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Ballyheimat: Reflections on Self and the ‘Other’

by Margo Gorman

Ballintra, Ballyalla, Ballydevitt, Ballygawley, Ballygorman, Ballycolman, Ballymagrorty Irish, Ballymagrorty Scotch, Ballynakillnew, Ballyshannon. These are a few of the 160 plus towns and townlands in Donegal which take their name from Baile, the Irish equivalent of “Heimat” which usually refers to a small community. Baile/Bally is supplemented by a family name or local feature to identify a place. My reflections on identification with Heimat have been provoked by the discussions on borders and Brexit. I chose the German word “Heimat” as a supplement for Baile/Bally because it carries with it a deep sense of belonging and identification with a specific community. Heimat is usually translated into English as home or homeland, but these words don’t evoke similar emotions or the same mix of individual, collective and localised sense of identity with all its contradictions. 

     My choice of Donegal as my Heimat is a constant reminder of how topography, social institutions, family history and the media form and influence our consciousness of the self and the “Other”. At times of social tension, the self and the “Other” are set against each other when setting the social boundaries of Heimat. The aim of these reflections is to counteract this division between self and the ‘Other’ between US and THEM with fusion.  Fusion of the land, the sea and the sky brought me to Donegal and keeps me here. Fusion of past, present and potential futures. Fusion of mind, body and spirit. Fusion of writing, tilling the land and reflecting. Fusion of friends and family. Fusion of rural, city and provincial life made possible by cheap travel and the internet. Fusion of migration, emigration and immigration. Fusion of my Irish, British and European identity. Fusion of the consciousness of self and the “Other”. 

     When self and the ‘Other’ are at opposite poles of our individual and collective identity, there is a danger of setting up opposition between US and THEM in our community with the risk of this opposition erupting into violent expression. Projections and myths about the ‘Other’ are perpetuated by those who seek to manipulate our consciousness for their own ends. Sexism, racism and sectarianism are forms of manipulation embedded in our consciousness of self and the ‘Other’.  In her long essay, The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison has given us a clear articulation of the need to resist the creation of the “Others” in our consciousness. She shows us how racism is a social construction and is not initially based on reaction to the colour of anyone’s skin but the product of education in the family and community.

     If we challenge the bi-polar split between US and THEM at every level – personal and political, we can also be among those who challenge the spectre of immigration which haunts Europe bringing with it the threat of Islam overcoming Christianity. A spectre, which is not real but a ghost of fascist ideology looking for fresh sacrifice. As Fintan O’Toole says in the Irish Times on Saturday 7th July 2018:

“The truth is that it is not the immigration that produces mass anxiety, it is anti-immigrant rhetoric – and especially anti-Muslim rhetoric.”

     The rhetoric takes many forms not just anti-Muslim and can lead to officials caging children at the Mexican border – just carrying out orders. Between the rhetoric and the actions of each of us, there are layers of colonisation of consciousness in families and communities. Colonisation is an emotive word in Donegal because it is a reminder of how Ireland was once conquered and claimed as a British dominion. My use of it in this context is about how beliefs, values, rituals and customs inhabit and establish control over individual and collective behaviour. Social and economic patriarchal systems have diverse global manifestations and they battle it out between themselves, but they depend on our adherence to their belief systems, often based on mythological “facts”.  When the patriarchs say “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” what they are really saying is without the complicity of women and their families, they are powerless.

     Faced with global manipulation of our consciousness into US and THEM, WE can feel powerless, but we can all reflect on our consciousness of the “Other” and what it means to our sense of belonging – the other gender, the other colour, the other religion, the other culture and so on. It starts with awareness of interaction between self and the “Other” as an expression of inner conflict. This is not only a new form of navel gazing but a tool to use when as a woman you want to win an equal pay claim, or as a parent when you want to understand teenage addiction to porn, or as LBGTQIH, you want to engage in brokering peace and reconciliation regardless of your place on the gender spectrum and so on.

