Nuala McCann: I loved my years in Dublin but it’s sad we’re still a people apart

Forty years on from my carefree years in the capital, few students from Northern Ireland are heading south

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann is an Irish News columnist and writes a weekly radio review.

The UK’s graduate visa route is ‘not undermining’ the integrity and quality of the higher education system and should remain, the Government’s migration advisers have said
It’s sad that so few young people from Northern Ireland are heading south to study (Chris Ison/PA)

A recent article featured interviews with students from Northern Ireland studying at universities in Dublin.

“You’re not Irish. You’re not one of us,” read the headline.

A student from Downpatrick, who identifies as Irish and holds an Irish passport, was told she wasn’t really Irish as she was a northerner.

A young man called Toirealach wearing a GAA top was asked where he was from and when he said “Belfast”, the next question was: “Oh, are you a Protestant?”

With a name like his and a GAA jersey, what were the chances, he asked.

It’s not surprising. It’s just sad that we are still a people apart.

Maybe it was ever so with Ulster people. My Donegal friend is an Ulster woman through and through – it’s just when they drew the line for the border, she ended up on the Free State side.

Years ago, as a young journalist, I reported from Berlin after the fall of the wall. It was a few years post-reunification and you could see the bleak, grey communist boulevards give way to the slow march of capitalism with brightly coloured shops and fancy cafes.

But the east Germans were not all happy with how the tide was turning.

A woman from said she went out on the night the wall fell and stood with her friends looking across at the west Berliners.

“One of them stepped forward and handed me a pair of old shoes. What would I want with her second-hand shoes?” she said, still insulted.

It was a gulf that took more than a brick wall to cross.

It’s sad to think that 40 years on from when I was a student in Dublin, there is still a gulf.

Ella Mills was a student at Trinity College Dublin (PA)
Trinity College Dublin

I ended up in Dublin because that was the route my sister took and I followed her. She brought me to her digs in Dartmouth Square and Rathmines, the old red brick Georgian houses converted into student flats.

We walked the city – saw the “barebones of a fanlight over a hungry door”, the striking divide between the haves and have-nots in Ireland’s capital city.

If we had the Troubles, they had dire poverty. I remember watching a five-year-old Traveller girl sniffing glue from an empty crisp bag on Nassau Street.

Theft was also an issue. I lost two bikes, a handbag, my purse and some jewellery.

Back then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was an edge about northerners coming south. Our fees were paid and we were on grants – our lives seemed easier to our Dublin friends.

But some lecturers too looked on us as a different race.

“You lot come down and get your degrees and then head back where you came from,” one of said.

In the end, I did just that.

Students are taking on more paid work alongside their studies, a report found
“You lot come down and get your degrees and then head back where you came from,” one lecturer said (Alamy Stock Photo)

I loved my years in Dublin. You stepped on the train in Belfast and stepped off into a world without soldiers squatting on street corners, a ring of steel in the city centre, no bad news on tea-time TV seeping like tear gas into the room.

My friends at Queen’s kept close to the university – no-one ventured into the city centre at night, it was a ghost town.

In the days of the hunger strikes, you could taste the tension. My friends went home every weekend or came to me.

In Dublin, we only went home once a month, a Teatime Express chocolate cake in one hand, trip-trapping down Talbot Street.

It’s sad that 40 years on from my carefree years in the city, so few students from Northern Ireland are heading down.

Yes, it is harder for northern students to get into southern universities through the CAO application system, although changes are in the pipeline.

And yes, I’m a northerner and proud, but the Dublin years were carefree, happy ones.