“Hey Matt. I heard you were in Dublin! Wow! That must be amazing. How do you like it out there?
“Yeah, it’s great, but actually I wasn’t in Dublin. And technically I wasn’t in Ireland either.”
“I was in Belfast. I can tell you about that.”
I lost count of the number of conversations I had just like this one while back in California for my winter break. For some reason, all of my family and friends were convinced that if I was in Ireland, I had to be in Dublin. Then, when I told them that I had been in Belfast, they really didn’t know where to go from there. So though I spent a lot of time over the break talking to people about my experiences, in each case, I always found myself giving the disclaimer that I really didn’t feel comfortable telling them much about “Ireland” or “the Irish.” I had been in Belfast and not only is Belfast in Northern Ireland, it also is a very unique history that has made it a unique place. For that reason, I could never really be sure if the things that I was experiencing in Belfast were distinct to Belfast or something characteristic of Ireland more generally, or even of Northern Ireland. Luckily most of my friends were willing to listen as I told them about my lovely experiences in that oh so un-Irish place (at least in their minds) called Belfast.
All of that is to say that though I had a wonderful experience last semester, it was a Belfast experience. I made many friends at Queens and had the opportunity to learn about the Belfast/Northern Ireland situation, particularly in the area of human rights. With regard to learning about post-conflict issues, Queens is likely the ideal institution and Belfast the ideal laboratory. Yet at the same time, I was very much looking forward to moving on to Galway for the “Irish” phase of my “cross border” LLM program.
I learned right away after getting off the plane that the North and South are two distinct places. I had been so rushed when leaving LA that I forgot the letter from the Mitchell Scholarship folks to show to show at passport control confirming that I would be studying at Galway. I tried to explain to the passport guy my situation. He asked if I had anything to show to prove it. I pulled out a bunch of syllabi from my Queens classes, an evaluation of an essay I wrote there, and some other stuff with Queens’ name on it. He looked at me, still dissatisfied, “Okay, so you studied or are studying in Belfast? What does that have to do with you studying here in Ireland? These are two different jurisdictions you know. “ Ouch, burn. Eventually he let me through, but it was as though he wanted to make it clear to me at the outset, despite whatever rhetoric you hear on either side, we treat the North and South as two different places.
I noticed immediately upon getting to Galway that the accents in the North and the South are substantially distinct from one another. The Northern Irish accent is notoriously difficult to understand, kind of like a cross between the Irish and Scottish accents. Yet during my first few stops and conversations with people in Galway, at restaurants, supermarkets and department stores, I realized that I was having a having a hard time pinning down the Galway accent as well. Then I started to see that many of the people I had come across thus far were in fact not Irish at all, but rather recent immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Galway, much like other parts of the south of Ireland, has seen a tremendous amount of immigration into the country in the past few years. Being a small country (and Galway a small city), this immigration is extraordinarily significant and noticeable. Galway, perhaps even more than most other cities in Ireland (save maybe Dublin) is quickly becoming a multicultural city. I hope to learn more about how Galway and Ireland are responding to these demographic changes and what it means for the future of Ireland.
Everyone who visits Ireland has a taxi driver story. The taxi drivers here are pretty much uniformly warm, honest, humorous, and full of knowledge. Much of what I learned in Belfast about how “regular” people thought about the changes that were going on there, I learned from taxi drivers. Already here in Galway I have had conversations with taxi drivers about views in the republic of the north, immigration to Ireland, the Irish language, the war in Iraq, population growth in Galway, and Gaelic football. With the right question, taxi drivers in Ireland are willing to open up to you on just about any topic.
Galway itself seems like a great little city. It’s at the same time feels like a thoroughly “Irish” town and a thoroughly student town. The university dominates the city, without a doubt, yet there’s enough separation that you feel that there is definitely a life of the city that exists separately from the university. I can understand why it seems to be most people that I’ve met in Ireland’s “favorite Irish city.” Both people who visit and people who live here seem to love it. There are pubs and live music everywhere and people clearly like to have a good time. There are also lots of Americans here, which is different than Belfast. The weather has been hard to deal with (rain, wind, more rain), but such it is, and as they say, those rolling hills don’t get green by themselves!
I’m also excited about my program. The Queens course was much more focused on the local Northern Irish experience, as it should be considering the resources that are available to analyze that experience. The Galway program on the other hand is much more international, in its scope, students and professors. I had my first international criminal law course here, taught literally by one of the world’s most foremost experts on the topic, and the students in the course were from all over the world. It made for some interesting comments and perspectives and I think that there is a great potential here to learn from what the students have to offer.
There are clearly going to be both advantages and disadvantages to choosing a “split” program. I miss my friends in Belfast, and Galway and Belfast are not all that close to each other, so there won’t be much going back. Also, most students here in Galway have already made their friends and routines and thus it is going to be hard to fit into that. Though I knew a lot of people in Belfast, I don’t know anyone here and am really going to have to start completely from scratch. Yet there are also advantages as well. Not only will I get to experience (albeit for a shorter time period) both the North and the South, I think that spending time in each place will help me understand some things about each of the places in a way that would be hard to otherwise. Having just been in Belfast, there are little things that I notice here in Galway, little differences and similarities, that I think have actually helped me understand Belfast a little bit better than I did before.
Stage 2 of my Mitchell experience has begun and I’m excited to find out what these next few months will bring. I can only hope that they will be as thoroughly interesting and enjoyable as last semester.