Sitting down to write this post, my laptop is telling me it’s 21:06 on Saturday 17 March. As someone who spent the first half of his childhood in Belfast and identifies as Irish, by rights I should be out celebrating St Patrick’s Day with a Guinness or three, possibly wearing an oversized comedy green hat. But sadly, I’m not that straightforward. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to explain why.
Too long in exile
I moved away from Belfast in 1992 when I was nine years old with my Mum and Dad and two sisters. We moved to England so that my Dad could take up a promotion after successfully completing a training programme.
We moved to Ashford in Kent, a market town approximately an hour and a half from London but a world away from Troubles-era Belfast.
At the time, Ashford’s chief claim to fame was that it was shortly to become a staging post for the Eurotunnel high-speed rail link. Nowadays, Ashford is a large commuter town best known for producing The Last Leg’s Alex Brooker (who incidentally attended the same secondary school as me).
Growing up Irish in 1990s Kent didn’t do wonders for my sense of self. This was before the Good Friday Agreement. My strong Belfast accent was met with puzzlement at best but more often prejudice and active hostility, especially after IRA activity in England.
As I got older and moved onto secondary school, my accent gradually started to fade but I still had a tough time for being Irish. I found myself in a boys’ grammar school where people did their best to fit in. I still vividly remember on my first day a classmate pushing me on the stairs and using the word Irish as part of a swearword combo which I won’t repeat here.
As my teenage years rolled on, I did what most slightly awkward teenage boys did and retreated to my happy place of videogames and comics. At school, I made friends with other people who weren’t part of the grammar school clique. Even though things improved, however, I was still conscious of my difference and at some level, consciously or not, made an effort to downplay my Irishness and just fit in.
Away from school, I found I could be more comfortable about my Irish identity and keep some connection to my earlier life in Belfast. In the main, this connection revolved around eating Ulster fries on Saturdays, going to mass every Sunday and the occasional trip to Belfast for a wedding, funeral or family holiday.
Looking back some twenty-odd years later, I’m struck by how my family probably instilled in me more of a Northern Irish nationalist/republican identity than the kind of Irish identity you see represented every St Patrick’s Day. I’ll try to explain what that means.
You could say my Irish identity is more strongly rooted in opposition to British/English/Unionist/Loyalist culture than it is an embrace of all things Irish. For example, to this day, I still experience mild feelings of fear and anxiety when I see Union Jack or St George flags. This is rooted in negative childhood experiences of being shouted at and chased by youths in Unionist/Loyalist areas of Belfast, where these flags are flown or painted on kerb stones. These feelings were then compounded by hearing about the negative experiences of my parents and families members, not to mention learning about the bloody history of Ireland.
All of these experiences have made me uneasy about flags and nationalism in general. As a result of this, I find it difficult to embrace the Irish tricolour or throw on a Republican of Ireland football shirt every few years like some of friends of Irish extraction do.
Growing up I felt clear on what I didn’t like about British culture but less clear on what parts of Irish culture were for me. For example, to this today I associate the Edinburgh Tattoo with the soft power element of British militarism and harbour an arguably unhealthy suspicion towards bagpipes and kilts.
On the Irish side, however, my feelings are less well-defined. Through my parents I developed a lifelong love of Van Morrison, but even that was somewhat complicated, on account of his East Belfast background.
Unlike some of my cousins, who were given hard-to-pronounce Irish names and exposed to Irish folk music and poetry, I distinctly remember my Dad referring to traditional Irish music as ‘deedley dee’ music. With the exception of The Dubliners and Paddy Reily’s emotional rendition of The Fields of Athenry ballad, I never really felt an authentic connection to Irish culture.
Forging my own identity
As the years have rolled on, I like to think I’ve become better at accepting that my identity doesn’t fit neatly into the popular image of Irishness associated with St Patrick’s Day. I’ve worked on challenging some of negative associations with British culture, recognising that it’s quite hard work for me and everyone around me to not see the positives in shared experiences.
Since moving to Birmingham in 2012, I’ve also come to realise that my negative experiences of moving from Northern Ireland to Kent were not necessarily representative of England as a whole. One of the things I love about living in Birmingham is the number of people I know who are Irish or are of Irish descent. When I tell people I’m originally from Belfast, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. Moving to Birmingham has definitely made me more comfortable about my Irishness and has made me wonder what life might have been like had we moved here rather than Kent back in 1992.
While on St Patrick’s Day I sometimes wish I could embrace a more straightforward version of Irishness, I’m becoming more accepting of my experiences and outlook on life. For better and worse, Northern Ireland has shaped me and I draw inspiration from the pre-Troubles civil rights movement and, further back, the struggle for independence from the British. Without these experiences growing up, I doubt I would have become active in Labour politics and feel so strongly about working to create a socialist future where everyone is accepted and able to fulfil their full potential.
“Guinness” by Nico Kaiser
Licensed under CC-BY 2.0