It is 9am on a Thursday. I’m at a Bed & Breakfast in Sligo. It’s a town some 3 hours away from Dublin by car. The woman running the B&B is a plucky and bubbly Irishwoman who’s unafraid to speak her mind. There are three British women at the table next to me. They look like they’re around my mother’s age.
“What are your plans for the day?” one of the women asks.
“We’re crossing the border into Northern Ireland.”
Like clockwork and before I even have the chance to change the topic – everyone at the table is talking about Brexit. One year on and the topic remains a contentious one – for both British and non-British alike. As an outsider, I have very little to contribute on the matter. But for the Irish – it’s an incredibly important issue. After all, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share an island. Four fifths of which belong to the Republic; and one fifth of which belongs to the UK.
The two nations also share an open border. This was not always the case. And whether or not this will continue to be the case after Brexit is a big question on everyone’s mind. When I was in high school, I learnt about the sectarian violence between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. But… it’s one thing to study something at school. It’s a whole other thing to experience it for yourself. For me, the concept felt like a far away reality until I found myself driving across the border that separates the two countries.
In the Republic of Ireland, the signage on the roads are in Irish first and English second. As I cross the border, I see the very first sign written only in English. “Welcome to Northern Ireland,” it reads. Some vandals have decided to black out the ‘Northern’ so it reads ‘Welcome to Ireland’.
As I drive past the border, it’s hard for me to fully comprehend that I’ve officially left the Republic of Ireland and entered the UK. After all – it is an unmanned border. There is no security check and no officer to stamp a visa in my passport. To think that not too long ago there were soldiers on both sides of the border.
The more I drive, the more the scene in front of me begins to look different from the one I’ve left behind. The Union Jack flies proudly outside many homes – as does the flag of Northern Ireland.
I begin to notice I am driving considerably more slowly than the people around me. It takes me a while, but I eventually realise that I need to make the adjustment from kms to miles. When I finally sit down to pay for lunch, it dawns on me that it’s also time to make that switch from the Euro to the Pound. I even magically wind up with a few outdated one pound coins that are no longer in use in the rest of the UK.
The ‘vibe’ in Northern Ireland is different. Many of the service staff give me the once over before talking to me – if they talk to me at all. I’m a little bit uncomfortable, but I am no stranger to being treated differently. I’m old enough to know better than to kick up a self-righteous fuss. I ignore it and move on. Whilst no one was outright rude to me – I could sense that people are not used to seeing the likes of me in this neck of the woods.
Ah well… that was to be expected. Life has a strange way of taking me on the most unexpected of journeys…
Till next time.