What do you mean, “Southern” Ireland?

I’ll admit my knowledge of the UK is pretty basic, but I am surprised that, despite its proximity and centuries of shared history, many English people seem to know very little about Ireland – including the name of the country.

T_ tells me that, before moving to Dublin from Sussex, she knew virtually nothing of the country she was making her new home. She had no idea where Dublin was, if it was on the coast or inland, on the top of a hill or at the end of a leprechaun’s rainbow. In history class at school, she says she wasn’t taught much about the fraught relationship between her country and mine, while my history lessons were completely dominated by it.

Maybe it’s understandable. The telling of history is subjective and selective, and compared to the scale of the whole British Empire, the little western outpost of Ireland probably seemed rather insignificant to most ordinary people here. Still, I am amazed at a certain phrase that keeps cropping up when I mention Ireland here…

I am in the post office when I first hear it, sending a birthday card to my nephew.

“How much will it cost to send this to Ireland?” I say.

“Southern Ireland?” the woman behind the counter asks.

“No,” I say. “Dublin,” wondering why it would cost any different if I were to send it to Cork.

She gives me a strange look, as though amazed to find that the clichés of the idiot Irish might just be true. But I think nothing of it… until the same strange conversation happens again, in a different place, when someone asks me where I was from.

“Ireland.” “Southern Ireland?” “No…”

And then I twig it. To me, and probably to most Irish people, “southern Ireland” suggests the southernmost counties – Waterford, Cork, and maybe Wexford at a push. But I suddenly realise that English people must assume that what’s not “Northern” Ireland must be its opposite. A reasonable inference, I suppose, but the wrong conclusion.

Malin Head, Co Donegal. More northerly than all of Northern Ireland, even though “south” of the border. Photo: Declan McKay

One look at a map of the island of Ireland shows it is far from the simple north/south division of the Koreas or the Dakotas. Or even the clear-cut cleavage of east and west Sussex. Non-Northern Ireland holds more of the island’s compass points than just the south. It pretty much holds all of them except the north – east, west, central and all points in between. In fact, since the northernmost point on the whole island is not in Northern Ireland, to call it “Southern Ireland” is quite silly. It is Ireland, just Ireland – or the Republic of Ireland, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Just as Sudan is still just Sudan – not suddenly “North” Sudan – since South Sudan came into being last year.

Back to the post office.

I’m not the most outspoken person, but the more often I hear this phrase – and I hear it a lot – the more I want to set the record straight. However, while I might have done so in the anonymity of a bustling city like Dublin, it’s a little more daunting in the post office across the road from my house. A genteel and conservative West Sussex village of less than 7,000 souls is not the sort of place for complaining in a loud voice or voicing strident and indignant opinions. Instead, I responded with a meek “Em, yes, the Republic of Ireland”, and left it at that. Inside, however, my indignant urbanite self is pompously proclaiming: “Actually, there is no such place as Southern Ireland. It is the Republic of Ireland. Or just Ireland. But there is not now, nor has there ever been, anywhere called Southern Ireland.”

In retrospect, I am glad that I kept this tirade to myself. Not because my indignation at the misnaming of my country would not be understood. Not because it would seem rude and unwarranted. Not even because I might look like a pedantic idiot. But simply because I would have been wrong.

It turns out there was a Southern Ireland once. An autonomous region of the UK established under the government of Ireland Act 1920, it had pretty much the same borders as the current republic. In existence for only 19 months between 1921 and 1922, before the establishment of the Irish Free State, and later the Republic of Ireland, Southern Ireland was never actually an operational political entity. But it did exist. And I’m glad I found this out on my own, before having my own ignorance pointed out to me in public, having launched into a flatulent rant at some hapless postal worker.

I might still be baffled at the British obliviousness to the country with which they share a history, and in part, an island. But I had to come here to learn how little I myself know about where I come from. Which is no longer called Southern Ireland, thank you very much…


6 thoughts on “What do you mean, “Southern” Ireland?

  1. Love this blog! I am Irish, living in Sweden and have met with similar queries about where I’m from, what language I speak and whether or not I’m in the EU! (erm, yes…we were in the EU before you were!!) When I registered to learn Swedish, I had to fill in a form, saying what languages I spoke. I noted Irish amongst others and was asked what I meant by Irish…was it a dialect of English? Of course, we think we’re so much more important than we are…most Europeans I have met don’t know and don’t really care that much. But I do!

  2. Love this! I am an American living in England and about to move to Ireland (a place I happen to love). I have repeatedly encountered people using ‘Southern Ireland’ (the post office included) and was pretty sure it was incorrect (Donegal being the prime example) if not downright offensive to most Irish people. I googled it to make sure and found your article. It’s brilliant!

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