“Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
The dreaded question, and an all too familiar one for students from Northern Ireland. Countless conversations that begin with this religious examination mark a widespread attitude that denotes Northern Irish students as explicitly ‘other’ within Ireland.
A sense of subtle alienation characterises the Northern Irish student experience. Despite the undeniable overlap between the cultural, historical and social scenery of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Irish students often find themselves unable to assimilate themselves fully into Irish society. Why is this? Contrasting upbringings and political differences accounted for, I have found there to be a conscious and pointed dismissal of NI students, specifically at the hands of Irish students.
To return to the opening question, it must be highlighted that this is not merely a question of an individual’s religion but rather an outright political scrutiny that is posed too often and too casually to students from the North. Anyone who knows to ask this knows the sociopolitical connotations associated with either answer and is most likely attempting to decide how to behave towards the person on the receiving end of their interrogation. Every Northern Irish student knows what this question is trying to get out of them, and knows that their answer will place an invisible mark on them for the rest of this interaction. It is not only a painfully insensitive question but an isolating one. It instantly identifies Northern Irish students as a type of ‘other’. Moreover, this genre of question is posed so often in my experience that I’ve made a habit of sharing my own religious identity as soon as someone makes note of my homeplace, preempting the examination that is surely to come.
What is particularly jarring about these interactions is that the interrogator, for the most part, is Irish. The historical and political sphere of Northern Ireland is not something that is usually studied outside of this island, nor do students of other nationalities feel entitled to know this information. On the other hand, Irish citizens have grown up learning Irish history, have a keen understanding of the sectarian tensions still present in the North and were most likely taught about the tragic loss of life during The Troubles. Instead of utilising this awareness to connect with Northern Irish students, it is wielded against them. Personally, I find it misleading to place the insensitivity of these questions down to ignorance as it takes knowledge of Northern Ireland to even pose the question at all. Rather, these distasteful questions, either consciously or unconsciously, are rooted in a disrespectful attempt to identify and demarcate Northern Irish students.
Having spoken to fellow students from Northern Ireland, many stated that they felt that they owed others an explanation for their presence within the Republic of Ireland. Clara Potts, a Trinity student from Northern Ireland, felt that coming from the North was a “conversation starter that could go one of two ways: a discussion of history and politics or an appreciation of my Belfast accent!” However, she also expressed her frustration at having to explain her identity to others, comparing it to an “interrogation”. She went on to say that “having to convince someone that you belong in Dublin as someone from the North is a really horrible, awkward experience”. As a student body that seemingly prides itself on inclusion and respect, there appears to be little evidence of this in the behaviour of certain Trinity students towards those closest to home. Car bomb jokes and accent-mocking are all too commonly thrown in the way of Northern Irish students, waiving any sense of political correctness that these comedians tend to claim to.
For Northern Irish students who identify nationally with Ireland, the subtle rejection these experiences evoke is particularly upsetting. Many come to the Republic of Ireland expecting their Irishness to no longer be a political statement but a mere actuality, a fact of their being. Instead, they are greeted with suspicion and exclusion. My current experience on Erasmus has only heightened this feeling of alienation as, after meeting a fellow Irish student, he laughed in my face when I informed him that I was from County Down, replying, “so you’re not actually Irish then”. Despite stating my identity and possessing a passport to prove it, I was still not Irish enough. This dismissal of nationality, something so integral to any individual, is so commonplace that other Northern Irish students, like Erin Keenan, have noted similar experience: “In the North, saying you’re Irish is accepted at face value because people understand the force behind the statement. That’s not so much the case in the Republic.” As another Northern Irish student, Luca McVey, summarises: “My Irish identity has been denied or disregarded simply because I wasn’t born in the Republic.”
What makes Northern Irish students so different from Irish students? What leads to this sense of hostility? And what gives someone the right to deny someone else’s identity? Culturally and socially, there are very few differences to note between the two states. Our humour, behaviour and attitudes often align almost perfectly. While the Northern Irish accent certainly is unique, I do not believe it is cause enough for our students to be so rejected from Irish society. Is it insensitivity, misunderstanding, or merely a thinly veiled superiority complex that leads to this belief that Northern Irish people are not Irish enough?
