None of us here in Belfast can quite believe that another week studying “Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland” has come to an end. A few days ago, everyone realised our course had reached its halfway mark, and there were definitely some long faces around. However, I think we’ve all done a pretty good job picking ourselves up because there’s never a dull moment around here.
The weekend kicked off with another field trip – a drive to the Antrim Coast, Glens of Antrim and Giant’s Causeway. We drove north along the River Bann, and then stopped east for a tour of the Giant’s Causeway, which many say is one of the United Kingdom’s greatest natural wonders. It has over 40,000 basalt columns that were formed by a volcanic eruption over 50 to 60 million years ago. It was absolutely breathtaking, and the views were spectacular.
When we asked the tour guide why it was called the “Giant’s Causeway”, we were told that according to legend, these columns were the remains of a causeway (a raised road or track) built by an Irish giant so he could meet his giant Scottish enemy for battle across the channel. One theory was that one of the giants destroyed the causeway so that others couldn’t follow him back. In the 17th century, this was the only explanation for the causeway’s existence.
Another highlight of my day was driving down 96 kilometres of the most beautiful coast you could imagine. I’ve never seen such a blue ocean, or such bright grass in my life. Even though it was impossible to capture the coast’s beauty on camera, I couldn’t help but take more photos than most people would probably take of the entire trip.
The rest of that weekend was spent at one of the local pubs watching the Euro Cup football grand final – Portugal vs. France. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of watching sport, but as you can imagine, this time brought an electrically contagious atmosphere. After the game ended, I even saw a few men wiping tears from their eyes. I’m still not sure whether they were tears of anguish or joy, but it was an interesting experience nevertheless. Some of us even stayed back to continue the celebrations well into the night.
On Monday, we learnt about how parades are an important part of Northern Ireland culture. The 12th of July is the biggest day of the year in Northern Ireland, and for half of the population (protestants) it’s a huge celebration because it signifies unity. The other half (Catholics) generally avoid the entire occasion because it celebrates the day their king was overthrown by protestants.
In class, we were informed that bonfires would be ignited that night around Belfast. Apparently this happens every night before the 12th of July celebrations, and protestant street parties often accompany them. We had a look at the bonfires being built during the day, and found they were mostly made of wooden pallets and tires, with many of them being over 30 metres tall. During the night, my friends watched the events unfold, but unfortunately I fell asleep in my room (in sheer exhaustion after having too many good times) and missed out. Not to worry though – more good times were on the way!
The following day, we set out to watch the parades. We witnessed countless men, women and children march through the streets of Belfast banging their drums, while locals cheered them on from the sidelines. It was great being able to immerse ourselves in the local culture, particularly as we learnt all about the parades in class and therefore knew the origins behind them.
Because of the parades, most of the shops in Belfast were closed on the 12th of July, so we had limited dining and shopping options after the parades ended. However, I went for a leisurely walk that night and discovered the entire city was still celebrating. I hadn’t really seen anything like it before – people of all ages were roaming the streets partying, eating and drinking. There were policemen everywhere, but I wasn’t worried about violence because despite past conflict, Belfast is now one of the safest cities in the UK.
My favourite night so far was probably our pub-crawl on Wednesday night, as many people in our course gathered to experience some of the region’s best pubs. Our program helpers organised the night, and they didn’t disappoint. We all tried a number of different beverages, and some of us even danced the night away to live music. Belfast pubs are much more lively than most pubs I’ve been to, so I had a great time. The locals are very friendly, and they don’t seem to mind that I can’t understand their lovely accents 99% of the time.
There was, however, one unexpected occurrence that night – I somehow ended up Irish dancing (again) with a bunch of my friends and strangers in an upstairs area of a pub. If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that I wasn’t very good at Irish dancing last time I tried it. Well, I’m afraid that things haven’t changed– I’m still terrible at it. I’m a tiny bit more confident in my abilities, but I spent most of my time mimicking the people who looked like they had a clue.
The rest of the week flew by. We attended lectures and learnt more about the history of conflict in Northern Ireland. On Friday, we put some recently learnt theory into perspective by visiting the city of Londonderry, or Derry, as many people tend to call it. We had a look at its murals, the city walls and visited some local museums where we saw the history of the city’s past conflict. It was a very eye-opening experience, and I’ll never forget the violent stories I read, or the confronting images I saw.
This weekend is our first free weekend, so I’m jetting off to London to visit my close friend. It was a pretty last minute decision, but Northern Ireland is so close to other European countries, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the option of ‘just going to London for the weekend’ any time soon.
I love Belfast and I’m having such a good time. I love the food, the atmosphere and the people. I am feeling quite sad that next week is our last week, but I’m so excited to see what the final week brings (let’s be honest – it’s probably more Irish dancing…)