It’s funny the things that set our blood simmering. I was online the other day, trying to enter for the Dublin Half-Marathon later this month. I got to a Required slot that demanded “Nationality”. Nothing wrong with that, except that it wouldn’t let me write “Irish”; I had to choose from a long list on the drop-down menu. Long but Irishless. In the end I had to choose between two alternatives: “Republic of Ireland” or “Northern Ireland”.
Now I have no problem with saying I’m from Northern Ireland. Given a choice I’d say “North of Ireland”, thus making clear that I thought all of this island was Irish and I wasn’t in love with the state called “Northern Ireland”. But I don’t mind using it when required. The irritating thing in this instance was that I either had to lie and say I was from the Republic of Ireland, or pick ‘Northern Ireland’ and identify this as my nationality. In the end I did just that, but made a point of contacting the race organisers to tell them that Northern Ireland is a state, not a nationality, and that ‘Northern Irish’ is a state of mind, much loved by unionism because it suggests that those so labeling themselves are happy with partition and their place in the UK. My blood bubbled and simmered because I’d been backed into a corner where I couldn’t give my nationality.
Not that the organisers of the Half-Marathon are unique. Time and time again online, I find myself asked to give my post-code. When I give it, the system has raging indigestion because earlier I told them I was Irish. “You can’t be Irish and live at that post-code – you must be British since you’re in the UK!” – that in so many words tends to be their position.
But then my blood cools and I realize we all get too hung up with this sort of thing. Anyone who lives along the border will know that smuggling is part of life. Smugglers use the fact of partition to purchase or sell goods in a way that adds to their bank balance. Since the authorities insisted on creating a border, let’s see what we can squeeze out of it.
When I taught at the Ulster University, I used to get application forms for a course I was teaching. Part of the form required the applicant to say what school they had attended and also what nationality they were. I was struck by how many young people – women particularly – reported that (i) they had attended a school in West Belfast and (ii) their nationality was British.
This could be interpreted as young people abandoning their Irish identity. But two seconds’ thought showed differently. These young people were assuming that the person vetting their form would be a unionist bigot who’d respond badly to someone declaring themselves as Irish. It’d be an own goal and they wouldn’t get on the course. So they put ‘British’. Smart.
Because maybe we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. That greatest of Englishmen William Shakespeare, as usual, cuts to the heart of it all. When Hamlet’s mother lectures him for wearing black and mourning too long over the death of his father, he replies that the outer stuff – dark clothes, sighing, weeping – aren’t important: “I have that within which passeth show;/ These but the trappings and the suits of woe”.
There are people who would be outraged to be classified British, but do nothing to help create the kind of Ireland they say they want. Mercifully other people, like Hamlet, don’t get hung up on labels or nationality correctness: they’re too busy working for the kind of Ireland they want. For those who say they take pride in their nationality, JFK had some advice : ”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.