     As women we know there are no winners in a gender battle only losers like the media parade of men with their pants down or defrocked. The lessons of history tell us there are no winners when we identify Jews, Homosexuals, Roma, Social Misfits as the ‘Other’. When the wheel of power comes full circle, powerful men or women and their followers fall off at the bottom. The damage done on their way up is often irreparable and has ripples far beyond – such as the Holocaust of the last century or like 65 million refugees in the World today, of which a tiny fraction reach Europe. In the past it was more likely to be men who take the side of the powerful in institutions, but they too are increasingly victims of the polarisation between self and the “Other” as they lose out on their own self-fulfilment and many young men along the way suffer from or are subverted by perverted expressions of power.

     Understanding the differences between male and female and understanding gender fluidity can help us bridge the gap between consciousness of self in relation to the ‘Other’.  Understanding of another culture or Heimat can help us resist the bi-polar split between US and THEM. In Donegal we first or second-hand experience of emigration and an understanding of what it means to have a sense of belonging to more than one Heimat. Almost every hill has echoes of only lightly buried remains or heaps of stone which housed families forced to emigrate to Scotland, England or North America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Busloads of Scottish accents descend into the Diamond in Donegal town and sing songs of belonging to the hills of Donegal in the pubs. Many of those in Donegal with English accents or those who use the American term “sidewalk” are people who have blown back “home” even when they grew up elsewhere. Many of our families have experience of intercultural exchange from the inside of cultures.

     Even with a sense of individual and collective interdependence, fusion of self and the “Other” within communities presents many challenges. Rural Donegal with its 1134 kilometres of coastline has a low density of population and no city. For decades its administrative centre was in the village of Lifford. It has a mere 10 kms of boundary with the rest of the Republic of Ireland but a long straggling over 200 kms border with Counties Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh in the United Kingdom – soon to be a European frontier.  Born in Strabane in Northern Ireland to Donegal parents, the border through Ulster cuts through my Irish, British and European identity but there are many features of the border which have made it easy enough to recognise and integrate and fuse those aspects of my identity.

     The Common Travel Agreement between the UK and Ireland has meant we don’t need a passport to cross the borders between us. Drivers were asked for some form of identification in the early days of the republic at Customs “huts” which controlled smuggling and where paper work monitored trade. The most intense evidence of the Ulster border were the military checkpoints along the border during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The demolition of these checkpoints after the Peace Agreement in 1998 revealed the reality of the end of systematic customs checks with the joint membership of the EU.

      Brexit signals the need to take a fresh look at the relationship of both parts of Ulster to the other provinces and a fresh look at the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the UK in all its parts.  If we appreciate our interdependence across the Ulster border and the benefits of fluidity of economic, social and cultural exchange, then we can also be open to seeing the British and Irish aspects of Ulster identity as an asset not a barrier.

     Recognition of interdependence is the only defence against colonisation of our consciousness, which splits the self from the “Other” and it doesn’t start or end at the border. It starts where we are. If we can create a space where self and the other interconnect it makes us stronger individually and collectively. If we recognise that consciousness begins at home and that we are stronger when interconnected in our consciousness and in the actions of solidarity, there are creative and profitable solutions to all the challenges we face in in Ulster, in Ireland, in the UK and in Europe today.


Note: Toni Morrison’s essay, The Origin of Others: Harvard University Press 2017 ISBN: 978-0-674-97645-0


Margo Gorman was born in County Tyrone and now lives in rural Donegal, Republic of Ireland. She studied at Queen’s University, Belfast (1968-72) with Seamus Heaney as one of her tutors. Margo then worked in England and mainland Europe on projects and publications including All Different: All Equal published by the Council of Europe. Her novel Bone and Blood, tells the  story of an Irish woman from Leitrim, who was imprisoned in Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Margo is currently working on a series of memoir, essay and short fiction which explores the theme of dual Heimat.