‘I’m not British, I’m Britirish’

A Northern writer’s view on Brexit, borders and bars

Rosemary Jenkinson | IRISH TIMES

Brexit is manna from heaven to a satirical writer and I’ve had great fun with it in plays like Michelle and Arlene. On the serious side though, it’s thrown up huge uncertainty over the future of the Irish Border.

I grew up a Protestant in Belfast with my mum, dad and brother, but we often travelled across the border. We spent summers with my cousins on Achill Island as my Aunt Moira was a Southern Irish Catholic and loved it there. Once, when we went on holiday to Brittany, we were asked by a Breton where we were from. I expected Dad to say Northern Ireland, but he said Ireland instead which met with delight. It was at that moment I understood that leaving the “Northern” out could be socially advantageous.

It was only when I went to England in 1986 that I realised the depths of negativity the Troubles had engendered. At my interview for Durham University, the tutor said condescendingly that he found our religious war in Northern Ireland very “medieval” (funnily enough I was applying to study Medieval Literature). Now, you find the same term applied to Isis. I don’t think there’s anything medieval about a religious war. If you have two sizeable opposing religions in a country, it’s surely reasonable to expect some sort of struggle for power.

Britain genuinely aspires to keeping the union, but finds its colonial past shameful, so doesn’t want to know too much about us

In Durham, there used to be a pub with a jingoistic landlord who was infamous for refusing to serve Irish people. I went with my friends one night, insisting I’d be fine as I was Northern Irish but, when it was my turn to buy a round, the landlord refused me. I asked him why and he just shook his head and embarrassingly wouldn’t let my friends buy me a drink either.

‘Forget the past’

Seven years later, when I was training to be an English teacher at Keele University, we all had to attend an equal opportunities course that focused on ethnic backgrounds. The woman who ran it was an Indian Sikh and she went around the class asking each of us our identities. When she reached me I told her I was an Ulster Prod. “I’ve never heard of one of those!” she exclaimed, completely baffled. If a so-called identity expert didn’t even know we existed, it made me realise that to the English we were all Irish.

I think that Britain genuinely aspires to keeping the union, but finds its colonial past shameful, so doesn’t want to know too much about us. I was invited to a playwriting symposium on Brexit in London last September where I talked of the worries I had about a hard Irish border. Overall, it was difficult to connect with the English audience. They were much more interested in vague generalisations about “internationalism” in theatre.

The Irish Border is of course mirrored by scores of mini-borders. A few weeks ago, I was doing research at a homeless centre in north Belfast. There was a metal interface gate outside. Emblazoned across the gate in giant graffiti were the words, “Irish forget the past”. Under it was daubed, “Da war isn’t over yet”.

A Catholic doppelganger

I’ve learnt through life that in many ways it’s best to be protean and shapeshifting. In that way, I can hang out at a loyalist bonfire or I can go to an Irish language play in the Culturlann – I can be in two countries in one day if I choose. It’s almost as if I have a Catholic doppelganger! The thing is, I’m not British; I’m Britirish. I have a silver Fáinne in Irish that I got in 2003, but I was too busy to keep it up, otherwise maybe I could have given Linda Ervine a run for her money! I also have an Irish passport as well as my British one.

Initially, I decided to have my name in Irish on my Irish passport, as I wanted an alias for writing, but I never got round to using it. It’s liberating to think I can be Ros Maire Nic Sheinicin tomorrow if I choose – Sheinicin is pronounced a bit like Heineken so it definitely suits me!

Tony looked at me curiously and said, ‘But the head on ye’s Irish’

I don’t ever want to return to more divisive times. In 2000, I was teaching English in Warsaw when I found an Irish bar, owned by a larger than life character called Tony. He was extremely proud of being ex-IRA and on the run. As soon as he asked me where I was from I lied. I said I was from the Scottish borders because I was paranoid about being barred as I had been all those years before in Durham. Irish bars are a lifeline abroad and I couldn’t afford to lose it.

Tony looked at me curiously and said, “But the head on ye’s Irish,” which made me laugh, and we became friends. However, some months later another teacher blurted out that I was lying and I was a Northern Irish Protestant. I felt like sinking through the floor. So, what did Tony do? He completely ignored it and we carried on as before.

It’s the way we’ve been rubbing along peaceably in Northern Ireland for the past 20 years, by largely ignoring our political differences. We could go on ignoring them, but, with Brexit and the border in question, it’s becoming harder and the rhetoric is rising and boots are scuffing up to the tribal lines. All I can hope is, it’s only temporary.

Source: ‘I’m not British, I’m Britirish’

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new short story collection, Catholic Boy, is published by Doire Press with ACNI support.

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