Be brave next year and break for the Border
OPINION:You have never been to the North? Never? I know we have our troubles but, seriously, never? (And, no, a booze run to Newry or a flight out of Belfast International Airport does not count.) That is six counties you have not managed to see out of a total of 32.
The chances are, too, that if you have not been to the not-so-occupied six counties, then you have not been to Donegal either – which is, in fact, one of yours but is kind of stuck on to the side of one of the others. That is partition times two, and not something to be proud of.
Still, six counties. That’s a lot, don’t you think? Of course, I understand your reluctance. There have been some difficulties in the North you might have followed in the media over the years. But not once? It is odd to hear people make such an admission with, almost, a hint of pride. “No, I have never been north.”
Oddly enough, “never” is a word we use a lot in the North, so in a way you are showing very clearly how Northern you really are. Hopefully that will cheer you up.
I know the North can be a bit of a burden. Indeed, the Irish for a native of Ulster – “Ultach” – can also mean “burden” when spelt in the lower case, “ultach”. So, it is not like we do not know we can be fractious. But give us our due. While the South’s partitionist patriots are happy “never” to go North, Northerners – supposedly small-minded and reactionary – are more than happy to travel South in search of sunshine.
I have braved the South. I have been lost in Leitrim, astray in Sligo, giddy in Galway. I spent a summer working in Spiddal craft village, where one of my roles was to raise the Tricolour every morning and take it down every evening – and I did it all in Irish. (Who says we Brits are bad at foreign languages?)
I have been sunburned on Banna Strand, sand-blasted in Brittas Bay, been to the theatre in Dublin, the pictures in Arklow and poetry readings in Cork. (I know – poetry in Cork!) I even acted in an Irish-language version of a Max Frisch play in Limerick. Admittedly there were more people on the stage than in the audience, and perhaps Limerick’s Gaeilgeoirí were not ready for an Irish-language version of Max Frisch but, dammit, I made the effort.
I have holidayed in Athlone – seemed like a good idea at the time – and gone for a pony ride in Glendalough. I hitched a ride in the midlands once and a nice born-again couple from England asked me very politely: “Are you a Christian?” To which I replied, in all innocence, “No, I am a Catholic.” I spent a week walking around Inis Oírr before realising there was a reason that the other island was called Inis Mór. Mór! You eejit. That means “big”. There would have been something to do on the big island!
All the while I would chat to people and they would say: “You’re from Belfast, are you? Oh, I have never been north.” And I would understand because of the local difficulties and nod and wonder why the sun did not shine more in the South – because the sun is supposed to shine in southern places.
But enough is enough. As I hurtle towards my late 40s, I just cannot listen to this any longer. You have to go to the North. Just once. Buy yourself a Thin Lizzy CD and put on The Boys are Back in Town to give yourself a bit of courage and make a break for the Border. Go on the motorway and keep on travelling until the signposts turn to English only. Then you will know you have arrived in the North.
Do the touristy things – sail on Lough Neagh (great fun), cycle in the Sperrins, picnic in the Mournes, walk Derry’s walls, look at the beautiful paintings by Sir John Lavery in the Ulster Museum, visit the Giant’s Causeway (it’s really boring!), head to the Glens of Antrim and look over the Moyle towards Scotland.
You might meet a ganch (you will know one when you meet one) but, for the greater part, you will be greeted with kindness. Go on, go north in 2013 – before I lose my temper and we have a row about partition.