Getting to know the neighbours in the North

Getting to know the neighbours in the North

MALACHI O’DOHERTY, one of Ireland’s leading political commentators and author of eleven books on the North of Ireland, in his regular column examines attitudes to the North by the citizens of the Irish Republic

Malachi O'Doherty

AS A writer of books I occasionally get invited to literary festivals to do readings or sit on discussion panels. I’m a sort of mid range writer, not what you’d call ‘emerging’ but not big time either.

I also go to a lot of festivals to keep in touch with other writers and readers.

I have read at the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh, the Wigtown and Edinburgh festivals in Scotland, The Blue Met and the Ottawa festivals in Canada. I have done readings in Mississippi and Maryland but I have yet to read in the Irish Republic, other than once for a book launch that my publisher had organised herself.

And I wonder about that. Am I not an Irish writer?

Sometimes at festivals in Dublin northern writers have a special slot. They are introduced as if they are a niche interest like gaelgeoiri or LGBTQI+.

There have been occasional exceptions to this. Within my own field, political commentary, Eamon McCann and Nell McCafferty - two heroes of mine - found roles for themselves in Dublin and became regular commentators in the Dublin broadcast media.

So also has Susan McKay.

But I think their appeal was often in their ability to translate the foreign culture of the North for the southern audience and occasionally to carry tidings in the other direction.

People on Twitter complain that I am never off the bloody radio, but it is always northern stations. Diligent publicists will always get me slots on southern stations when I have a new book out, but after that the stations almost never call back.

I might as well be on the Isle of Man which, admittedly, we take no notice of here.

Seamus Heaney crossed the border, not just physically but in his appeal to readers and audiences.

Often when I went to the Mountains to Sea festival in Dún Laoghaire, Seamus would be sitting in the audience or hanging back in the foyer of the Pavilion theatre to chat to friends. And being virtually a local he was not mobbed as a celebrity and was able to enjoy himself. That freedom came from his being already familiar.

I suspect most northern writers walking into the same space at the height of that - now sadly defunct - festival would not even have been recognised.

Recent research published in the Irish Times shows that partition is a reality in Ireland, that few people on either side of the border cross over for visits, work or holidays.

I’m a bit sceptical because when I travel on the Enterprise train between Belfast and Dublin it is often full.

On quiet days you will see pensioners using their free travel passes for a day trip.

But maybe it is just the same people going back and forth all the time.

I was on U105, a Belfast radio station discussing this with presenter Frank Mitchell and I raised the suggestion that the GAA, while spreading a sporting culture over the whole island also fostered division through county rivalry. Maybe it was part of the problem. Not only did people in Dublin hesitate to come to Belfast; they also sneered at Cork and ‘culchies’. Frank took the point further and said that there is huge resentment in the south when northern teams win the All Ireland.

So even the GAA, formed to create a uniform Irish culture to replace the culture of the invader now has a partitionist mindset.

The official name of the Irish Republic is simply Ireland. British politicians unpacking Brexit issues routinely talk about Ireland and Northern Ireland, as if Northern Ireland is somehow outside Ireland.

Unionists tend to think that when President Higgins is called the president of Ireland he is cheekily including the north in his jurisdiction while nationalists feel that he is cutting them off.

Naturally more people, proportionately, travel from the north to the south.

We are in a smaller space, a corner of the island. We have to get out from time to time.

There is no part of Northern Ireland in which you can look west to see the sun melting into the Atlantic. You have to go to Donegal or further down the west coast for that.

And southerners may hesitate to come north because the region is bedecked with keep out symbols?

Take Bushmills on the north Antrim coast. A beautiful town in a rugged setting with wonderful food but with so many union jacks and Ulster flags flying that southerners or ordinary northern catholics will pause to wonder how welcome they’d be.

One night in July I had a gorgeous meal there with my wife and her mother and came out to find that we couldn’t cross the road to our car until an interminable protestant band parade had passed.

The town is a natural tourist attraction but prioritises the assertion of its loyal British identity instead.

Donegal people will cross into Strabane to shop at the big Asda store but may be deterred by the extravagant republican imagery around the town from feeling enough at home to hang about.

Perhaps people in the republic are fed up with hearing about Northern Ireland since the news is dependably bad or over optimistic. I wouldn’t blame them for thinking of us as a troubled cousin who is always either bringing them grief or raising false hopes of having reformed.

They should come up more often and get to know us better.