On being Northern Irish

I come from the town of Carrickfergus, on the shores of Belfast Lough. You may know the old folksong, “I wish I was in Carrickfergus”; well, that’s my home town. For most of my teens, admittedly, I wished I wasn’t in Carrickfergus. It has its good sides: you can go for long walks along the sea front with the sunlight reflected off the waves and look out towards, well, towards some other equally uninteresting town on the other side of the Lough. It has a beautiful church and an astonishing castle. There are some fantastic hills to climb if you go a bit further inland. The poet Louis MacNeice grew up there. But if you’re interested in music you’ll probably decide to leave one day: that’s what I did.

In the course of my “professional life” as a musicologist (strangely, whenever anybody asks me what I do I keep wanting to say I’m unemployed) I’ve never met anybody else from Carrickfergus. The career path I chose was, in statistical terms at least, extremely atypical for someone from my town. (There were no professional musicians in my family, and my brother became a computer scientist.) Yet in retrospect it makes a sort of sense.

To begin with, let’s look at the first difficulty one encounters in the wider world given my particular background: the fact of being Northern Irish.

When people ask me where I’m from I say I’m from Northern Ireland (because hardly anybody has heard of Carrickfergus). When they ask me what nationality I am, I say I’m Northern Irish. The first of these answers tends to be accepted but not the second. People reasonably object that “Northern Irish” is not a nationality, and then generally ask me if I think of myself as Irish or British. For me this question does not have a satisfactory answer; sort of both and sort of neither. I think of myself as Northern Irish, and wouldn’t particularly choose to be anything else, notwithstanding the fact that my people, the Ulster Protestants, have an unenviable reputation as bigoted, narrow-minded warmongers (a reputation, I might add, that is neither wholly justified nor wholly unjustified). People I meet on my travels are delighted when I say I’m from Ireland, but when they discover I’m from the north not the south, Protestant rather than Catholic, and from near Belfast, not Dublin, their smiles vanish. Some people have even said to me, “Oh, you’re not the real Irish, then”. What should one say to this? My family has been in Ireland for 300 years or more; how long is it supposed to take? And what is meant by “the real Irish” anyway, in a land that has been raped and pillaged for centuries?

The complexities of the Irish question, in terms of history and of political and cultural allegiance, are manifold. These complexities have touched my life in various ways. Consider a few facts:

  • My father was born in February 1920 in Ballycarry, in Co. Antrim, in a country that was then called Ireland. My mother was born in April 1922 in Belfast, about sixteen miles away, but in a country which now called itself Northern Ireland — the result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that had been signed in London the previous December, partitioning Ireland into a large mass of twenty-six counties (the “Irish Free State”) and a smaller group of six counties (“Northern Ireland”). The smaller group was, and remains, tied to British government, and the larger group independent of it.
  • Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but is not part of Great Britain, hence the oddness of the adjective “British” as applied to the Northern Irish. (My passport is of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.) Quite a few Northern Irish still refer to Great Britain as “the mainland”, incidentally, by which they mean the island that comprises Scotland, England, and Wales.
  • The reason I initially had a British passport rather than an Irish one is that this is the custom amongst Protestant families and some Catholic families in Northern Ireland. I never really thought in terms of its implied allegiance to the British government (rather than the Irish government) until much later. Then I applied for an Irish passport, to which all persons born on the island of Ireland are entitled.
  • The Irish Free State, formed as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921, changed its name to Eire in 1937, then changed it again to the Republic of Ireland in 1949. Quite a lot of Northern Irish people, however, call it Southern Ireland, which makes a certain sense, but this name has no official status.
  • I mention this latter fact partly in order to point out that the most northerly point of the island of Ireland, Malin Head in Co. Donegal, is actually part of the twenty-six counties that constitute Southern Ireland.
  • As well as being divided into two unequal parts (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), Ireland is also and simultaneously divided into four provinces — Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht, which are respectively in the north, south, east and west and are roughly equal in size. “Ulster” is occasionally used interchangeably with “Northern Ireland” but this isn’t accurate: the province of Ulster contains the six counties of Northern Ireland (Londonderry, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone) plus three more over the border in the Republic of Ireland (Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan). I am therefore an Ulsterman, though I rarely describe myself in these terms.
  • I do not speak Irish, unfortunately; Irish is not taught in the majority of schools in Northern Ireland. Growing up, I didn’t know anybody who spoke Irish. Similarly, Irish traditional music was not played in my home, nor was it played in the homes of any of my friends (with an occasional exception for the more commercial end of the spectrum, bands like Horslips or The Bothy Band). We had a Catholic neighbour, however, who was a traditional fiddler. I vividly remember hearing the sound of his fiddle in the dark winter evenings as I walked home, though I never saw him play.
  • In my later teenage years the only difference between Catholics and Protestants that mattered to me was that Catholics played music, danced, and the girls would flirt like mad with you if you tried hard enough; Protestants watched television, didn’t drink (or were aggressively defensive about it if they did), and the girls never, ever even talked about sex.

I was eight years old in the summer of 1969 when The Troubles broke out in Belfast. These “troubles”, of course, were not a new thing, merely the latest manifestation of deep divisions in Ireland that have a history spanning centuries. The summer of 1922, for example, just after my mother was born, and just after the Treaty that reconfigured Ireland was signed (supposedly in order to bring peace and law and order to the place) saw horrific rioting and bloodshed in Belfast. Even though we lived ten miles north up the coast, in trouble-free Carrick, everybody in Northern Ireland was affected in some way or other by The Troubles, whether they realised or acknowledged it or not. My father worked even further up the coast, in Larne. I remember him saying to my mother when I was very young that we should steer clear of Belfast while these Troubles were going on. At that time he had no idea how long they would last; nobody did.

