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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Studying in Belfast

Telling people that I planned to spend the fall studying in Belfast was an entertaining task. Would my listener respond with unrestrained excitement, cautious encouragement, or a simple, “Belfast? Is that safe?”? Unfortunately, much of what America knows about Belfast and Northern Ireland in general has its roots in the tragic images of violence that haunted our televisions and newspapers for much of the late twentieth century. In fact, it is these very preconceptions that compelled me to study abroad in Belfast. I wanted to discover for myself the real stories behind the myths and half-truths surrounding the conflict, and for the past two months I have been studying Northern Irish politics, along with Irish literature, at Queen's University in Belfast.

In preparation for putting down my own thoughts about Belfast, I asked an American friend of mine here how she would describe the city: "Not as bad as the media portrays it and not as good as the Belfast City Council might want you to believe." I have to agree.

Let me begin by saying that I have seen no tanks, no army, no guns, and no explosions. Northern Ireland is a changed place and the old images from the TV and newspapers are just that: old. This is not to say that violence no longer exists in any form anywhere. In fact, even our university orientation programme subtly advised us to stay out of certain areas of the city alone or after dark. However, huge strides have been made in the last few months alone. In July, the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed campaign, and in September, they completed the decommissioning of their weapons. The latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a watchdog for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, gave cautiously encouraging news about the status of criminal activity of some paramilitary groups, especially the PIRA. Currently, the British and Irish governments, along with many major political parties of Northern Ireland, are awaiting the IMC's more comprehensive report in January. A positive report could be the push needed to get Northern Ireland's political parties back on the road to open discourse and a government that seeks to include all communities.

The major question I had before coming here was, How do people function on a daily basis in a society that has been so haunted by war and remains divided on so many levels? I've found the answer is, no differently from you or I. It is true that there are still certain taboo topics and unspoken understandings. Enquiring about subjects as seemingly innocuous as someone's high school, church, hometown or address, or surname can occasionally raise eyebrows here, as it can be interpreted (though often it is not) as an attempt to discover a person's religion and/or politics. Referring to the name of the place can even be a tricky business. One is fine with Northern Ireland, but referring to the region as Ulster, the Province, The Six Counties, The North, or Ireland can imply or reveal a political bias. However, for the majority of people, these issues don't intrude on everyday life. All people in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general may not be ready to completely abandon the old ideology of Catholic versus Protestant or Nationalist/Republican versus Unionist/Loyalist, but to me many seem ready to attempt a move beyond the violence and political intolerance that has impeded genuine advancements in Northern Ireland. Issues like healthcare, education, housing and the economy are as much front page headlines here as are paramilitary decommissioning, policing and justice reforms, and a possible return to a government in which the major parties agree to share power. Especially hopeful is the desire I've observed in most people my age to forgive the sins of the past on both sides of the conflict and finally create a truly peaceful and just society.

As I close in on my last few weeks here, I've been asking myself what I am going to remember most distinctly about Belfast. Many memories come to mind—the daily glimpses of the green hills surrounding the city, the taste of an Ulster fry on a Sunday morning, the way Queen's University looks like Hogwarts at first glance, the sound of any Belfastian saying "What 'bout ye, luv?" (How are you, dear?), carving a turnip for Halloween in the old Celtic tradition and more. Though one of my most important lessons is that, contrary to widespread opinions, Northern Ireland is not all about politics, I'd be lying to say that the political developments, along with a new understanding of the communities here, have not been an important part of my experience. I truly believe that, whatever happens next with the government of Northern Ireland, many of the developments I have witnessed in the past few months will be key in writing the next chapter of this land's history. I hope it proves to be a positive one, for the opportunity of getting to know this city, its people, and its culture has increased my appreciation for all the traditions represented here and increased my hopes, like so many young people here, that the future holds something better for everyone in Northern Ireland.


  1. Anonymous4:13 PM

    I am studying in Belfast at St. Mary's college, which is a part of Queens U, and i just wanted to thank you for writing this article. I feel better prepared for my adventure in Northern Ireland after reading this article.

  2. Ok this article is almost 4 years old and I enjoyed reading it. I was in Belfast for the summer of 1985 and stayed at the dorms. I returned in august of 1994 and just did an overnight at the dorms. I really liked Belfast then and I am sure I would like it even more now. I am sure it is safe and I will bet it has changed a LOT. Great city go there.

  3. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Great article, thanks! I'm thinking of studying a postgrad in Social Anthropology at Queen's in the next couple of years, so it's good to read a bit about the city.