The last week in Belfast was definitely the best, but of course the whole week felt like Sunday night. I’m not sure if anybody really wanted to go back home. Monday’s lectures were about Republicanism and Nationalism, Unionism and Loyalism, with a visit to Stormont (Northern Ireland’s Parliament buildings) in the afternoon. The ceilings and grand entryway were very beautiful, but very different from the rest of the rooms.
Not to say that the other rooms in the building were not beautiful – they definitely were, but it was so different from what I was expecting. In America, the government buildings are always kept in tip-top shape because it is all about power and status. The rooms at Stormont were still very nice, but the carpet was a bit faded in places, and in one chamber, there is a tapestry on the walls, and the MPs touch the corner of the tapestry for good luck. The tapestry has a hole in the lower left corner and is quite faded and straggly in other places, but replacing it is not a high priority because to replace it would be to lose all of the history associated with the tapestry. I thought that was pretty interesting. While at Stormont, we got to have a chat with five MPs. There was one representative each from Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). Dominic, the director, had selected questions from the students before we left, so he acted as the moderator for the event.
The next day we got to hear from some PhD students and other faculty from the Institute of Irish Studies. Some were researching the influence of Irish politics on crime literature or about a particular female Northern Irish author, others focused on Loyalist memorials and how they “remember.” It was all very interesting. I have spoken with advisors about graduate school before, but it is totally different to talk with students who are actually doing a PhD, and it is also different to talk to students in different years of their PhD. Some are still really excited about their research, while others are coming to terms with the fact that they are actually going to have to start writing at some point, but they all said the same thing, that you have to be really, really passionate about whatever you’re researching. If you aren’t passionate, it’s not worth it.
That night we had a conversation with Peter Sheridan, who is the CEO of an organization called Cooperation Ireland, which is a peace-building charity that works with both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It was interesting to hear him speak, especially about the “Peace Walls.” He preferred to call them “Walls of Separation” because he thinks they contribute to the division in Belfast, while others feel that the “Peace Walls” actually help to bring peace and minimize fighting.
The next day we listened to a panel discussion with representatives from the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, and the Catholic Church. This was fascinating! One point that was agreed upon by all of the church leaders was that culture and tradition trump faith in the reasons behind “Protestant” organizations like the Orange Order. I think that they leaders were trying to separate themselves from the controversy, but I wonder how closely intertwined are faith and culture and faith and tradition? Is it really possible to separate them? That afternoon, we had planned to go to the Orange Order Museum, which I was REALLY looking forward to. I am pretty fascinated with the Orange Order, and I wanted to see how they displayed the information about their organization, and what they chose to display, and why, etc… but we had a Fulbright de-brief that I had forgotten about until that morning. Darn it! De-brief sessions are good. It was important to talk about what we learned, but I hate slip-ups that remind me why I need a planner that organizes every hour of my day.
The last day of the summer school, we took a field trip to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Sorry, no pictures allowed. The PSNI is the successor of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which primarily consisted of Protestants, which was unsettling for the Catholic community. So some major reform took place. Initially they divided applications into 50% Catholic and 50% Protestant to ensure an equal distribution among the police force, but that was done away with in 2011. First, we had a lecture on the way that the PSNI operates, and got to make some decisions about what to do in potentially riotous situations. That was interesting, but also extremely stressful. The man in charge was really intense and made the scenarios very realistic. I didn’t like that so much, but it was a good learning experience. I think it’s important to understand how both sides (police and protest) feel during heated encounters.
My favorite part of the day was when we got to see the dogs. They weren’t training any when we were there, which would have been interesting to see, but we did get to watch one of the dogs practice. There was a big box set up with holes in the side, some of which had “smelly stuff” in them, and some of which were empty, and then the dog had to find trace the sent from the police officer to one of the holes in the wall. It was pretty cool. We also got to see how police officers get into riot gear, which is quite an ordeal because they have a lot of stuff to put on before they are all ready to go.
Lastly we got to see one of the water cannons. It is basically a giant, heavy truck that shoots water out the front. The water cannons are brought to any events where there are likely to be protests because it is a good way to get protesters to move back. This is an article that was published after the Orange Order marches this year, and the representative from the PSNI that was interviewed for the article is the same one that showed us inside the water cannons. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jul/17/northern-ireland-police-chief-says-water-cannon-use-justified
The final Saturday, Dominic took us to the Apprentice Boys of Derry Parade, which was sort of like a miniature Orange Order parade. The purpose of the Apprentice Boys Parade is to commemorate the 1689 Siege of Derry, when 13 apprentice boys closed the city gates of Derry against a siege led by the Catholic King James II. Although membership is limited to Protestant men, we noticed that there were women in the parades. Dominic explained that a lot of the bands are really pressed for numbers, so they will let them hold the flags or play some of the instruments. However, this is only in the bands. The parade was organized so that each chapter of the Apprentice Boys had a band that would play, then the members would follow behind, usually wearing suits, bowler hats, and the “crimson collars” to match the flag flown at St. Columb’s Cathedral. This is a video that shows some of the bands in the parade. Look for the big bass drum in the middle. The bass drum is the elite position within the band. It is incredible to watch the men play the bass drum because they put their whole body into hitting the drum as hard as they can. When we were listening to the bands and the bass drum passed by, it just shook your insides. A lot of bands had people carrying extra covers for the drum in case they broke or got too flimsy. We also saw that partway through the parade, the bass drummer would often switch out with someone else, probably because they just got so tired. The video gets repetitive after a while, just like the parade, but it is interesting just for an idea of what it sounds like.
It got a bit rainy right before we left the parade, but it was definitely worth seeing. I can still feel the thump of the bass drums passing by. It was incredible. After we got back, we went to a Wolfe Tones concert. Wolfe Tone was an Irish revolutionary in the 1700s and one of the founders of the United Irishmen, so he is a hero within the nationalist community, and the band is also pretty popular with the nationalists. It was a bit strange to have exposure to both ends of the spectrum in one day, but the concert was fun, and it was a memorable last day in Northern Ireland.
Overall, this was the most incredible experience of my life. I made amazing friends that I still talk to every day. I learned so much about culture and the meaning of identity in Ireland and the UK, and also about my own identity. The lectures were amazing, but I especially loved how the conversations kept going after the lecture was finished. We all just wanted to learn and keep exploring new ideas. It was just wonderful, and I am so, so grateful that I was able to go. I’m looking forward to having these memories for the rest of my life.