Who the hell am I? Neither one thing nor another, I realised three years ago, presenting my brand-new Irish passport at a border check for the first time. It’s actually not a bad state to be in, but it highlights the terrible destructive carelessness of Boris Johnson’s Brexit and the awful harm a new hard border could conjure out of the boggy landscape of Ireland.
I wrote what follows as a foreword to a booklet exploring my beginnings and influences. I had taken a notion to get back into print and found myself looking inwards and outwards as we reached the end of 2020, the most disturbing and destructive year most of us have experienced (although I’m conscious war-torn countries have lived with far worse for many years).
It’s not just the pandemic. Political turmoil throws up uncomfortable, almost unanswerable questions of identity and belonging. But daily reminders of mortality prompt new understanding of beginnings and endings, with human compassion for those we have never met. And, as natural floods and fires rage regardless of Covid, wider thoughts of the part we play in messing up the planet.
A blurred borderline
Where am I from, where do I belong? I’ve never been sure. With an Irish father and a Scottish mother I had always assumed I was ‘British,’ until Brexit made me investigate whether I could get a second passport. Then I discovered that since the Good Friday Agreement, I have been a citizen of two countries.
Born in Northern Ireland, raised and schooled across different points of Ireland, Britain, Germany – I have many different emotional attachments. From an early age I developed a keen sense of place. I attended seven different schools and said goodbye to twelve different homes (I always felt the need to say goodbye as the car waited outside, ready to move on to the next address). Before Ray and I came to Edinburgh in the mid-1970s I had never stayed longer than four years at any address. Much to our surprise we have lived in the same house for 46 years.
So my loyalties have been blurred. I have no ‘nationality’. When we lived in England I felt a surge of excitement as my parents packed us all – three daughters, three sons – into a crammed car to take the Great North Road to visit our Scottish relatives. Since I have lived in Scotland, I feel a surge of affection crossing into England to visit family and friends ‘down south.’
Oddly, on a first trip to Berlin a few years ago I felt very much at home. There was something comfortingly familiar about the feel of the place, the sounds and smells of the city even though it was more than fifty years since I had left Germany, after only four years as a British army child attending army schools in the Rhineland.
I don’t have an Irish accent, or a Scottish one, or even an identifiably English one. My speech is peppered with my mother’s couthy Scottish expressions and if pressed to sing The Auld Lammas Fair I can still manage the Irish glottal-stop. On holiday in Croatia, trying to negotiate the rent of a flat, I found myself conversing with the owner in German with a fluency I never knew I had.
Don’t be afraid
What’s the point of all this? As winter 2020 loomed I noticed something curious on the dashboard of Sceptical Scot (the online journal I co-edit with David Gow). A poetry post I wrote for the 2019 UK general election was attracting surprisingly large numbers of new hits. Perhaps the heading ‘Five Poems for a general election in hard times’ showed up in Google searches during the US presidential election. Not viral, but the hits kept coming and people were clearly reading the words, judging by clicks on URL links, and most often to Seamus Heaney.
‘Don’t be afraid.’ The words shone in a dark space at the end of the Seamus Heaney exhibition. In fact the words he texted to his wife shortly before he died in August 2013 were in Latin. ‘Noli timere’ has a softer sound and, perhaps, a more meaningful significance as the last words of a Catholic, revered in the Republic, but born and buried in Northern Ireland – and respected around the world.
I had been surprised at the intense emotional response I felt visiting the Dublin exhibition with Ray over Easter 2019. Perhaps it would be worth exploring further? After all, my gut feelings were (literally) stirred this summer when I ended up in hospital for emergency surgery to remove a very angry gallbladder. By chance my surgical team were largely from Northern Ireland. Waking from the anaesthetic, I heard the familiar Ulster accents and felt strangely at home.
One thing led to another. Online words flicker and fade from view. Perhaps it might be worth returning to print? Tommy’s designs gave me inspiration. As I sifted through stuff I had written I began to see an emerging theme. The concept of origins. Human, national, natural. Where I belong became less important than what it means to be human, part of a vast, jostling interconnection. So there is a kind of method to a zig-zagging trail – from Ulster to Edinburgh, to Amsterdam, to Bilbao, to Berlin, to Dublin and back to Scotland – with a brief excursion into outer space.
I wrote this foreword in December 2020 as a momentous election result was about to bring fearsome consequences for Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe. Boris Johnson played identity politics carelessly and callously. As Northern Ireland marks a century since partition the consequences are still unfolding.
Footnote: it did feel good, nonetheless, to get back into print (and at such an affordable cost I’ve been foisting copies of my small book on friends by post to far-flung places). Tommy is now working on new publications which feel good to hold and read. (see more on Surface Pressure and Blackford Hill)
Links: Origins includes blogposts originally published on this site and in Sceptical Scot: Balanced in Between, Hunger for Hope: Imad’s Syrian Kitchen, Russian passport: Poetry and Pride, A last look at Planet Earth, My Irish Babybox, In a state of ambiguity. Weaving a magic spell against Brexit borders