Belfast Telegraph

Why there's no hate and no shame in my identity crisis

By Sharon Owens

I've been trying not to think about the Queen's visit. It conjures up such a tangled web of feelings and memories. Like a dusty old ball of ancient twine in the greenhouse, you know it'll never be straight and clean again, so why bother unravelling it?

As a child of the Troubles, I remember endless funerals on the news, blood on the pavement, Bloody Sunday.

There were armed soldiers crouching behind walls as I walked to school. Occasionally, there were riots, long-haired Derry boys bundled into Army trucks.

I saw people obsessed with national identity to the point of madness, men who talked of nothing else but politics and politicians.

Our entire lives were lived around dates of remembrance. There were days when you stayed indoors, streets you avoided late at night, pubs you didn't drink in.

We had survivor guilt. History books showed lino-cut illustrations of stick-thin cottiers dying of hunger in the ruins of their one-room dwellings.

This is what happened in the past: subsistence farming, eviction, starvation, emigration. Protestants and Catholics hated each other; it was the norm.

Catholics asked why the Planters didn't go back to Scotland. Unionists asked why didn't republicans go and live in the Republic if they liked it so much.

Some of us left. Or at least during the summer months, we did. Mainly to avoid the marching season and Lambeg drums carried by Shankill boys decked out in gold braid.

We had lettuce and ham sandwiches in a Donegal caravan and, once, a fine stay in a Sligo hotel. Happy times, Irish money to spend on ice-creams and the carousel horses.

In 1974, we upped sticks for good, but a year spent living in Dublin was stressful. I couldn't pick up the most basic threads of the Irish language at my new school.

And once I overheard a woman saying we were 'all troublemakers up there in the black north'. I felt so unwanted. Where did I belong?

Returning to the town I grew up in, I drifted into my teens, read about the Magdalenes and despaired of religion, despaired of the role of women in Irish society, moved to Manchester, but felt alien there, too, returned to Belfast, despaired of the Troubles once more and eventually sought refuge in the anonymity of the suburbs.

Gaps in my education were slowly filled in: it wasn't only Ireland and the Irish that suffered. All across the British Empire, life was hard for coloniser and colonised alike.

And in England, too, the salmon-poachers and coin-clippers were hanged and left to rot in iron cages.

The English working class were an unhappy race. The photographs of Bill Brandt showed homeless people sleeping in empty coffins in Shoreditch and sooty-faced miners at home waiting for a tin bath to be filled.

The First World War: millions of men dead, millions of women widowed.

The Protestants of Ulster were no better off than the Catholics; that was my conclusion. But at least they felt some kind of belonging, what with their Union bunting and God Save the Queen.

In a strange way, the Troubles gave Protestants a stronger sense of belonging. I developed a horror of violence, even of voices raised.

So there I was, no real sense of belonging, but also not wanting to leave familiar places, not wanting to be a 'blow-in' to someone else's town, accused of taking someone else's job.

As an act of self-preservation I decided not to think about national identity ever again.

The Queen - the one constant through it all - she never faltered on the walkabouts, I'll give her that. Catholics couldn't marry a Royal: well, what odds? Royalty is a gilded cage.

If you believe Richard Dawkins, then none of this tangled twine means anything.

If there's no God, then we're just high-functioning bipeds who copped a few lucky breaks along the road of evolution.

In a way, I'm glad I opted out emotionally, because this way I hate no one and, if they hate me for opting out, that's their problem.

The Queen is 85 years old; her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed in Sligo in 1979 and 10% of the English claim Irish ancestry.

Ireland and England are neighbours and trading partners. The Suffragettes were English. The Queen is one of the very few high-ranking females on this planet.

For these reasons, the people of Ireland should be courteous to the Queen this week.

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