Since moving to Ireland nearly four years ago, there is one question Jill Cousins is regularly asked but which she struggles to answer. She speaks with an English accent but has not lived in the United Kingdom for more than two decades. And even when she did live in Britain, she moved around a lot.
“It’s the question you get asked most here in Ireland and I still don’t know what to say. I was born north of London, I moved around a lot in my teenager years. I lived in Wales, then Manchester, then London and Oxford.”
'I'm a Dutch citizen but I don't think I feel Dutch either. But I do have a huge empathy for that country and the way it runs itself'
Cousins also spent nearly 20 years in Amsterdam before moving to Limerick in 2018. Like many people in Ireland who either do not speak with an Irish accent, or who do but have black or brown skin, Cousins is often asked where does she "really" come from. "When I say I spent 20 years in the Netherlands and I'm a Dutch citizen it just prompts that next question. That's fine for me, I'm white, middle class and nobody is going to keep pushing back on my answer. But it's very tough if you're born here and your skin is a different colour but you're still asked this question. You're asking someone to be something other than the place they were born in."
Cousins, who also spent time in Istanbul, Cairo, Rome and Paris during her studies, has spent a lot of her career interrogating what it means to belong to a certain place. A geography student who went on to specialise in Arabic and Turkish sea charts of the 16th century, she took part in the Greenham Common women’s peace camp in the 1980s and was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
She started her career in the mapping and charting division of the British ministry of defence before moving into management consultancy and then working for a scientific, technical and medical publishing house. In 2000, she moved to Amsterdam and went on to establish the Europeana Foundation which has worked for nearly 18 years to digitally transform the European Union’s cultural heritage sector, making it accessible to millions of people for education, research and creation.
“It sounds corny but I’m European and I’ve always strongly felt that. When I was 14, we moved to Wales so I know what it’s liked to be labelled as English and I didn’t like it. I’m a Dutch citizen but I don’t think I feel Dutch either. But I do have a huge empathy for that country and the way it runs itself. It’s got a better social record than both the UK and here. It’s very much based on the fact that everybody is equal and it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you pay your taxes, you’re welcome.
“There are some downsides, it’s not a very warm place and oddly it’s not a very tolerant society. I think it’s a rule-based society. That’s just my view which shows you that I’m not really Dutch.”
Cousins's sense of belonging to, and connection with, the country of her birth has become increasingly fraught during the Brexit era. "I was terribly shocked by it all. But there was always that division in the country, they were always very ambiguous about being part of Europe, particularly because it was a Franco-German stronghold. I knew there had always been this underlying xenophobia and huge arrogance within the UK, and I'm always ashamed of it. They still feel they rule the world and I hated that. But I don't feel at all comfortable with the route the UK has gone down, most particularly the type of speech and actions that has come out of all this.
“My father was a Quaker and had been a conscientious objector to the war, so I come from a long line of pacifists. I was taught to be a tolerant human being who listened to other people and came to decent consensual situations, not pitting people against one another. But having said that, all countries have those divisions.”
As director of Limerick’s Hunt Museum, a position she has held since moving to Ireland, Cousins is currently leading an exhibition that seeks to promote a broader appreciation for European inclusivity and tolerance. The Belonging exhibition, which is linked to the European Expo, hopes to encourage the person on the street to “understand the relevance of Europe to them”, says Cousins.
“It’s a contemporary art collection and it’s almost the ultimate expression of the diversity of Europe. It’s people’s views on various parts of the world and we’re asking, what does that mean in terms of our expression of Limerick and Ireland as part of Europe.”
'It's important for us to recognise that we're part of something bigger, hopefully art is a way for allowing us to see that'
The exhibition featuring work by 82 European artists was scheduled to begin in 2020 but was put on hold because of the pandemic. However, Cousins believes the conversations and debates it prompts around belonging and division have only become more enhanced during that time. “It’s about not burying these divisions and pretending they’re not happening. If people are talking there’s a chance they’ll come out the other side of this. If you’re talking about what it feels like to belong to a place, or if you feel you don’t belong, at least someone is listening.”
Asked whether she feels a sense of belonging to Ireland after going through a pandemic on these shores, Cousins says she's loved witnessing the changes happening in Irish society. "I've been amazed at how quickly Irish society has evolved. I was coming here in the 1960s and 70s as a kid for family holidays and the last time I came to Limerick was 1989. I was in the University of Limerick then which had three buildings and everybody on the streets was white. It's changed so much in terms of how it deals with all sorts of issues from abortion through to single parents through to colour. And that is very positive."
Cousins also believes most Irish people are interested in “being part of a bigger world”. “There’s something in the Irish character that it was almost waiting for this change to happen. And most people say yes to everything you ask them, that’s why this Belonging exhibition has the whole of Limerick behind it. It’s important for us to recognise that we’re part of something bigger, hopefully art is a way for allowing us to see that.”
The Hunt Museum's Belonging Exhibition runs until April 24th with artwork on display at eight locations across Limerick city. For more, visit huntmuseum.com/whats-on/belonging