Saturday 18 November 2017

Writer Conor MacNeill 'Growing up in the North we were told 'don't use your Gaeilge in town'...'

Actor and writer Conor MacNeill was surrounded by images of 1916 growing up in Northern Ireland, but only now, with his own film, can he pay tribute

Reeling in the years: Conor MacNeill's 'The Party' has been chosen as part of the Irish Film Board's 'After 1916' initiative to mark the centenary
Reeling in the years: Conor MacNeill's 'The Party' has been chosen as part of the Irish Film Board's 'After 1916' initiative to mark the centenary

I was born in Belfast in the late 80s a world away from the Ireland of 1916. Growing up in a predominantly republican working-class area of Belfast, I was forever surrounded by images and symbols that reverberated from the Rising; murals, statues, the annual Easter commemoration parade. As a child I never had any real understanding of their significance or the impact that they had on the society around me.

My first proper memory of any direct introduction to 1916 was of two pictures on my grandparents' wall, one of Michael Collins, and another of James Connolly, which had hung there for a decade or so before I was born.

My knowledge of these men was limited to the information that, "They were great heroes, who had done great things for Ireland".

It wasn't until I started secondary school, and later as an adult, that I began to understand our fraught and turbulent history.

Reading the Proclamation had a great influence on me, helping to shape my ideals and views on what society should be; not so much from a republican standpoint, but simply from a human one.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic guarantees "equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens", and declares a resolve to "pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally."

Perhaps deemed overly idealistic by many today, but to me these remain beautiful aspirations.

Everything about my childhood told me that I was Irish. I went to an Irish-language school; I played trad; we were forced on grey, rain-soaked, west-coast beach holidays every summer. I remember one summer holiday when some lads from Dublin, around my own age, informed me that, "You're not Irish at all. Sure, ye live in the UK!"

When I replied as Gaeilge they were stumped, unable to understand a single word I was saying. Yet at home I couldn't be so free with my identity, we were always cautioned about showing our Irishness too much, "don't use your Gaeilge in town", "don't tell people where you're from if they ask".

As children we accepted it simply as just the way things were, never once did I question the sinister nature of why.

The conflict in the north of the country often seems independent of the Republic, its own standalone story. However the fallout from 1916, and more so the impact of partition, undoubtedly created a whirlwind that had a direct and irrevocable impact on everyone, republican or otherwise.

For my generation, growing up in Northern Ireland was a very strange experience, we witnessed the tail-end of the conflict.

We are old enough to have seen soldiers on our streets, riots, houses raided, people killed, family members imprisoned, yet we were too young to fully understand its reasoning, or the history of what came before; a history which shaped and mapped out the society we were born into.

We weren't there for 1916 or the Civil War that followed; we weren't there for Partition, Bloody Sunday or the hunger strikes: yet they all had a direct impact on who we are and on how we identify ourselves.

When my film The Party was selected as part of the Irish Film Board's 'After '16' initiative, I was overjoyed. Here we are 100 years from the event, and my personal thoughts, feelings and ruminations on how it has affected our country are being brought to screen, as part of the commemoration and celebration. What an honour.

And yet, my heart sinks a little.

Celebrations in the North will no doubt be considerably more constrained, regardless of the obvious impact the events have had on us. This will not just be to avoid sectarian tension between republicans and unionists.

Within the republican community itself there will also be a strain. A stream of segregated and factious parades will ensue, each one making their claim to a republicanism more pure and righteous than the others.

On the other side of the border, 100 years on, the Irish people, once again, have created radical change: this time by securing the right of love, giving their brothers and sisters the freedom of same-sex marriage. Up north my generation can only look on in awe, our own stagnant political landscape preventing similar change, leaving many of my generation feeling voiceless, powerless.

It's very difficult to elbow in and make yourself heard, so, by default, many are left without any political option but to choose to follow the ideologies of the older generation. Either that or get out, start a life somewhere else, and avoid all the hassles of a very arduous, frustrating and precarious conflict transition.

There is a high expectation placed on the youth of the North to create a new future. This generation that leaves behind 30 years of violence? One-hundred years of violence? Eight-hundred years of violence? The generation of the Peace Process, the generation who will decide what kind of a place it will become.

I truly hope that we can use this centenary year as a benchmark to move forward, to reignite the questions about where we want to go. What kind of a people do we want to be? And, more importantly, what legacy do we want to leave behind for the next 100 years?

Irish Independent

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