There’s nothing like having four sets of guests to make two months fly. From taking in the rugged shores of Rathlin Island with Jess, my radiant girlfriend, to tromping through the farmland of Co. Galway with my parents in search of our progenitors, to listening to Rach’s No. 3 with Hoyt and Josie, to driving around the Antrim Coast in a rental with Guru, these past two months have given me a chance to show off the things that I’ve come to love so much about my new home.
One danger of all these guests is that you can start to take all the beauty of this place for granted. Giant’s Causeway can become just another set of cliffs, the Duke of York can become just another pub, and the murals of West Belfast can become just another set of billboards. It’s incredible how quickly each of these has become a consistent part of my life, and humbling how soon they will all be a part of my past. My Belfast clock has now ticked down below two months, a fact that I can see clearly on paper but have yet to accept.
When not exposing guests to the best Ireland has to offer, I’ve kept up my work at the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland. The name change from the old, ECONI, is now complete, and the new work of the Centre is taking more concrete shape. A good portion of my recent work has been around Renewing Hope, an initiative of church leaders throughout Northern Ireland designed to challenge Christian communities to do their part to transform the increasingly sectarian nature of local public life. To see leaders from across the Christian spectrum unite behind such a positive initiative has been encouraging. The challenge now is to make these voices of peace, reconciliation and, dare one say it today, love heard more clearly in the public square.
Northern Ireland could certainly use a few more of such voices these days. As predicted Northern Ireland’s election season placed even more political power in the hands of hardliners. Ian Paisley’s DUP gutted David Trimble’s UUP on the unionist side, while Mark Durkan and the SDLP fought hard in losing some ground to Sinn Fein in the nationalist community. I have the feeling that Blair would like to devolve government to Northern Ireland as one of his legacies before leaving office, but it is difficult to see compromise emerging between the DUP and Sinn Fein when both have just been rewarded at the polls for their tough negotiating strategies. Things could change, especially if the IRA responds to Adams’ calls to leave the stage for good, but with marching season fast approaching, I think that the next round of Mitchells will likely arrive in Belfast before any compromise takes place.
With so many guests in town, my only chance to travel outside Ireland took me to Edinburgh for a long weekend. I honestly can’t remember a place that surprised me so much with its energy, beauty, and history. A day trip to St. Andrews (no, unfortunately not to play) was icing on the cake. One cautionary note does go to any who may visit Scotland in the near future: do not eat the deep fried pizza. I cannot stress this enough. It is devilishly delicious, but brings with it gastrointestinal consequences far beyond any short-term enjoyment. Enough said.
As I find so often in life, the best memories of these past months are actually some of the least spectacular. Mornings spent wandering through the stalls of St. George’s Market. Afternoons and long evenings of intense sky-contemplation in the Botanic Gardens. One particular Bank Holiday Monday full of bacon and good company. Midnight walks on the beach of Downhill. Grilling burgers in the alleys behind Mt. Charles. The common slices of time that make you realise how at home you have become in a place that not so long ago seemed so foreign.
It is incredible to realise that my Mitchell year is rapidly drawing to a close. As I wrote in the first of these journals, I had little idea of what to expect when I came to Belfast. I knew the facts of the conflict, but this year has hammered home that the facts are only the surface of any society. What I have experienced has been much more powerful. The earthy smells of the fields of North Antrim, the dramatic sight of the murals of Falls and Shankill, the sweet goodness that is a pint of the black stuff, the unmistakable sound of the Belfast brogue, all these have shaped me over these past months. It takes far more than a year to be from a place like Northern Ireland, but after my short time here, I’ve come closer to understanding why this place means so much to those who call it home.