My mother is from Connacht; it’s in the west of Ireland, but we from the north generally call that “down south”. My father is from Tyrone, which is north of the Irish border. I myself grew up along the Donegal-Derry stretch of the border, where the Laggan district meets Inishowen. I lived, was schooled and socialised between Derry city and its north-east Donegal hinterland, kind of on a cross-border basis.
Technically, I was born on the “southern” side of the border but, in terms of geography, accent, experience, temperament, political character and cultural or inherited memory, I don’t consider myself anything other than a northerner. That’s how I identify; one aspect of my identity.
Being from the province of Ulster, maybe the term “Ulsterman” could have served my identity more accurately, in the most literal of senses – I’ll always support an Ulster county team to the end in the annual GAA All-Ireland Football Championship, for example – although that label does possess a particular ethnonymic status in that it has already been claimed by another identity group in the north of Ireland of which I am not part; the predominantly-unionist Ulster(-Scots) Protestant community.
We, on the other hand, are Irish Gaels; Ó Coileáin, Ó hAinnín, Ó Seanacháin, Ó hAnnracháin, Mac Somhairle, Mac Mathúna and Ó Riain blood flows through my veins. My background is also culturally Catholic; I am baptised although I’m what they call “lapsed” and would presently describe myself as agnostic atheist if pushed.
As a consequence, like musician Brian Kennedy who grew up on Belfast’s nationalist Falls Road, I would have difficulty truly embracing the term “Ulsterman” given its (paracolonial) cultural significance to others and its politically-loaded connotations.
Even though I am not a unionist and my own politics are diametrically opposed to the primary constitutional aims of political unionism, that is not to say I have any issue with that identity; it’s just a different, but certainly no less valid, one from my own. Having contrasting political aspirations by no means negates or undermines the possibility of sharing mutual cultural respect.
My family are all nationally Irish – all equally Irish – despite having been born across the two insular jurisdictions in Ireland. For us, our national identity transcends political or territorial boundaries.
Recognition and validation of that – our common Irish national identity – is important to me. I suppose that is an instinctive human desire most of us have; to be accepted for who we are, be it personally, familially, collectively or communally.
It is also important to me because the commonality of our identity has been and still is directly challenged, or even explicitly denied, by some. When I say that, I’m not talking about it being denied by just hard-line unionists or loyalists who regard themselves, the north-east of Ireland and all those born north of the Irish border as absolutely British or Northern Irish and nothing else; that is to be expected.
Often, it is denied by those from whom we might least expect it; by our very own fellow Irish nationals further down the country. Such denial is as if to say that only those born in the southern state can be “truly” or “authentically” Irish. That can sting.
Having (perhaps surprisingly) come upon similar sentiment within the overtly-nationalist GAA, former Derry Gaelic footballer Joe Brolly wrote the following of the difference between northerners and southerners in a Derry Journal piece a few years ago:
Culturally, we are no doubt slightly different. In a way, northern Gaels are more ferocious about our Irishness because we had to fight harder for it. My father, a veteran republican, fluent Irish speaker and traditional musician steeped in all things Gaelic quipped to me during the week, “Don’t be too hard on the southerners Joe, some of them are almost as Irish as we are.”
Our experience explains why we are far more fervent about our province than the other three. When I began working in RTE I was amazed that Cork people didn’t support Kerry when they got out of Munster and Mayo folk didn’t support Galway. Up here, we rally round whoever gets through because we feel we are all in it together. When Tyrone scored their killer goal in the 2005 final against Kerry, a Derry man sitting in the stand jumped up, punched the air in delight and roared, “Come on you Tyrone b******ds!”
Of course, my mother is a southerner and I have southern relatives, but, generally and beyond family, I’ve naturally always felt more in tune with the northern nationalist community than with southerners.
I suppose that is of little surprise given my cross-border upbringing, the Tyrone background of the paternal side of my family and the fact that so much of my life has been spent in Derry. (I presently live in Manchester.)
When I was growing up, southerners I encountered on RTÉ and in the media commenting on the north often struck me as residing in a distant, if not aloof, moralist’s bubble.
It seemed the more they said about the place (and the conflict going on at the time), the less they actually knew. They would pontificate and preach in indignant fashion about rights and wrongs without any real sense of experience or context. The perch of moral superiority is a comfortable one.
Of course, not all southerners are like this, but there are enough, with a prominent-enough platform, to make the sanctimonious, exclusionary or differentiating sentiment distinctly felt by northerners.
