Belfast: population approximately 300,000, home to the Titanic and an unusually high number of swimming pools and public libraries, a city where every cafe is a Clements.
I went to a girls’ school off the Lisburn Road. We wore petrol blue uniforms and the girls were a bit mad, rolling their skirts up as short as possible, waging a never-ending war over the height of heels allowed. Boys and men took on a mysterious air, life was spent preparing in case you met one, make up caked on and hair straighteners plugged in whenever the teachers weren’t looking. The young male teachers were hounded by gaggles of girls, something bordering on harassment; Valentine’s cards, hand gestures, poems written and names scrawled on ring binder folders. Quiet and bookish, I felt it was all terribly undignified. That and their dreadful Westlife mania.
My school was non-denominational in name, but Protestant in effect. I’m not sure there are any secular schools in Northern Ireland. The Catholic schools played hurling and camogie, went to mass and learned Irish. Maybe they even had some nuns on the staff. We played hockey and netball and as for Catholicism, Father Ted was my main source of information. The only Irish I know is from the bilingual road signs once you cross the border. While I recognise the names, I don’t know how to pronounce them.
We took part in cross-community initiatives. Projects with fancy names, funded by the European Union designed to bring young people together across divisions; divisions that I was removed from and didn’t fully understand. These mostly took place through the Music department; choirs and orchestras from Catholic and Protestant schools from both sides of the border came together to put on concerts. I still remember feeling embarrassed when the school from Ballymena played a double violin concerto in D by Bach and our orchestra played a medley of James Bond theme tunes.
In late June or early July, the curbstones in our area would be repainted blue, white and red for the 12th celebration and the murals touched up. The marching bands would start practicing, flutes and drums and pipes playing long into the light summer evenings. Our house echoed with the sound of the Lambeg drum. We had a nebulous understanding of it all and decided it was best to say nothing. It wasn’t unusual for violence associated with the 12th of July to make the English news. Where we lived was quiet but most years we would go away somewhere and visit friends, just in case.
Some years later, living in St Albans with a chino-wearing English boyfriend, pleased about being able to pretend to be middle class, I attended a garden party for the Queen’s diamond Jubilee. The strings of Union Jack bunting and waving flags had a very different feel to the ones that adorned Belfast every summer. There were scones and an elderly lady taught the children to play a tune on the handbells. I don’t remember the tune but it probably wasn’t The Sash.
I suppose I am from Belfast but people from Belfast don’t think I’m from Belfast. I have a funny accent, a weird mix of English and Irish, that people sometimes mistake for American. Growing up, people would ask where I was really from – I couldn’t say but I could give them a list of places. My dad is from the east end of London and my mother from Wigan. We lived in Dublin, then Wicklow, then county Fermanagh, then Belfast, where we stayed for a long time. I was horrified by the idea of actually claiming to be English or Irish. Like one of those awful Americans who says they are Italian because they had a grandmother who was born in Naples.
I don’t think I knew anyone else in Belfast who was a mixture of Irish and English, who decidedly didn’t fit into the category of Protestant or Catholic. Some of my school friends had never been to Dublin. Conversely, it wasn’t unusual for the Irish not to venture north of the border due a historical sense of trepidation. My friends from Dublin would visit every year, reminded to speak in soft tones by the mural that declared ‘Welcome to Loyalist Seymour Hill’. It was a modestly sized mural. We often took our visitors to see the bigger, more impressive and rather terrifying murals on the Falls and Shankill Roads.
I never quite got used to the accents or way of speaking in Belfast. Everything was ‘wee’, a word added to every noun for seemingly no reason. A woman once asked me if I had a ‘wee pound there now’ for a supermarket shopping trolley. Pedant that I am, I felt irked by this – pound coins only come in one size.
The complexity of Northern Ireland is somehow unbeknownst to the English. It’s all just ‘Ireland’ to them and they claim not to be able to tell the difference between Gerry Adams’ and Leo Varadkar’s accents. ‘Is he from the north or the south?’ they ask. Honestly.
The differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are perhaps best illustrated by crossing the border. Your phone changes network and you receive a text message notifying you of the roaming rates. For many years, these were extortionate and especially affected people in the border regions. It wasn’t unusual to make a phone call only to discover that walking from the kitchen to the living room meant you’d changed between Vodafone Ireland and Vodafone UK four times, resulting in an astronomical phone bill. The EU introduced legislation some years ago that meant this no longer happened. (Good thing we’re taking back control because I never liked the laws they made.)
The currency changes too. Not only do the English refuse to accept your legal tender but a trip two hours down the road necessitates a trip to the bank to buy foreign currency. The tax rates increase and the healthcare ceases to be free at the point of access but you’re more likely to notice that the media outlets are different and that you can’t always get the English papers. You’ll see a mixture of English, American and Australian programmes but the Irish do actually have some programmes which depict Irish people in programmes made in Ireland. (I’m not really talking about Father Ted, the most Irish of all shows, as it was made by Channel 4, predominantly in a studio in London.) Television in Northern Ireland is almost exactly the same as English tv. There is something very odd about the programmes you watch bearing little resemblance to your surroundings; watching English tv when you’re not even in England. Save for the local news. (I remember a scintillating feature about a man in Lurgan who jumped into a lake after a dog who appeared to be in a spot of bother.)
I spent most of my teenage years wanting to escape Belfast. And that is precisely what I did when I went off to university. What did I have against it? It was small and I had a strong sense there must be more to life than spending Saturdays in the Castlecourt shopping centre or sneaking into Lavery’s as the girls at school did. I felt a sense of claustrophobia. I viewed my A-Levels as a ticket to a different life. I couldn’t imagine just getting the same bus that bit further down the road to Queens every day. I remember feeling distinctly irritated when the title of city was conferred upon Lisburn, a pleasant market town, in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee celebration.
Is it fair to blame the universal phenomenon of teenage boredom and a fairly standard desire to see other places on Belfast? I remember the feeling of waiting, endlessly waiting for something to happen, for life to begin.
There was a lack of opportunity in Northern Ireland. We knew it and it hung in the air as we filled in our UCAS forms, contemplating our futures. It was almost impossible to get onto a teacher training programme or the Law degree at Queens. There were no Veterinary Medicine or Speech&Language Therapy courses; you had to go ‘across the water’ for those. Talk went round the common room of the lack of work for teachers and physiotherapists. Sensible ambitions fell flat. It wasn’t as if we wanted to be rock stars or astronauts.
I wanted to live somewhere diverse and exciting. I used to read my dad’s copy of the Sunday Times and marvelled at the idea of doing the exciting things I read about, like going to see the terracotta warriors or attending an Indian dance class. I’m not sure I was sufficiently connected to my friendship group at school to want to stay in Belfast. I couldn’t understand the reluctance of my peers to go to England to allow them to access their ambitions. But at the same time, I was a bit jealous that they were perfectly happy living there. They had lives, families, roots, part-time jobs and boyfriends. They belonged there, moreso than I did. We were, as country folk might have called us, blow ins.
My relationship with Belfast did change once I left. I found I quite liked it. I shuttled between Durham and Belfast, returning to catch up with friends and stock up on cheap tights from Primark. I lived at home the year after I graduated as it was the only viable way for me to access postgraduate study. In many ways I felt quite settled but I’d never really planned to stay. As the end of my course neared, I felt the need to get out, fearing I might spend the rest of my life in my teenage bedroom, cooking dinner for my father each night. So I moved to London and it was the best thing I ever did.
I’ve lived in and around London for just over seven years and I do wonder what life would be like if I’d stayed in Belfast. No doubt we’d live in a lovely Victorian red brick terrace with three storeys and a bay window, the sort that costs a bloody fortune here. I imagine an easy life, but that said, jobs aren’t always so easy to come by there and some of my old friends have left Belfast too. I go back and visit regularly. It changes each time, with new places to go to popping up.
As we approach an uncertain Brexit, I find myself applying for my first Irish passport. The politicians wrangle over the Irish border and a part of me thinks the finance sector might move to Newry, a town on the border. As Hong Kong is for China and the West, Newry could become a gateway between Europe and the UK, a glittering business hub. I really never thought I might end up in Newry…