Jan Carson: ‘I cried when I got my Irish passport’

Jan Carson on having multiple identities, holding on to faith, and life in Northern Ireland after Brexit

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The writer Jan Carson, who comes from a Protestant evangelical background in Co Antrim, has said she cried when she got her Irish passport.

The author of the recently published novel The Raptures, who won the EU Prize for Literature Ireland in 2019 for her previous book, The Fire Starters, said Brexit “kicked off” at the same time as her writing career. When she got her Irish passport, three years ago, “It felt like a really practical thing, because ... I do travel around Europe a lot, and I didn’t want to be standing in queues, and I just thought, I’ll have both,” Carson (who has retained her UK passport) told the Irish Times Borderlines podcast.

“But it was really emotional. I wasn’t prepared for it when I came home and it was lying on the welcome mat beside my letter box. I did cry. And I still haven’t unpicked what that was, whether it was a good kind of emotion, of ‘I’m crying because I am more things now,’ or that it felt ... you know, I’m the first person in my family to have an Irish passport, definitely.

My granda was an Orangeman, and nobody else in the family has an Irish passport, so I did feel a wee bit like, well, I wonder have I betrayed something?

“My granda was an Orangeman, and nobody else in the family has an Irish passport, so I did feel a wee bit like, well, I wonder have I betrayed something? There was a lot of mix, when I say lots of identity, lots of emotion as well,” she said. “It was a practical thing but probably, bizarrely, provoked by a combination of Brexit and winning the European prize for literature. I felt like you can’t really be the Irish laureate for the European prize without an Irish passport.”


Carson said she felt culturally Irish since she first started writing, although learning no Irish history, mythology or folklore at secondary school left her “on the back foot when it comes to being a 42-year-old woman in a very complex place”. She added: “It’s an honour to say you’re an Irish writer, it really is.” But she said there was a lot to be gained from having plural identities. “When someone describes me as an Irish writer I’m not offended—it’s not untrue—but can we keep talking about that because there’s more going on there.

“Bizarrely, I don’t even know what this means, but if someone was to describe me as a British writer, I think I would have much more of a curling up, like you’ve reduced me a bit ... I don’t know what that says about my politics if I get a wee bit curled up if I get labelled a British writer.”

Carson, who is from Ballymena, said the rural evangelical community she grew up in was mostly apolitical. “It was a world so fearful of the world that politics was a dirty thing.” But she has seen in some churches “much more of a return to politics being preached from the pulpit”. “I’m hearing from my friends and the people I know who still belong to those churches that we’re moving back to those Paisley days of the minister standing up and telling you how to vote or what you think about things, and that’s really dangerous.”

Carson said she still has a faith and has recently completed an essay for the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris about “what we lose when we lose organised religion”.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Features Editor of The Irish Times