I was there in June 2016 when it happened. It was something that you couldn’t escape even though I spent most of my days locked into my room pouring over the tiniest details of my lesson plans and stressing out about observations.
I remember watching the news from the evening onwards and leaving the television on when I climbed into bed. The noise woke me up around 4am when the anchors had to deliver the news that somewhere in the UK that hadn’t been expected to vote leave, had.
I raised my head off the pillow to watch and, because blogging is all about being honest, I really hoped that the unexpected shockwaves of the vote would mean that school would be in turmoil – cancelled classes, emergency assembly, that kind of thing – in the morning.
The next day in school the staff room was full of disbelieving teachers. I went out to buy a chocolate something or other and the French teacher was in the queue next to me. It dawned on me in that moment how we might be the only two Europeans in the school had Brexit somehow been enacted right away.
After a month in England as an Irish person I felt that my blood pressure was at a dangerously high level from the effect of explaining to everyone that I was not a British citizen.
Let me just make it clear I had no idea that this would happen to me. I went to Trinity College whose history has close ties to England. I had English classmates and friends there. When the Queen visited Ireland I was one hundred percent in agreement with it and one hundred percent ashamed of those who protested against it on the streets.
Being in England in 2016 changed everything until Brexit changed it back again.
In England most people I met were unaware of the fact that Ireland is not a part of the United Kingdom. At first I didn’t mind explaining – there are things about British history about which I am ignorant, I can fully admit that- but after it became an assumption, even a joke – I started to get really, seriously fed up and annoyed.
I know that Irish independence, when we compare it to the other cataclysmic events of the 20th century, is not the biggest event to have shaken up the world order. It is beyond me though that the war between Ireland and England and the subsequent independence of Ireland – not the republic, not the south, not Eire – is missing from English education and from the common general knowledge of so many.
The most frequent thing I heard was: you’re from the south of Ireland, aren’t you? (deep breaths) and: which passport do you travel on? (I can feel my heart rate increasing) and once (though this was an English guy abroad): I thought you ticked British other on visa applications.
All of this, coupled with my accent being mocked on occasion, was enough for me to despair about the state of understanding of our shared history. It also had a pretty negative effect on my self-esteem as anyone who has ever been laughed at will understand, irrespective of nationality.
Ironically the months I spent in England left me with a far worse impression that I had when I lived in Ireland (and we are all supposed to be hating on the English every hour of the day over here right? *eye roll*).
It was all very disappointing and I left on the day that my university placement ended with no intentions of returning. When I had arrived in the country some months before I had been fully entertaining the idea of staying there for a second year.
Brexit offered me some relief. Suddenly people were coming to me and fact-checking that I was Irish and still in the EU. My answers could become an easy “yes” rather than a long-winded and defensive explanation. With maps of the UK plastered all over the news and other talk shows it became very apparent that Ireland was “missing”. People started asking me why rather than assuming. It was like finally being recognised.
A Channel 4 broadcast in which UK residents were asked to draw the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland threatened to send me to an early grave from blood pressure again which, if measured, would have probably exploded the machine but I have since learned.
Yes, there seems to be a deep misunderstanding about Irish history in England but can the common person be totally blamed for this? Has there ever been an effort in schools to communicate the history? What has the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs been doing all these years? It is a pretty big affair when some people don’t know your country exists!
For this Irish person Brexit worries me. I wonder about my friends in England and I worry for their future when their voice and vote is not being represented in the divorce plans being finalised. I feel sorry for some Irish students here who might find it more difficult to go to the UK and experience the strength of their third level education. I can’t take sides and judge anyone on how they voted really because the vote, and the issues which pushed it the way it went, had little to do with me. I was simply there at the time that it happened.
There is a part of me though that feels that finally, finally Ireland is being understood and that the process of Brexit has taken on the task of addressing all those Irish questions that I once had to.