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Kenneth Branagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Kennedy on what it's really like to be from Northern Ireland


Actor Kenneth Branagh

Actor Kenneth Branagh

Seamus Heaney Ulster Poet

Seamus Heaney Ulster Poet

Brian Kennedy

Brian Kennedy


Actor Kenneth Branagh

Actor and director: Kenneth Branagh

The hugely successful film and stage actor grew up in Protestant working class north Belfast until the age of nine, when his family relocated to England to escape the Troubles. Now 52 he was knighted last year.

What was life like as a child in Belfast?

My sense of identity as a human being has never been as strong as it was in Ulster. I was growing up in the '60s in a volatile world, but my sense of security was total in the sense that it felt as though I could never get lost. I think it was highly likely that we literally knew everybody in the street and in many surrounding streets.

It was a life built totally around visiting and mutual childcare. I remember years of coming home from school and going to my Auntie Irene's, who lived two doors down, before my mother came home from work. My granny gave me my lunch from school every single day when I was at the Grove Primary School (in north Belfast).

I was walking to school on my own from a very early age, because it felt entirely and utterly safe and I would always be falling in to the company of other kids in the same street.

We went to football matches with the school and it just seemed like you knew everyone, and the city had the feeling of a village.

Large family gatherings was our entertainment -- my mother doing her song, my father would do his jokes, other members of the family doing their thing, so there was the sense of identity inside a community that unquestionably was warm. I've never felt so secure, or as certain of who I was since, to be frank.

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But eventually you did go to England. Was it a culture shock at that stage to discover that your identity was so different to that of the other children at your new school?

It was a complete culture shock because I came from a school environment (that) felt very much rooted in its working-class community -- and then I went to a school that was definitely, by contrast, middle-class. It felt literally like one had gone to a different climate... I had a good time at the Grove, but it was strict, and then I came to somewhere which was completely alien to me.

And did your new classmates regard you as alien? Did they tease you?

Yeah, they literally couldn't understand what I was saying from day one. They couldn't understand a word, not for days and days, and I didn't even understand what it was they didn't understand. I felt that I was being surrounded by people who spoke as if they were Blue Peter presenters. I don't know that they teased me in the first instance, but they certainly didn't understand what I was saying.

But could you identify with Billy (from the Billy plays) as a character?

Definitely. There were lots of pressures on my family contemporaries, so I was aware that being a young man living through the Troubles in Belfast at that time was a very intense experience.

I did have a lot of sympathy for Billy Martin and I did feel as though I knew who he was -- there but for the grace of God I certainly would have gone.

The argument is often made that the Billy plays were the first time that particular Ulster identity -- working-class, Protestant and loyalist -- was portrayed to the wider UK audience. Does that ring true to you?

It does. It was my very first job and so my instinct was that I would show this script to my mum and dad. My father said: 'That's the last thing you want to do. You don't want to touch that'.

He was quite upset about it and I didn't understand why. I realised that it was because it was so authentic.

It also came from somebody away from home who was very, very protective of the place's image and his concern was that it would somehow reflect badly on the people of Belfast and on that particular community.

But in the end when they saw it, well, they both were amazed by it. Quite aside from me being in it, I think they felt that it did talk very powerfully about working class life.

Poet and writer: Seamus Heaney

The winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature grew up in a Catholic family in Bellaghy, Co Derry. He died on August 30 this year at the age of 74.

Did the onset of the Troubles in the late '60s change your view of what you needed to be doing as a poet? Did your poetry knowingly shift from the rural, observational poetry to a more political commentary?

On the whole I didn't know how to handle the response, how to maintain a fidelity, if you like, to my own mythos -- and at the same time to envisage a society where ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups would find a way of living a civic life.

Actually, in 1972 -- which was four years after the Troubles started -- a book came out called Wintering Out, and there is a poem there which looks back to the 1780s and '90s and it says, 'Take a last turn in reasonable light'.

So, the Troubles politicised me to the extent that when on the Wednesday after the turmoil started on October 5, 1968, with the baton charge in Derry, there was a big march of students at Queen's University, where I was a young lecturer. I joined the march -- which was a very unusual thing for me to do.

We marched down towards Linenhall Street and the RUC had a barrier of themselves across the street and the Reverend Ian (Paisley) was in Donegall Square with supporters.

So the police were kind of blocking or separating the two sides, I suppose, and I remember a couple of people wanting to run the barriers or crash the barriers -- Bernadette (Devlin) and, I think, Michael Farrell and a couple of other people -- but this young lecturer went up and said, 'calm down'. I was being as mollifying as I could be.

