“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to Fly by those nets.” 
James Joyce

Time's Limits: Borders and Identity in Northern Ireland

Time's Limits: Borders and Identity in Northern Ireland

I am simultaneously lots of things. Different territories, allegiances and communities overlap me. There is a line running through my life, dividing me. Part of me is there in Northern Ireland and part of me is not included, watching disinterestedly from somewhere else. No matter how I play myself, or perform my identity, there is a role which is placed upon me. There is a border which divides all identities along a harsh binary. To be crude, are you Catholic or Protestant? Unionist or Nationalist? If you are neither, you are probably feeling invisible.

I was born in India and grew up in Northern Ireland. I first arrived in Belfast in 1993 with my mum Christine. We eventually returned to her family home in Derry in 1997, in time for Labour’s landslide election win and all the positive turns that followed in the peace process. I left NI to go to university in Scotland a few years back and like all cool Irish intellectuals and/or trainee priests, I eventually ended up in Paris.  

This article may suffer as a result of the auto-mythos I’ve since created. It is mainly written as a reflection on my own experience as a child who moved from India to Belfast at 3 years old and who grew up thoroughly unreligious in Derry as part of a vaguely Catholic-Irish family.

So there is that sense that being on the outside gives me a view from somewhere else, yet this view is essentially a view from nowhere. What do I know about Northern Ireland now, right? I have noticed the desire to create and present The NI Experience to all the nice people I’ve since met who actually care that I’m from there. I actively construct it as a place. All the time. In my head.

Conflict Tourism

Me, second on the left, with some Scottish/English pals: (Derry  circa  2012)

Me, second on the left, with some Scottish/English pals: (Derry circa 2012)

Conflict Tourism is a thing, as highlighted by our very own Chris Jenkins in the Guardian. I’ve been guilty of promoting it myself, having brought friends home from university to see the unique life experience NI gave me (See picture). So you see, there is definitely a perverse desire for me to want to emphasize the bad, the sad and the sheer tragic aspects of the country (and town) I love so well.

Yet, for me, Northern Ireland was a completely positive education. That is to say that any process of education is a positive experience. It enabled me to see what I did not want to be as well as what I did.  I experienced the growth of integrated schooling in the city first hand. I was able to participate in organisations like the maddeningly defunct Spirit of Enniskillen Trusta forum for dialogue and partnership between young people from all sides of NI’s dividing lines. (It was established by the late Gordon Wilson in the aftermath of the IRA Enniskillen bombing which claimed the life of his daughter Marie).

Being Northern Irish provided me with truly a critical education emphasizing the fragility of concepts such as inclusivity, openness and tolerance in society. In stark opposition to these ideals lies the Border. Not necessarily the physical-geographical-legal one, but the other one. The one which, when noticed, becomes a challenge to your own identity. If you don’t fall neatly on either side of it, you can feel split, uncomfortable. Displaced.

Surrounded by Fear

Northern Ireland is defined by its border. That’s what borders are meant to do. They’re thoroughly Modern. Of course, there are those who deny the existence of NI’s border entirely, but let’s not get into that for now. So what’s the big deal? Borders are the act of defining exactly what-and-who-we-are, and what-and-who-we-definitely-are-not as a country. Borders define territory. If we delve into a little etymology here we see that they are about marking out  territorium: land or terrain which surrounds something’. Unfortunately the Northern Irish border was designed a little too well and does not just define a geopolitical contour but, in fact, runs right through each and every individual.

We can say that this territory is defined by terror. The border is the ultimate expression of fear. All throughout Northern Ireland, urban spaces are demarcated by their own miniature dotted lines, green white & orange for Nationalist areas and red white & blue for Unionist (Disclaimer: this illustrative bordering is often forced upon residents. I have woken up to find an Irish Tricolour flying from the lamppost outside my front door without knowing who actually put it there).

Five minutes up the road from my house. ( Source ) The fence acts as a barrier across the interface between the houses in the Protestant Fountain Estate (on the left) and the mainly Catholic Bishop Street (on the right). Houses on both sides have metal grills over their windows to protect them from items thrown over the wall.

Five minutes up the road from my house. (Source) The fence acts as a barrier across the interface between the houses in the Protestant Fountain Estate (on the left) and the mainly Catholic Bishop Street (on the right). Houses on both sides have metal grills over their windows to protect them from items thrown over the wall.

For each group of sectarian cartographers, this expression of national faith is itself a sign of great insecurity.  From my bedroom window, I can see one of the North’s famed peace walls where the showing of one flag is met with the flying of another. Escalation is often the result.

The painted outlines of our segregated communities are mythical chalk circles, girded islands of community cohesion and protection, yet they invite comparison to the chalk outlines which delineate the scenes of crimes. ATQ Stewart places Topography as the key defining feature of Ulster’s Troubles, as people learn which areas are for them and which areas to avoid all guided by this invisible border which warps perception.



Derry/Londonderry is a city so emblematic of the border that even the name itself is divided. Great care is given to mention both formulations equally in BBC coverage. The official branding of the city is a mess. “Derry City and Strabane District Council” exists within “County Londonderry.” Even the deliberate typographical choice of a ~ over a / betrayed cautious politics during the City of Culture celebrations in 2013. Each symbol fraught with meaning, an inclusive squiggle versus the more exclusionary forward slash of Stroke City.