Let’s get one thing sorted out before we go any further: growing up in Belfast (or, in my case, near Belfast) in the mid-1970s, my early teenage years, was utterly, utterly, shite. I’m always bemused when I read “revisionist” descriptions of Belfast of that era that try to persuade you that, despite the jeeps and armoured cars, the security checks and the bombed-out shop fronts, life was actually really great and there was a thriving underground culture beneath all the surface turmoil. I remember Belfast in the mid-70s as a desolate, frightening place, very different from the Belfast of today. (In the first twenty-five years of The Troubles, between 1969 and 1994, 3188 people were killed in Northern Ireland, more than two-thirds of them civilians.)

Nonetheless, for me there was one particular institution that showed a different face of my homeland: the Ulster Orchestra. From about the age of eleven onwards my father and my uncle used to take me to concerts at the Ulster Hall on Friday evenings. (The orchestra even played in Carrickfergus the first year I started attending their concerts, 1972: the programme included Liszt’s A major piano concerto with John Ogden.) It says much of the spirit of the men and women who played in the orchestra that they kept a varied and interesting concert series going through all the worst years of The Troubles. It was thanks to them that I nurtured my love of music. These people, both the musicians and the administrators, are heroes. I have such fond memories of those concerts, and the little typewritten programme booklets with their purple covers.

My distinguished countryman Seamus Heaney has written (in “Frontiers of Writing” from The Redress of Poetry) of the need for the Northern Irish to develop “two-mindedness”, the ability to accept both the British dimension and the Irish element in the land they live in. His comment is spot-on and, in a certain sense, heart-breaking. As a teenager in Northern Ireland I was submerged in a world of endless binary oppositions that constantly chipped away at any hope of unity or integration. You were either Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Loyalist, for Pope or for Paisley. The idea that you could be neither simply didn’t enter into the picture. (There’s the joke about the student who gets stopped in Belfast by a Shankill Road skinhead and asked if he’s Protestant or Catholic; he says he’s an atheist, to which the skinhead replies “but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”) I couldn’t relate to either side. The Loyalists claimed to be loyal to the Queen of England, but by 1977 or ’78 punk was the new thing, and my friends and I didn’t take official Englishdom terribly seriously, any more than the majority of my English contemporaries did; so the paramilitary movements that pledged allegiance to her — the UDA, the UVF, and the others — were to me a bunch of confused, murderous bastards. The image of the Republicans was just as bad, with the hypocritical pretence that the political wing of Republicanism, Sinn Fein, had nothing to do with the Provisional IRA and their atrocities.

In my later teens I became vaguely aware that there were other people in Northern Ireland who felt the way I did. There was an anarchist bookshop near the old Smithfield Market in Belfast where I used to browse (timidly, and never for very long at a time). By 1981 or so there was Zero, a wholefood restaurant beside what is now the Fenderesky Gallery at the bottom of University Road, where young people with purple hair read books on philosophy and discussed what they were eating. For a teenager from Carrickfergus these were glimpses of hidden worlds and I wanted to live in them. My attitude to life in general at that point can’t be expressed much better than Stiff Little Fingers did in their song “Alternative Ulster”, released in 1979:

Is this the kind of place you wanna live? / Is this where you wanna be?
Is this the only life we’re gonna have? / What we need is
An Alternative Ulster / Grab it and change it it’s yours
Get an Alternative Ulster / Ignore the bores and their laws
Get an Alternative Ulster / Be an anti-security force
Alter your native Ulster / Alter your native land

Probably you have to have grown up in Northern Ireland to feel just how potent this song is, but it’s always been something like my personal inner mantra. Quite apart from the thumping energy of the music and Jake Burns’s fantastic vocalising, there are a couple of great Northern Irish things in these lines: first, the way he makes “Alter your native” in the penultimate line a strange half-cousin to “Alternative”; and second, in a country that talked continually about the “security forces”, he turns the concept on its head and urges young people to be an “anti-security force”, a force for change — “anti-”, that is, the “security” of doctrinaire ideological positions. In other words: get off your arse, think for yourself and do something with your life.

My own way of altering things, albeit purely within myself at first, was through music. In looking for a different perspective, a “third way”, a map of the territory of life that wasn’t only in black and white (or orange and green), I found great inspiration in American “experimental” musicians like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and, especially, Harry Partch. They had fearlessly challenged and, especially in Partch’s case, rethought the whole basis of music. Partch is a powerful example of not having to accept the life you inherit if you don’t want to. My knowledge of their work, I should add, came from within Northern Ireland (mostly through the Carrickfergus and Belfast Public Libraries): the materials for my own private rebellion were right there in the very place in which I grew up.

What does it mean to me now, being Northern Irish? It means looking at the world from an odd perspective, from the periphery; not being at the centre of things. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It means feeling part of a young culture that is still developing (in fact I feel that way about Ireland as a whole, strange though it may sound given the long history of the place). For me there is an odd sort of optimism in being marginalised or not being taken completely seriously. There are typically Northern Irish things I’ve tried to get rid of in myself and others I’ve fought to keep. Recently I’ve brought Ireland, both the North and the Republic, closer to my professional life by writing articles for the Journal of Music in Ireland on living Irish composers, and by commissioning works from young Irish composers for my ensemble Trio Scordatura. In a way that would take a while to explain, this project is both a passion and an apology, a way of feeling at home in my own life.