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Patrick Kielty: The past left trauma on all sides, but the future of this whole island looks bright

The comedian and broadcaster shares the text of his stirring speech made at the Shared Island Forum earlier this week.

Patrick Kielty

Updated Dec 15th 2021, 9:10 AM

Comedian and broadcaster, Patrick Kielty made this speech earlier this week at the Shared Island Forum, which marked the first year of the Government’s Shared Island Initiative. Also speaking at the event, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said, “After two decades of peace, we do have more common ground and goodwill on this island than in the past.  A deeper reconciliation, a better future for our children and grandchildren, can be achieved.” Here, Kielty discusses the trauma passed down through generations in all communities and the importance of acknowledging, respecting and healing that collective pain.

IF SOMEONE HAD told me at the start of this year, I’d be on top of a bonfire in Belvoir Park Estate in Belfast in July, I would have had a few questions for them. The main question probably being how did I manage to get elected Pope in the first place. But weird and wonderful things happen when you decide to share.

I was visiting a young loyalist Joel Keys for a film I was making for the BBC. And before I knew it, I was helping him throw a busted headboard on top. On the 11th night, I was invited back to watch the bonfire I’d help build go up.

Thankfully, then I’d been replaced on the top by a Tricolour. Watching the flag burn, which is the bonfire equivalent of booing the opposition’s national anthem, made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Generations of pain

But with a new sea border making many loyalists feel way more uncomfortable and cut off from the rest of the UK, the rejection of Irishness wasn’t exactly a surprise. What was a surprise though, was how warmly I was welcomed, the genuine appreciation for making an effort to come and talk and the openness about what we had in common and what we didn’t.

The film was meant to be about the next generation in Northern Ireland. Why some young people currently feel angry, and where others feel that their future lies. But after meeting Bronagh McConville, whose granny Jean was one of The Disappeared, I ended up having to have a look at myself.

Bronagh is one of the many people in the North who are suffering from transgenerational trauma, from events that they didn’t personally experience but that have massively impacted on their lives in a way that I never thought possible.

It turns out that trauma is actually passed down through generations, like a family heirloom. It’s one of the reasons why it’s been hard for some people to find common ground in Northern Ireland. Because behind the knee jerk of politics is usually pain.

In a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland, a big mistake is one that I’ve already made, trying to put a lid on the past and hand the new generation this shiny new page without really talking to them and each other about the chapter before – the one that we lived through, the one that hurts… the one that we want to forget, but the one that might help change how they see the future, rather than falling back on the myths of the past.

Taught to think a certain way

We all pass down our opinions, our preconceptions, and our misconceptions, usually without first questioning them ourselves. Sometimes we need to talk to people who don’t fold our own opinions back on us. The day I helped build the bonfire, I also sat down with Jackie McDonald. Jackie, of course, is a former UDA commander and now community worker.

We both know that the UDA killed my da. But while we were sitting talking there, it wasn’t the most important thing about our chat. The most important thing is that we both shared, we shared a bit of our past, and our pain, our hopes and our fears for the future. And it felt good.

With two boys under five now, I know that sharing isn’t easy. Offering up something that you’d rather hang on to. It’s way easier to knock seven bells out of each other and then cry when you’re not getting your own way.

A shared island means challenging ourselves to go beyond our own comfort zones. And what we’re prepared to give up to make things better for others and ourselves. In this year of centenaries, the ghosts of the past are easy to honour. It’s way easier to sing a rebel song about a United Ireland than decide not to sing it in order to maybe have one.

And yet we have to be honest with each other about who we are, how we feel, and why we feel it. And it’s not just trauma that gets passed down, this isn’t just a Northern thing. Across this entire island, not talking and not engaging means that other things get passed down too – one-sided history, stereotypes, and maybe the worst of all, apathy.

Danger of apathy

It’s easy in a post-Brexit world to sit in Dublin and say the British Government doesn’t care about the North when the truth is for many people here in the Republic, they aren’t particularly interested in it either. Unless a northern team pulls a hard Brexit with Sam Maguire.

I know it can be a tricky place to get your head around – somewhere that’s home to Orangemen and All Ireland winners, but it’s way harder to understand when you’re not curious. As someone born and reared in county Down, a place that in the past has returned both Éamon de Valera and Enoch Powell as our MPs.

It’s always been clear there’s another side of the coin, disagreeing or ignoring another opinion or another way of life doesn’t make it go away. We’ve had to share things in Northern Ireland for a while now. For a long time, we didn’t and it got us nowhere.

Sometimes compromise is slow, frustrating, torturous. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, but we are still sharing the same space. And the vast majority of people in the North no longer look at things through a binary prism. They’re getting on with their lives and each other.

Say this quietly, but the shared island we’re talking about is already happening today. Just up the road. Is it a love-in? No. Is it united? Definitely not. But you know, too often, on this island, we get fixated with the notion of being united, remaining part of the United Kingdom, becoming part of a united Ireland.

But as a fan of the red side of Manchester these days, can I say that being united isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This island is never going to be united. And that’s okay.

Because no matter if, and it’s a big IF, if a border poll takes place, and more importantly, no matter how it turns out, most people living here will feel exactly the same about who they are and what they believe. And there’s still going to be a million or so on this island who are British. They don’t just think they’re British. They don’t need converting. They’re not confused, they’re British.

In the same way that a million or so living North of the border today know that they’re Irish. A shared island means being able to be Irish in a future Northern Ireland or be British in a future Ireland and not holding no fear. It means we can all feel as at home the day after a border poll is the day before, no matter the result.

The world will still turn

In the 1960 All Ireland football final when Down slayed the mighty Kerry, my old headmaster Jarlath Carey played midfield. He once told me that the last thing that was said in the dressing room before they ran out that day was “whatever happens, the Mountains of Mourne will still be standing when you get home”.

Now, I’m not for a second saying that a border poll is anywhere near as important as Down winning an All Ireland, but whatever the outcome, the Mountains of Mourne will still be standing, and the nationalists and the Unionists who live there will still be sharing those mountains, agreeing on the same things and disagreeing on the same things.

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I never thought that I’d be a Paddy on top of an 11th of July bonfire, but after I was I drove home to county Down and would you believe, the Mountains of Mourne were still standing. The flags were up in the lampposts in the Main Street for the 12th of July parade, and on the same main street, in Pairc Sean O’Caoilte, they were putting the flags out for an under-10 GAA game.

There weren’t any GAA players walking arm in arm during the main street with Orangemen singing Kumbaya. No one was sailing into the sunset, but we were still sharing the island. Sharing sometimes isn’t straightforward. A lot of it isn’t easy. But if we all start with ourselves and we think about what we as individuals can share, it’s maybe not as hard as you think.

Patrick Kielty is a comedian and broadcaster. Born in Dundrum, Co. Down, Patrick began his stand-up career as host of Belfast’s first comedy club The Empire Laughs Back in 1992. He is an award-winning comedian and former UK documentary host of the year for his BAFTA nominated film My Dad, The Peace Deal and Me. His latest BBC documentary, Patrick Kielty:100 Years of Union, reflected on the partition of Ireland and future of Northern Ireland.  2022 sees the release of his first feature film, Ballywalter, where he stars alongside IFTA-nominated Seána Kerslake. His latest UK and Ireland stand up tour Borderline also begins next March. To see the recent Shared Island Forum, including group discussions and an address by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, click here.

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