The Old Ulaid Today - A Place of Different Belongings
15th of January, 2018
I moved to a place perched on a tall cliff above the mythical Sea of Moyle, where Lir’s swan children lived on the deep and restless currents. To a place where big skies light up and die, and roaring winds swoop down on sheep and humans and gorse and bracken tangles alike. A place just outside Ballycastle, a town nestled at the base of a bay in the shade of Knocklayd mountain, a stone's throw from Rathlin Island where the Vikings first set foot on Irish soil, in 795 AD. At the heart of our place is a stone shrine called the Croí (the Irish word for heart), where a candle is lit beside a small turf cross every dark evening after the big bell tolls. Corrymeela is the name of the place, a name that came from the earth, here on the northern coast of Northern Ireland.
Corrymeela is a peace and reconciliation centre that for the past fifty years has been a safe space for people to encounter the feared or hated Other and relearn to see their humanity within, that transcends the lines of identity that divide them.
I knew I was moving to a place with a recent history of sectarian violence, and a population still struggling with unresolved trauma from that time, manifested in mutual suspicion, living segregated lives. But there is far more below those fifty years since the Troubles began. Gradually I’m gaining access to the galaxies of meaning beyond the small tokens of identity and allegiance written all over the Northern Irish landscape, subtle to the stranger, blatant to the native.
Colours, symbols, letters, and fonts have begun to populate the edges of my ignorance, and knit together to tell the stories of this historically and politically complex island. I learned that Ireland, as the backdoor to the British Empire, has got caught between a rock and a hard place numerous times throughout history. Between Spain and England during the 1588 Spanish Armada, between France and England in the aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution, between the European Union and England after the 2016 Brexit, for example.
I learned that the rift between Catholics and Protestants isn’t a feature of this little corner of Europe alone. Rather, that this corner of Europe became the battleground of forces far outsizing it – Rome, Spain, Portugal, Britain, and my own country, the Orange ones, had no small role to play in the havoc wreaked upon this place.
I learned why Ulster, once the most unruly, ‘most Irish’ part of Ireland became the most sensible trading piece in the Partition of 1921, when the border was drawn around Northern Ireland…
Of the five medieval (and mythical) provinces of Ireland, the northern Ulaid (now Ulster), led by the O’Neill and O’Donnell earls, was the fiercest in resisting the advancements of the Tudor Brits. The Irish earls were, beside landlords, also the patrons and protectors of the arts, culture, and religion of Irish Celts. The demise of Ulaid unfolded in the events of the fateful 17th century, beginning in 1601 when the powerful Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was defeated in the Battle of Kinsale. The annals wrote, “immense and countless was the loss in that place, although the number slain was trifling, for the prowess and valour, prosperity and affluence, nobleness and chivalry, hospitality and bravery and protection, devotion and pure religion of Ireland were lost in that engagement.” Six years later O’Neill, O’Donnell and ninety followers set sail in secrecy from the shores of Donegal, hoping to return to recover their lands. But with the Flight of the Earls fled the hope of restoring a Gaelic Ireland. They would never return from their exile.
The English were quick to make their move on the power vacuum created by the earls’ departure. They mounted a massive colonisation effort that came to be known as the Plantation of Ulster. Over the course of a few decades, a huge influx of Scottish farmers and priests, sponsored by the guilds of the city of London, settled in Ulster. The plantation was not as successful as intended and the native Catholic Irish maintained their presence. But from then on, tens of thousands of Protestant British would gradually carve out homes for themselves, and for the past four hundred years their children, too, were born of this land. In 1690 the Dutch-English king William of Orange dealt the definitive blow in the Battle of the Boyne, and Ireland came under British rule. By 1921 the old unruly Ulaid now had the strongest Protestant presence on the island, especially in its six easternmost counties. It was these six counties – still unruly but now turned in on themselves – that became Northern Ireland, and remained under the British crown as the rest of Ireland regained their independence after more than two hundred years.
So is it British or Irish, this windy corner? Such a craving our minds have for neat endings, for binaries and categories. But for almost a hundred years now, the truth has been defiantly messy, unfinished, and unsatisfying. This corner is Northern Irish, a place where people have had to learn to sit in the suspense of different belongings, belonging together in their birthright, as per the language of the visionary Good Friday Agreement which ended the violence in 1998, to identify and to be accepted as Irish or British, either or both.
So I tread lightly on this land, at times with vertigo at the depth of histories layered into the sediment under my feet. It is a complex move this one, personally, professionally, culturally, politically, spiritually; the stepping stones are unsteady and the destination in the mists. Some days, after being filled with so much messy truth, I want a lap to hide in, but all the places and people here feel too big, and not enough my own.
As my study of this historical and mythical island further fuels my intrigue, so has it increased my fondness for my own country. Because for all other homes I’ve made abroad, safekeeping places of my soul, there is only one place where I can sink fully into selfhood, where the language flows forth from a natural wellspring, where I don’t feel I have to prove that I understand the place well enough to earn my right to be there.
But if our hearts and souls can learn to enfold such a variety of Others, so can they learn to enfold a variety within themselves. As my days and nights here grow in number, I will find that I too can belong here in yet another way altogether, and add a thread to this tapestry of different belongings, that make up this windy moody corner of Europe with its sediments reaching into the deep.