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Opinion: 'It's only as an adult in a post-Brexit world that the extent of what people lived through in the Troubles hits home'

Two women and dancers, Nicola Curry and Liz Roche, explore their own stories of growing up on both sides of the border.

British troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with armoured cars in the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland on patrol.
British troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with armoured cars in the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland on patrol.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

What does Brexit mean to you if you’re from Northern Ireland? Or the Republic?

Here Liz Roche, who’s from the Republic and Nicola Curry, from the North, share their thoughts about the impact of Brexit from each perspective.

They are working together on a new cross border co-production, The Here Trio, which explores boundaries and belonging in a post-Brexit world. 

Nicola Curry: ‘I thought a bomb was a nuclear explosion’

BOUNDARIES AND BORDERS defined where I belonged when growing up in Armagh city in the 1970s and 1980s.

I had family living on both sides of the Co Armagh and Monaghan border, and crossing the border was a regular occurrence for weekend visits and holidays in Granny’s or to see family in Castleblayney, Dundalk, Navan, Drogheda, Dublin or Cork. 

To-ing and fro-ing of movement across the border was normal. But so was division, conflict, checkpoints, car searches, army, guards, uniforms, occasional gunfire and bombs (including one less than 50m from the house that, as a naïve seven-year-old, I thought was a nuclear explosion).

The family members who lived over the border less than 20 miles away were insulated from the reality, fear, horror, and trauma that pervaded those times.

Growing up in those times, the prevailing landscape was a restrictive one. There were areas that you wouldn’t go to, places where you didn’t belong, parts of town that weren’t ‘yours’, spaces that were safe, unsafe, yours, theirs; places you didn’t walk, towns you didn’t shop in.

This landscape of restriction and narrow boundaries of what is safe, what place is yours or theirs, whether you belonged was to be navigated constantly.

nicola-curry-of-maiden-voyage-dance Nicola Curry, who grew up in Co Armagh

Dance in my experience, however, knew no borders, division or separation on ‘them’ or ‘us’ lines.

When ballet classes moved away from Armagh, I travelled twice weekly to Portadown to an Orange Hall to learn more about dance throughout the 1980s. Through doing this and participating in cross-community arts projects in Armagh, I met other young people who I would never have otherwise encountered due to a divided education system.

Lines of division and borders have softened here over the past 40 years but with life circumstances and the world rapidly changing, each of us weighs the past, present and future differently. 

There are many unknown, unresolved and unsolved aspects of life but boundaries and borders, be they real or imagined, should allow and value individual richness and respect bonds of belonging. My family that grew up in Co Armagh and Co Monaghan have bonds of belonging still stretching across the border but also now across the world from Russia to Hong Kong, Canada to Australia, Sweden to Switzerland to name but a few.

Liz Roche: ‘I remember the tension that crept into the car while approaching the border’

At this time when there has been so much confusion around our shared future on the island of Ireland, it is definitely the right moment to come together as artists and reaffirm our position of openness and interconnectivity.  

With Brexit officially after taking place, it’s an interesting time and place to be making a dance show about boundaries and belonging in Northern Ireland.

In my experience, relationships between dance artists and companies, North and South, has always been good. The Here Trio will be our third co-production with Maiden Voyage. We have toured these works together throughout the island, shared resources and continue to support each other as colleagues and friends.

Previous to this we have toured with other Northern Irish artists as part of programmes of Irish contemporary dance abroad, and performed in many venues and festivals.

In short, there are strong relationships there and Brexit won’t necessarily change that, but it does place an initial barrier of confusion and lack of certainty that will take time to work out.

The arts only survive through us all working together, and there are enough difficulties as it is, so for Brexit to potentially add to that is a real concern.  

In preparation for the making of The Here Trio I thought first about the history of the actual site of The MAC theatre in Belfast where we will premiere.

PastedImage-7649 Dancers in The Here Trio

I was thinking about all of the traffic of life that passes through a particular point in space over the years, a ‘here’. It made me question what and how things get remembered. 

I thought about how physical scars are permanent on the body, acting as triggers for memory, and how that can be in contrast to a site, where the memory can be erased with the destruction of the old structure and rewritten with the construction of the new.

As the research continued childhood memories of the North came back to me. In the mid 80s, my uncle and his family lived in Coleraine, so visits were regular enough at that time.

I remember the tension that crept into the car while approaching the border. My parents played the experience down but as the car passed the signs for exchanging money and then the soldiers appeared, we knew as kids to stop messing.

Soldiers with guns, their boyish faces peering in the window and out from behind hedges. The sight of a real gun was shocking; it still is. Looking back on this time, from the comparatively comfortable distance of Dublin, I realise that I grew up thinking of the situation in the North as quite manageable in comparison to other places in a state of conflict.

Even the reality of the armoured cars, and the walls built across streets and the barbed wire, seemed to be normal enough. And when I look back at those years and time spent later in the North I realise how wrong I was. It’s only as an adult that the full extent of what people lived through really hits home. 

In The Here Trio, the dancers movements convey bodies that are agitated and driven, even stressed. Dance captures the body; its patterns, movements, expressions and energies.

A person can say a thing but if their body isn’t behind it, it doesn’t have any weight or conviction. In dance, we highlight what the body does before words are formed. 

The Here Trio is part of a double bill of new work performing with BRINK by Eileen McClory. It premieres at The Mac, Belfast (7 -8 February), the Market Place Theatre, Armagh (12 February), Dance Limerick 2020 (23 April), Live Collision International Festival at the Samuel Beckett Theatre (25 and 26 April). For more information see the website.

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Liz Roche and Nicola Curry

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