I’m going to the north of Ireland on holiday quite soon, so I’m tuned in to stories about Irishness at the moment. The writer Nick Laird was complaining about the way he had been classified by his publisher, as an Irish poet (the Heaney effect?) but a British novelist:
On forms, under nationality I write Irish/British, though I’d be happier with Ulsterman, since Ulster itself (incorporating Northern Ireland and the Irish counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) is a province administrated by both Dublin and London. The poet John Hewitt put his own position thus: “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.”
It gets more complex. Later in the same article Laird explains how he evades the certainties which Americans try to pin on him by establishing his religion – by drowning them in the detail of family history:
In America, where I live at the minute, you’re Irish, but when you qualify that you’re from Northern Ireland, you get the little glimmer of (mis)understanding. Then they say, pleased with themselves: “So are you Protestant or Catholic?” Cathestant or Protholic? … I hate this question, as the interlocutor thinks the answer will explain everything about you, about whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor. I bamboozle them with detail. My mum was raised Covenantor in Armagh and my father Church of Ireland in Donegal – part of the republic but in Ulster. My mum’s family’s originally from Cork (where, as Protestants in the 1920s, they were burnt out and fled north). They glaze, and change the subject. But why should the situation not be complicated?
I come from England, as does most of my family, albeit from one of those peripheral regions far enough from London to have an identity of its own. But some of my family detail would be complicated, too, for despite the trite conventional wisdom (that in the olden days everyone grew up and died in the same village) in the past people moved around far more than we imagine. It should be complicated, for our histories and identity lie inside that complexity.