Eventually, then, they turned back and went to the Students' Union and that was the night that People's Democracy was formed.

The next Saturday I went to Derry and there was a meeting there in the Guildhall Square and I wrote something for the BBC's 'The Listener', called Derry's Walls, and that was the start of engagement, but actually, I didn't go marching much after that.

And that famous line of yours: 'Be advised my passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen'. Did people overplay the significance of that line?

The Queen thing -- green, Queen -- it's a rhyme. I mean, truly, there's a bit of a spring to it. I didn't want to sound a bigot in the pamphlet.

At the same time I wanted to address the breach in the community at that stage.

Were you aware of how that was received by unionists on the ground in Northern Ireland?

Oh, I can imagine.

There was that and then there was the idea -- was it ever formally confirmed? -- that you'd turned down the Poet Laureateship.

Never formally.

But there was the sense you may well have done.

I thought another Ulster poet should have got it.

Funny, I wouldn't have thought that would have affected opinion. You see, to put it this way, people would say that would have been a great symbol of a reconciliation -- and I kept saying, symbols we don't need. We need reality.

But that whole situation has now changed hasn't it? Because you used that line: 'No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen' -- and then there you were, sitting beside her at the state dinner in Dublin in 2011. So, has your view changed on that?

No. 'No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen' -- I meant to characterise a culture. We at home in the house would never have lifted a glass to toast the Queen and I suspect manys a one in the other tradition wouldn't be doing it at home either.

On the other hand, I have always felt the courteous thing to do when you were at a formal event or dinner was certainly to stand and toast.

So, whatever the impression came out of the words, which I can understand entirely, whatever the reading of it as 'a bitter word', it was meant to have a bit of merriment in it too, coming as I say from the rhyme.

Of course those lines were quoted gleefully when Her Majesty and Prince Phillip came to Ireland, partly, I hope, because it is a nifty couplet -- 'My passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen' -- very quotable. I had met Her Majesty before in Belfast and, in fact, before that again in Buckingham Palace a few years ago. She gives these lunches, every month for a few months of the year, and invites various persons -- 12 guests from different sectors. The time I was there, for example, there was an engineer from Cardiff University who had done something with motor engines and the Duke was very interested in that.

There was a woman from the Prison Service and Sir Christopher Bland, who was head of the BBC at the time. Anyhow, Christopher Bland was on the Queen's right-hand side and I was on her left-hand side. This was a few years ago. Ted Hughes had just died and the Good Friday Agreement had just come in to force, so at that time I thought -- come on now, do the decent thing here

So there was no doubt in your mind that was the right thing to do?

No. None at all. There was a world change as far as I was concerned. Then too, I had been to Buckingham Palace when Ted Hughes was Poet Laureate because I was on a committee with him for the awarding of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

So when [my wife] Marie and I were invited to the event in Dublin Castle, I was happy to say yes. We didn't realise where we were going to be placed until the afternoon of the dinner, at which point a friend of ours in Protocol in the Foreign Service rang up and said, 'You're at the top table tonight'. So, what were we going to do about that?' I assumed it was going to be like a college top table or a wedding top table -- a long board for the Last Supper, as it were -- but when we came to the door of the big hall we realised there were only 10 people's names for table C and truth to tell, I swore when I saw I was placed between the Duke and David Cameron.

Nothing political in the worry, you understand -- just sheer social anxiety.

Marie was in a little bit more of a homely situation. She had the Taoiseach and Cardinal Brady, so she was between Mayo and Cavan. But Mary McAleese was beside Cameron. I actually got on easily and merrily with the Duke.

And are you happy now about the symbolism -- the Queen being in Ireland, you being at the table?

Yes, that was fine by me.

Singer/songwriter: Brian Kennedy

THE 47-year-old singer grew up on Belfast's Catholic Falls Road. Openly gay, he represented Ireland at Eurovision in 2006.

Are you saying that as a young boy growing up on the Falls Road, in Belfast, the notion of Ulster had a negative connotation for you?

Most certainly. The negativity being, that anything that was remotely Irish was basically illegal. You kind of felt like you were illegal. And I certainly felt like I was illegal in the sense that everywhere we went we were dogged by British soldiers.

I was telling people recently that when we were kids, at turnstiles, the men queued on one side and the women queued on the other. And so I would queue up and eventually, in the lashing rain, get up to the turnstile and, before I could go through, this guy was saying to me: 'What's your name? Where do you come from? What's your address? Who are your parents? When are you coming back? How long will you be in the town for? What are you going to the town for?'

All this interrogation before you even get through.

