That unmentionable place
even to name it is to take a side
There is a place filled with flags. Flags fly in each neighborhood of every — well, both — cities. Flags are hoisted in towns, in villages, in hamlets. Flags flutter over remote farmsteads. There are (in strictly alphabetical order!) Irish flags, Northern Ireland flags (rarely), Palestinian flags (!), Union Jacks (what Americans call the “British Flag”). There are plenty of others, more radically fine-grained. I wouldn’t even flirt with naming them.
Greek flags abound in Greece, Hungarian flags in Hungary, understandably, here are two countries that suffered lengthy occupations and partitions which still stir and trouble the collective psyche. Outside of World Cup or European Championship football seasons, you don’t see German flags in Germany, apart from public buildings. Okay, you do see Bavarian flags in Bavaria, I suppose as a reminder that the “free-state” has a constitutional right to secede if and when they choose. Otherwise a privately displayed German flag means someone is making a political statement from the right (the far right will go for something more specific and offensive, but as displaying an actual swastika flag carries a prison term, even they don’t go that far). The Danes are proud of their Dannebrog, but even over school buildings and churches, the Dannebrog only flies on special occasions.
In this other place though — occupying the northeastern 1/6th of the island of Ireland — do not conflate the island of Ireland with the country of Ireland! — flag display has achieved a level of passion and complexity unmatched anywhere else on our planet.
What does one even call this place? WARNING: Do not go by what the maps say. Within 30 seconds of my host picking me up at the airport, I managed to offend:
Wow, I didn’t expect Northern Ireland to be so beautiful!
This is not Northern Ireland. There is no such place. You may call it ‘the north of Ireland’ if you wish.
Actually, even calling it “the north of Ireland” turns out to be not so politically neutral as I was led to believe.
People in this place are genuinely friendly and welcoming to non-British outsiders. (Brits are not welcome by any side.) As my host told me, “we love visitors, we just hate each other!” Still, within seconds of greeting you, you have a good idea roughly where the speaker stands:
“You’ve just arrived? Welcome to Ireland!”
“You’ve just arrived? Welcome to Northern Ireland!”
“You’ve just arrived? Welcome to Ulster!”
As my genuine quotations from people I met suggest, there are not only two sides — put strictly alphabetically — Catholic or Protestant. There are groups within groups, splinter groups, factions, crossover, spillover, and everything else. Ardent Unionists swear allegiance to the Crown, but do not want the British Parliament telling them how to live. There are Protestants and Catholics who want to have a genuine, secular country that is modern and in the EU, which of course, post-Brexit, this place is not, despite a wide majority of Catholics and Protestants voting to remain.
So which is it, Derry, or Londonderry? The media have found a clever way to skirt the issue, they alternate usage: if an article mentions the city say, 10 times, they will first call it Derry, next Londonderry, then Derry, then Londonderry, and so forth, ensuring they never refer to the name an odd number of times (of course if they begin with Londonderry, the alternation is done the other way round). Derry is shorter, rolls off the tongue, and is historically accurate. Londonderry is a relatively new construct; even the most ardent Unionist will call it Derry, except in marching season. This place is welcoming any time of year, but Belfast and Derry (Londonderry) are best avoided during marching season.
And this whole, rugged, sometimes pristine, slow-paced, pre-social media place, what should one call it? (This place with its own currency, printed independently by no less than five private banks, theoretically on par with the British Pound but definitely not accepted across the Irish Sea or anywhere else?) It requires you to know where you are, but safest of all is to refer to the county, and only the county, in which you find yourself. “Antrim is lovely!” Anyone of any political stripe will smile and swell with pride. (Don’t use “Ulster” though, that is/was a traditional Irish province, it is not geographically identical to the six current counties, and it is politically charged). If you want to be sure your post arrives unscathed, or at all, write “County ______” on the envelope, and leave it there. Better still, just put down the post code, make no other mention of where you are at all.
This place occupying the northeastern 1/6th of it, is without a doubt the most beautiful part of the island of Ireland. There, I’ve raised the ire of the entire southern population, which is okay by the people here. The inhabitants of this enchanted place may not be happy boat-mates, but they do begrudgingly accept they are all in the same boat, a boat like no other, anywhere else. (And yes, everyone here calls the rest of the island “the south”, even Donegal which extends slightly further north.)
So of course I know better. I know what tags I definitely should not use on this post. But then, I’m writer. And even though I lived there only a short time, this place rubbed off on me, and it has stuck. It’s unavoidable. I suppose its the enchantment.