After a nice Christmas break at home with my family and friends (and a trip to witness Alabama win its 13th National Championship at the Rose Bowl), I came back to Belfast for a grueling week of exams. Three 4-hour essay writing sessions, lots of revision (aka studying), and some interwoven American TV show study breaks, and I am finished, feeling confident, and looking forward to another semester of study and travel. In fact, as I write this, I am preparing for a week-long adventure and hunt for Nessie in Scotland with Alec, Bre, and Christina.
While at home, I developed a spiel to deliver for the countless times I got asked “How is Ireland?” or “What’s your favorite part?” The latter question was easy to answer. A celebratory session at the Parlour and an evening of watching a football match on TV with my classmates is the simplest representation of my favorite part of the Emerald isle…the people.
Born and raised in the heart of Dixie with its famous Southern hospitality, I am quite accustomed to kind, charming, down to earth people. I didn’t expect to find anything comparable in Ireland and even expected people might be cold. While it is true that I have had bad interactions, overall, people are friendly, cheery, helpful, and interested in an American in Belfast. Moreover, it is my relationships with the people I now call friends, my classmates, that I value most in my experience thus far.
Almost from the first day of class, I feel like I was taken under the wing by my classmates as they explained things I needed to know to survive and answered my many questions on things I was curious about or did not understand. Four months in, and I still find myself entranced by the flowing conversation and banter that takes place when I sit around with them. Topics flow freely from analyzing the latest happenings in the English Premier League to politics to music to climate change to tales of their days at Uni (undergraduate). People are referred to as “your man” or “your boy,” which really confused me for quite a while. I have gone from not knowing anything to being deemed worthy of being adopted as an honorary real Irishman. It is something that they just said in passing over a pint, but that acceptance meant more to me than I would have ever expected. I also did not anticipate how much I absorbed from my newfound friends until I got home and kept getting odd looks when I would talk about going out with the lads or asking someone for a fiver.
Northern Ireland recently has been rocked by quite the political scandal. Iris Robinson, a member of the Assembly and wife of the ruling First Minister, resigned after news leaked that she had an affair with a 19 year old and used her position to open a café for him to operate. While the sex scandal was bad enough, the misuse of power and unreported exchange of money that she got from investors broke all kinds of Assembly rules. Her husband, the First Minister Peter Robinson, has become entangled, as he knew about this, so he has stepped aside for six weeks. Meanwhile, the parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, have still been trying to find a solution on the divisive issue of policing and justice devolution. This story is relevant for the one short related news clip that came up on my Google Reader. After the news broke, Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness were meeting on the matter, as Robinson planned to step aside. As the meeting ended, McGuiness extended his had to Peter Robinson to show his support and sympathy for the personal trouble he was facing. The story here was that this was the first time the two had ever shaken hands. The top two political leaders of Northern Ireland, who run the government, have offices mere feet from one another, and who had served together in the Assembly for more than a decade, had never shaken hands. The defining factor is that one is an ardent Protestant Unionist and the other is an Irish Catholic Republican, the core issue of all the Troubles and political strife in Northern Ireland.
Unlike some of my fellow Mitchell Scholars, I do not consider myself an expert on conflict and have little experience with issues. I am, simply, a political junkie, who has become mesmerized by the issues here and how they overtake everyday life. The next generation has the potential and the ability to change this situation in Northern Ireland. The hatred and prejudice do not have to continue, and sustained peace is possible. I feel this way because of the interactions and conversations that I have been able to have with my classmates and others who come from both sides. They are tired of the fighting and weary of politicians that people don’t trusted. President Kennedy, a son of Ireland, once said, “Any dangerous spot is tenable if brave men will make it so.” It us up to the next generation to take action and become within their communities to help people come together. I do not claim to understand all of the sectarian problems, but the idealist in me feels confident a rising generation working together with political courage can improve relations.