In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Brian John Spencer, who is an artist.
I’m from Stranmillis in south Belfast. Unremarkable upbringing. All my needs were met. We had a Catholic next door neighbour, and I had no sense of the sort of fractious society. Rather it was perfectly harmonious growing up, very much my world was the corridor between Belfast and Bushmills, and then at the major holidays with seeing the grandparents.
The main themes of my childhood were rugby and skateboarding. The rugby made me very conscious of my Irishness and also being part of these islands. The skateboarding was in sort of artsy, surfing, rad, hip, young, urban culture.
My parents and my peers and my teachers advised me not to do art even though that was my passion. I studied law for five, six years. And the reason why I stuck at it so long was because, having gone to Inst (Royal Belfast Academical Institution), you’re almost institutionalised. The idea of dropping out or giving up would have been a matter of great shame. While I was able to like, technically I could squeeze myself in a suit, go and work in an office that was like, it just wasn’t me.
When I watch other artists, whether it be presently Colin Davidson and his paintings of the leading political leaders and shapers and then the victims also. And then if you cast your mind back a hundred years ago, Sir John Lavery, who painted Michael Collins and then later James Craig. And then you had Seán Keating, who [in] the emergent Free State, he painted all the irregulars, IRA men, and the men who came forward. And then you had Paul Henry painting the landscapes. My invisible mentors are those guys. In my mind, it’s like a constellation of these different artists on their oeuvre and their body of work.
Northern Ireland is a thousand things to a thousand different people. There was a lot of awful stuff that happened here, but Van Morrison, Rory Best, Mary Peters. If it was a total wasteland, you wouldn’t have had those. There is a history, a heritage to be salvaged that can bring, I believe, both sides of community together. We’re a completely different place. We’ve got equality written, enshrined into law. There’s equal opportunity for both sides, both communities. If you look to the Republic of Ireland, it’s hard to see how you can maintain your British identity. Whereas, the way it is in Northern Ireland, you can be Irish, as I am, and you can be British, as I am, or you can be just Irish or just British.
I would like just to see some positive role models come forward that can show the way forward. Because that’s the one thing I would often say to people, that I appreciate them coming forward and carving the middle ground. If you look to the artists like Colin Davidson and Oliver Jeffers, respectively from either side of the community — those guys have a critical eye. But both seem to be very proud to come from Northern Ireland.
The likes of Harry Ferguson — what he did to revolutionise machinery for agriculture workers, for farmers, for labourers, for contractors — we should be proud of that. If you look at the likes of Lord Kelvin, who was one of the world-leading scientists. He was born in Belfast, educated in Belfast and Glasgow, and lived between the two. For me, as someone who identifies as British and Irish, the idea that Scotland is local, when you can see it, and not only can see it, you can hear it. It’s so stark. If you go up beyond Bushmills, into the hinterland of Ballymena, you can hear it.
I just think that there’s an onus on yes, absolutely criticism of Northern Ireland, but a frank remembering also of, of what really, where we’ve come from and getting beyond these lazy tropes.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
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Images © Allan LEONARD
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