January 2005 Reflection

Before you ask, I just want to say that I didn’t do it. My alibi is airtight. I was back in the States when Belfast’s Northern Bank got robbed. Ask my parents. Besides, what would I do with 26 million pounds sterling? Perhaps endow the Mitchell program? Well I suppose I do have motive then. Let’s change the subject. Any more questions can be directed to Trina and Dell.

As when I last checked in, Belfast is nothing if not interesting. November and December saw diplomatic negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP come tantalizingly close to completion, before once again degenerating into mutual blame for unwillingness to compromise. The bank robbery has taken any lingering momentum away from negotiations; a deal between Sinn Fein and DUP now seems as unlikely as ever.

It has been fascinating to observe all of this progress and regression while working with ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland), a local group that engages religious communities in the process of building peace. The opportunity to provide them diplomatic analysis, as well as contribute to work on dealing with the past, human rights, and the role of churches in the public square has been challenging, engaging, and humbling. Even more rewarding than the work has been becoming a part of a community of people who have literally given their lives to building peace in this divided land. They work constantly, through both progress and setbacks, with hope in the future but a very real sense of the difficulties in reconciling two long-divided communities.

At this point, the greatest sign of progress in Northern Ireland may be this: in spite of the recent political setbacks, life in Belfast carries on much as it has since I’ve arrived. Pubs are packed with a cosmopolitan crowd, construction continues throughout the city, and St. George’s Market is teeming with customers on a Saturday morning.

The chance to live and work in such a fascinating environment while studying ethnic conflict at Queen’s University has undoubtedly been the most rewarding part of my time in Belfast. Classes are a mixture of world-class scholarship and personal experience, abstract theorizing and very real day-to-day events. First semester exams have just finished, so now the second semester, and Master’s thesis, loom on the horizon. More updates on that to follow.

Among the most pleasant surprises in Belfast has been the quality of the live music available throughout the city. Like the city, the music scene is a mixture of local and international, and just a little rough around the edges. Doesn’t a great music scene have to be a little rough from time to time? The entertainment ranges from open mike night in the dark back bar of Lavery’s to the fantastically colourful performance by Ibrahim Ferrer and the Buena Vista Social Club at the sparkling Waterfront Hall, from quiet trad sessions at The Duke of York, Fibber McGee’s, and Kelly’s Cellars to the decidedly not quiet blues night at The Empire. There has even been an all too brief appearance by what I can only describe as a wandering band of Spanish matadors with guitars, in search of an open stage and free beer. They came to the right town.

As always, some of the most interesting moments of the past months have taken place away from dear Belfast. A weekend in Barcelona provided a welcome dose of sunshine and relative warmth in early December. Having the opportunity to visit such exciting and vibrant places is just another thing that makes the Mitchell experience so incredible. My road also led back to Dublin for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with the Mitchell family, and more than one late-night poker game. With the increasingly painful exchange rate, it’s been nice to have this constant cash flow to augment my stipend! The Dublin Mitchells are a particularly generous bunch.

One unforgettable experience this past semester took place not in a crowded pub or an exotic European city, but in the hills of County Down, three miles outside the beautiful village of Rostrevor. This is the site of Holy Cross Monastery, a community of Benedictan monks established in the mid 1990s. Almost all are from France, drawn to Northern Ireland by the conflict to serve as a sign of peace and reconciliation. It is difficult to imagine a more refreshing way to spend a weekend than basking in Benedictan hospitality, joining in the swelling chants, and savouring the simple French country cooking that the monks brought with them.

I suppose that’s a relatively good snapshot of life since I last checked in. Being in the States for the holidays was a great break, but it’s good to be back in my room, looking out over Mount Charles. This should be another memorable semester of classes, travel, and blowing ₤26 million on Guinness. I think I need to call my lawyer.

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