I recently watched a film called Mickybo And Me, a 2004 Irish comedy-drama about the lives of two nine-year-old friends from opposite sides of the political divide in Belfast in the 1970s; a period when a civil conflict known (rather unassumingly) as The Troubles was in full swing.
The Troubles was easily the most prolonged period of open warfare in modern Irish history. Spanning nearly 30 years, and with it’s venom backed up by centuries of ethno-political resentment, it lay claim to some of the most gritty, horrific and macabre scenes of human atrocity committed in western Europe. Bombings, massacres, gunfights and knee-cappings were a daily fixture of the Belfast landscape during this time, earning the city the rather dubious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Which is maybe why, after watching this film, I can maybe understand why the young protagonists were… absolute wee fuckin’ shites, as they’d say back home. Watching these young children swear at their elders, spit on complete strangers and threaten each other with penknives had me wondering exactly what sort of country I’d come from. Do they not teach these wains (wee ‘uns) anything?
I mean, can you imagine a nine-year-old coming out with stuff like this, verbatim;
“What the fuck you lookin’ at? You lookin’ decked, fuckhead?”
“You’re such a fuckin’ wee girl! Fuck off, pishy knickers, go fuck yerself!”
“You fuckin’ startin’? I’ll FUCKIN’ KILL YE.”
I couldn’t either, but then I had a startling revelation…
When I was a child, I found this sort of behaviour normal myself!!
It’s true! I can remember being surrounded by exactly the same sort of debauchery when I was a young’un.
So, what does that say about northern Irish society?
To answer that question, let’s take a quick history lesson, so we can put it all into context…
A Troubled Birth
Northern Ireland, as a political entity, is one built upon apprehension and suspicion. The very context of the it’s birth — a reactionary measure on the part of Ireland’s northern Protestants to keep the north of Ireland under British control in a time when Irish independence was sweeping the rest of the island— ensured that it came into the world snarling and gnashing like a rat trapped into a corner.
As a state, Northern Ireland was born with it’s back inherently against the wall. It was controlled by a Protestant government who, above all else, sought to defend the province at all costs from the influence and grasp of the largely Catholic South. To northern Irish Protestants, the severing and subsequent protection of the north from the rest of the island was their last stand in the fight for what they saw as their freedom to practice British values.
Ironically, in the northern Protestant pursuit to avoid becoming a minority in an independent Irish state, a sizable minority was formed in the native Catholics that found themselves living within the boundaries of the new Protestant-controlled state. These Catholics, who affiliated more with the culture and values of the South, suddenly found themselves isolated in a province where the governing body treated them with immediate suspicion and hostility. As a result, tensions rose between the two polarised communities and, combined with increasingly militant tactics on both sides, eventually culminated in the 30 years of open warfare we know now as The Troubles.
These are the very bare bones of the conflict, and it would take books upon books of writing to explain it fully and fairly. However, it is within this context that I again put forward my original question; in such a society, is it hard to imagine a nine year old child spewing some of the verbal depravity I listed earlier?
Does it really become surprising anymore?
In a province where grown adults have been hurling not just insults, but bombs and gunfire for generations, is it surprising that such deeply-embedded hostility trickles down to the next generation?
Suddenly, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.”
A Cold Exterior
Whilst the cold days of The Troubles are now over, a lot of the residue from those times is still hugely prevalent. Viewing Northern Ireland from my newly-external perspective, it now surprises me to see how deeply embedded a sense of headstrong vigilance is within every facet of northern Irish society. The northern Irish sense of humour, for example, is more dark and blunt than that generally found in the US. Likewise, the attitude towards life’s intricacies is more bull-headed and workmanlike and a lot of things perhaps considered shocking elsewhere are considered quite trivial. These are differences that I have personally had to learn hands-on as I adjust to life in the US- I’m pretty sure I’ve offended a few people more than once with my “sleggin’!”
Heck, even the facial features of your average northern Irishman seem to reflect an ingrained toughness. Any native reading this post will be able to testify to the northern Irishman’s natural ability to pull off a truly intimidating, piercing scowl; something that seems to hold a purpose similar to the horns of a bull, or the stripes of a wasp. It is there to warn you. It’s there to warn you not to fuck with this person, because this person’s lineage has seen enough violence throughout the years to become completely accustomed to it.
Case Study: Belfast Dad
I tend to make these sorts of wee observations when I’m in the middle of travelling between Ireland and the US; usually during a layover at Newark airport. There, I find I have the uncanny ability to point out a Belfast dad long before he confirms it with his accent, and it’s become a little game I like to play with myself. I’ve already listed most of the giveaways above, with the only addition generally being a a bright-red, livid sunburn-face that suggests both a lack of ability to tan and too many years of Ulster frys. It’s something I personally find quite endearing.
Heck, even Dublin dad, usually found sitting nearby, is more passive looking- often entertaining himself with a pack of Dunkin’ Donuts whilst sharing small talk with his son. Belfast dad does not. Belfast dad is often too busy blaring loudly at his wife about which US coin is which;
“Dat DUR is a frickin’ quartur, and dat DUR is a diiieeeme. SEE NOW!?”
And you know what? I find this bluntness charming as hell.
A Warm Interior
If it has all sounded like I’m creating a negative, sincere tough-guy view of Northern Ireland so far, please be assured that I’m not. This is all just a basis for my concluding point.
You see, there is another strain of resilience within northern Irish society that I’ve failed to mention thus far. One that contradicts the hard-headed exterior I’ve described up till now- it is an optimism and warmth that attests to a staunch refusal to stop looking towards the light, even in the darkest times of The Troubles.
Through this stubborn determination to enjoy life even when things have seemed at their worst, the northern Irish have developed an ability to express an empathy and compassion for others that —to this day in my travels— has yet to be bettered. Whilst Northern Ireland’s society is pluralised, both communities share a unity in having taken their bloody history of conflict and created a delightfully unique and interesting view of the world that resonates wonderfully in their humour, their art, their uncanny ability to empathise and, above all, make you feel like you’re in good company.
In closing, if you ever meet someone from the north of Ireland/Nothern Ireland/whatever-you-want-to-call-it on your worldly travels, don’t worry if they initially seem alarming. We don’t mean to bite!
As a people, we’ve just had it a little tough in the past.
Give us a chance, and you’ll quickly find we’re the greatest people in the world.
Watch Mickybo And Me online via Megavideo;