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‘You’re not Irish. You’re not one of us’: Northern students on a year in the South

In the Republic, some students have encountered ignorance, distorted views and even hostility

Belfast-born Toirealach Brolly remembers standing at the bar in Ryan’s on Camden Street in his early weeks as a first-year University College Dublin student when he began to wonder what people south of the Border think, or even know, about Northern Ireland.

“I was talking to my friend. This other fellow came up and says, “Oh, what’s your name?” I said “Toirealach Brolly”. You know, a very Irish name! He said, “Where are you from?” I was wearing a Gaelic jersey and I said “Belfast”. And he said, “Oh, are you a Protestant?”

“And I said, “Well, with a name like Toirealach Brolly and I’m wearing a Gaelic jersey, what do you think?” Brolly is one of a group of Northern Irish students studying in Dublin, now just beginning their summer break, who have agreed to reflect on their reception in the South.

Every student – not just those from Northern Ireland – will encounter the “where are you from?” question so typical of all Irish conversations, though this is often an effort to make connection.

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Meanwhile, students from poorer backgrounds in the Republic, or “those coming up from the country” can vouch for the “othering” they have experienced from the privately educated children of the rich on campus.

However, Brolly’s encounter in Ryan’s illustrates the particular experience of Northerners, with some feeling they are not just meeting with clumsiness, or ignorance, but occasionally with an edge.

“The ones that frustrate me the most are whenever people are like, ‘Oh, you’re not Irish?’ says Lucia Orsi, “I’ll say, ‘I identify as Irish’. And they’re like, ‘No, but you’re not’. And I’m like, ‘I have an Irish passport’.

“‘But you’re still not Irish. You’re not one of us,’ they’ll reply,” says the 21-year-old from Downpatrick, Co Down, a student at Trinity College Dublin..

Debating such people is pointless, she says. “They’ll never change their mind. They just want to have an argument. It’s like to prove a point. Usually, these people know what they’re saying. It’s not ignorance.”

However, none of these students regret coming South rather than going to the one of the University of Ulster campuses, or Queen’s University Belfast; or, as more than 30 per cent of Northern Ireland’s annual crop of students do, to colleges and universities in Britain.

Nevertheless, a lack of regret about their choices does not hide a sense of irritation about the stereotyping of Northern students that can occur on campuses in the South, says Orsi, who was educated at Assumption Grammar in Ballynahinch, Co Down.

Northern students are expected by southern-born peers to be “political”, she says, which is fine if it is a conversation among friends but not necessarily so pleasant on “a night when you’re out for drinks and I don’t want to debate”.

So how should southern students behave? “[Don’t] treat Northern Irish students as if they’re aliens. Don’t assume that you know everything. [People] have a tendency to presume that they [do], but there’s a lot they don’t,” says Orsi, whose father was born in Scotland, but raised in the Republic.

Laughing at her own first-day innocence, Belfast-born Ciara McKenna, a 23-year-old studying politics and maths in UCD, remembers standing with her mother on the campus seeking directions from a map written in Irish, which neither of them speak.

The English version was on the other side, a fact they did not immediately spot. “That was literally the first impression,” says the former pupil at Our Lady and St Patrick’s College grammar on the Antrim Road.

Jokes about her “being British and stuff” are frequent, but “they’re never that serious, and they’re never that harmful”, though she has been struck that southerners “don’t realise how important identity is in the North”.

Questions about religion are common, too, though a similar question would never be asked of a Southerner: “A lot that come are usually Catholics, because they’ve grown up with the culture, with the GAA, and the like. You probably just feel more of an affiliation with Dublin,” she says.

The “Northerners are not Irish” tag is most commonly heard from south Co Dublin students, especially those who went to private schools, says the Irish-speaking Aoibhin Brentall, who is studying law and Irish in UCD.

“That’s the thing most people get angry about, and care about,” she says. Often, such people are “completely ignorant, or don’t care”, while people from the Cork and Galway Gaeltachts, or the Border counties “wouldn’t come out with anything like that”.

The fact that she is a life-long Irish speaker surprises, even more so when people realise she went to a Gaelscoil, and that they exist in Belfast. “Well, there’s 30!” she says, “it’s quite surprising that people are completely oblivious to it.”

One of the things that kind of sticks out is they don’t, even for Leaving Cert history, they don’t focus on the Troubles, or anything like that

—  Donal Hanna

Questions about her background come in the most surprising venues, such as Cumann na Gaeilge events where she has been asked if she is Irish or British: “I put effort into embracing my culture. I don’t want people to say that.”

Differences can even emerge on St Patrick’s Day: “It’s so much more important [for Northerners]. It’s so much more embraced. Everyone is like, ‘Right, best day of the year! Let’s go!’ It is something that has to be earned, to be Irish in the North.

“They don’t have that same pride or the same want to earn it down here and that is kind of evident,” says Brentall. “You have this thing down here where people say, ‘You’re not Irish’. Well, I’m more Irish than you think you are,” she says.

Donal Hanna, a second-year student from Belfast, has been less bothered by attitudes in the South. “I’ve never really got any of that. There’s a little bit of banter. or whatever, from my friends. But that’s all in good humour, that’s fine.”

The ignorance about the North is striking, however, he says. During a recent college ball, Hanna spoke with the boyfriend of one of the girls on his course, who asked where he was from: “I said, ‘Belfast’. He said, ‘What part?’ I said ‘south’.

“He asked if that was ‘the English or the Irish part’,” says an amused Hanna. “One of the things that kind of sticks out is they don’t, even for Leaving Cert history, they don’t focus on the Troubles, or anything like that.”

For Eoghan O’Mainnin, a 19-year-old history student in UCD, the issues are explained by how few Northerners come south. “They see so little of us down here. I’m nearly certain that I am the only one in law from Northern Ireland, never mind Belfast. In the hurling team, I’m the only one from Ulster. There’s some genuine interest, because they don’t see us an awful lot.”

Many Southern students have a basic knowledge of Troubles, if that, but they do not realise that people living on two streets within 100m of each other “would have completely different identities, live in two completely different worlds”.

“There’s an assumption that I have been through the wringer, that I’ve seen people getting bombed left, right and centre. Or that I have seen something really bad, like a kneecapping or something, but I haven’t. They’ll ask, ‘Is it safe up there?’ or ‘Can you walk the streets?’” he says.

The proportion of students from the North choosing to study south of the Border had fallen to about 1 per cent in recent years, and in 2022 it fell further again, with a 15 per cent drop in the number of applicants to the CAO system with A-level results from Northern Ireland.

Part of the reason is that it is harder for northern students with A-levels to get into southern universities through the CAO application system, which is geared towards Leaving Cert results. The system is widely seen as penalising A-level students by requiring them to have four A-levels, including maths, to make it possible to achieve maximum points, but in the North most students take only 3 A-levels, and maths is not compulsory.

Changes are expected to be implemented in time for the 2024/25 academic year to make it easier for Northern A-level students to access courses in the Republic.