What’s in a name? – The tricky business of what to call Northern Ireland…

Reading Peter Robinson’s opinion piece in the News Letter, one phrase has stuck with me:

“Importantly, how best can we interact and work with those who do not share our world view on so many issues and who cannot even whisper the name of the country they jointly govern?”

Let me start by clarifying that this is not in any way intended as a piece on local geopolitics. Rather, as a self-confessed devotee of onomastics, or more precisely toponomastics, with a fascination for the origins of townlands and other placenames, I have always been amused and sometimes dismayed by the fixation on the “correct” territorial nomenclature for the six counties of Northern Ireland, as defined in Section 1 (2) of The Government of Ireland Act, the centenary birthday of which we are destined to celebrate/commemorate/commiserate on May 3rd 2021.

From my home in Brooklyn, aka King’s County New York, itself named for The Duke of York, later King James II & VII, it is but a stone’s throw from Ulster County NY, and a not unreasonable drive to Derry, New Hampshire and its neighbouring town of Londonderry, also New Hampshire. If you ask any of my neighbours where we live, chances are they will say Brooklyn, not New York City. After almost two decades living in Gotham, I cannot recall anyone ever using the term “New York City”. Ditto residents of The Bronx, Queens, or Staten Island. If you ask a Manhattanite where they live, chances are they’ll say New York or more precisely their neighbourhood, like Hell’s Kitchen, and while New York proper is a State of some 20 million people, it is generally referred to by the 13 million or so residents of the greater NYC metropolitan area as plain old “upstate”. Nassau and Orange Counties in New York are named for, well, you get the idea…

The reason the current Northern Ireland -v- North of Ireland deliberation perplexes me is that as someone born, bred, and buttered in Belfast over 50 years ago, it seems to me that it was only sometime yesterday afternoon that political Unionism reconciled itself with the name Northern Ireland and not Ulster. I grew up watching Ulster Television and listening to Radio Ulster. I treasure my childhood memories of visits to the Ulster Museum, and the Ulster Folk & Transport Museums, the latter of which we travelled to on the Ulsterbus. I attended performances by the Ulster Orchestra at the Ulster Hall. The Ulster Unionist Party was in the ascendant and the Belfast City Hall banner proclaimed that Ulster said No! We were policed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, supported in its role by the Ulster Defence Regiment (I’ll omit for now any references to the myriad “community-based organisations” with Ulster in their title…). Do an online image search for vintage “Come to Ulster” tourism posters published by the Ulster Tourism Development Association and you will notice that if Northern Ireland even gets a mention, it’s almost as an afterthought in small font somewhere beneath a drawing of a youngster skipping across the Giant’s Causeway. I am led to believe that in 1948 the government of Northern Ireland asked Downing Street to change the name of the jurisdiction to Ulster, but the request was rejected. I could go on but I’ll stop there.

I recall in 2015 or thereabouts attending a welcome reception in lower Manhattan (there, I said it!) for the crew of the yacht “Derry-Londonderry-Doire” during the Round the World Clipper race before they set sail for the Maiden City. I remember clearly an immense shared sense of pride, regardless of background, amongst all of us ex-pats from (to paraphrase Mr. Wilde) the Place that Dare not Speak its Name. No one tripped over themselves when asked where they came from “back home”. From afar, and in this context, it seems disingenuous to harp on about those “who cannot even whisper the name of the country they jointly govern”. Country, province, region, or statelet? Six Counties, North of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Tuaisceart Eireann, or Ulster? Tomato or tomaydo? Is this what’s really agitating us in this day and age in the midst of a pandemic and a constitutional crisis? I only hope that 100 years after the partition of Ulster (see what I did there..?) we can at least agree to disagree and focus on what really matters.

Incidentally, I naturalized as a Yank a number of years ago, so am I an American, an Irish-American, or a citizen of the United States of America? Whatever, I know I remain a proud Irishman and Ulsterman.

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