If you love something, set it free

BBC News recently published an interview with a group of students in Dublin who are originally from Northern Ireland. Why? All of them say that they don’t want to move back.

Although the reasons they gave for not wanting to live in Northern Ireland are troubling, I still had to laugh. Maybe it’s because I’m used to the vast open expanse of my home, the United States, but if I moved somewhere a 10 pound bus ride and an hour and half drive from my parents’ house, my mother would throw a party. “Alina’s coming HOME!” she would delightedly declare to everyone and anyone. (She might even, quite reluctantly, clear her things out of my old bedroom.)

The rhetoric about the ‘brain drain’ of young people emigrating away from Northern Ireland has always struck me as unnecessarily alarmist. Of course, this is not to undermine the real and continuing issues that make living in Northern Ireland difficult for many people, young and old.

But kids move away, when they have dreams, and aspirations, and believe in themselves. Even children born in New York City (the city that never sleeps!) dream of leaving, and tell their parents they’re sick and tired of the city. It’s the natural circle of life, to want to carve out your own story away from your parents, to feel like your hometown is boring. (I grew up 30 minutes away from San Francisco, and I cannot tell you the number of times my friends and I complained growing up that there was ‘literally nothing to do’.) It is one of the things about Northern Ireland that is so normal.

The angst about young people moving away reveals, I think, much more about the parents of Northern Ireland than it does about the children. Northern Ireland is a small place, on a small island, next to another (comparatively larger, but still relatively small) island. If you consider your children moving anywhere outside this 9,000 mile (or 50,000 mile or 90,000 mile) area a ‘tragedy’, you will inevitably be disappointed.

Moving home, for me, could be anywhere in the 3,800,000 miles of the United States, the 260,000 miles of California, or the 7,000 miles of the Bay Area — all of which would absolutely delight my mother. To my mind, making all the children of the peace process stay in Northern Ireland for all eternity seems a very poor conclusion, and more than a little self-obsessed. To consider Dublin or London or Liverpool a place so distinctly apart that moving there prompts a sense of abandonment, I think, demonstrates the continued insularity with which Northern Ireland views itself, when it should be focused on making Belfast as attractive a home as those cities.

It has always been impossible to tear one part of the world away from the rest of it. For example, the rise of far-right politics in Europe has been attributed to the influx of refugees from the Middle East. But the instability they are fleeing from was created, in part, by the legacy of colonialism and the post-WWII settlement in the Middle East — created by Europe. And so on and so on, back we go, until it is impossible to tell where we begin and another people end. Here I sit in Northern Ireland, forever and always “just a blow-in.” And yet Bohemia, where my father is from, literally translates to the “land of strong Celts.” The city of Prague was established in 1 A.D. by Boya, or “the strong Celt.” So from which land, really, does my blood come? And does it even matter, when we are all of this earth?

Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the world, and the world benefits from having Northern Ireland in it. As Fintan O’Toole noted in a recent lecture at QUB, many of the issues that Northern Ireland has had to grapple with because of the conflict now puts them in a position to help other places struggling with similar issues. As O’Toole noted, “People in Europe as asking ‘how can you have a national identity and a European identity?’ And people in Northern Ireland are like, ‘Yeah. That’s life.” The children of Northern Ireland who travel to other parts of Europe — who live and work and fall in love and stay in Europe — may be able to offer those places crucial, hard-learned lessons which may help the long term stability of the European project, and peace on the continent.

I think Northern Ireland forgets, in the day-to-day slog of living through implementing a peace process, how absolutely remarkable Northern Ireland is. Senator George Mitchell told Northern Slant in our inaugural podcast: “It’s important not just for people in Northern Ireland but for people around the world to see that a so called intractable conflict can be resolved. I said earlier today that I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended and its good to see that at least in this place that proved to be true; and I hope in some way [Northern Ireland] can serve as inspiration to people in other conflict situations.”

Even beyond common existential threats like climate change, the world isn’t doing so great recently. Syria, Yemen, Korea, even my poor, divided United States of America, could benefit from the lessons that Northern Ireland has to offer about its own journey. That’s why I came here — because Northern Ireland has so much to teach me, and so much to teach the world.

To my mind, it is selfish and and a little self-obsessed to covet our children so jealously. Northern Ireland owes it to the world to be part of and participate in it. Many places and people in the world rallied to end the conflict here, because they wanted to help. Now Northern Ireland owes it to them to go out and share their lessons and experiences, and help make the rest of the world a better place too.

There is no us and them, except the lines we draw ourselves. The world’s injustices are our injustices; the world’s triumphs are our triumphs. So I implore you, as I implore my own mother: do not make your children feel that they have betrayed or abandoned you when they go out in the world. The world needs them far too much.

I end with an inspirational quote I once read on — where else? — a fridge magnet. “Go! Oh go! Go out and see the world! And wherever you go, be brave; to whomever you meet, be kind; with whatever you have, do good. We each have a light, our adventure is finding which paths to brighten.” It was probably written by some Hallmark executive, but hey, I think it’s actually pretty good advice.

Are you from Northern Ireland and living away? Let us know what you think, and check out our Northern Roots series of interviews with people like you.

Originally published at Northern Slant.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store