Shortly before the start of the spring semester, I welcomed my first visitor to Ireland. My friend—who is half Irish!—studies civil conflict and political psychology, so she was keen to visit Northern Ireland and learn more about the Troubles, the period of civil conflict between republicans and loyalists that lasted from the late 1960s until 1998.
Just twelve hours after I returned to Dublin from Wales, I hopped on a bus to Belfast to meet my friend. From there, we took another bus to Derry, a charming town that was the heart of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and a major flashpoint in the Troubles. Upon our arrival, we realized just how small and close-knit Derry is: our Airbnb was within a 5-10 minute walk of the infamous Bogside neighborhood, the walled city centre, and the modern Peace Bridge. Our first evening, we went to see the nationalist murals commemorating Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement in the Bogside. We meandered around the city walls, looking out at the sunset and surrounding hills. The next day, we took a tour of the Bogside and visited the Museum of Free Derry, which compellingly tells the story of the civil rights movement and the brutality of Bloody Sunday, a tragic event in which Catholic protesters were needlessly attacked by the British military and police.
We were also able to meet up with my fellow Mitchell, Alison, for dinner and a benefit concert for the Bloody Sunday March. The concert featured outstanding local musicians and represented what is so unique about Derry. We recognized several people in the crowd who we had seen somewhere else in the city. It was heartening to see such a large crowd gathered on a random Wednesday night to support their community. As people sang along to the music, I realized that I’ve never been in another place where people who have suffered and struggled so much retain so much optimism for the future and joy in their community.
We then returned to Belfast, which was more familiar territory for me. I had visited twice before—once in 2018 and to attend the Rally for Choice at the beginning of my Mitchell year. I gave my friend an informal tour of the murals on the infamous Falls and Shankill roads, which are nationalist and unionist strongholds, respectively, prompting us to discuss the role of historical memory in Northern Ireland. After a failed attempt to visit the Museum of Orange Heritage, which was unfortunately closed for remodeling, we decided to take a wee stroll through the nearby glen. As is often the case in Northern Ireland, ‘wee’ was not an accurate descriptor of the size of the glen. Our relaxing walk quickly became a sweaty hike involving slippery, decaying leaves and climbing lots of stairs. We eventually reached a field that allowed us to look out over the entire city, and as we gazed upon the spires and the sea I thought about just how lucky I am to get to spend a year in this green and pleasant land.