Miriam O’Callaghan: There are ‘chasms’ in our understanding of Northern Ireland

New documentary on partition deals with the everyday experiences of those affected

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar's comments at the Fine Gael ard-fhéis that he hopes to see a united Ireland in his lifetime took some by surprise.

Many were surprised at the timing given the turmoil in the North, but there have always been reasons not to raise the issue of a united Ireland.

Partition has never ceased to be relevant since it was first introduced 100 years ago. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," as the novelist William Faulkner put it.

Miriam O’Callaghan’s documentary on partition looks at it, not from the perspective of high politics, but from that of individuals and families on both sides of the Border.


The documentary is both personal for her - her husband Steve Carson is from a Northern Presbyterian family - and political. She has covered the North for many decades now and her film about John Hume helped the former Nobel Peace Price winner to be voted the greatest ever Irish person.

"Some people went to sleep in one country and woke up in another," she says of people like those of Pettigo in Co Donegal who found themselves and their town divided by an international Border 100 years ago.

There was more to the story of partition than “inequalities, sectarian and the Troubles”, she contends, “it overshadowed people just getting up every day and trying to get by”.

Radically different experiences

Partition was not just about political identity. It was about different experiences of living in two different states with different priorities. The Second World War, for instance, was experienced in a radically different way.

Dublin was accidentally bombed, but large areas of Belfast were flattened after four days of incessant bombing 80 years ago.

In Northern Ireland there were 300,000 American GIs, which had a huge impact on the economy o f the North while the South's was in the doldrum.

“It was a completely different experience on the same tiny island,” she says.

Then there was the post-war boom in the UK which did not come to Ireland. The NHS was set up in 1948 and gave all citizens in the North free healthcare when it was still rationed in the South and free secondary school education was introduced in the North in 1947, 20 years before it was introduced into the South.

John Hume was one of those who benefited from a free secondary school education.

Derry's Altnagelvin Hospital was the first major hospital to be built in the United Kingdom after the second World War.

At one stage there were 55 Protestants and five Catholics in the village of Drum, Co Monaghan, just one pub, three churches and an Orange hall.

Angela Graham from Drum said her grandparents went to bed one night as loyal British citizens and woke up as Irish. "They weren't asked if they wanted to do this. That was just the way it was. They expected to have been retained within the nine counties of Ulster. They were shocked and disillusioned. It was a frightening time," she says.

Somewhat surprisingly given the narrative that Southern Protestants eventually integrated into the Irish state, Ms Graham says that sense of abandonment still lingers. “There was a great haemorrhaging of Protestant people from the southern counties of Ulster.”

A lingering sense of loyalty or just curiosity brought thousands of people from the South to travel North of the Border in 1953 to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which was shown in cinemas there.

Northern Ireland got television in that year and the setting up of RTÉ television in 1961 was a direct response to the realisation that people from the South were already receiving signals from the North.

The experience of women north of the Border was also different, Ms O'Callaghan contends. Contraception was available in the North long before it was available in the South and the overbearing nature of the Catholic Church was not the same in Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Callaghan says there is a “chasm” in understanding in the South about the North, a familiar refrain and partially as a result of the perceptions about the place from the media which focuses on the negative.

“For 100 years people got on living their lives on both sides of the Border with different pressures and just brought up their families.”

Miriam O’Callaghan’s Border Lives is on RTÉ 1 at 9.30pm on Monday night.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times