Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Josey McClain is HECUA’s student blogger for Northern Ireland Fall 2021. Josey is a student at Lawrence University, majoring in government. Read on to hear her reflections about her time in Northern Ireland.
I started this blog sitting on the floor of the Kenbane room at Corrymeela not knowing what to write because of all the emotions I was feeling. I sat there enjoying some of my last free moments with my fellow classmates, my girls. Before this point, we had shared reflections with each other about what changes we saw in ourselves and how we’d grown. The mood that night was bittersweet. We laughed and reminisced about how we first met at the airport, how one of us lost her yellow umbrella, how much we appreciated each other’s company and support. We sang with each other–an opera we had made up on the spot. We had just finished our last and final toast night; this time, sadly, without any hot chocolate.
As I had written about in my first blog, during our first week in Northern Ireland, we stayed at Corrymeela. As a tradition of Corrymeela, every night we had buttered toast and hot chocolate. What wasn’t part of tradition was making toasts to each other while enjoying our toast. On the last night of that week, one of my girls, Linden Heffelfinger, decided that it would be fun to make a toast for the toast. As a way to decide who was going to make the toast, she spun a marker; it landed on me, so I was designated to make a toast during toast night. Instead of making a toast, I made a poem in honor of Nigel’s love for poems. I never had any interest in poetry before arriving in Northern Ireland, but I decided to make one because of the many poems Nigel shared with us during our first week at Corrymeela. Below is my very first poem in Northern Ireland:
Here I stand, chosen to give a toast;
Given on the last night here in Corrymeela.
One man may think I’d turn this into a roast;
Given the power I have before him.
That power which I will instead use to help, to aid those individuals in need;
To make a difference in the community before me.
That power with which I will instead use to help the girls I live with;
My new sisters, my new friends.
Here I stand with my toast, making a toast
Having eaten too many already
Ready to help, to aid, to serve-
the community, my girls, the world
This poem, although insignificant to some, means so much to me. I was ready to learn about Northern Ireland’s history, to work at my internship, to meet new people and hear their stories. I was ready to experience all that I could during my very little time there.
From our time at Corrymeela, all of us came up with the idea that we’d continue doing toast night because of how much we enjoyed spending time together while eating toast and drinking hot chocolate. Below is the toast and poem I wrote two weeks into our program:
After a long and sad day, we sit here at our first family toast night.
And I’d like to thank you for a great start to the program.
Although I am scared of what’s to come,
I know that I have your support and compassion to guide me to victory.
We are 2 weeks in with 12 more to go,
I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better group to be with.
I look forward to the laughter, the tears, the joy, and the sadness that we will all endure.
This program will teach us to listen and to care;
Allowing us to form an everlasting bond in the process
My girls, my sisters, thank you for embarking with me on this journey to discover peace in the walled city.
This toast was made after we had started our course learning about the Troubles, the violent conflict in Northern Ireland, and the completion of my first blog. Although I felt like I was running out of time and couldn’t be bothered writing one, I still wrote it. I wrote it because of my love for my girls. I wanted to show them that, although I was scared, I was ready to give them my support and show them compassion whenever they needed it. I wanted to show them, even though we had all just met two weeks prior, how I cared deeply for them.
Regretfully, we discontinued toast night. We can blame it on being busy or not wanting to spend our food stipend on toast or butter, but I wish we had continued. I wish I had dedicated my time to that moment every week because those were opportunities to grow closer with my girls, to get to know them better.
Our final toast night at Corrymeela was something I’ll never forget. The stories we told, the games we played, the conversations we had–everything from that night means so much to me. I sat in the Kenbane room writing my final toast, my final poems while surrounded by my girls. I would pause my writing to join some in conversation, accompany some to get more tea, or just sit and bask in the joy and laughter. Poetry has never been a top priority to me. I’ve never taken the time to write any that weren’t for an assignment. My time in Northern Ireland has taught me something different about poetry, about how important it can be. Not only Nigel, but the people I met all shared poems they held dear to themselves. These poems allowed me to think more on what makes a poem so special and how people connect with them. In honor of my girls, Nigel, the people I’ve met, and the poems and stories that had been shared with me, I wrote one final poem.
On our first week, I made a toast,
To the girls I called my new sisters, new friends.
Tonight I stand to give a toast, knowing it’s my last, to the girls I have grown to hold close and love.
The jokes we made,
The love we felt,
The trips we’ve gone on,
The walks along the Foyle,
I’ll never forget the memories we’ve made.
Tonight I stand to give a toast, marking the end of our journey here in Northern Ireland.
We’ve grown in more ways than one,
We’ve learned how to listen,
We’ve learned how to serve communities,
We’ve learned how to trust.
Tonight I stand to give a toast on our last and final night here at Corrymeela.
The emotions we’ve felt,
The time we’ve spent together.
I’d like to make a toast to my girls, to Nigel, to the kind people we’ve met, to the people we miss, to the people who’ll miss us.
I’d like to thank those who have helped us get to this moment, to those who have shared their story with us, to the people who have shown us kindness.
To quote my first toast,
“Here I stand with my toast making a toast
Having eaten too many already
Ready to help, to aid, to serve-
the community, my girls, the world”
In conclusion, I don’t want to leave Derry and the country of Northern Ireland. As many times as I joked about being a stowaway, there may have been some truth to it. I have been so happy in Northern Ireland. I have learned so much and connected with so many people who, in the past, I never would have given a second glance. I’ve learned so much about myself that I don’t even know who I was in the U.S. before coming over.
As I’ve been telling myself for the past month now, I will return. I will not forget the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. I have found who and what makes me happy, and I’m not going to let them go. The U.S. is where I’m from, but Northern Ireland is my home.
To the next students participating in the Northern Ireland program, dedicate time to your fellow classmates: get to know them over toast and hot cocoa, be there for them when they need you. Be kind to the people of Northern Ireland. Treat them like people; not as commodities. Listen to their stories. And, as Nigel would quote W.B.Yeats, “Tread softly, because you tread on [their] dreams.”