As our tour bus rounded the corner toward the statue of Daniel O’Connell, three months of Irish history classes began to rear their head.
“Do you see that?” I asked as I pointed out the window.
My boyfriend, just arrived for a visit from North Carolina, looked out the window.
“The big statue?”
“That,” I said, lips pursed for effect, “is Daniel O’Connell. Commonly called “The Great Emancipator.’ In the mid 1800s…. I continued for a few minutes as Jon feigned interest and nodded his head patiently.
By the time we reached Kilmainham Jail, his patience began wearing thin.
As we stood outside the cell of Countess Markiewicz and our tour guide began to speak, I tapped him on the shoulder.
“You see that cell?” I asked. “Do you know who stayed there?”
“You’re going to tell me, anyway, right?”
I ignored him. “That,”I whispered with gusto, “was the cell of the only female officer on the day of the Easter Rising… .” A few minutes later our guide began to talk about the 1848 rebellion. I dug my fingers into Jon’s ribs.
“Ow!” he yelped. Irritated, he turned around.
“Rebellion,” I mouthed as I did quotation marks with my hands. I began to launch into an explanation but he, no longer tolerating my free “commentary”, had already moved ahead, pretending to introduce himself to the ladies at the front of the line.
Though my “knowledge” was hardly appreciated by my company that weekend in December, returning to the site of the Mitchell orientation helped me realize just how far my studies had come in three months. Before arriving in Ireland in September, I had a foggy outline of the whole of Irish history. My interest, previously, had been in the era of “The Troubles.” As the other Scholars and I wandered Kilmainham Jail and Glendalough in September, therefore, it was hard not to get intimidated by the sheer depth of chronology that I was missing.
Now, as my first semester in Irish History and Politics comes to a close, I am beginning to realize how much my courses have moved beyond simply filling in the dates on a timeline and have provided an overview of the complex religious, social, and political history that continues to manifest itself in modern events. Through this process, I’ve realized even more just how superficial my knowledge of Ireland and Northern Ireland must have been six months ago.
How, I wonder after studying nearly five centuries of the development of the Irish identity, could I have pretended to understand loyalists or nationalists with just a cursory knowledge of the 1600s? How could I have talked about “segregation” or “peace lines” without understanding two decades of migration politics in Belfast? Fortunately, through my lectures and classroom debates, the picture is creeping closer to reality. Though I initially hoped to study the civil rights movement, I find myself uncovering new areas of interest with each passing week. As I buckle down to do research for my thesis this semester, I imagine narrowing the list will be one of my hardest tasks.
Outside the classroom, however, I am still loving every minute of life in Northern Ireland. In the past few months, thanks to the university’s strict “no lecture can exceed 45 minutes without a tea break” policy, I’ve learned much more about my Irish classmates who never hesitate to laugh at the words that I use (I’m sorry, but those scones DO look like biscuits) or my horror at local news. In mid-November, local police exploded a van parked outside the station because it appeared suspicious. (Later, the news revealed, it was nothing to be concerned about.) I could hardly contain myself when I came to class. Wide-eyed and breathless, I ran into the room sputtering details about the explosion. “Saw on BBC….van exploded…might have bomb….” I stammered. They hardly blinked. “Are you serious?” they asked. I forget, sometimes, how different our perspectives must be.
When I haven’t been in class or defending my “Americanisms” against my classmates, I’ve been splitting my time between Belfast to work for Habitat for Humanity and the usual schedule of pub quiz nights, hill walks, and football matches in Derry. Though my Habitat work has been slow coming, I’ve had the chance to interview a number of staff members who helped launch the “North Belfast” project. My biggest fear, as I started, was that there wouldn’t be any compelling stories to tell. Tragically, however, I’ve recorded stories of kidnapped and murdered homeowners, local politics reversing cross-community efforts, and worksite vandalism. As the story begins to unfold, it is intriguing how much the history of the organization mirrors the history of the region. Major Habitat milestones, it seems, parallel major events in the peace process. Major controversies often threatened their own efforts. Besides being interesting for research purposes, however, my work with Habitat — especially during my work days on the actual sites — has made me feel closer to the community in Belfast. It’s hard, sometimes, to find Irish friends at the university. So many of the students live out of town or drive from the Republic. On the Habitat worksite, however, I’m starting to feel like part of an Irish community and it’s added a new dynamic to my experience.
Thanks to our generous travel stipend, I’ve also had adventures outside the north in the last few months. For Thanksgiving, the entire Mitchell gang gathered in Dublin for a feast and an American football match, where, despite my team’s theatrics and cheating, we all tied. In December, I flew to Munich for a month of living off the rails and bunking in hostels across Germany, France, Amsterdam, Italy, and Switzerland. Some of my best memories involved sledding down the Alps at breakneck speed on Christmas Eve, ringing in the New Year at a massive concert in Rome, navigating the ruins at Pompeii, tracking down the Berlin Wall, and scaling (so to speak) a castle turret in Munich with Brittany, Markus and Lily, three other Mitchell Scholars. When I arrived back in Derry in January, it was hard to believe that I actually had the opportunity to visit so many of the places that I’ve imagined for so long. It has truly been an unforgettable four months — of which I am incredibly grateful to the US-Ireland Alliance and Dell and Trina for providing.