Shared Future News launches book asking ‘What Northern Ireland means to me’ by Shared Future News 29 April 2022
Shared Future News, a media organisation that publishes stories of peacebuilding, reconciliation, and diversity, held an event to launch its new book, What Northern Ireland Means to Me, as a compendium of its podcast of the same name. The event was chaired by Shared Future News co-founders Allan Leonard and Julia Paul, and hosted at Accidental Theatre, with several dozen people attending, including some of the contributors to the publication.
Leonard thanked the Northern Ireland Office and Heritage Fund for their financial support for the underlying podcast, but added his explanation for going beyond this and creating a book: “It was in the back of my mind of having some visual representation of the podcast interviews, so outside of the project I organised taking photographs of the contributors and objects or places that meant something to them.”
Paul continued by describing how they worked with designer, Colin Slack, to bring the podcast transcripts and associated imagery together, resulting in a beautifully produced book printed by W&G Baird. Leonard thanked the Community Relations Council for their funding support for the publication and launch event.
Paul described how initially many contributors found it hard to sum up what Northern Ireland meant to them. The first word that came to mind for many was “home”, but the editors found that when they dug deeper, they found that home meant different things to different people. She liked Dr Emily Stanton’s contribution, who summed up Northern Ireland with another single word, “complexity”. Paul said, “For me, that really encompassed everything that’s fascinating about living here, but also sometimes quite frustrating and annoying as well.” She remarked upon other contributors, such as Deirdre Mac Bride, who described Northern Ireland as being about family and friends, but also for her a place of tragedy because it’s where her brother was disabled in a sectarian attack. Meanwhile, Ian Marshall, a member of the UUP, described Northern Ireland as “this wee place punching above its weight”, the home of George Best and Snow Patrol.
Leonard noted that several contributors referenced the writing of the poet, John Hewitt, and how he described the many threads of identity on this island as forming a knot. Remarking that the Irish language itself is part of that knot, they introduced the first guest, Linda Ervine.
Ervine described the work she does at Turas, an Irish language project based in east Belfast: “We’ve become one of the biggest language providers in Belfast, with about 300 people signing up per year, with a majority coming from the unionist community.” She also stated that it has nine people studying Irish at university; has started an integrated Irish medium nursery school; has a developed tourism project; and is training people in childcare. Ervine herself is in her second year of study for an Irish degree at Queen’s University.
For the event, Ervine read an extract from her book contribution, in Irish:
Bhuel, seo an baile domh. Níor thaistil mé riamh i ndáiríre. Níl eolas dá laghad agam ar áit ar bith seachas Tuaisceart Éireann. Ní dóigh liom gur mhaith liom bheith i mo chónaí in áit ar bith eile seachas Tuaisceart Éireann. Agus fiú agus mé i dTuaisceart Éireann, ní thiocfadh liom a shamhailt bheith i mo chónaí ach i mBéal Feirste. Seo an áit ar rugadh mé agus tá súil agam gurb ann a bhfaighidh mé bás — ach chan ró-luath.
Paul explained that for the podcast they wanted to make sure that there were voices from some of the newer communities and newer identities in Northern Ireland, as well as identities that have been here for some time but are often not heard. This included Eileen Chan-Hu, who is second-generation Chinese and spoke of her experience of how often being the only non-white child at school in Belfast in the 1970s led her into a life of campaigning for racial equality. Also, there was Nandi Jola, a poet and originally from South Africa, who explained how Northern Ireland for her was a place of transformation, enabling her to move from an immigrant identity to an identity of a writer.
The second guest was Emma Must, a poet who previously worked as an environmental activist. Must explained why she loves Northern Ireland so much: “I came for the poetry and I stayed for the poetry, but I also discovered this depth and breadth of a writing community here in Belfast that I’d been looking for my whole adult life.” She added that the River Lagan also unlocked the city to her: “It is such a magical place, like an artery through the city.”
I went for curtains. Beige, I thought. Linen. I would carry them home in my handlebar basket. But as I pedalled along Airport Road what unfolded in front of me was the fabric of a city’s hem:
Darren Ferguson, the third guest, described Northern Ireland as one of sound and music, a “global jukebox”. He is the founder of Beyond Skin, an organisation that applies the art of music for an appreciation of cultural diversity and good relations: “My passion lies in trying to connect people and give them a platform for exercising and building up their music skills and having that voice heard.”
Ferguson introduced his special guest, “Benny” (Benham Ghazanfaripourlor), a professional artist originally from Iran and who performed two pieces on his santoor instrument, which the audience responded with warm applause.
The final guest was artist, Brian John Spencer, who was “live drawing” throughout the event. He came on stage to share some of his work. He explained how he has always been mystified by how people can capture someone’s likeness in lines, like Rowel Friars’ paintings of Ian Paisley and John Hume: “That was a sort of witchcraft that I wanted to capture and be able to do.” Spencer presented his drawings of Emma Must, Darren Ferguson, and Allan Leonard.
The event was opened up for some discussion with the audience. One guest asked whether this project will continue, “because there’s lots more voices to be heard”. Leonard apologised that they didn’t receive sufficient funding to do 100 interviews for the centenary, but that he will do whatever it takes to keep discovering more stories: “You learn so much by asking questions and listening.”
Paul Jordan from the Community Relations Council remarked that what struck him was while many referred to this place as home, there’s also the sense of family: “We all have families that are complex and some of it’s a bit embarrassing and some it’s challenging, but there’s also a part of it goes, ‘We can talk about it, but no one else is allowed to criticise us.’ We can talk about our own space, and it strikes me that there’s something deep and rich in … telling our stories and our experiences. I think the more we do that, the more we see humanity.”
Another guest asked about whether communities’ willingness to learn “the language of their new home” — English — is cohesive or divisive. Paul explained the practical side of delivering the underlying podcast in English, but would have facilitated such an interview if interpretation was provided.
This opened up a conversation among other contributors, such as Eileen Chan-Hu, who shared that her participation was reflective, explaining that the English grammar book that features with her portrait for the book “brought me back to my early 20s and teaching English to the Chinese and other communities”. She hopes that the book will be used as a resource at schools, colleges, and organisations that work in the field of citizenship.
Similarly, Nandi Jola remarked that “because of colonialism”, English was her first language, but she speaks five others. She argued that the ability to learn an additional language (English or otherwise) depends in part on the practical support available. Our stereotypes can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “If we look down on people, sometimes they’ll just [retreat into a] shell and not want to do things within the [wider] community but keep amongst themselves.” Jola reminded all that if somebody doesn’t speak English, they do speak another one fluently and that their efforts to learn an additional language is more than what most local people do.
Malachi O’Doherty added to this by saying that the important thing about language is that it mingles: “You know, people come here who don’t speak English and they interact with us and they bring new words to us that we incorporate into our English.” He gave examples of “smithereens” from Gaelic and “bungalow” from Bengali, etc.
Darren Ferguson described how his organisation works with people for whom English is not their first language. He shared one of their working practices, where his guests attending school projects will introduce themselves in their native language and the pupils respond with expressions of puzzlement, wondering what was happening. Ferguson would then say to them that what they were feeling is what it feels like to be in an environment that you don’t understand. He also told us how his own teams have used music amongst themselves when otherwise no one could communicate in a shared verbal language.
Paul wrapped up the event with some final thoughts: “When we look at What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we understand that this sort of collection of thoughts, words, faces, and accents is of course by no means a complete document, but what we hope is that it stands as an insight into what people thought about Northern Ireland meant to a variety of people as it marked its centenary in 2021.”
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is published by Shared Future News and received financial support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed in the publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.