Worst of all is the embarrassingly awkward, supposedly neutral term, The Maiden City. This literally refers to how the city was never taken by invading armies (read: penetrated). Sexism is still seen as less controversial than sectarianism, as the exigencies of militarism have always subsumed the voices of Irish women in the past. So, why not in the present?

The Peace Walled City

The city is the check-point where the two narratives co-exist uneasily on top of each other. Two places in one space. It suffered horrendous bouts of what could be described as ‘neighbourhood cleansing’ that resulted in a geographical division between the predominantly Catholic Cityside and the predominantly Protestant Waterside, separated from each other by the river Foyle.

This is a city of/at war, then. A symbolic fortress city. One whose fabled/derided motto of “No Surrender” serves as the cornerstone of one Northern Irish identity: it is an attitude that you have to deal with whatever side of the battlements you may find yourself on. The mythic Siege itself having an immediacy in the present in the way that in the way that seminal events like the 1916 Easter Rising echo their way through the various Irish nationalist movements. To live there is to live inside the mythic heart of Northern Ireland, pumping out visceral symbolism to the rest of the country.

However it is by examining the borders between communities such as peace walls and the murals that we can now understand how they break down the distinction between past and present. As you walk down from the City Walls towards Free Derry Corner (the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre) you are confronted by the murals of past injustices. Though, community memory of dilapidated public housing, insecurity and lack of opportunity are more subtle reminders.  Emblems of siege and massacre abound, all of which keep the past bleeding continuously into the long present. It is a great pressure to carry the burden of a mythic past – it’s Tragedy.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is portrayed as being between two competing ideologies, two ways of remembering, imagining, the world. It is important to examine how these myths are created and to connect them with the often concrete realities on the ground. The peace walls of Northern Ireland highlight how The Troubles never really went away, you know…  they were merely submerged. Or at least, much of their root causes were.

The weight of past concerns continuously bears down on young shoulders, children are socialised into older hatreds and the border expands into a new generation. Seamus Heaney described the peatbog as the central metaphor signifying the bleeding of past into present.

The bogs preserved the violence of a primordial Ireland, with the bodies of sacrificial victims preserved through the ages; a continual repetition of sacrifice serving to hold group identity together. Focusing on the more recent past is Frank McGuinness, of Observe the Sons of Ulster fame. McGuinness imagined Derry/Londonderry’s mythic function as providing blood sacrifice as well as providing the site of an imperial other – the Irish Carthage to an English Rome – signifying a merging of texts and historic associations in creating a charnel house of classical imagery.

J. M. W. Turner,  Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire , 1815

J. M. W. Turner, Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, 1815

His play Carthaginians opens with a group of people awaiting the resurrection of the dead inside the ruined city of Derry~Carthage’s graveyard. This signifies the superimposition of various places onto the exact same space, which transforms both cities into a ruined necropolis. The same tragic space is a stage which has hosted the apotheosis of another culture as T.B. Macaulay notes that ‘…the wall of Londonderry is to the Protestants of Ulster what the trophy of Marathon was to the Athenians’.


There is a sense of compressed time, of violence gestating and festering under the textual boglands of the Northern Irish imagination. This must serve as a warning. There is a constant expectation that something might just start again. As someone once told me, the most dangerous line of recent Irish literature is:

“It wasn’t like 1916 in 1916.” Cal, Bernard McLavery

The armed insurrection that happened at Easter in Dublin, 1916 did not become the the ‘Easter Rising’ until well after the fact. There is a trend in the history of all nationalisms towards translating gestures of violence into tragic or epic symbolism. I guess it is in the act of remembering that we continue to live like this, day in day out. Joyce wrote Ulysses to encapsulate all of Ireland into one day, the 16th of June 1904. The past is always there, yesterday. Whether preserved in the sinister peat bog or in the discourse and architecture of the border which divides and subdivides Northern Ireland. These divisions represent a multiplicity of worlds, various texts, sacred imagery and iconography influencing a profane, mundane, but ultimately dull fear of each other. It pools into a reservoir of irrational anger that each generation is subsequently baptised with.

Let’s sketch the outline of the border, the expansion of today’s present into tomorrow. It’s true that the peace walls represent the fear of the other worldview that threatens to overwhelm. However it is merely a physical manifestation of the deeper divide as as the average Northern Irish child can reach adulthood without ever having a serious conversation with someone outside their own community .

It becomes clear that as soon as you tie down the main narratives of us and the opposing narratives of them, you realise how malleable a concept like identity can be. There’s a book to be written here somewhere, but for now I recommend Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland.

A Violence that we are born into

The point is that this identity-play can be liberating. We are stressed out about the past, or at the very least relieved that we, personally, were not too badly affected. The physical scars will not go away anytime soon as each community carries a generational trauma. Yet we can start by recognising the fear that goes into our bordering, our little internal voice that defines us from them.  The border sustains, and  is sustained by, two Chimeric entities. Neither of which can exist without the other. To remove the enemy is to remove yourself. To self-negate.

Rather than saying that feeling truly confident within your own identity can also let you be comfortable with accepting the existence of another’s, it is to better to say that we must accept that our own identities are propped up by the border fortifications, that we would collapse without them. But what would we collapse into? We do not have to accept the Northern Irish-text as already read, or choose exile when we cannot. Fear does not have to define our personal territory, and I am interested in the life outside the walls.

This space can be any place.

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