One of my favorite songs growing up was one about Belfast. It is called “The Black Velvet Band” and tells the story of a man who is smitten by a beautiful Irish woman and she ends up destroying his life. While the song does not necessarily reflect many of the lessons I have learned living in Belfast these past two months (though being an Irish woman I appreciate the ability to make a man feel like he is in hell), it does reveal a side of Belfast that laughs, drinks and is not constantly stifled by sectarian violence. Before deciding to study ethnic conflict in Belfast for my Mitchell Scholarship, the vast majority of my research involving Belfast had to do with the “troubles” that haunted this city and Northern Ireland not so long ago. The tales of bombings, terrorism, human rights violations and other devastating stories from this small city has come to define it to most Americans and Irish alike. In this journal, I want to paint the Belfast of the “Black Velvet Band” for those of you who want to see a little beyond the politics.
Queens University, where I attend classes, is centralized in a gothic style building that continues to impress me everyday that I walk by it. It is a real testament to the architectural efforts that have been put into this city over the years. While Belfast is known in modern times for its political tensions, it has always been an important city in Northern Ireland for trade, religious freedom, and literature. The masters program that I am pursuing holds courses in the evenings. This frees up my days to familiarize myself with the city and, true to the intellectual curiosity that brought me here, audit a course on the history of Belfast until 1940. I really enjoy this opportunity to study Belfast outside its modern political context. It helps to shed light on how everyday sites like the beautiful city hall building and of course, the central building of Queens University gave Belfast the ability to reflect its relative prosperity as central base of trade and culture. It also introduces me to a time where headlines read of linen trade and economic disparity rather than sectarian divides.
Queens University has one of the top rated programs in ethnic conflict in the world. The course attracts students from various countries and backgrounds. Students in the class come from all over the world which creates a fascinating dialogue about how states can absorb different cultures and what defines ethnicity. It makes discussions of how diversity policies in the United States compare with Canada and the United Kingdom less abstract—and for countries like Ireland, Japan, and Italy (all represented in the class) where multiculturalism is more modern concept the debate changes shape even more. Next term we will look more at the practical applications of these theories, both for Northern Ireland and in other conflicts.
Beyond the classroom I have also enjoyed the athletic facilities at Queens University. A new building, the athletic center is in the Botanic Gardens, a beautiful walk which makes the decision to go to the gym that much more inviting—even on the many rainy days! I have become dangerously addicted to a class called circuits, which combines strength, cardio and core training into one intense hour. While there are many reasons that people might fear coming to Belfast, my greatest day to day fear is being singled out by my circuits instructor and “encouraged” in a thick Irish brogue until I do the exercise correctly. One would think my time spent in this class would result in a better physique, but my recent discoveries of Magners (Irish cider) and Cadbury digestive biscuits, make it a wash.
I have also had the opportunity to interact with the Jewish community here in Belfast. One of the first things I did here in Belfast was attend synagogue for the high holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There is one functioning synagogue here in Belfast. While it is an Orthodox synagogue, the most observant sect of Judaism in the United States, its atmosphere is very laid back. The Jewish community is small and tight knit, comprised mainly of elderly people whose families have moved abroad. While my synagogue at home is literally bursting at the seams on the high holidays the synagogue in Belfast is full of old friends, who take the opportunity to laugh and reconnect with relatives who have moved away or people they do not often get to see. They immediately embraced me as well, asking me about my studies and of course trying to fix me up with a young Jewish boy (and yes, he is studying to be a doctor).
I want to conclude by briefly discussing some of the political work I have gotten involved with here in Belfast so the Mitchell does not question my commitment for staring at old buildings and doing crunches when I am supposed to be solving problems resulting from ethnic conflict. I am currently volunteering with a group called Public Achievement. After my training this weekend (the requirements for youth work are very strict here) I will be working with a group of high school students to solve a political issue of their choice. One of the consequences of the peace agreements and disarmament of paramilitary groups in Belfast is that it has upset a social structure that teenagers had been used to and leaves few options for thousands of students who were not raised with a clear understanding of expressing political feelings and opinions without violence. As a result there have been problems with rioting, incidents of violence and an increase in suicide rates among teenagers in recent years here. I will also be teaching a course to students on political writing to again help them to utilize means other than violence to express their views. I look forward to spending more time with them in the coming year.
So, in a true testament to “The Black Velvet Band” which starts, “Well, in a neat little town they call Belfast, apprentice to trade I was bound, Many an hours sweet happiness, have I spent in that neat little town” I have also spent many hours of sweet happiness here thus far. Despite the reality of political tensions that permeate the streets of Belfast in the form of murals, beatings and political graffiti; Belfast remains a neat little town. The small pubs to drink and laugh, the fitness center to compensate for the pubs and of course my everyday interactions with the fun- loving and kind people of Northern Ireland make my day to day experience a testament to the beauty of living beyond the headlines. But as far as destroying some poor Irishman’s life—no luck so far.