As I leaned across the counter of a dimly lit police station six months ago and ticked off the contents of my stolen bag, I couldn’t help but think that my travel days were cursed. “How am I ever going to survive a year abroad?” I moaned to the officer on duty.
“No worries,” he assured me. “Londonderry is the friendliest city in the world.”
One month into my time at the University of Ulster, I have to agree.
Take, for instance, the recent case of my stolen student identification card. Upon discovering it was missing, I scoured the sidewalks on my way to class and rummaged through all of the drawers in my room. No luck. I started to hope that someone might turn it in to the accommodation office and save me the 12 pounds Sterling fee. Instead, the ID card arrived in my mailbox a few days later, mailed to my address with a short note that said, “Carolyn, Hope you didn’t spend much time looking for this! Cheers!” No return address. No complaints about sending it. Just the sort of simple act of kindness that has punctuated my life at Magee.
Still, the paradox between those acts and the ever-present reality of living in a town still scarred by the Troubles is just one of the most intriguing parts of studying in Northern Ireland. In the same town where people mail your student ID, strangers clamour to buy your first Guinness, and the person with the least amount of groceries gets an automatic bye to the front of the line, you can watch children pelting police cars and ambulances with rocks, you can walk past the powerful Bogside murals or look at the banner from Bloody Sunday, and many of the people you talk with will lower their voices and share their own personal tragedies from “the conflict” in hushed tones across pub tables. It’s a contradiction that I’m still struggling with. While Derry often looks like any small town to the untrained eye, I am constantly learning about the various layers of history still embedded in the town’s walls and each person’s memory. For an aspiring historian, you can imagine, it’s a fascinating place to study.
That’s just one of the reasons why my days at the University of Ulster seem so promising. Though I applied to the university based on the program and the faculty, I’ve come to appreciate what a perfect place it is for a student of Irish history. It has been invaluable, during the last few weeks, as my professors discussed 17th century Ireland, to have the opportunity to actually walk the walls from the Derry siege. Or to see relics from the event housed in St. Columb’s Cathedral. As I’ve read biographies and more recent histories, it has been an amazing opportunity to actually walk the streets of Bogside or to navigate the Bloody Sunday Centre. I feel as though my education at Ulster will be two-fold: taking in the lectures and insights of my professors and then actually walking through the history outside my window. And thanks to our generous travel stipend, I’ve already been able to do primary research at the British Library and to spend a few days living in the history museums in London.
History aside, however, Derry is strangely starting to feel like home. Though I readily admit that I’m still in the “honeymoon” period, I’ve fallen in love with the city. It’s large enough to support a host of arts venues and vibrant nightlife but small enough that it’s all within walking distance. Already, my roommates and I have established ourselves as “The Americans” at a local pub quiz night (although we’re not all American — the Americans are just the loudest ones) and we’ve become regular customers at the best (i.e. Most artery clogging) places for traditional Irish breakfast, cheap fish and chips, and chicken curry.
I was disappointed, at first, to be housed in a postgraduate/international student flat because I worried that I’d be missing a crucial part of my cultural experience. Luckily, however, I realized quite quickly why the accommodation office made the choice as I walked past the undergraduate flats during Fresher’s Week. So, instead, I’ve joined the hill walking club and tried to make an effort to invite students from my class to quiz night or to pubs with my friends. Though it hasn’t been the easiest thing, I’m slowly adding to my list of Irish friends and, therefore, my tendency to drop bits of Irish slang into my conversations.
Even though they aren’t helping with my Irish, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the other Mitchells through our “easu/almost plunging to our deaths in bogland” hike through Glenveagh, our trips around Dublin during orientation and subsequent trips to Belfast, London and Dublin. We’re quite a diverse group and although I can’t yet hold my own with Mike while talking about music or while debating foreign policy with Geoff, I look forward to the things I’ll glean from their experiences and backgrounds. By the end of it all, I hope that I can take a bit of the best of them home with me.
To really get to know my Irish neighbours, however, I’m excited about a project that I’ll be working on throughout the year with Habitat for Humanity in Belfast. I contacted their volunteer director to see if it might be possible to spend some days on the work site on my days off or to assist with local volunteers in their office. Instead, she suggested that I take on their new “legacy” project. Essentially, Habitat has been building in two sectarian neighbourhoods in northwest Belfast — one traditionally Catholic and the other traditionally Protestant. Because homeowners must stockpile “sweat equity” by working on their house and other Habitat houses, Habitat has deliberately built the two neighbourhoods at the same time, house by house. Therefore, someone from the first site will have to put in hours on the other site to qualify for their home. As the directors told me during our meeting, Habitat’s intention was to bring the two communities together to serve in a safe environment and to offer the residents a chance to start to see one another as people, not just members of a particular group. Since the project is closing this winter, they’ve been searching to a way to commemorate their efforts.
Enter one overly ambitious American with Wednesdays and Fridays off from class.
Though the specifics haven’t been worked out yet, I think my role will be to research the history of the two neighbourhoods and to record the individual stories of the volunteers, directors, and homeowners. Together with photographs and oral histories, I’ll (hopefully) create a publication that Habitat will use for publicity and as a historical record. In addition, I hope to spend some weekends on the work sites helping to finish the final houses. I spent a Saturday in Ballysillan, recently, and had a blast installing dry wall and trading stories with an aspiring midwife from northwest Belfast. Though I can’t promise my wall won’t eventually collapse, it was a great way to meet people outside the university and to feel like a tiny part of a much larger community.
Other than that, however, I just look forward to the days to come. The entire town of Derry has been transformed to prepare for the Halloween celebration this week, dubbed the oldest and largest Halloween festival on the island and I plan to be in the thick of it, because, as my classmates have told me, there’s no better way to truly be immersed.
Feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or want to hear more stories from Derry…