There are plenty, most often nationalists or republicans, who can and do express solidarity and empathic sentiment too. Ultimately, the Irish national identity of northerners is not dependent upon recognition or acceptance by anyone, but it is nice to have it; northerners are sensitive to that and are appreciative.
When I say “southerners”, I’m also generally excluding people from the immediate southern side of border region; from my experience, people from the border region tend to get the north in a way that people further down the country often don’t.
Experience fosters both intimate knowledge and empathy. Their social, economic and cultural lives would have taken border people across the border weekly, if not daily, throughout the conflict and since the peace process. When they weren’t being hindered from doing so by the communally-invasive British army, that is…
Further down the country, the “black north” was long seen as a troubled, alien world where one simply wouldn’t dare venture. It was “bother”; a place “stuck in the past”. Many southerners either wanted to “move on” or had “moved on” in their heads; they were now content, if not happy, with their broadly-violence-free (except for what trouble spilled over from the conflict in the north of the country) independent nation-state, even if it was just a 26-county, rather than a 32-county, one and even if their fellow nationals had been forsaken on the other side of a border imposed by Britain as part of an imperfect but reluctantly-accepted independence agreement.
I should know intimately of the common southern mindset; my mother oft tells me of the blissful ignorance of her early life in respect of the northern situation until, upon meeting my father in the early-1980s, she moved north from then living and working in more-cosmopolitan Dublin.
Dublin bustled night and day, but moving north was quite a culture-shock for her in contrast. The militarised society, the British army checkpoints, armed soldiers and armoured vehicles on the streets, the incessant drone of their observation helicopters hovering overhead, the bomb-scares, the bombs, the visceral sectarianism, the communal segregation, the fear of entering the “wrong area” (whilst not knowing the region all that well in the first place anyway), or, worse, actually entering into the “wrong area” unwittingly and receiving cold, hostile stares upon opening her mouth (not every area was “conveniently” territorially-colour-coded by flags on lamp-posts and painted kerb-stones, but, as far as many dwellers in unionist communities at the time were concerned, a southern accent was a pretty reliable give-away for a “taig” and “taigs” were the enemy), being finger-pointed at during social gatherings and referred to pejoratively as “you Catholics”, as a “Papist” or as a “fenian” for simply being or having articulated a point that inadvertently revealed her background, having to calm an extremely distressed cousin-in-law who had phoned the house looking for help and advice one night in 1989 after an attempt was made on his life by a loyalist gunman in suspected collusion with British state forces and he had luckily escaped the bullets by running through fields in the dark (sadly – as discussed later in this article – he was not as fortunate when a similar attempt was made on his life two and a half years subsequent to this incident in 1991), the city centre becoming a nightly ghost-town after 6PM, the grim metal protective shutters covering every shop-window upon closing-time, the oppressive and constant sense of surveillance, fear and suspicion in the air; all this suddenly became a regular part of her life. At the very least, it was enlightening.
Northern nationalists marooned north of the border post-partition have referred to (mainly-partitionist) southerners as “Free Staters” ever since the imposition of the border. The term captures a mild underlying resentment or derision reserved generally on account of the northern nationalist’s sense of having been abandoned in an oppressive Orange state by his or her fellow Irish men and women in the southern state. The southern state was originally known as the Irish Free State up until 1937.
When I lived in Dublin in the mid-2000s, I found that southerners had a word of their own for northerners. I was dubbed a “nordie”. It is a term that was and is used relatively harmlessly and generally without malice – it’s primarily geographical in significance and wouldn’t quite possess pejorative-status – but I felt a bit culturally-different when called it; like a semi-outsider. I wasn’t particularly fond of it for that reason, but it was also self-reinforcing in another way; I was a northerner, after all.
I felt somewhat forlorn when occasionally told by my southern compatriots that “nobody down here cares about what goes on up the north” or, more bluntly, “it’s a different country up there”.
For me, Ireland – the entire island or national area – was one country; a unit. That is what I had always known. Lines on maps and military installations across the landscape were physical inconveniences, sure, but they made scant difference as far as my national and cultural consciousness was concerned.
The idea that my mother and father came from two different countries or that they might be two different nationalities, or even foreign to one another, seemed so counter-intuitive and absurd to me, I’d never really considered it. It just never crossed my mind. Why would it have? Our common sense of national Irishness is all we have ever known. It is unthinking; natural.
What primarily sparked me to write this piece was a recent considered, thoughtful and empathic article by Jennifer Hough in the Irish Examiner on the neglect of southerners for their northern compatriots and the sense of abandonment that that has cultivated in the north. I’ll re-post it here in full as I was so impressed by it.
WHY are we, in the Republic, so apathetic about the prospect of a united Ireland?
