My time in Northern Ireland has been a series of pleasant surprises. It began when I boarded my flight to Belfast, a bit nervous, having not traveled abroad for the better part of a decade. I was excited not only to see Ivanley Noisette, a fellow Mitchell Scholar, sitting across the aisle on my flight, but to find that he’d been assigned to the same university-owned apartment as me at the University of Ulster.
Once Ivanley and I had hauled our luggage to the flat where we’d be spending the year, we decided to catch an afternoon train into Belfast’s city centre to find dinner. Our brief trip would set the tone for my subsequent encounters with the local population. The problem, of course, was that we had no idea where the train stop was located (I was thrilled just to have found the housing office). After wandering through the university, we asked a passing middle-aged administrator for directions. This woman, a stranger, not only told us where to go, which train to take, and what restaurant to try–she insisted upon giving us a lift to the train station. This eager generosity, I would discover, is the rule rather than the exception here in Belfast. In a region notorious for its history of violence, I’ve found the locals always adamantly kind. One taxi driver explained the people of Northern Ireland this way, for better or worse: “We hate each other, but we love everybody else.”
Since those first days in Belfast, several US-Ireland Alliance events, trips to the city’s beloved open markets, dinners with other Mitchell Scholars, and sometimes aimless wandering around the city center (I mean…centre) have helped me make the transition from tourist to resident. I’ve talked politics with MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in the Parliament Building, a TD (member of Parliament) from Ireland, the former mayor of Dublin, and community organizers in West Belfast. I’ve learned about Irish culture from barristers, journalists, and civil servants. I’ve attended a play with fellow Mitchells, taken in concerts, and even attended a Belfast wedding.
The Troubles, however, seem to linger just beneath the surface here. I quickly learned, to my surprise, that taxi drivers tend to offer some of the most candid descriptions of Troubles-era Belfast. In part, taxi drivers simply seem accustomed to catering to post-conflict, Troubles-inspired tourism. But this line of work also attracts a disproportionate number of former paramilitaries. One heavily tattooed taxi driver explained that, because so many former paramilitaries were incarcerated as a result of Troubles-era crimes, they have few employment options besides driving a taxi. For the eager young American, this means that the right taxi driver, in the right mood, can provide an account of the Troubles as rich and personal as many books and historians.
While at the University of Ulster I’m studying health communication. It’s exciting to be studying health-care systems at a time when both America and the UK are facing an urgent need to reform their health delivery and health financing mechanisms. I’ve also been grateful to learn in many of my classes from mid-career professionals currently working in the health sector. I routinely exchange real-world anecdotes with classmates working as nurses, health promotion officials, and lobbyists.
The greatest thrill, though, is to learn from my fellow Mitchell Scholars. During formal US-Ireland Alliance events and through informal gatherings (such as a weekend in the Northern Ireland town of Derry/Londonderry), I’ve quickly gotten to know my fellow Mitchells. In one sitting with them, I can learn something new about computer programming, Iranian politics, contemporary Irish theatre, or race relations in the Mississippi Delta. Conversations with this bunch are never dull!