I came to Northern Ireland for the first time in 1997. I came from Italy to marry a Belfast guy and, despite the heavy rain, I don’t regret it.
Belfast had very little immigration back then; I was one of the few foreigners to settle down. In the last decade Polish, Lithuanian and other populations have made their way here, and the city is now their home too.
What I did not know when I first arrived was that, during the last century, a good number of Italians moved to Northern Ireland for a new start; it is an unknown story in Italy. Nobody believes me when I say that a strong Italian community was established in Belfast between the First and the Second World War.
Why on earth did they leave sunny Italy to come to rainy Ireland? Most of them came to work as stone masons, fleeing a very poor rural Italy, thinking that they might stop here for a while and then sail on to America. Many ended up staying and opening ice cream or fish and chip shops.
Some of the family names, like Morelli and Caffolla, are still very well known in Northern Ireland, principally for their great ice cream. But what a lot of people don’t know is that the story of the Italians in Northern Ireland is a tragic story too.
At the beginning of the Second World War, when they finally started to feel at home, Italy entered war against Britain and all of a sudden they were considered enemies and interned in detention camps. Others, less lucky, were sent to Canada on a boat called the Arandora Star that was sunk by the Germans, who believed it to be a British boat: 900 italians died that day.
When the war ended, the surviving settlers started from scratch and, just when they thought it was all going well, the Troubles began. They were Catholics, often serving ice cream in the wrong areas: shops were burned, people were threatened and killed. Once again they were trapped in a war that wasn’t theirs.
Then, eventually, the Troubles faded away and the Italians in Northern Ireland ended up getting used to the weather (I never will!) and becoming accepted by all the locals, the second and third generations speaking with Ulster accents.
I took my recorder and went around Northern Ireland to collect memories of the Italians that still remember how it all started. From these real family stories, the folks at Kabosh Theatre Company and I created a piece of theatre, Grazie Italia!, that includes storytelling and live music – a celebration of a, unknown saga that deserves to be told.
First, to my daughter and my son – half Northern Irish, half Italian – because they have a foot in both cultures and I want them to be aware of where they come from. Then to the Belfast people, in these times multicultural times, in order to remind them that foreigners may look different and have trouble speaking English, but they can make damn good ice cream.
What I found having relocated to Northern Ireland is that, despite the weather and the dark nights, people here are extremely warm and almost Mediterranean in their own ways: they enjoy family barbecues with far to much food, drink, loud singing and tears when they become emotional, like we all do in Italy.
So, at the end of the day, the two communities have much in common, and when the sun is out and there is a new arrival of great olive oil from Tuscany in my local delicatessen, I start to feel at home too, and I find myself singing aloud the old Italian song that goes: 'Paese mio che stai sulla collinaaaa' ('My little village on top of the hill').
By Alessandra Celesia
Grazie Italia! is at the Docker's Club, Belfast on May 8 as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Giro d'Italia 2014 festival of cycling.