The few months I’ve lived here have been unforgettable. With experiences ranging from travels throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic to academic and volunteer work here in Belfast, it seems impossible to summarize life in one post. Instead, I thought it might be better to focus in on two experiences that stand out in my mind. I think both illustrate how my expectations fell short of reality here in Ireland: the first in terms of the island’s natural beauty and the second in terms of Belfast’s politics.
My first experience came a few weeks ago when a friend and I traveled to Newcastle, a town outside Belfast, to go hiking. It’s one of those places I would love to live someday – a beach town looking out over the Irish Sea, mountains climbing up behind the buildings, and an ice cream parlor or a pub on almost every corner. We had been told it had some of the most beautiful hiking in Northern Ireland.
Behind the last row of hoses, we found what we thought would lead to a trail – a set of stairs running up to a fence at the tree line. But the footpath on the other side quickly disappeared. Every so often, we thought we had found it again, but usually, we were merely following grass beaten down by sheep. Before long, we gave up trying to find it and started hiking up.
I would love to tell you how in shape I was, never tiring on my brisk walk to the top. But that would be a lie. It was painful. And the only non-sheep we met along the way was a man in his 60s who walked by us as if he were on a morning stroll. The beauty at the top, however, made the pain and embarrassment worth it. Clouds blowing past us on both sides, the curving coast far below, and an older man whose first comment was, “You boys have earned a pint when you get back down.” The bald mountains and the coast in the distance, combined with the humor and generosity of the people on top, were completely unexpected.
The second experience came a few days ago, working at the PPR (Participation and the Practice of Rights) Project – a community organizing group that seeks to empower people from both unionist and nationalist communities using a human rights based approach.
Every so often, the project meets formally with representatives from community organizations in North Belfast to keep them updated on the project and to discuss future ideas. The staff generously allowed me to sit through the meeting, and I listened as these individuals, who have lived through some of the worst years in Belfast’s history, discussed possibilities for the future.
They were brutally honest about challenges around mental health, housing, and development in North Belfast, but they spoke with a purpose I have sometimes found lacking back home. They devised steps to move forward on issues that could unite divergent communities, discussing how overall community needs required them to move beyond the problems of the past. They talked with fervor about involving as many people as possible. And – with a little humor thrown in about Americans – they reminded me what commitment could mean back home.
To the scholarship committee, to the donors, to Mary Lou and Trina, I cannot begin to thank you for this opportunity. It has been an incredible gift already, and I hope anyone reading has a wonderful Thanksgiving back home.