By Francine Cunningham
My family is nothing if not European. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, I’m entitled to both Irish and British passports. My husband has both Dutch and Belgian nationalities. Our son has a Belgian passport and went to a Dutch-speaking primary school, followed by an English-language international school in Brussels. He is now at university in London, studying international relations alongside students from all over the world. Yet ask him: ‘What nationality are you’? Without a moment’s hesitation, he’ll reply: ‘Irish, of course’.
My son may never have lived in Ireland, but this sense of place is deeply embedded in his DNA. As a small child he loved his holiday trips from Brussels to Dublin, where his gran would have Denny’s sausages and soda bread ready the moment he arrived from the airport. He was always fascinated by the ‘bog bricks’ (peat briquettes) in the open fire and would demand ‘Irish pancakes’(scones) after windswept walks along the beach.
This boy may have grown up in the bureaucratic capital of Europe, but put him on a heather-covered mountain, with a dog at his side, and he’s the happiest guy on the planet. Or stand him in a freezing river with a fishing rod and somehow a boy who finds it hard to sit still for 10 minutes will contentedly spend hours and hours waiting for a rainbow trout. I remember, too, how my heart missed a beat the first time I saw him sitting on the kitchen floor, meticulously arranging fishing flies and floats into a box of tackle. He was just like the Irish grandfather, who died before he was born.
Now that I’m dividing my time between Dublin and Brussels, my son finally has the chance to spend more time in Ireland. It hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm. The last time he had to go back to college in London he complained – not that he would miss his parents or his cousins – but he would miss the sea.
If that wasn’t enough, he even feels at home in this Irish climate. As I write, it’s the end of August, it has rained for days and the temperature is in single figures. Back in London or Brussels, when the thermometer goes over 25 degrees, he begins to melt.
Nationality may be a mere accident of birth. Just maybe, it is also mapped in the geography of the soul. That might explain why a boy, who grew up in the lowlands has always dreamed of hills.