It’s a question I asked myself many times over the Easter weekend, having spent the 1916 rising commemorations, quite by accident, in Belfast.
For the weekend that was in it, I decided to immerse myself in the political history of the city.
Having studied Irish history, I’ve always had a keen interest in Northern affairs.
But there’s nothing in the books that can prepare you for walking around communities living side by side, but divided by generations of mutual hatred, and a mammoth “peace wall”, still standing as a testament to those feelings.
On the loyalist side of the wall, a huge mural (some have been painted over) of hit man Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag looks down on the community. It’s chilling to see this man, killer of at least 12 Catholic civilians, so proudly remembered. On the other side of the wall, a stone’s throw away, lies a community shrine remembering the burning of Bombay St. I’m ashamed to admit, it was the first time I’d heard of the event in 1969, which saw loyalists burn Catholics out of their homes. The subsequent clashes led to the deployment of the British army to Belfast, and the building of the wall that remains, higher than ever, today.
Eight people died during the burning of Bombay St, 750 were injured and more than 2,000 Catholics were left homeless. Standing in that tiny memorial garden, surrounded by the names of civilians killed in their communities, it’s not difficult to understand why people reacted like they did. And indeed walking around West Belfast in general, it is very easy to understand why the IRA flourished — the people felt they had no other support or protection.
It was always easy for us in our largely middle-class trouble-free 26 counties to tut tut at what went on during the Troubles, but if the British army had set up in Galway, Cork, Athlone; if people were burnt out of their homes, do we not think the population in those areas would have responded in a similar fashion? I will freely admit that it felt good to stand with the people of West Belfast on Easter Sunday — and to honour their dead.
That doesn’t mean condoning the bloodshed, but acknowledging it, and the reasons why it happened, not least because a civilian population stood up to discrimination they faced and were met with the might of the British Empire.
If it’s OK to stand in commemoration of the men and women of 1916, and the armed struggle they stood for, why is it wrong to do the same for those who fought in the Troubles? Or course no one condones terrorism, but we have to consider what that term means in an Irish context.
It’s likely that calling Bobby Sands a terrorist is not something that would sit easy with most Irish people. If we don’t call Sands a terrorist, then can we call the rest of the people, who fought in what they considered a war, one?
Speaking to ordinary Irish people in Belfast over the weekend, what came across strongly was the feeling of being abandoned by the Republic, not just in the worst of times — but all of the time. They are a proudly Irish people, with a strong affinity for their Irishness: the GAA, Irish language, culture and music. They look South to us, whereas we — who pride ourselves on building connections with diaspora all over the world — rarely look North to them.
One man put it bluntly: “I live in an occupied land.” At first I dismissed what he said as an old-school Republican stance. But as the weekend wore on, the statement niggled at me, not least as I stood on Antrim’s stunning coastline, at the Giant’s Causeway, listening to legends of Finn McCool, a very Irish hero. I felt like I was in Ireland — I was on the island of Ireland, but not in Ireland, of course.
THE whole experience made me realise that yes, I would like to see a united Ireland, achieved by peaceful and democratic means, as set out in the Belfast Agreement.
Does that make me a republican? Some sort of extremist? I don’t think so. And if it does, then why? It should not be so.
Apart from Sinn Féin, (I am not a member) Irish political parties do not entertain the notion of a united Ireland.
Is it because we’ve so blatantly abandoned our Irish population in the North that we cannot bear to face up to it? Or really, is it because we don’t consider the North can be truly Irish anymore, and it would simply be too much work to undo partition?
Of course, any move towards Irish unity would have to include the Orange vote, and that’s where the greatest stumbling block lies. But we too, the Republic, through our apathy, and lack of real understanding about the horrors that Irish people in the North faced, are a stumbling block.
As we wave our tricolours proudly in honour of 1916, that feels very wrong.
It is unusual to see such solidarity, understanding or even acknowledgement of the northern experience or condition ever expressed in the southern mainstream media.
For some reason, the piece reminded me of back in the pre-Good Friday Agreement early-to-mid-1990s when we would have family gatherings with my mother’s side of family down the country. The adults’ table – usually all southerners (consisting of my maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles) except for my father – would be discussing various current affairs and global problems. This would go on over drinks long into the wee small hours, as is the way at such get-togethers.
My father, however, would be getting exasperated by the apparent hyperopia of the others; why weren’t they focusing the optics of their social consciences onto what was happening under their noses, right on their doorstep? That which they could maybe do something about.