Now, of course, what's interesting is that that was only happening on one side of the city. If you were coming from the Malone Road or somewhere like that, or any other part of our city, nobody else had to encounter that. So later on, when we described it as a ghetto, people thought we were really exaggerating -- but for me that was completely and utterly normal. So my version of feeling a sense of identity was absolutely coupled with the fact that you're in Ireland -- but it's occupied territory at the moment.

What was really interesting recently when we met Queen Elizabeth -- Éilís a Dó, as they call her in Donegal -- I was really struck by how, when we left the Lyric Theatre and I went down to sing at Stormont, just how British it was.

It was really interesting to suddenly get in to a little cart to go up the driveway to the Stormont building to get to the stage where I was singing -- and it was flanked by 22,000 people waving red, white and blue flags -- and I could have been in Windsor!

Did you feel uncomfortable?

Not at all. That's what's really interesting about it. Not at all. I felt certainly like I was celebrating someone else's identity. You know, I didn't feel British. I didn't think, 'Oh, I want to be part of this'. I didn't think, 'Oh, this is awful'. I just was thinking to myself, 'Wow, this is really amazing! It's brilliant energy'. But it was really a moment when I just thought, 'This is very clearly for all of these people -- Britain'.

And they gave you a good reception?

Oh, they gave me a gorgeous reception! I have footage of it.

So, they were delighted to see you -- but they know who you are. They know your background.

Yeah. The cool thing about it is, they know that I'm from the Falls Road, they know I'm gay, they know all these things that would have been absolutely the reason why I wouldn't have been invited. And all of a sudden, it's actually the reason that I am invited. What I love about what's happened with identity in our culture is that it's absolutely flipped on its head; it has done a complete U-turn.

Actually, in the middle of Stormont someone said to me, 'Will you take a Union Jack?', and I said, 'Of course I will, absolutely. Come on'. And I put my arm around them and they held the Union Jack and we took photographs. I wasn't remotely uncomfortable because it would be like me being in any other country and somebody saying: 'This is our flag. Will you celebrate my identity with me?' Of course.

So it wasn't that you felt in any way British yourself?

I never have!

Let's go back to something you touched on earlier, then -- your sense of Irishness being shaped by living in England.

When I moved to London in 1985, that was a dangerous time to have my accent, to walk around London, especially as a relatively poor person on the dole, you know, in very working class areas of London where it was dangerous enough to be different. Johnny Lydon's book, which I have upstairs on my shelf, is called No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs for a reason -- because the first people they didn't want to consider were Irish people.

So, in '85 and '86, I was called a terrorist. I was called everything you can imagine. I was chased down the street. I was beaten up a couple of times.

This was just by people on the street?

Yes, when they heard my accent, absolutely. Any time there was any kind of flare-up in the media about a bomb being planted somewhere by the IRA -- I went to a party one time, I remember, and these girls literally had to just get me out of there.

A guy was going to kill me. His brother had been shot by somebody and he basically decided in his drunken logic that I had shot him.

And then the next thing, of course, is any time I ever came through the airport. Now, one of the up-sides of being poor is that I couldn't afford to travel very often, but when I did I was always detained. I was held for hours. They would be checking and I was saying, 'Look, we've done this before. I've done this every time I've come through this airport'. But I said it in this accent, probably even stronger, and it just meant nothing.

Your man would just be like, 'You just sit there now and don't speak until I speak to you'. They literally would treat you like that.

That's quite a journey to come on, isn't it? To be held and questioned about your identity -- and then to end up singing at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee event at Stormont.

And, as you know, to be introduced to her and to shake her little gloved hand. I remember looking in to those sparkly wee eyes and thinking, 'My God, here is this moment that I never thought I would ever be in'. I was looking at an old lady who sort of looked a bit like my granny -- just a little lady, except a much cleaner, much more privileged version of my granny.

And so, if you had said to me, you know, in those moments on the Falls Road, or in those interrogation rooms in Heathrow Airport, when I'm 19 or 20 or 21, 'Ah, don't worry. You'll grow up and you'll be a singer and it'll be fine. And, in fact, the Queen of England will shake your hand' -- I mean it's unthinkable, but here we are.

And that's good?

It's not good -- it's great!


Alternative Ulsters

In his new book Alternative Ulsters: Conversations On Identity Mark Carruthers interviews 36pn ersonalities from the worlds of music , acting, politics, academia, broadcasting and journalism on what it means to be from Northern Ireland.

Interviewees include Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Ian Paisley, Mary McAleese, Martin McGuinness, Gary Lightbody, Mary Peters and Jackie McDonald. The book is published by Liberties Press, £24.99, available at www. libertiespress.com.

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