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Independence Day: What's it like for the Americans who call Northern Ireland home?

Whether it's the friendly people or crazy crisps, Helen Carson asks what makes our Stateside visitors want to stay

Published 03/07/2015

American girl: Kelly Morris with her son Cormac
American girl: Kelly Morris with her son Cormac
Brittany Breslin
Amanda Koser-Gillespie aged 10 with her dad, Donald Koser Jr
Amanda Koser-Gillespie

As America gears up to celebrate Independence Day with traditional Fourth of July fireworks displays, barbecues and picnics across the States, there are many of its citizens who have made their home here in Northern Ireland.

While they have their own version of the great American occasion with US-inspired food outdoors - taking their chances with the unpredictable local weather - culturally Northern Ireland is a very different place from the land of the Stars and Stripes. The history of the Troubles and the ongoing political and religious differences in the province could wrong-foot newcomers keen to settle here and make a new life for themselves far away from home.

We talk to three American women now living in Northern Ireland and find out why they've decided to make this place their home.

Amanda Koser-Gillespie (35), from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, lives in the Waterside area of Londonderry with her husband, Brian. She is a community musician. She says:

"I was born in Pennsylvania, where I lived until I was 11, then we moved to North Carolina. My grandfather was Amish so there were different rules in my home which meant I didn't just go out to meet my friends, they had to meet my parents first. I wasn't allowed to wear make-up until I was 16, and I couldn't wear skirts or shorts as they were deemed inappropriate.

I was in a band at school and played the tuba as my main instrument, going on to do a Master's degree in music education at university in London, then another Master's in ethnomusicology. When I was in England I didn't really celebrate the Fourth of July, as it is really about Americans becoming independent from Great Britain, but here is it different - there are American flags everywhere.

Meeting my husband, Brian, brought me to Northern Ireland. We were introduced by mutual friends and began dating in 2006, moving to his hometown of Derry in 2008. It wasn't that much of a culture shock moving there as I had lived in England for a while, and Camphill, where I grew up in Pennsylvania, is a small town with a population of about 2,500. There are also German, Irish and Ulster communities living there. In fact, the expression 'red up' (tidy up) is used widely back home and I was quite surprised when I heard it said here too. The first time I heard it I felt right at home.

Socially there is a great warmth in the people here and it is about building trust with them because I am an outsider. You have to become aware of sensitivities - what I do with music facilitates this. I do miss some things from America, such as Twizzlers (liquorice twists), but I get my parents to send them over. I love Reese's Peanut Butter Cups too but you can get them here now. There are strange flavours of crisps here - meat flavours, like chicken and beef. I've even seen full Irish breakfast flavour crisps. My dad loves them, actually, so I sent a big box over to him.

I will stay in Northern Ireland, as I work with educational groups and charities that teach self-expression through music. When you leave your home to live in another country, from the moment you leave to return back everybody else has moved on with their lives so you are going back to a place that doesn't exist any more. I really like living here and being so close to Europe because of what I do. It is really nice to hear the viewpoint of another country and I wish more of my fellow Americans would travel and see what life is like outside of the US. At home we would celebrate the Fourth of July with a barbecue in our back yard with family and friends; it's all about cooking outside and we have things like Amish pickled eggs, great big hamburgers and Pennsylvania Dutch chicken. I will be celebrating tomorrow, and someone always brings along a Bruce Springsteen CD."

Brittany Breslin (26), is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Carryduff with her husband, Richard Rea (32). She works for Massive PR. She says:

"After I graduated, I was on holiday in Northern Ireland, where I have family. I was only here for 10 days when I met my now husband, Richard. We were introduced through mutual friends in 2007. At the time, though, I was committed to going to university in Washington DC to do a media studies degree. I remember thinking when we got together 'Oh god, we have to make this work'. We had a long-distance relationship for four years - it was a killer. Richard would come over to the States at Christmas then I would visit him in the spring, then we would take turns to cross the Atlantic over the summer to spend a few months together.

Richard has always been around, but we both knew there was something there between us - it just happened and we made it work. I came back to Northern Ireland in 2010 and did a term of my course at Queen's University, then completed my last year in America. I was happy to leave the US as I was living in Washington DC and people there move onto different places all the time, so it wasn't a big issue.

When we got married, I knew Richard had no desire to live in the United States. Washington DC is quite an intense place, people work really hard and many of them have political ambitions. He had visited me in DC so he knew what it was like - it just wasn't for him.

Northern Ireland politics can be quite baffling, even though Irish studies was part of my education. It is different because politics and religions are so closely affiliated here.

I still haven't got used to the fact I cannot go shopping on a Saturday night - in America shops are open until 10pm. Also, bank opening hours - how are you supposed to get there if you work full-time?

