I was quite wee when the issue of dual identities first became a part of my life. It happened when I started playing GAA for the first time, aged 9 or 10. I remember worrying about playing football and camogie in the Down league, but my address was Belfast, Co. Antrim. Oh, and there was the whole British/Irish thing too.
Any level of dedication I had to GAA dwindled shortly after this. I played camogie until I was 16, but the stress of supporting Antrim or Down (I mostly supported Fermanagh – they never won anything, it was less commitment) ceased to be my main concern. In U10s, I sent a drawing to The Irish Times of myself dreaming of playing football for Down (a dream I can’t imagine ever having), when it came to U14 county trials, I didn’t even bother going. The issue of being British or Irish, however, was only becoming more apparent.
I hadn’t grown up as a huge Republican. My family never voted for Sinn Féin, I didn’t keep Gaeilge on for GCSE, never went to the Gaeltacht, and I went to Brownies in a Protestant church for most of my childhood. However, I had always considered myself Irish. I played GAA, went to Croke Park for the camogie final every year, had a cúpla focail, went to a Catholic school, and memorised all 32 counties. My family weren’t big Fenians either. The height of my dad’s Irish Nationalism came out on holiday in Spain, when we were referred to as ‘English’ by people for whom Irish/English is interchangeable. Living in middle-class South Belfast, the Troubles seemed very far from my life, despite a couple of Orange Halls and Union flags hanging around. Technically, I lived in the UK, but I thought of myself as Irish and nobody was telling me otherwise. Throughout my teenage years, that was good enough for me.
It was when I started college in Cork that my Irishness was questioned, not by me, but by other people. The cultural differences became clear almost immediately, not only was I not from Munster and didn’t have half my extended family also attending UCC, I hadn’t grown up watching RTÉ, I hadn’t done the Leaving Cert, and it was Primark instead of Penney’s. Mocking of my accent would follow, and vague questions about life in Belfast, as if I’d come from North Korea rather than Northern Ireland. The ignorance about life in the North floored me; I couldn’t count the times people thought Belfast was a county. There’s only 32 to remember, it’s not that hard.
Having spent all of GCSE and A Level history learning about Irish history, it was terrifying to see that so many didn’t seem to have learned the same. The people who knew nothing about the Troubles, or any aspect of life in the six counties, were the same ones who called me a Brit or a Protestant for having been born in Belfast. The same people with the Proclamation, or a poster of Michael Collins in their bedroom are those calling Gerry Adams a terrorist, shocked that I have an Irish passport.
I couldn’t help but find it ironic having to get out my Irish passport during an argument with some wan outside the Conradh in Dublin (of all places) so she would stop calling me British. I guarantee this wee girl, who said “the Troubles was just terrorism”, would be singing “ooh ah up the Ra” by 2am.
Towards the end of 2nd year, I started to wonder why I even wanted to be part of a 32 county Ireland if I had to share it with people who think Belfast is one them. (I still do though, Tiochfaidh ár lá).
It became clear during the Brexit vote, that Britain didn’t really care or understand about us either. It’s a strange position to be in. You would find the most “British” British people, and the most “Irish” Irish people in Northern Ireland, and yet neither of the countries we so desperately attach ourselves to seem to care about what happens to us.
It’s been quite refreshing living in Finland for the past year – my Irishness, once again, going largely unchallenged. When asked where I am from, I say ‘Ireland’, and this is accepted without further questions. Being from the UK, I am often lumped in as ‘one of the Brits’, and although I’ll always correct this, I’ve accepted it, too. It isn’t my fault I was born in the UK and as much as I can assert my Irishness, I still love the BBC, the NHS, Desert Island Discs, The Guardian, and Britpop. I will never get tired of correcting people when they call me British. I’m Irish, actually. Here’s my passport.
Go raibh maith agaibh.