When I decided to come to Ireland, I never expected to find segregation and violence. The IFSA trip to Belfast was the most interesting experience I have had since studying abroad. I thought Northern Ireland was just another part of the “first world”. I was therefore shocked to learn on the Black Taxi Tour through the city of Belfast that Catholics and Protestants are literally segregated in nearly every possible aspect of society. They go to school with others of their respective religion, being taught only the lessons which pertain to their expected political and religious viewpoints. They live behind gated communities, and not the kind that we are used to in the States, where privileged people live in posh houses with pools and housekeepers. The gated communities in Belfast are quite the opposite. The walls separating them were put in place at the request of the citizens themselves and are designed to keep out bombs or any other form of attack from the “opposition”. Memorials stand erect within these communities to commemorate the lives lost in “The Troubles”. There is one wall that stands roughly 45 feet high, much taller than the Berlin wall ever was. We all had a chance to sign this wall that thousands before us had signed as a testament to the desire for peace in Northern Ireland.
And the gates to these communities close at 6:30 in the evening and reopen and 6:30 the following morning. There are even five months out of the year when Catholics and Protestants cannot step foot on the others’ territory. What’s more is 10 Political prisoners voluntarily died due to a hunger strike in prison just a few decades ago. And this is all happening in a developed country.
On a lighter note, we all had the chance to visit the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge and Giant’s Causeway. These places also reminded me why I chose to study abroad in Ireland. These pictures don’t do these places justice, but they fare better than any description I could ever give.
Basically, this entire weekend was a much-needed reminder of how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful and unique part of the world. Prior to visiting Belfast, I frequently wished I was back at school with all my friends, doing things that were familiar, with people whom I love and trust. But being given the chance to meet new people and explore a part of the world I probably would have never had an excuse or a chance to visit is something that nothing from home could ever truly complete with. My “emotional roller-coaster” that every study-abroad adviser warns you about before studying abroad surprisingly looked similar to the cheesy graph they showed all of us during orientation: An initial excitement about being in Ireland, a deep drop due to homesickness and missing everything familiar from school, then a climb into contentment. I am finally past that stage of mere contentment and beginning to appreciate and actually love where I am. It took me a lot longer than most people, but at least I’m here now … just 5 weeks before I have to leave.