Sitting on the Isle of Man

Sitting on the Isle of Man

This week, Niamh Lear (Newcastle) reflects on her own identity in the wake of Brexit.

Within academia, national identity is inherently tied to ideologies relating to nationalism and therefore, the concept of nation. It is perhaps because of this that in the majority of understandings that it is often overwhelmed by the political nation state and the political trappings that come with this. However, this ‘modern’ understanding of nationalism infers a singularity to national identity, which in the modern world is incredibly problematic. Take for example, the British Isles, which is where my research is focused. Obviously, within the British Isles national identity can be far more complex than merely ‘British’ (contrary to what the questions on majority of surveys would lead to you believe). Are we British? Are we Irish? Are we Welsh or Scottish or English? Dare I say it; are we European?

The history of the archipelago which is home to the nation states of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and multiple Crown Dependencies is irrevocably intertwined, preceding even the political concept of the state. People from these various nations have traded, married, pillaged, murdered and ruled one another for centuries and so, naturally cultural identities have converged also. Within the United Kingdom for instance, even before you consider migration to this imperial state, there are (at least) four distinct ‘nations’ geographically within its borders which overlap and coexist within individuals. How then can you force someone to feel either British or English? This idea of a singular national identity simply does not reflect the complexities of identity as we face them here today. Despite the dominance of the ‘English’ narrative within our cultural history, it is clear that an individual can be both British and English. How then can you separate British and Welsh, or British and Scottish and crucially, for my research anyway – how do you separate British and Irish?

My interest in this topic came entirely from my own experiences of national identity. I have an Irish migrant mother, and although my father is English and I was born in the exotic county of Bedfordshire, I have always felt Irish. I have always been a proud owner of an Irish passport; every school break was characterised by a visit to Mayo; summers signalled five weeks spent on the west coast; my Gaelic name (especially when combined with my fair colouring and red hair) is met with responses of, “You must be Irish!” in dentists, job interviews or hair appointments. The latter here is particularly important as it demonstrates the way in which an Irish identity is forced on me by other people, particularly in England as opposed to Wales or Scotland. However, when I am in the company of Irish people this is transformed. An Irish identity is no longer thrust upon me; in fact, it is quite the opposite. There is a unique competitiveness to Irishness and I am no longer enough. Suddenly the focus is my English Home Counties accent, my place of birth, the place I live. I am identified as ‘the Brit’ within my wider family; a fraud, a plastic. A British (specifically English) identity is now assigned to me, regardless of my own opinion or feelings.

The consolation here I suppose is that I am not alone in this. It is the experience of thousands of second and third generation Irish people across Britain and this is where the title of this particular post comes from. A conversation with a research participant a few years ago around the displacement of identity that I’ve discussed above led to the exclamation of “I’m not Irish, but I’m not English. I’m somewhere in the middle – I’m sat on the Isle of Man!”. For me this really highlights the fact that English and Irish identities are not allowed to coexist. I say English here, because I believe that it is particular to the English identity as opposed to a British one; I believe it is a result of the colonial history between the two countries and from this perspective both the Scots and the Welsh are not counted as the oppressors, rather the oppressed – rightly or wrongly. This renders negotiating a hybridised Anglo-Irish identity hugely problematic. Although the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom have a largely amicable relationship today this is somewhat because of their colonial history rather than in spite of. There is a sense that they get on because they have to, and as products of both these countries those who straddle their borders are the collateral in their divorce.

We are at a point in time which will fundamentally change our small group of islands. Brexit, like it or not, will have an impact on the way in which we interact day to day. Saving Northern Ireland, which frankly is an issue so complex and distressing that I cannot face it in the few words I have here, and the calls for a second Scottish Independence referendum in Brexit’s wake, this will be none the more pertinent than to those of us who are both Irish and British. Currently, very little is clear. Politically I suppose I will still be European, on account of my paperwork decreeing that I am an Irish citizen and therefore I will retain my rights as an EU national. But this has bought the disconnect between Irishness and Britishness to a head. I have no documentation stating that I am English, and as such it seems unclear what will happen to me as of the 29th March 2019. If I’m out of the country, will I be allowed back in? This may seem dramatic, and indeed it probably is, as by all accounts the Irish will have a slightly different deal than the rest of the EU and my mother will likely be allowed to stay in the country which she has resided within for more than thirty years. But none of this is certain. For the first time, I feel that I have been made to choose whether I am Irish or British for a reason that has actual political consequence and this is something that is hard to reconcile. Since the Brexit vote there has been an unprecedented increase in applications for Irish passports from Britain, suggesting that I am not the only one consciously facing this decision. But what does this mean? How will changing your legal identity by recognising yourself as an Irish citizen as opposed to a British one, to retain the rights afforded to you by the European Union change your national identity? Will more people feel more Irish? Will these people feel more or less British?

I fear that within this discussion I have raised more questions than I have answered, but in a sense, this is the point. This is a dynamic situation and a juvenile project; my focus is unclear, and has been thrown by the EU referendum vote which happened after my initial research proposal was accepted. But I am excited to see where this will take me, to see how far reaching these struggles are. Aspirationally, I hope that reading this makes you consider your own experience of national identity and whether you subscribe to the more traditional, singular understanding or the primordial one which I have pitched today. Negotiating hybridised identities, as alluded to at the outset of this piece, is problematic in itself. However, even within a primordial framework, due to the incessant political associations of national identity and the increasingly complex political environment of the British Isles this is not something that is going to get any more simple anytime soon.

Niamh Lear is a Human Geography PhD Candidate at Newcastle University. Her research is focused on the migration of the Irish, focusing primarily on the construction of identity within young people negotiating second generation Irish identity in England, especially with regard to the so-called post – Troubles era and in the wake of Brexit. Twitter – @niamhlear Email –

Twitter – @niamhlear       Email –

2 thoughts on “Sitting on the Isle of Man

  1. Niamh. Having read your reflections and analysis of a complex situation, I marvel firstly at the unbiased viewpoint. Secondly I feel honoured to have known you all of your life, daughter to an Irish mother and to any English dad, both of whom have instilled strong regard for their respective countries of origin. I am not in the least surprised to read such clear coherent arguments from the offspring of this Devaney – Lear partnership! I hope that those who make the big decisions will listen to young people like yourself. The points you make are valid and raise questions that must be addressed. Continue with this good work.

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