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The Politics of Identity

A Northern Irishman living in New York writes: "there are funny guys, mean ones, nerds & rebels everywhere".


I was born in Belfast. Who am I? Am I British, because Belfast is in Northern Ireland, part of the political entity known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Or am I Irish? For Ireland is after all, a small island not much more than three hundred miles long from tip to tail. Or, as an American citizen living in New York for twelve years, am I an American?


It's a question that was thrust upon me at a young age. As a small boy, probably around 1950 or so, I was eating with my parents in the restaurant of Clery's department store in O'Connell Street, Dublin. A stern, middle-aged, middle class businesswoman in a formal grey wool suit and black hat shared our lunchtime table and, in a way that wasn't friendly, asked me (not my parents): “Are you from the black North?”


To this day, I've never understood the question but I understood that growing up in Belfast, identity was shoved at you, pushed down your throat; the pressure to commit to one came at you from all sides and all angles.


Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Laureate poet, recalls being in a fish and chip shop in a Protestant area of Belfast one Friday evening. He'd just been featured on a late night local TV arts programme and a young Englishwoman waiting in the line, a student at the nearby Queens University, and oblivious to the minefield she was stepping into, said in a loud voice: “Ah, look, he's the Irish poet!”


The owner of the chip shop, a big thickset Ulster Protestant woman, leaned over the counter at Seamus and said, “No you're not, you're a British subject living in Ulster!” She'd got it wrong of course; Ulster is an entity consisting of nine counties, three of which, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are in the Irish Republic. She ought to have said living in Northern Ireland but suffice to say everyone present, Seamus included, got the message.


When I used to visit Dublin as the Sales Director of Penguin Books, booksellers would sometimes make quips along the lines that John O'Connor, the Sales Manager (Shepherd's Bush Irish) and I, with the Irish accent, between us made one good Irishman.


When I went to live in London, England, two weeks short of my eighteenth birthday, I felt as though I'd landed on the planet Mars. Nothing was the same, and people had difficulty understanding my thick Belfast accent. As a boy I'd gone to Sunday school with Brian Herd, who went to Cambridge University at roughly the same time as I moved to London; within three months he had acquired a standard, English university accent – just as Oscar Wilde had when he went to Oxford, and C.S. Lewis, who later went to Oxford too. I was faced with the same choice: to acquire an accent and assimilate or to hold on to the identity, if indeed it was that. I chose the latter. But it did mean that for the forty years or so that I lived in England, every time I spoke to the English, I was declaring myself to be a foreigner.


America is different. Within two weeks of moving here in the fateful year of 2001, I was in a small, local, printing shop. The owner, Avi, an Israeli, said, “Take us, I'm Israeli-American, you're Irish-American, we're both American!” That never happened in forty years of living in England.


I was lucky; as a boy my father told me not to worry about the colour of a man's skin, or his religion. He said: “Look into his heart and if he's a good man treat him accordingly.” And I did; I found it advice that was easy to take.


But notwithstanding this, for many years, and despite having many wonderful and close English friends, I always felt myself different from them. The uncomfortable truth that I kept running away from was that in Belfast I could feel the same way: separate and different.


When a lady who had a profound influence on my life said that the people of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales all think of themselves as different, but they're really all the same, I thought she was very wrong. I then read a newspaper report that said that DNA tests proved that the majority populations of these four countries were identical, and that if you were looking for Celtic DNA, the best place to find it in these times is in Germany.


Some months ago, at a dinner party, someone asked my Russian wife, to whom I have been married for eighteen years, if she felt she was married to a foreigner. “Absolutely,” she said, without a moment's hesitation.


I was once working as a salesman in the north of England. I went into a small, self-service store called a Superette in St. Helen's, a town between Liverpool and Manchester. The manager was a gruff Lancastrian woman in her late forties; I was twenty. As soon as she heard me speak, she said, “Are you Irish? I don't like the Irish.


I was taken aback; I didn't know what to say. So I did what came naturally: “Have you any idea how much I get for doing this lousy job? About twelve pounds a week, and if that's not bad enough, I have to listen to stuff like this from people like you.” I expected the interview to end there, but she didn't respond at all and so I carried on with my sales pitch, and when I'd finished, she gave me an order: “I'll have six of that, four of that, none of this one – it doesn't sell here!” turned around, and that was the interview over. The experience taught me to stand up for myself, for my own personal dignity.


In Belfast, coded questions were asked. “What did you say your name was?” Billy Neill would indicate Prod, (Protestant), Seamus O'Neill, guaranteed Catholic. And if there was an ambiguity in the reply, answering either or both of the following would reveal your identity beyond doubt: “Where did you say you live?”or “What school did you go to?”


The master, Heaney, put it beautifully in his poem "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing" (1975):


     That Norman, Ken and Sidney signaled Prod
     And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
     O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
     Of open minds, as open as a trap.
     Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
     Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
     Were cabin'd and confined like wily Greeks,
     Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.


Irrespective of how hard I tried, others would impose identity on me. To my first wife's grandmother, I'd never be anything other than “that Protestant boy”. The snobby Oxford-educated Export Sales Manager at Penguin Books, when I was appointed his boss, initially referred to me as “that Belfast barrow-boy”. He was taking a big risk: someone of a different temperament to mine would have taken him apart, and there was plenty of ammunition to use against him if one were of a mind to do so.


For me, I'd always been influenced by legends, myths and folk-tales. For example, in ancient Japan, a great Samurai warrior was tricked into killing his own master. He pursued the person who'd tricked him from one end of Japan to the other and eventually came face to face with him. As he was about to draw his sword and decapitate the trickster, his opponent spat in his face. The Samurai put his sword back in its scabbard, turned on his heel and walked away: morals wouldn't allow him to kill with anger and hatred in his heart. I've never killed anyone but it was a principle I always tried to follow.


Youth brought another lesson too. While others attempted to impose identity on me, I never allowed myself to be influenced by such impositions. I'd be Irish when I chose it and a regular human being when it suited me too. I've never really understood the difference.


Think about it – in any school class you were in, there were funny guys, mean ones, nerds, rebels etc. Was this anything to do with the country you were educated in, or the nationality of the people in your class? Or were these factors just basic human ones, common to all? You could argue that conditionings of certain cultures have an effect on personality and there's merit in that, but our basic humanity can often overrule such imposed responses.


Something I've noticed in people is this: When they react to a situation from the perspective of their ego and/or superego, their response tends to be harsh, judgmental. When they react from their id / spirit they tend to be much more compassionate. There's a way to go, something to aspire to.


Alan Wherry

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