When you come from Northern Ireland, identity issues abroad are common. I grew up on the island of Ireland, but where I grew up was indelibly culturally British. Belfast is not a big city on the world scale, but separated by a few short miles you have completely differing cultural spheres. On my street, cricket and touch rugby were played every night throughout the summer. A stone’s throw across the city, children in West Belfast pucked a sliotar about. We tuned into CBBC, they watched Dustin on the Den. We sang God Save the Queen at school prize days, they rose for Amhrán na bhFiann at Antrim GAA games. We lived in opposing bubbles on the same island, ultimately largely ignorant of eachother.
I left Belfast when I was 18, to go to Trinity and Dublin. Before this, I would have considered myself solely British, because this was all I knew. Irish culture was foreign to me, simply because I had never experienced it on any deep level. In Dublin, I was able to make friends from all over Northern Ireland, from the Bogside in Derry and Andersontown. It was obvious with all of these friendships that they never would have happened if we had stayed together in Northern Ireland. The bigotry and segregation was never obvious or stated in my experience at home, we were simply raised in parallel worlds separately. It would have been difficult to relate. It took the equalising experience of being new in Dublin and university to find common ground beyond our childhood experiences.
I found myself on a conveyor belt of sorts. From university in Dublin onto an advertising graduate scheme in London. I immediately felt at home in London, culturally after all it was what I had grown up with. However, for the first time, I understood on a very slim level the ignorance that Irish people have had to field abroad. Jokes were sometimes made at work about bombings and terrorism, never realising in their innocence that everyone in Northern Ireland is affected by a killing in the Troubles on some level. In many ways, I had to go to London, to find and accept that Ireland and being Irish was part of my life, regardless of how I had grown up.
I sit alone in Sydney now years later. There will always be a part of me that is from Belfast. I adore the city and its people. I haven’t lived there for nearly ten years, but it is still my home. I was brought up surrounded in a British sphere, but now love to visit every side of the city, comfortable in my ability to do so having made those connections in Dublin. I can’t hide from my British background, nor do I want to. But equally, I can now comfortably embrace my Irishness. Being abroad, I am comfortable with being Northern Irish. To me, it captures my hybrid identity perfectly. Raised on the beautiful island of Ireland in a British context. Sometimes you have to travel far away to realise where you are really truly from.