Irish Catholics were given over to British Protestants, while in the south the Union Jack was essentially swapped for the clerical collar. Perhaps the sad irony of the Irish Republic is that it saved its people from one ruler only to give them over to another in the form of the Catholic Church. It may be hard to imagine for the younger generations, but from the Magdalene Laundries to the ban on contraception and divorce, or even to the power of the average parish priest over his flock, the hold the Church had over Ireland until relatively recently wasn’t far off total. Numerous English kings and parliaments would have killed in pursuit of that kind of mind control. They often did.
Why, when all of that was said and done, would anybody want to see themselves as Irish? I had no answer to that back then. It seemed to me, to borrow a phrase from an American writer, a nationality very much ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’. I had a life to live, and I wanted to live it looking to the future.
But all of that was then, and this is now. It’s safe to say that when my current British passport expires I won’t be renewing it, and instead will stick with my Irish one. What changed? How have I gone from feeling British to Irish, when so much of my life involved running from the latter? It was a mixture of things, really. I started writing in my late thirties, discovering more modern Irish writers as I did so. The changing social fabric of Ireland played a part. Then Brexit came along.
On arrival in England in my twenties to go to university all I wanted was a new life for myself. I was never ashamed of where I came from, but – one summer aside – I also never went back. I got a good degree, then a good job. I worked as a solicitor before changing career. I lived in quintessentially English places like Tunbridge Wells or Maidstone, Chester or Wokingham. I even spent Christmas Day at the home of an officer in the Royal Engineers after a co-worker heard I was spending Christmas by myself and insisted I join her and her family for the day. The strange irony, I told myself as I stood for the national anthem, of where I’d come from and where I’d ended up.
Fast forward a few years until one day in November 2013. A friend of mine posted on social media about National Novel Writing Month. I started to write. It was a spur of the moment decision, one that would change my life completely. Writing, I told myself, would be easy. After all, who could possibly have as much experience as material as me to choose from? From dead mothers and brothers and domestic violence to army raids and disability and bullying and the IRA and the UVF and the Enniskillen bombing and the Hunger Strikes and everything else in between – how hard could it be?
Very hard, it turned out. Revisiting my past was more upsetting than I could possibly have imagined, and there have been times I’ve written while crying about some of the stuff I’ve touched on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, depression followed – it stays with me still. But the more I wrote, the more I read. The more I read, the more I discovered Irish writers I’d never before heard of. John McGahern. Bernard McLaverty. Seamus Deane. Then even more contemporary writers like Claire Keegan, Colin Barrett, John Boyne, Colm Tóibín or Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Carolyn is one of the most underrated Irish writers around, and anybody who wishes to understand the psychological impact of growing up in the Troubles need only read her novel The Boy Who Could See Demons. Suddenly Irish writing was no longer concerned with the British, with the Troubles. It no longer seemed to define the Irish as a people deprived of their agency – we’d moved on from that – and in many ways really did feel like a brave new world I’d only just discovered.
Around the same time, Ireland approved gay marriage in a referendum. I cried with joy when the result was announced, having only recently come out as bisexual. I applied for my first Irish passport, although at this point I still felt comfortable in my Britishness. The abortion referendum followed a few years later. Today, the hold of the Church on Irish society seems to be well and truly broken. Long may it remain so.
And then there came Brexit, David Cameron’s attempt to end the Tory civil war on Europe. In the 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom voted – narrowly, but voted nonetheless – in favour of leaving the EU. Two constituent countries of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – voted to remain, their voices essentially shouted down by a largely xenophobic and under educated English electorate who chose to believe outright lies written on the side of a bus. Irish and Scottish protests were then overlooked and ignored by a largely English government based in London, nearly all of whom the Scots or Irish had no opportunity to vote for. Was always thus, but only after the vote did it really strike home how much the Union was a case of ‘What England wants, everybody else gets’.
Lies about how a trade deal with the EU would be the easiest trade deal in history, or about how the EU needed Britain more than the other way around, were consistently swallowed by Leavers in spite of the blatantly obvious evidence pointing to the contrary. A remain-leaning Parliament which sought to limit the damage caused by Brexit was lampooned by the right wing press and derided by Leavers, despite the whole point of Brexit allegedly being to ‘take back control’ and return an imagined sovereignty to Parliament. A general election followed, and the party which was repeatedly caught out lying during the campaign won because, apparently, the most important thing was to ‘get Brexit done’. The uncomfortable sense of English exceptionalism unleashed by Brexit made me realise just how far I’d come in my own sense of belonging. And Boris – how do you solve a problem like Boris? The man is a proven liar, one who used the prospect of Brexit to further his own ambitions and who has broken promise after promise after promise, and issued lie after lie after life. From the oven ready deal to the Irish Sea protocol to Partygate – the fact that so many English people are still happy to vote for him makes England feel even more alien to me. The ‘I’m voting for my local politician’ defence doesn’t wash – vote Tory, get Boris.
As time goes by I find myself increasingly unhappy in the UK, and increasingly like I no longer belong. A yearning to move back to Ireland – a modern, educated, outward-looking country diplomatically and economically at the centre of Europe – gets just that little bit stronger every day. Conversely, that part of me which once thought of myself as British dies a little more: a victim of both the rediscovering of my own heritage and also an increasingly insular and right-wing country which, in truth, probably never really wanted me in the first place.
Fran Mulhern has a Creative Writing MA from Lancaster and his fiction and poetry have been published in Litro, A New Ulster and The Honest Ulsterman. His non-fiction has been published on the BBC and in the Belfast Telegraph.
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