FERMANAGH poet Frank Ormsby believes identity is an ever changing concept and contends that issues around who we are in Northern Ireland are, by their very nature, “fugitive and elusive.” “I know that I don’t feel British. Why I don’t feel British, I’m less sure about. I do feel Irish, but more and more I would think of myself – when I think about this at all – as Northern Irish.” “Identity is something that continues to ripple out all your life and your identity next year might not be – probably won’t be – the same as your identity this year,” said Mr Ormsby.
The Irvinestown man made his comments in a new book by political journalist Mark Carruthers which examines identity and features 36 interviews with writers, artists, singers and politicians, including Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. Enniskillen actor Adrian Dunbar is also featured in the book and in a painting by artist Colin Davidson on the front cover. He has an original take on the notion of Ulster identity.
“Ulster has always been different from the rest of Ireland. There would be a lot of artists I know who would say it’s more masculine than the rest of Ireland. It’s like the masculine head on this kind of feminine body,” he said.
Both Mr Ormsby and Mr Dunbar discuss growing up in Fermanagh in the book and how it influenced and inspired the people they are today.
“I think they feel a sense of timelessness about the place,” explained author Mark Carruthers, “They both talk about feeling quite far apart from the seat of power in this part of the world which was Belfast and Fermanagh being quite far removed from that.” “Adrian has a great historical perspective, and so does Frank. Adrian talks about the ancient provinces of Ireland and he talks about a tremendous sense of Irishness and very, very happy to be an Ulsterman and would regard himself as an Ulsterman. Frank is very interesting because it is a Fermanagh perspective. He grew up in Fermanagh in a very traditional Irish family and then went off to Belfast where he ended up teaching in a school for over 30 years,” he said.
Speaking to The Impartial Reporter during a recent break at the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Mr Carruthers said he felt he learned more about this county during his conversations with the two distinguished Fermanagh men.
“I didn’t want it to be a book that was Belfast-centric. For me it is Alternative Ulsters and I took a nine county Ulster approach. Some people see it as six counties, and that’s completely fine. Most people see it as nine. I wanted to get a perspective of the rest of Ulster through Frank and Adrian.” “I also learned that there is a strong connection with the Border counties; clearly there are people in Fermanagh who look across the Border probably more comfortably than they look to the North Coast, to Derry or Belfast,” he said.
And had he still been alive, Mr Carruthers would liked to have interviewed Noble Prize winner and former Portoran Samuel Beckett.
“I am only mildly obsessed with Sam Beckett and obviously the Portora connection with Beckett is fascinating. But there is a man who was Irish, who was massive Irish rugby fan, who was rotted in this place, but the whole French dimension to him, too.” During the entire writing and interviewing process, which lasted nearly three years, Mr Carruthers learned that for most people identity is a concept that changes and that people can now afford to be more generous about their sense of identity than they could in the past.
“Maybe they felt they had to defend that sense of identity because it was so strongly and on the line, maybe now there is a bit more flexibility,” he said.
The journalist was keen that every interview was conducted face-to-face, had to be one-on-one and was more of a conversation than a hard news interview, the type he is used to conducting every day.
“People had to be prepared to give me at least a full hour. I wasn’t trying to catch people out or demolish an argument, I was encouraging them to construct an argument, in a sense,” he said.
Mr Carruthers travelled to Rome to interview former Irish President Mary McAleese who likened the myriad identities on the island of Ireland to a patchwork quilt.
‘If we were to put all the pieces of our patchwork quilt of identity together, they’ll have squares that are the very same, but they’ll have squares that are different – but there’s enough in that patchwork quilt to cover all of us.” Also featured in the book, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, who said, “I don’t really consider myself to be Irish…. Whenever I’m in the United States I would often be referred to as somebody who’s from Ireland, or Irish, and I don’t take offence at that…and nor would I correct anybody if they were to make those kinds of comments.” And the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, discusses his relationship with Robinson, and with his predecessor, Ian Paisley in the book: “The first time I ever sat down with Ian Paisley he said to me, “Martin, you know, we can rule ourselves. We don’t need these people coming over from England telling us what to do.” During the peace process very important things were said at critical times. That was a very important thing for Ian Paisley to say to me.” And in the first major interview with him to be published posthumously, the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney talks about growing up on a farm in Derry and how it helped shape his identity.
Mr Carruthers says he was “immensely privileged” to interview the poet in his Dublin home.
Indeed, he admits that the entire project felt special and in some cases “very moving.” Asked about his own identity, the journalist from south Belfast replied: “I think thinking about my own identity is partly why I did the book and I suppose that like a lot of people in the book I can tick every box. Who am I? I don’t know who I am and I am not sure if I am any the wiser but I can tick the boxes and say I am an Ulsterman, I am an Irishman, I am British, I am European. But they are not always the same size of tick,” he said.
Alternative Ulsters is published by Liberties Press and costs £24.99.