A Visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland

By Jessica Murphy, Summer Study Abroad Blogger

My name is Jessica Murphy and I am a rising sophomore at Brown University from New York City. I am still not sure what I am majoring in—or as we call it, “concentrating”—but I am interested in fields ranging from international relations to development studies. In fact, I was initially drawn to the Brown/Trinity summer study abroad programme in Dublin because of my interest in political science. The possibility of studying contemporary international politics, participating in an internship, and living in a completely new country sounded like a remarkable opportunity. I am so glad that I decided to sign up, because it has truly exceeded my (already high) expectations! Dublin is a fascinating city with a rich and layered past, and I have really enjoyed learning and exploring every single day.

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Although I adore Dublin, one of my favourite aspects of the programme has been the opportunity to travel around Ireland each weekend. There is so much to see, and there are seemingly infinite places to explore.

A few weeks ago, I left the Republic of Ireland for the first time since my arrival and travelled north to Belfast, Northern Ireland. During my 48-hour stay in the United Kingdom, I learned more than I could have possibly imagined and fit in so many interesting activities.Jessica Murphy_Blog 1_Photo 2

My friend and I arrived on Friday evening and spent some time exploring Belfast. The city was fairly reminiscent of Dublin, but we immediately noticed subtle (and not-so-subtle) distinctions. In a surface level observation, people seemed to have similar “Irish accents,” but they were much thicker on the northern side of the border. More meaningfully, we quickly picked up on the lingering tensions from the city’s challenging past. Each pub, we were told, is either Catholic or Protestant, and that designation largely determines the clientele. These observations served as precursors to the highlight of our trip—a walking tour of the Falls Road murals with a former political prisoner on Sunday afternoon.

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First, however, we spent the day on Saturday touring several sites on the Antrim Coast. The bus left Belfast in the morning and stopped at several picturesque natural phenomena throughout the day. We saw the “Dark Hedges,” a path paved with huge, majestic trees; the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which led to a stunning landmass off the coast; and Giant’s Causeway, an area with interlocking columns created by a volcanic eruption some 50 to 60 million years ago. Each item on the itinerary was more breathtaking than the last, and the views were unforgettable. In true Irish fashion, the weather was volatile throughout the day, so we experienced the beauty in both torrential rain and luminous sunshine.

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On Sunday morning, while strolling through the Belfast Botanic Gardens, my friend and I stumbled upon the Ulster Museum. This national museum contained exhibits on history, art, science, and everything in between, and it was honestly one of most educational and interesting museums I have ever visited. One collection that stood out was a special feature on The Troubles, a period of violent conflict that began in the late 1960s and continued until 1998. To summarize the conflict, Protestant Unionists wanted to stay loyal to the United Kingdom, while Catholic Nationalists wanted to unify with the Republic of Ireland. It began with an effort to end discrimination against the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and quickly spiralled into decades of violence until a peace agreement was finally achieved in the late 1990s.

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The museum set the stage for the highly anticipated walking tour later that afternoon, which was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. I was blown away by the stories our tour guide shared, and shocked by his courage and strength. Joe was a former member of the Irish Republican army who was in and out of prison from 1972 to 1998, totalling 18 years behind bars. He has seen so much, lost so many friends and family members, and was tortured for months at a time. Nevertheless, Joe was stoical, and he led the tour with grace and enthusiasm.

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The tour took place on the Catholic side of Falls Road in a neighbourhood that was particularly ridden with violence during The Troubles. Tensions still exist—Joe said he might be killed if he entered the Protestant side of town, given his past—but overall, people live in peace. As we walked past bright, intricate murals, we learned more about the history of Belfast and heard stories of brave individuals who lost their lives during the conflict.

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It is difficult to believe how recently Belfast was so dangerous and so violent, but it is truly amazing how far the city has come. The stories we heard on the tour were deeply upsetting but also inspiring and hopeful. If the people here were able to overcome their differences and find a resolution, perhaps peace can be achieved elsewhere as well.

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