Northern Ireland is 100 years old? It feels more like 300

While the past still dominates, Rosemary Jenkinson is glad it’s not the 1980s any more

Rosemary Jenkinson outside The Great Eastern on the Newtownards Road, Belfast

Rosemary Jenkinson outside The Great Eastern on the Newtownards Road, Belfast


Northern Ireland is 100 years old, but at times feels as though it was born in the 17th century. In this country, the line between past and present is fragile; history is alive here; yesterday is today. The ghosts of the past exist in the mind and in physical form. My friend still has a security cage at the top of the stairs in his parents’ house in Ballymurphy.

It’s often said the English don’t relate to Northern Ireland because of its old-fashioned culture of men marching in bowler hats, but English culture seems almost as obsolete with its men parading in bearskin hats. At least the Northern Irish are modern in their obsession with a war which occurred in living memory, whereas the rest of the UK are always harking back to the first and second World Wars. In fact, there are more contemporary political protests on the walls here than Banksy has drawn in his lifetime.

Margaret Thatcher was wrong when she said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley, as some streets are much more British than Finchley while other districts are as Irish as Fingal. Unionists/loyalists have always had a paranoiac fear of British rejection, but Brexit has exacerbated it tenfold. Right now, I see them as a spurned lover, hence the riotous rage at the Northern Ireland Protocol. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

It isn’t always easy to live here, but the best way to navigate a nation of extreme identities is to be nothing to anyone or everything to everyone. We have to radiate ambiguity in order to traverse the peace lines. Of course, danger is not always avoidable. I’ve had bricks thrown at me by loyalists on the Donegall Road following a riot and by republicans from the Markets after the Homecoming Parade in 2011. Fortunately, neither had a good aim.

While the past still predominates, I’m thankful that things have changed from the eighties when I waited for the school bus in Dundrum. There were three of us from Down High and three boys from St Patrick’s and, in the whole two years at that bus stop, I don’t recall either side speaking to the other. It was total self-apartheid and our school blazers were as separative as military uniforms. Of course, allegiances were never entirely black and white. One of my school friends was a Protestant republican which I always attributed to his mother’s tumultuous divorce from his father, a leading light in the Orange Order.

In Martin Doyle’s fascinating recollections, Dirty Linen, about growing up in Banbridge, he talks of how “on the nightly news I saw a steady stream of working-class Catholics being sent to jail”. When I watched the same news in Dundrum, I viewed it through the prism of concern for my Mum’s cousin who was in the RUC Reserve, and saw my own narrative of Protestant RUC men being murdered. It always strikes me that there were so many radically differing and concomitant truths at that time.

From the age of 12 to 14, I listened to Stiff Little Fingers on a loop. One of the songs, Wasted Life, had a chorus about a life stolen away by paramilitaries, almost making me wish I had a life important enough to be squandered in such a glamorous way, although I knew as a female I was excluded from that world. I couldn’t help feeling confined by my lower middle-class and unionist background. My great-aunt Lucy, for instance, had lived in Mount Stewart for years as Lady Londonderry’s housekeeper and secretary. Not that all my relatives were pro-establishment – my Dad’s two older brothers studied at Trinity and joined the Irish Workers’ League. My Dad once found a copy of the Daily Worker stashed in their mother’s piano stool.

Considering my SLF infatuation, it was perhaps inevitable I’d end up living in a paramilitary area of east Belfast. To be honest, I’ve grown accustomed to the tribal colours – there are flags as big as tablecloths and more poppies on display than an opium plantation. There is even the occasional dash of Latin on the murals like “quis separabit” and “feriens tego” – who would have thought I could put my Latin A-level to good use?!

Currently, the big question seems to be this: if today is like yesterday, then what is tomorrow? Unionism is in chaos and, as a writer, I would have much preferred Gavin Robinson to be leader of the DUP, since he grew up acting in school plays and is a potential ally for the arts. It is extremely worrying that the DUP is following an ever more conservative path.

Sinn Féin, while more liberal on social issues, is almost as anachronistic as it’s hard to forget Mary Lou McDonald’s disastrous appearance next to the “England get out of Ireland” banner, a throwback to slogans of the seventies. Each party locks the other into a time warp. Moreover, it looks like the winner of the constitutional argument will be less down to persuasion than demographics. An actor recently told me she wanted children and joked about whether to opt for a Protestant one or two or a Catholic three! It seems ridiculously retro that political change may depend upon “outbreeding” rather than influencing hearts and minds.

The centenary has helped highlight our present and our potential future. I find this country to be a trove of dramatic tension and blackly humorous noir that fuels my writing, but I’d be happy to have a Border poll because of my literary links to the South. Just as Catholics were said in the past “to take the Queen’s shilling” (yet another old-school phrase), I’m now taking the Uachtarán na hÉireann’s euro!

Personally, I’m excited by the prospect of change, as national upheaval is meat and drink to any writer. If there is one thing I know, great writers live through great times and no matter how the next few years play out, it’s vital that we work together to be modern and to ensure that tomorrow will not look like yesterday.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s play, Billy Boy, will be premiered live at the Strand Cinema as part of the EastSide Arts Festival on August 7th-8th. A new short story collection, Marching Season, is coming this autumn from Arlen House. Her latest, Lifestyle Choice 10mg, has been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.

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