Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. AV Lee-A-Yong is HECUA’s student blogger for the Conflict, Peace and Transition program in Northern Ireland this spring. Ze is a student at Swarthmore College, majoring in peace and conflict studies, minoring in psycholgoy. Read on for hir first post!
Arriving in Northern Ireland was a whirlwind of travel, paperwork, and orientation. After something like twenty hours in the air, plus two hours driving to the university, plus a spontaneous trip to the grocery store, we (the cohort for spring 2020) would have only a weekend to collect ourselves before our orientation day with the university. This orientation day included four lecturers, each with their own folders full of information, with the Wi-Fi down from a cut wire AND a fire drill at 11am. Amidst all this chaos, the last thing I wanted to do was pack my bags and travel again.
But that’s exactly what we did.
Our Program Director, Nigel, had booked us what he called an “Orientation Residential” at the Corrymeela Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Ballycastle, on the northern coast. It was set to be four days of learning about Northern Ireland, about ourselves, and about each other, and we were thrown in the deep end.
The first taste of it we got was on the van ride over. The car, Nigel explained, was a classroom space, and we would use it to learn through music. For the whole ride, he played us Irish folk music to get us acquainted with its instruments and themes — often fiddles and singers cry with lament of a loved one or pining for a home.
On the way, we stopped at Benone Strand, known for its remarkably flat, unblemished sand and its beautiful nearby cliffs. You can find a picture of our visit there on HECUA’s instagram page.
Upon arriving, we received a very warm welcome from our hosts, including free flowing tea and coffee, premade beds, and a welcome poster just for us (pictured).
At Corrymeela, we would become part of their community. Everyone staying at the centre ate lunch and dinner together in one hall, including a moment of silence to give thanks for the food and the hands that created it. For both of those meals, volunteers would help with dishes after the collective was finished eating, and washing those dishes with the community was just as fun as eating off of them!
Between meals, most of our work was centered around getting accustomed to working as a group, and to working in a place where we were a guest. For example, we were given several exercises about our expectations — about the program, about our internships, about social justice as a concept, even about each other — and how to manage them. We were briefed about cultural differences and their ramifications, as well as about the things we would study and what themes we should take away. To add to this, a program alum who was working at Corrymeela was able to lend us her expertise and assuage our worries about the semester ahead of us. She also treated us to hot chocolate and toast every night to help encourage us to bond.
In between these sessions of introspection and learning, we also got to have a bit of fun. We occasionally took trips across the coast to go sight-seeing, as the weather was uncharacteristically beautiful. This included a trip to the Dark Hedges (famously shot in the Game of Thrones), the Giant’s Causeway (a UNESCO World Heritage Site with rich cultural significance), and Murlough (a hill range near the coast populated predominantly with sheep).
After all our excursions, we said a somber goodbye to Corrymeela as we headed back to Derry. I felt generally prepared for the semester ahead of me, having done all the bonding exercises and thinking about my fears and eating of Irish food. That was, however, until Nigel pulled us over to the side of the road and opened a book. He had stopped us at Claudy, a county in which nine civilians were killed by a paramilitary bombing. Then, he stopped in two other cities, in which similar events had taken many civilian lives and injured countless others. He read us the details of each of these three bombings, as we sat outside the places they’d occured. Throughout all the fun and tourism we’d had over the past few days, it was easy to forget why we were here — the conflict we’d come to study. The rest of the drive was silent, as we began to recuperate and prepare for our first lessons the next Monday.
As wild as our arrival to Northern Ireland was, I am ultimately thankful for our initial getaway to Corrymeela. It provided us with the opportunity to center ourselves, to acclimate to the environment and to each other, and to wrestle with the reasons we’re here. Without this initial excursion, I likely would have felt far more lost and confused going into this semester, and may not have made the crucial connections with my classmates and Program Director. Overall, this experience was grounding, both in exposing the beauty of Northern Ireland and its past. This excursion was a fantastic way to kick off the semester, and I cannot wait for what lies ahead.