In my previous reflection entries, I have themed my writing around the topic of the senses – visions, tastes and sounds of Belfast. I could continue by describing the smells of Belfast, but that might not make for the best entry! Besides the whiff of the Ulster Fry wafting from the nearby eateries each morning, the most significant smell in recent months has been the aroma of spring as it has sprung in Belfast these last few weeks. The freshness of the mowed grass and the flowers in full bloom have made the Botanic Gardens the most popular spot in town. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a place to spread a picnic in most parks this weekend as the entire population has set out to take in the gorgeous sunshine, re-discovering the beauty of Belfast after a long winter’s nap.
But a fifth sense – the touch, or rather the feel, of Northern Ireland lends itself to this, my final entry. Though I’ve likely spent as much time away from Belfast as in it during these last few months, I’ve found myself satisfied and almost relieved at times to return home to “B-town” at the end of each of my journeys. There is something about the feel of the city that attracts me to it. It is more than just a place to call home or a familiar turf. I wrote in a previous entry that Belfast had become my home, but there comes a moment when home is not just a place to hang your hat or merely where everybody knows your name. I associate Northern Ireland with a sentiment of cozyness that it invokes in me. Furthermore, I feel offended when people I meet demean the region with a dismissive smirk. At passport control in the Dublin Airport last week, I told the immigration officer I was on my way home to the North where I was studying. Upon telling him I was studying politics, he snickered and questioned whether I intended to study for an eternity. It is this tone that I find unhelpful and degrading.
No, living in Northern Ireland is not always worry-free. Challenges abound, as they do in every community, and here they are especially deep. Earlier this semester in my Conflict Intervention class, a row broke out among the students who contested the way in which to represent the conflict here. We discussed the possibility of creating a museum to commemorate the Troubles. One student replied that a museum would not be appropriate because this conflict was not over – a museum implies closure, she said. The professor offered that perhaps it would help to bring closure, to which others piped in that it was just too soon. The last room of the museum would be empty, one said. “The future of this place has yet to be determined.”
This attitude contrasted with the congratulatory frame of reference adopted by the BBC in its coverage of D-Day – the day in which devolution was restored in May. From that day on, I noticed a shift in tone from those in the “outside world” when I discussed Northern Ireland – from an attitude of doom and gloom manifest in the immigration officer’s reply I described above, to one of pleasant surprise that progress was actually being made. Earlier, they had all held their breath while Ian Paisley was deciding whether he would enter into power-sharing; now, they breathe a sigh of relief. On D-Day itself, there was little commotion in South Belfast where Queen’s is located. In fact, no one seemed to notice that anything was happening at all – it was just a normal Tuesday at the University. When questioned, local students expressed their cautious satisfaction with the process.
The week before that day, at a Truth and Reconciliation event, older participants made a plea to the students present that they move on and forget – really forget – the troubled history of the North. They asked them to move forward with a new set of lenses aimed toward building bridges to further the community as a whole. Others found this thought repulsive – that one could actually go on as though nothing had happened while residents are still mourning their losses, searching for answers to crimes long past. They argued that the only way forward was through the reconciliation of injustice. These dichotomous perspectives reflect our class discussion and the feeling of many of my local friends. It is difficult to determine how best to remember – and forget – the Troubles. Around all the excitement for devolution, an outsider tends to stop thinking about the neighborhood level and the individual sentiments toward change. Yet, juxtaposed against the ceremonies of D-Day are the marches of summer which have just now begun again, reminding us that while the political elites shake hands, next-door neighbors have yet to do so.
In spite of these mixed impressions, springtime in Northern Ireland can convert the non-believing that Belfast is a great place to be. The thought of leaving this place stirs up feelings … I feel like I will be losing a friend. But just as each of my friends occupies a special place in my heart, I risk sounding cliché when I suggest that my year in Northern Ireland will do the same. It has had a transformative power over me, like only the deepest of experiences can have. To the brilliant Scholars with whom I am privileged to share this year – thank you for being you! To the outstanding staff of the Alliance – thank you for making this possible! And to Belfast – thanks for the memories; it’s been an honor to be here.