This March I was fortunate to visit Belfast, Northern Ireland. Temple University and Queen’s University Belfast have developed an exchange program that provides students with the opportunity to present abroad. I jumped at the opportunity to get out of Philly for Spring Break.
Admittedly, I didn’t know anything about the politics of Northern Ireland before the trip. The Saturday before I left, I watched a four hour documentary on “the troubles.” But think a more appropriate introduction to Belfast politics occurred during the cab ride from the Belfast City Airport as discussants debated the merits of the city’s new Titanic Museum. Belfast, I think, is a city that is often portrayed as at odds with its past, but that story– and the many conversations I had on my trip– showed me that Belfast’s future is equally contested.
I had few dull moments during my trip. Upon my arrival, some gracious graduate students from Queen’s took me out to lunch and for a walk through the Botanic Gardens. If there is anything that makes me feel at home, it’s graduate students. The campus of Queen’s University Belfast is stunningly beautiful. The next day, I was up early for a walking tour of West Belfast with a man who had been imprisoned for his activities with the IRA. As a prison historian, the omnipresence of prisoner rights murals and posters was striking. Equally interesting to me was that my guide seemed to know everyone he passed, and seemed to know the story of every block, building, and wall we walked by. But again, the contradictions were astounding. My guide saw boundaries that I couldn’t see, and was hard to reconcile his sense of danger and divide with the cozy community I saw around me.
Fortunately, the first full day of my visit was International Women’s Day. In the States, SHAMEFULLY, it’s not a holiday that is much observed, so I was grateful that my host had so many wonderful activities planned. I lunched with women at Queen’s University as they celebrated the unveiling of beautiful portraits of the Riddel sisters, who founded the University’s first dormitory for women. After that, we were whisked away to the United States Consulate, where we were part of a conversation with a mix of women that included diplomats, local activists, and schoolgirls. There was hot debate about women’s role in the peace process, but the real focus was on which issues were most important for women as Northern Ireland moves forward.
The following two days, I attended the excellent “Women and Media: Representations Past and Present” conference. It was truly an international conference, with presenters from Nigeria, the United States, Finland, Lithuania, and all over the UK. Since finishing coursework, my reading on politics has truly taken over my life– I was amazed that I hadn’t been part of such a hearty conversation on gender in a really long time. Just as illuminating as the papers were the conversations I had with the other presenters. It was empowering to hear other graduate students and faculty members speak so passionately about their experiences as women in the academy and women in the world.
In my free time, I wandered around Belfast by myself. Being in Belfast made me homesick for the small cities I’ve lived in, that have so much without being too big. Sheesh, Belfast is no further from Philadelphia than Seattle! The city is supremely walkable and easy to get around. Everywhere I went, people were warm and inviting, the tea was strong, and the scones were out of this world. I didn’t want to leave.
It was liberating to lose myself in the experience of being away, away from my work and my students and my neighborhood and my life. Being immersed so fully in the culture of another city for five days– a very short time!– brought new energy to my work and really gave me a new sense of the contradictions in my community and in the work I do. I am so grateful for the experience, and I hope that the relationship between Queen’s and Temple will only grow stronger!