‘Three years ago I would have confidently pronounced myself British, yet I’d also have considered myself an Irish writer. I wouldn’t have thought these statements were necessarily contradictory.’ Jan Carson reflects on being Northern Irish in the age of Brexit.
In February, my Irish passport finally arrived. I opened it, read my name and beneath it, my nationality, or rather náisiúntacht. I was an Irish citizen now. I sat down on the stairs and cried. I hadn’t anticipated such an extreme emotional reaction. I have been trying to understand my response ever since.
I’m the first person in my immediate family to acquire an Irish passport. I was raised Protestant in rural North Antrim, born into a conservative, Presbyterian family at the height of the Troubles. My grandfather was an Orangeman. My grandmother kept her tea leaves in a caddy with the Queen on the front. She referred to anything South of Newry as the Free State; a dangerous place to venture with Northern Irish registration plates on your car. We did occasionally travel South; my uncle was a Protestant missionary in Cavan. However, as children, we spent more time visiting English seaside resorts. Back then I already knew I was British not Irish; I referred to England as the Mainland. I’d no idea others might find this problematic. Looking back now, I can see how, entitled as we felt to be British, we were different from the people we met in England. Our accents often proved incomprehensible, shopkeepers refused to believe our locally-printed bank notes were legal tender and in certain places, there was a wariness of the Northern Irish, an underlying suspicion I was too young to understand.
Before the Brexit referendum I’d never felt the need for anything but a British passport. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement ushered in a period of Northern Irish history where, for the first time in my living memory, it felt acceptable, for a Northern Irish person, to claim a multiplicity of identities.
Three years ago I would have confidently pronounced myself British, yet I’d also have considered myself an Irish writer, part of a rich tradition of artists who’ve lived and worked on this island. I wouldn’t have thought these statements were necessarily contradictory.
The Belfast-born poet, John Hewitt summarised this sense of multiple, co-existing identities, decades before the Good Friday Agreement, “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and, so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.” Most residents of Northern Ireland are familiar with the notion of identity as fluid and complex. As a writer, it’s one of the aspects of our culture I find most fascinating. A great deal of my writing wrestles with belonging and identity.
For me, Brexit threatens my freedom to construct my own complex sense of who I am. A renewed emphasis on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland scares me. If the border is no longer fluid, will we lose the concept of liminal space, where identity can be constructed and adapted to fit the individual? Will we have to choose which side we belong on? I acquired my Irish passport for practical reasons. I wanted to remain a European citizen and continue working in Mainland Europe. I hoped to be able to skip the non-EU line at passport control.
It wasn’t until my first time approaching an airport check-in desk – both passports in hand – that I realised I’d be deciding which side I belonged to every time I used a passport.
The last few years have given me ample opportunity to consider this question. Whilst I still feel a strong affinity to the Scottish people from whom I’m descended and I’ve felt a natural and immediate bond with most Northerners, increasingly I’ve begun to feel alienated from my own long held ideas of Britishness. I’m beginning to realise these notions were more grounded in English identity than any kind of nuanced understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole. I’ve slowly become more sensitive to how Northern Irish people are viewed by many people living in England, a huge proportion of whom have never visited the North of Ireland.
I’m frustrated by the rhetoric coming out of Westminster; politicians who do not take the time to properly research the complex needs of my country and seem to consider us less of an asset than an ongoing headache. I’m annoyed by the portrayal of the Northern Irish in the press; the mistaken assumption that the DUP accurately reflects the majority opinion here. I don’t think I can bear to read another anthology or article which claims to reflect the voices of British Writers and yet contains no work by Northern Irish writers; and don’t even get me started on the Northern Irish stereotypes portrayed by most British television programmes. A cross section of these characters would suggest most of us are terrorists, alcoholics or, at the very least, permanently pissed off. I might sound a little whingey, but when your country’s been part of the UK for almost a century and you still can’t spend an Ulster Bank tenner anywhere South of Newcastle, you have to question whether you’re actually wanted or not.
Recently, when it comes to British identity, I’ve felt like the kid who’s initially delighted to be invited to a classmate’s part only to discover the birthday girl’s mother has forced her to invite everybody in the class, even the children they don’t like.
Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. It’s just that during the last decade, I’ve had the absolute opposite experience with Ireland. I’ve been consistently made to feel extremely welcome within the Irish arts community, included in festivals, journals and anthologies, positively championed as an Irish writer throughout the world, supported financially and most importantly, ushered into a community of warm support and creative collaboration with my colleagues in the South. It’s difficult to say this and I fully acknowledge that many people within Ireland and the UK would question my right as a Northern Irish Protestant of Scottish descent, to claim any sort of Irish identity. I’ve been through an absolute revolution in my thinking about national identity over the last two years and if I’m honest I feel more affinity with the Irish writing community than I’ve ever felt with British writers (a few notable exceptions withstanding). I now feel as much at home in the South of Ireland as I do in the North.
These are confusing times and my thoughts on nationality and identity are constantly changing. For now, I’ll continue to be both Irish and British. I’ll write Northern Irish on any form which asks me to state my nationality, hoping this allows a certain amount of ambiguity. I’ve not yet used my Irish passport. I’ve chickened out twice at the check-in desk. It’s a big decision for me. The first time I travel as an Irish citizen I’ll be putting a little more distance between myself and the culture I was born into. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it feels momentous right now. It’s been a surprisingly emotional journey.
Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, was published in 2014 to critical acclaim, followed by a short story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and a flash fiction anthology, Postcard Stories (2017). Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 and 4. In 2016 she won the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition and was shortlisted for the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize. She specializes in running arts projects and events with older people, especially those living with dementia. Her second novel, The Fire Starters, is out now.