There are ‘gaps’ in our understanding of Northern Ireland

Some of Tanist Leo Varadkar’s comments in Fine Gael ard-fhéis surprised him that he hoped to see a united Ireland in his lifetime.

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

The division has not ceased to be relevant since it was first introduced 100 years ago. “The past never dies. It is not the past,” said novelist William Faulkner.

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

The documentary is personal to her — her husband, Steve Carson, is from a Northern Presbyterian family — and political. She has covered North Korea for many decades now, and her film about former Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume helped him be voted as the greatest Irish character ever.

“Some people went to sleep in one country and woke up in another,” she says of people like Pettijo in Ko Donegal who found themselves and their city divided by international borders 100 years ago.

She asserts that the story of the partition was more than “inequality, sectarianism and unrest,” “it overshadowed the people who were getting up every day trying to get over it.”

Radically different experiences

Partition was not just a political identity. It was about different experiences of living in two different countries with different priorities. World War II, for example, passed in a radically different way.

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

In Northern Ireland, there were 300,000 American soldiers, which had a huge impact on the economy of the North while the South was in recession.

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

Then there was the post-war boom in the UK that didn’t come to Ireland. The NHS was created in 1948 and offered free health care to all citizens in the North when it was still legalized in the South and free secondary education was introduced in the North in 1947, 20 years before it was introduced in the South.

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

Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital was the first major hospital to be built in the UK after World War II.

At one point, there were 55 Protestants and five Catholics in Durham Village, Co Monaghan, only one tavern, three churches, and Orange Hall.

Angela Graham of Drum said her grandparents went to bed one night as loyal British citizens and woke up as Irish. They were not asked if they wanted to do so. That was just what it was. They are expected to be kept within the nine Ulster counties. They were shocked and disappointed. It was a scary period,” she says.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the narrative that southern Protestants eventually assimilated into the Irish state, Graham says that the sense of abandonment still lingers. “There was a great outpouring of Protestants from the southern counties of Ulster.”

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Constant sense of loyalty or mere curiosity drove thousands of people from the South to travel north of the border in 1953 to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II shown in cinemas there.

Northern Ireland got television that year and the creation of RTÉ Television in 1961 was a direct response to the realization that people from the south were already receiving signals from the north.

Ms. O’Callaghan stresses that the experience of women north of the border has also been different. Contraceptives were available in the North long before they were available in the South, and the arrogant nature of the Catholic Church was not the same in Northern Ireland.

Ms. O’Callaghan says there is a “gap” of understanding in the South about the North, a familiar dilemma and partly the result of media perceptions of the place that focus on negativity.

“For 100 years, people have been living their lives on both sides of the border with different pressures and raised their families.”

Miriam O’Callaghan’s Border Lives is on RTÉ 1 at 9:30 PM on Mondays.

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