Adventures in Northern Ireland
Before deciding to study abroad in Ireland, I was unclear where exactly the UK started and ended. Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to visit three of the four countries that make up the UK since my arrival in Ireland: Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland.
IFSA-Butler organized a trip to Northern Ireland for all IFSA students studying in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Before arriving in the Republic of Ireland to study at UCC, I didn’t realize that Ireland was split into two sections: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Despite there being no passport check at the border between the two, it was very obvious when we arrived in Belfast that we had arrived in another country. License plates and taxis looked entirely different; ATMs dispensed pounds instead of euros; the Queen of England decorated official places instead of the Republic’s harp. I was shocked: I had no idea how different the two places were. I talked to a group of Northern Irish men who were insulted when I said they were Irish: “Sure, we live on this island. But we’re British.”
We stayed in Belfast and were able to experience the history that has taken place there, from centuries ago up until now. We were instructed to avoid discussing religion, politics, and any of Northern Ireland’s bloody past to the locals, a piece of advice I didn’t quite understand until the Black Taxi Tour. On the Black Taxi Tour, we walked through the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods and saw the evidence of the tension that continues to exist there, embodied by the wall that both communities refuse to take down. The men leading the tour all lived through the time of the worst violence in these neighborhoods, and they told their stories with grim faces, having accepted this tension as a fact of life. Something that will always stick with me, that my tour guide said, is “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I was shocked that this happened so recently, and the effects of it are still affecting the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland today. Knowing this and going from walking through a bustling city to a silent neighborhood with a recently bloody past was an incredible eye-opening experience.
But so much of Belfast is bustling city. Hotels, clubs, and restaurants stretched for blocks among government buildings and markets. One evening we found authentic Chinese food, then a karaoke bar, and then an outside pub all in the heart of the city. We visited St. George’s market in the morning and enjoyed crepes and cupcakes from the local restaurants before wandering through the shopping districts. Each store was unique and modern, and I would forget about what I had seen the day earlier on the Black Taxi Tour. It was hard for me to come to terms with: this modern city, with all of its young people and chic stores and cafes, had only a few decades earlier been full of terrorists and freedom fighters alike. It encouraged me that so much progress had been made there in such a short time, but those who lived through the worst of it know that there’s still much to come.
In my next blog posts I’ll talk about my trips to London and Glasgow and what daily life is like in Cork!