Arriving in Belfast at the BHD airport was something I had been waiting anxiously for all year. I was scared that I was going to receive an email saying that Covid had, once again, disrupted my plans to study abroad since I was supposed to attend the program in Spring 2021 instead of Fall 2021. Once on my journey, I was excited to meet the other five students: Adriana, Johnna, Linden, Olivia, Lyle, and my program director, Nigel Glenny.
I was excited, but terrified, to jump right into discussion on the Troubles seeing as how I knew very little of what happened. Instead of jumping right into discussion of the syllabus, the six of us were given time to become familiar with the city, Derry/Londonderry, and the Magee Campus. Nigel actually drove us to the grocery store the day we landed and was kind enough to give us some housewarming supplies and treats–seeing as we had nothing.
Over the span of the weekend, all of us went out to explore, shop, and discover Derry/Londonderry. On one occasion, three of us went out to buy sim cards. We had planned on eating at a restaurant along the river and then going to the phone store that was supposed to be in the same strip mall. Surprisingly, the phone store was nowhere to be found. We were lost on where to go or what to do next. We ended up asking a woman who was walking along, and she gave us directions and pointed us in a promising direction. Onward we went!.. and ended up at one of the city malls located right inside the city walls. Thankfully, there was a phone store there, and since we were over in that area, we decided to climb the walls and sightsee a bit. Even though we did not know the significance of the walls, the history of them and what they represented, we were in awe of the structure and the artillery that was still present. The walls were built during the period of British colonization of Ulster- also called Ulsterization. Their purpose was to protect the city people inside; which came in handy during the Siege of Derry- one of the first conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. I have been on city walls in China, including the Great Wall, but city walls still amaze me with how much work must have gone into the construction of something so large and fierce. The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out, eating out, shopping, and preparing for the trip Nigel said we were all going on for the week.
Our trip spanned from Tuesday 7 to Friday 10 at the Corrymeela Centre in Ballycastle. The purpose of our being there was for orientation and team bonding. Our trip and stay at the Centre was quite significant to our studies in the peace process in Northern Ireland because Corrymeela believes in the idea that ‘Together is Better.’ The Centre believes in the inclusion of everyone, regardless of race, religion, background, etc. in order to tackle sectarianism in Northern Irish communities and support survivors of racism and homophobia.
Corrymeela also works to end intolerance, hatred, and oppression through the use of storytelling and conversations. Being in that welcoming environment created by the staff gave me hope for the peace process in Northern Ireland. One of the chefs was even kind enough to tell me the recipe for one of his dishes. I felt so loved, cared for, and important at Corrymeela. I am grateful that places like Corrymeela exist because everyone deserves to be treated well, have the ability to share their story and experiences, and to be genuinely heard.
Our team bonding exercises kicked off as soon as we settled into our rooms. We started off introducing ourselves by telling each other our names, where we are from, and two facts about ourselves that we had not already shared. After what seemed like an hour of talking, laughing, and sharing, we all climbed into the van, which we named Sturgeon, and took off for Murlough Bay: a beautiful plot of land that is situated right on the coast.
While there, we split into groups to discuss and open up about why we decided to embark on this journey involving peace and conflict, what we thought justice was, and what background we had involving peace. After sharing with a partner, we regrouped and shared our partner’s story with the group. Sharing our partner’s story was one of the most important aspects of our bonding exercise because it forced each of us to retell another’s story without adding in our own assumptions, which forced us to consciously stop ourselves from adding information that we had no idea of being true. Nigel had us practice retelling a story this way because we will each have to do the same but with the stories of people who were affected by the Troubles for our final papers and project. It was such a great experience since it allowed us to practice sharing another’s story without the addition of information and to hear personal information about the girls I will be spending the next twelve weeks with.
While in and on our way out of Ballycastle, we took a trip to North Antrim to see Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway. It was raining and incredibly foggy the day we went to Dunluce Castle. As a result, we were not able to see much from far away. The pictures we took looked really spooky and mysterious, though, and made the castle look beautiful in a scary way. When we went to Giant’s Causeway it was hot and sunny. To get to our destination of the Causeway, we had to walk quite a ways through the beautiful landscape of the sea to the beautiful landscape of the Causeway. The stones there were incredible! They were hexagonal shapes that were formed from lava cooling too quickly as it rose to the surface (courtesy of Olivia’s research).
Northern Ireland is a beautiful country with beautiful landscapes and cliffs that hug the ocean. I am thankful to be here and to have the opportunity to experience all Nigel has in store for me. Through the tears, the pain, hopelessness, and hopefulness, I know to move cautiously with my head and my heart, to approach my work with kindness and compassion, and to help in whatever way I am needed. I am ready to make room in my heart for this City and find beauty in the walls.
Josey McClain, Northern Ireland Fall 2021; Photo of Murlough Bay by Josey McClain.