He would respectfully take them to task over the fact that they would talk about and condemn horrible things going on around the world but had much lesser interest discussing what was happening to their fellow Irish men and women just two or three hours up the road and across the border. Expressions of sympathy and empathy beyond the superficial were scarce. They didn’t get it. I don’t think they wanted to get it.
Such exchanges were a microcosmic representation of the stark contrast in outlooks and experiences of Irish northerners and southerners despite their shared nationality.
My father would tell them of the intimidation and harassment of the nationalist community, of the British state’s collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and of the British army’s shoot-to-kill policy; he interacted with people and families directly or indirectly affected by all of these through his work in Strabane on a frequent basis.
As briefly mentioned earlier in this article, his own cousin, Patrick Shanaghan – an electoral worker for Sinn Féin from Aghyaran outside Castlederg – was an innocent victim of suspected collusion between British state forces and the UDA/UFF in 1991. The Castlederg/Aghyaran Justice Group and Committee on the Administration for Justice are still pursuing the long fight against the British government for truth, justice and closure in the case as the UK remains in flagrant violation of its European Convention on Human Rights article-2 right-to-life obligations.
Article 2 obliges the UK to conduct a proper, effective and transparent independent investigation into the killing and other killings either by the state or in which the state is alleged to have colluded with others, as was outlined in 2001 by the European Court of Human Rights after the case went to Strasbourg. A proper independent investigation has been promised by the state but not yet delivered. Indeed, nearly 25 years on from the shooting, there is little sign of it being delivered upon either.
My father’s southern in-laws would evade his complaints and appeals; they had little interest and such discussion made them uncomfortable. Maybe they felt it brought the tone down too much. Maybe it was too close to home. Maybe they felt guilty, or like it was a nuisance. Acknowledging issues around the world is one thing; you can talk about them and all you might feel is a social or moral obligation to shake your head in disgust. That suffices. It’s easy. Often, that’s all you can do.
However, once you start acknowledging issues on your doorstep, it’s harder to just shake your head in disgust and then do nothing further. If that’s the course of action you take, you become a hypocrite. How can you shake your head at something you could maybe do something about, but then do nothing about it?
Maybe that’s why southerners have always shied away from the north. Acknowledging it might have resulted in a sense of moral compulsion for concern and engagement beyond mere lip-service.
To be clear, I’m not condemning or judging my relatives either. They’re family and good people; not uncaring monsters. People have their own lives to live, after all, but the reluctance to engage did demonstrate the stark divergence of focus between Irish nationals in the south and Irish nationals in the north. I think uncertainty as to how to approach the matter perhaps posed difficulty as, after all, they didn’t live it like my father did.
Unfortunately, when experiences of the nationalist community are articulated to certain other southerners – especially those of a partitionist persuasion – this absence of experience leads them to jump to the other extreme of hesitancy and into the realm of bellicose anti-empathy.
Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty’s insensitive comments before the recent general election in the south were a perfect example of this phenomenon. She blindly and sanctimoniously assumed that the suffering of the nationalist community and republicans was “all brought on by [their] own actions”, as if nationalist trouble-making was the primary source or cause of the conflict.
Perhaps such hostile reactions amount to victim-blaming as a means of deflecting from repressed southern feelings of semi-responsibility, failure (to create a 32-county republic) or guilt (over partition and the abandonment or marooning of northerners on the other side of the border).
Jennifer Hough’s piece moved me because it reassured us – northerners – that our fellow non-republican nationals down south – on the outside, or maybe it’s vice-versa and they who are on the inside – are capable of listening and empathising instead of just dismissing articulations of the northern nationalist experience as “republican propaganda”. The term “republican” and even the incredibly moderate “nationalist” are almost traduced terms in the south now.
Reading the piece was validating; a validation of the Irish identity and aspirations of northern nationalists. It felt like an expression of solidarity rather than the usual ignorance or abandonment northerners have come to expect. She got what so many other southerners can’t even begin to imagine or accept. Northerners are just as Irish as anyone else on the island.
Exceptionally disappointing it was then that, on the same day as Hough’s piece had been published, the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins opted out of attending a city council dinner in Belfast to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising – the foundational event of the proclaimed Irish Republic and a pivotal point in the Irish nationalist and republican historical narrative – due to the fact that the Democratic Unionist Party unsurprisingly went back on a prior all-party agreement to attend.
The decision by the largest unionist party in the north to remain absent meant the president felt the event no longer possessed the appropriate and uncontroversial cross-community character required to enable his attendance. Of course, it was his choice to opt out, but the question must be asked: why ought northern nationalists and republicans have been punished by their president when it was unionists who reneged on a promise?