I am proud to say that I come from the island of Ireland and call this beautiful piece of Planet Earth home. There’s no doubt that I may have a bit of a confused identity owing to the political divide and my Protestant upbringing in the northern county of Antrim. (Am I Irish? Am I British? Am I Northern Irish?) Some may say that I’m a flippant moderate trying to cover all bases depending on the mood I wake up in, but actually I am perfectly happy to own dual nationality as I’m entitled.
Lots of people get very sentimental about Ireland, not least anyone whose Great Aunt Sadie was born in Tipperary. It always entertains us Irish when it seems like nine out of 10 folks we meet from North America proudly proclaim their Irish heritage within the first 10 seconds of conversation. Many a romantic notion of the Emerald Isle has been handed down through the generations. But then, who wouldn’t want to be Irish, this is God’s own country! Even despite a bloody history and continued political wrangling, I live in a beautiful place with beautiful people, and if I can somehow put it into words I want to share something of what this place means to me and the sense of home it brings me.
At heart I’m a country girl. I grew up 15 miles from Belfast; most of my relatives are farming families, and my Dad makes a living selling tractors, combine harvesters and the like. My parents live on a road where in the summertime there is grass growing along the middle of the road, where wild brambles in the hedgerows yield blackberries and where you’re likely to find yourself following behind a tractor and silage wagon. I love the familiar landmarks I grew up seeing every day—the hills surrounding Belfast, Slemish (where St. Patrick reputedly farmed pigs as a slave) and the Sperrins rising above Lough Neagh.
If I want to get away from it all and "get my head showered,"* I’ll take off to the Mournes to immerse myself in the hills. Or I’ll go to the North Coast, to white sandy beaches deserted except for maybe a family playing tag with the waves or someone walking their dog. The time of year doesn’t matter on those trips—whether the sun is beating down (occasional occurrence) or there is "liquid sunshine" falling (regular occurrence), there is always beauty to behold.
Currently I’m living in Belfast, having moved here two months ago, and I am loving it. There’s a bus stop outside my door that gets me to the city center in 15-20 minutes. I’m a two-minute drive from a motorway that can lead me to routes north, west or south. There is a handful of cozy coffee shops and trendy eateries a 10-minute walk down the road whilst Belfast nightlife gives plenty of choices if you want to be musically, visually or culturally entertained. And if I feel the urge to see the sea and feel some spray on my face I can hop on the train for five minutes to Holywood and take a walk along the coastal path. It’s hard to beat!
I’ve lived quite a few places during my time on the planet thus far—Aberdeen, Scotland as an undergraduate; Amiens, France for six months trying to getting to grips with la langue francaise; Regensburg, Germany for four months on another linguistic mission … I made all these places home, though some were more of a home than others, and I’m no stranger to the painful pangs of homesickness—the kind where you desperately want to be transported into the surroundings of all that’s familiar on the spot.
I also love traveling and the sense of adventure in getting away to foreign climes. My dream job would be to work for Michael Palin (the guy from Monty Python’s Life of Brian who now makes excellent travel documentaries doing epic journeys from one pole to the other or from one end of the Himalaya to the other). I’d happily hold the sound boom for him just to experience all the weird and wonderful places he brings to life in our living rooms. And actually I’ve done alright, I’ve seen a few weird and wonderful places myself: I’ve had tea with a lama, rafted down a roaring river in the Rockies, survived hair-raisingly heart-stopping taxi-rides with seemingly possessed drivers in China, swum in idyllic Swedish lakes, basked in Italian sunshine, trekked high mountain passes, bartered for souvenirs in busy markets …
But do you know something?
I LOVE coming home. I love getting onto the plane bound for Belfast and being surrounded by Northern Irish accents and greeting people with a “What about ye?”* or “Are you rightly?”* I love peering out of the airplane window when the descent begins trying to make out places I know from the patchwork quilt of wee green fields below me. I love the sense of humor, wit and drollness that rolls naturally from the tongues of Ulster-folk, the local sayings that carry so much meaning but can’t always be translated and the playful banter that characterizes conversation with friends and strangers alike—the joke might be at your expense but they’ll be laughing with you not at you.
I’ll never stop traveling, but the going away helps me appreciate what’s at home. And don’t get me wrong, Northern Ireland is not perfect. Sometimes it seems like a breeding ground for narrow-mindedness, from which I have to recognize I can’t wholly detach myself. We need to open our eyes to the world. Deposit us in the refugee camps of Sudan’s Darfur region or the Red Zone of Baghdad and we’d soon forget about our petty territorial and sectarian gripes.
But home … Home is walking into the kitchen, getting the kettle on the boil and the tea "wet."* It’s sitting down with family and friends to catch up on the latest "craic"* and who’s been doing what. The ones you love want to hear your stories and hear of where you’ve been; they care hugely about you, they believe in you, they are proud of you, they are always for you, never against you. Home is being together with your nearest and dearest; it’s being safe and secure, it’s being known. This is the home I love.
*Translations of Ulster-isms:
To get the tea wet = to brew a pot of tea
Craic = news or good times (pronounced ‘crack’)
To get one’s head showered = to chill out
What about ye? = How are you?
Are you rightly? = I hope you are well?