Food here is also quite confusing - in America purple sweets taste of grape, while here they are blackcurrant. I have had lots of nasty surprises with purple sweets in this country. Meat-flavoured crisps are another thing we do not have in the States.

It is hard to get used to seeing children walking to school with bacon butties in their hands - in America you eat three good meals a day, which includes breakfast. The difference here is people tend to eat smaller main meals, then snack constantly throughout the day. I find it especially hard working in an office where there is a lot of grazing, which makes it harder to be careful about what you eat.

My parents say my accent has changed and taxi drivers often think I am from South Africa. If I'm in a restaurant and ask for tomato and basil soup in an American accent, they pretend they don't understand me and I have to repeat it with a local accent.

When I first arrived I did find the Northern Ireland reserve quite isolating. In America if you get on a bus the person sitting next to you will make conversation, but that doesn't happen here. However, now when I visit my parents I do find some Americans loud and obnoxious.

My family and I always celebrated the Fourth of July with a picnic and lots of food shared with friends in the back yard. During my time here I would perhaps bring some cupcakes into work, but I have a group of American friends here now so we get together for a barbecue."

Kelly Morris (40), from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lives in north Belfast with her eight-year-old son, Cormac. She is a community photographer and exhibits her work. She says:

I was chosen to represent the US in the Maid of the Mournes competition, which I thought was more of an ambassadorial role - I didn't really know what it was. It was more like the Rose of Tralee so you had to have a talent - and I didn't have one. There were participants from all over the world, so I thought I was on a diplomatic role. I stayed with a lovely family in Warrenpoint, that was over 20 years ago. I never planned to visit Ireland, it just wasn't on my wish list, but every time I was due to fly back to America my new Northern Ireland family wouldn't let me. They would make up an excuse at the airport, so I ended up staying here for a month.

I went back to Pittsburgh, then moved to Arizona but wanted to come back to Northern Ireland to see the family who were so kind to me. On my return I met the man who would go on to become my husband. We got married in Belfast City Hall, but then we parted.

Afterwards, I met my son Cormac's dad, Frankie Quinn, who is also a photographer and we were together for three years when I fell pregnant. I was quite surprised, but it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

We are no longer together, and before having Cormac I did think about going back to the States, but I wouldn't do that now as his father lives here. I do go home every two years and visit family and friends in Pittsburgh, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina.

The things I love best about Northern Ireland are the humour, especially the dark humour you find here. As a nature lover, I really admire the beautiful scenery here too, especially in Co Fermanagh, the Co Antrim coast, Tollymore Forest, the Mourne Mountains and Cave Hill. The food has improved a lot, I am a pescatarian and menus had been limited when I first came over, but now there are so many good places to eat.

Initially, I felt like an outsider, but I've lived here for so long I'm almost a native. I find if I state an opinion on anything political though, I'm told 'What do you know? You're just a blow-in'. Overall, though, people are really nice, but there is a negative mindset here. I get asked a lot why I'm always smiling and I find that confusing.

Cormac's father grew up in the Short Strand, and the things the people there have been through they could be all doom and gloom, but instead they're really funny. I like that people don't take themselves too seriously.

The National Health Service is amazing, but probably mismanaged - it's something that should never die.

I live in north Belfast, where there are certain tensions, so I teach my son to be kind to himself and to other people.

My favourite time in Northern Ireland is when the Festival of Fools is on. I'd go back to America, though, if I could afford a house in Martha's Vineyard or Chappaquiddick."

The Northern Irish who helped make America...

  • The original draft of the first Declaration of Independence was drawn up by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the First Continental Congress. Thomson, who was from Upperlands in Co Londonderry, emigrated to America in 1739
  • On July 4, 1776, the original Declaration of Independence was signed by only two people - Charles Thomson as Secretary and John Hancock as President of the Continental Congress
  • Hancock and Thomson took the signed Declaration to John Dunlap, a Philadelphia-based printer. Dunlap was from Strabane, Co Tyrone, and is remembered as the first printer of the document, as well as being founder of the first daily newspaper in America - The Pennsylvania Packet. John Dunlap learned his trade at Gray's Printing Press in Strabane
  • Now owned by the National Trust, Gray's Printing Press is an icon of Strabane's 18th century reputation as Ireland's capital of publishing and is open to the public (Saturdays from 12 noon-3pm until September 26)
  • In the early 18th century, about 250,000 people from the north of Ireland, mostly of Scots/Irish descent, left their Irish homeland in search of a new life in North America
  • The Scots/Irish made an enormous contribution to American life with no clearer example than their involvement in American politics
  • 15 Presidents of the United States have Scots/Irish origin; four of those have direct links to Northern Ireland and their ancestral homesteads can still be visited - Andrew Jackson (Carrickfergus), Ulysses Simpson Grant (Ballygawley), Chester Alan Arthur (Cullybackey) and Woodrow Wilson (Strabane)

Belfast Telegraph

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