With French influence, but Northern Irish upbringing and genealogy, Stiofan Cairns' debut book, Adventures in Sectarianism is that of a helpless victim in Northern Ireland's cultural myopia. Cairns wants to resist the natural urges to judge and stereotype his fellow citizens and explore what really happens in the much-feared 'other side of the house'. The author is not shy to hide his lack of integration within society, accepting a lack of Protestant friends within his locality, but he is keen to go beyond and discover what happens behind the walls of division.
If we are to critique Cairns, it may be for his inability to establish his own bias at times, which can create distance from those swaying towards unionism and loyalism. His views on the Orange Order are particularly damning. The book however is a wonderful trip through the identity crises of many in the region.
And while the author's views may not always receive universal support, his willingness however, in his acceptance and acknowledgement of his own nationalist tendencies, coupled with his humbleness to question his own positions, should provide sufficient wriggle room for sympathy from those who may not always share his views. It could even be argued that his own predispositions may serve to re-iterate the tone of a book, which highlights the indoctrination of separation in a land obsessed with house of worship, nationality and family heritage.
Of Catholic descent, - in case the name didn't give it away - Cairns, now emigrated in Paris, returns to Northern Ireland on his journey, to discover lands he knew existed but never dared to enter. His trip through Belfast's Shankhill Road under the guise of a French PHD student, while his attempts to feign French nationality may pass with unsuspecting locals at a local hairdresser's and across town at the South Belfast Linfield Supporters' Club, the subtle hints of Northern Ireland's modest brand of humour can't escape the reader's attention.
While Cairns' French guise allows him to pose questions a Catholic may never feel comfortable asking their Protestant neighbours, he also asks himself the sort of questions that many perceive to be normal but are too embarrassed to bring to a public light. When French guises don't lead to any notable conclusions, there are comical, if highly embarrassing tales of attempts to ascertain religious backgrounds of individuals, according to physical appearance, mannerisms and demeanour. Can we really tell Catholics and Protestants apart from an immediate impression? Do Protestants dress better? Do Catholics have their eyes closer together or do usuns pronounce the letter 'H' differently to themuns?
Beyond his tales and recollections, Cairns shapes the political posturing of Northern Ireland's main parties, their powers of manipulation and needs to appease an electorate now pro-created within a take and give political structure. It assesses life in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland, the tribal voting and recent upset with loyalists sparked through events at City Hall.
But crucially, it establishes how Northern Ireland has reached its current crossroads. While two/thirds of the book is devoted to biographical anecdotes, encounters and commentaries, the latter third treats the history of Ireland and specifically Northern Ireland, arriving at today's society and that of the recent conflict period. It is of course a wonderful metaphor of Northern Ireland that the history should follow the present.
The book for the most is a relatively care-free tale through the destructive ways of Northern Ireland's division and suspicion. It will not offer you excruciating levels of analysis; of permutations; of maybes, what ifs and how it could have been. It will not blame one side or another, but it will provide you with experiences, scenarios and background to the crazy ways of life in Northern Ireland. The history section in itself provides an excellent point of reference for those who tend to fast-forward Northern Irish history to the 1960s.
If you know nothing of Northern Ireland, this book will guide you through the crazy realities of day-to-day life in the United Kingdom's ugliest sibling. If you do know Northern Ireland, it will serve to re-enforce the stupidity of a society where deducing people's religion is an acceptable past-time and dividing people according to such is an institutional given.
The book offers room for opinion, debate and perhaps even a follow-up to this debut effort. It also offers hope for Northern Ireland to see a native writer of a younger generation, possessing the inspiration to identify and question the problems within a society which does not always encourage openness. We can only hope that the rest of this little land can embrace such self-scrutiny.