Walking the streets of downtown Belfast, I was on higher alert than I would have been at home in Los Angeles, even on higher alert than in the neighborhoods surrounding Stanford’s campus in Paris, where I’d been just the day before.
On the surface, Belfast felt like a smaller sibling of London, but I was waiting for something to alert me of its violent history. After all, my mom was inches away from banning me from taking the one-hour flight from Paris to Belfast, and though she never said it aloud, I knew her fears involved the Irish Republican Army and the turmoil the Irish called “the Troubles.”
After decades of strife between Catholic Irish and the Protestant English who had been planted in the northern counties of Ireland during English occupation, Northern Ireland has taken on its own identity; not quite Irish, not quite English. It is also not quite the tourist destination that Dublin has become in recent decades, although that’s understandable when you know the island’s history.
The Republic of Ireland was welcomed into the European Union after it cut all ties with England in 1948, and the money the EU pumped into the country helped launch it out of poverty and into a popular tourist destination. Northern Ireland, however, was not as lucky, as a civil war known as the Troubles created constant disarray between the Catholic nationalists, who idealized a united Ireland, and Protestant loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Before this trip, I was embarrassingly ignorant of my ancestors’ home, but it’s nearly impossible to visit a new country without learning quite a bit. As I wandered the streets of a strangely isolated capital city, I found an identity that was uniquely Northern Irish, rather than a mix of the two cultures that had created it. The United Kingdom was known for its culture, for the icons and fashion that defined it with Union Jacks and cups of tea. Yet in Belfast, there was a dangerous edge to that sense of English style. I had been warned to not discuss politics with any locals; wearing a Union Jack pin or a Catholic Celtic cross was grounds for violence.
A month later, ironically, I found myself in Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland. I was directly facing the cultural differences I had only briefly come to know in Belfast. My godmother had put me in contact with our distant cousins who had grown up in the areas surrounding Dublin. She had even chosen to accompany me on this five-day visit. These Irish cousins insisted on touring my godmother and I around Dublin. When they asked if I had ever been to Ireland, I mentioned my trip to Belfast and watched them stutter. “Oh, so no, then,” they laughed cautiously.
Part of me knew it was the wrong thing to say, but another part of me felt oddly connected to Northern Ireland after my visit. When we ate breakfast, my godmother corrected me when I looked at the menu and asked for English breakfast tea instead of Irish breakfast tea, even though there was barely a difference between the two as far as I could tell. When we visited a music museum, I felt an odd tension when I mentioned that I preferred Freddie Mercury to Bono. When we stopped to admire a statue of the legendary Irish warrior CuChulainn, I felt disdain from my cousins. CuChulainn is a mythological warrior from Northern Ireland who, in recent decades, has been seen as a symbol of freedom from both sides of the conflict, ironically enough.
I could have talked my cousin’s and godmother’s ears off in the National Museum of Dublin as we looked over Celtic artifacts, yet I was uneducated enough to stupidly ask if Ireland was part of the British Commonwealth over dinner later that night. They chuckled at me with their throaty accents, wondering aloud how I could know so much about the nearly forgotten legend of CuChulainn yet knew so little about the modern Irish people.
However, I haven’t forgotten the Northern Irish since my time back in the United States. As the destructive Brexit decisions constantly shift and deadlock, I find myself thinking of the people who I met in Northern Ireland. There was the kind tour guide who had moved to Northern Ireland from Southern California, only 30 minutes from my hometown. My Uber driver from Belfast International Airport had told me about his childhood growing up in the Troubles, how a two-week trip to New York had opened his eyes and changed his life. As the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland comes into question again, I think of the stories of bombings and deaths in the name of unified Ireland that is so much further away now.
The border was the hotspot of violence, with extremist groups still simmering underground in the decades since the Good Friday Agreement. While it had become demilitarized since the Troubles came to a ceasefire three decades ago, now it will likely be reinforced as an entry point between the non-EU United Kingdom in Northern Ireland and the EU in the Republic of Ireland.
And even though my Dubliner cousins may disagree, I am choosing to be supportive of the entire island of Ireland without taking a solid position on the Unionist-Loyalist conflict. Reading the stories of CuChulainn, the Hercules of the Celts, gave me a sense of the Irish warrior spirit that kept the Irish people proud and stable through centuries of war, occupation and famine that eventually lead to mass emigration. Yet at the same time, visiting Dublin and meeting my distant cousins gave me a much stronger sense of my Irish-American identity, particularly as I had never known much about my mom’s family’s immigrant ancestry.
Both of my parents have Irish ancestry, my mom being almost entirely Irish while my dad is one-quarter Irish. He has always talked proudly about his Irish grandmother’s struggle to assimilate in her small town in West Virginia, and I had grown up hearing that story and thinking about it every St. Patrick’s Day. In Dublin, I had the chance to hear about my mom’s side with my godmother, my mom’s oldest sister. I also realized that my cousins had assumed that they were my only Irish connection.
“No,” I’d said. “My dad is Irish, too.”
They looked at me curiously. “What’s your surname?” they’d asked.
I answered them, but then added that my dad’s grandmother’s last name had been Donegan, and they balked again just like when I’d mentioned going to Belfast.
“That’s a Northern name,” they said.
Contact Catie Brown at catie97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.