The tragedy of this rejection is even more poignant when the reality of identity politics in Northern Ireland is considered. It is a brutal and tragic fact that many innocent lives were lost in the process of allowing Northern Irish citizens to choose their nationality. Yet, somehow, there persists a severely misplaced confidence that allows some drunk South Dublin private school graduate to dismiss someone’s entire identity because their accent is different.
Fellow Northern Irish student, Jonathan Boyd, highlights his experience coming from a Protestant background and simultaneously identifying as Irish: “I feel as though I constantly have to not only assert my right to my nationality, but also in turn, my expression of it… whilst I may not have those connections to the traditional tenets of Irish culture, I am firmly rooted in my Irishness.” The requirements placed on Northern Irish citizens to be worthy of their Irish identity are both absurd and irrelevant. To my knowledge, no one else is expected to play GAA or speak fluent Irish to be ‘worthy’ of an Irish passport. This insistence on limiting the access that people from Northern Ireland have to Irishness is unfounded and demeaning and highlights an exclusionary strain that runs through Irish culture.
In what I like to call the “Derry Girl-ification” of Northern Ireland, another persistent behavioural pattern is exhibited towards Northerns which involves making NI and its inhabitants the butt of every joke. Whether it be the classic car bomb quip or a “Go back to the North!” thrown in our direction, Northern Irish students must bear witness to our culture being made a mockery of, simply because someone watched a TV show and thinks that gives them licence to turn every Northerner they meet into the object of their amusement (seemingly, they’ve forgotten the key part of Derry Girls is that it was Northern Irish people making the jokes).
Alongside these public acts of humiliation, Northern Irish students can also be subjected to some not-so-flattering assumptions, as detailed by Lucy MacRandal, a student from Belfast: “In my time at Trinity, I’ve developed a slippery inkling that we also may not be taken as seriously by our peers academically. South Dubliners have a hard time pinpointing where you fall within their school ranking system when existing outside of it.” This misplaced belief that Northern Irish students are somewhat lacking in terms of intelligence is an unfortunately common occurrence for many of the Northern Irish students I spoke to. Some even stated that their peers expressed unconcealed shock when they shared their success in their final exams, as if Northerners were lucky to barely scrape by academically. Northern Irish student Clara Potts believes that the CAO conversion for A-Levels is a possible reason behind this: “With only a very small percentage of students able to study in the Republic due to the A-level/CAO point conversion, the education system seems to prevent more students from staying [in the Republic of Ireland].” The small number of Northern Irish students studying in the Republic not only leads to a lack of representation but also again perpetuates the assumption that they lack the grades to gain admittance into Ireland’s top universities.
Not all experiences of Northern Irish students are negative, however. Jonathan Boyd found that “people from the Republic of Ireland are generally very welcoming to those of us from the North”, highlighting that “shared culture and common ground” elicit an easy integration into Irish society. Similarly, Lucy MacRandal noted that people from the Republic of Ireland usually deem Northerners to be “good craic” and sensed a “fondness for the accent” amongst her peers. Almost all the Northern Irish students interviewed recognised a positive welcome that they received after their move to the Republic, yet despite this, they all could detail certain encounters where they were made to feel ostracised by their Irish peers.
The positive experiences detailed by other Northern Irish students cement my belief that these attitudes are not so ingrained within Irish culture that they cannot be overcome. Despite the proximity of Northern Ireland to the Republic, sensitivity and open-mindedness should still be utilised when approaching the topic of NI’s past and in the behaviour exhibited towards Northern students. In other words, the car bomb joke should be kept to the characters of Derry Girls. If Ireland as a nation wishes to continue to pride itself on inclusivity, there should be a conscious effort to not further alienate those with whom they share an island with, especially those who have decided to make a home here too.