Dublin to Belfast: A Tale of Two Cities

Story by Colleen Luibrand | luibrand.c@husky.neu.edu

When I received my acceptance letter to Northeastern University my senior year of highschool, I was ecstatic. It started off with “congratulations,” so naturally, I stopped reading there and rejoiced. After I had already informed my closest friends and family members of my acceptance, I continued reading my letter and realized that I was not headed to Boston in the fall; if I were to accept my spot at Northeastern, I would have to first go abroad to either Ireland, England, Australia, or Greece for my first semester as part of the N.U.in program.

Excited for my next adventure and eager to depart from my small suburban town in upstate New York, I sent in my deposit for N.U.in Ireland at University College Dublin. I boarded a plane with over 100 other students who were just as naïve as I was for what the next semester would entail.

As I prepared for my semester abroad in Dublin, many people from home insisted that the Irish people were some of the friendliest people they’d ever encountered. This proved true when I first arrived at the Dublin Airport and was struggling to grab my suitcase, a bag that contained four months worth of clothing, from the conveyor belt.  An older Irish man, noticing my struggle, left his own belongings with his family to help me with my mine. When I enthusiastically thanked him for his assistance, he noticed my accent and welcomed me to the Emerald Isle, then proceeded to converse in his Irish brogue the details of his vacation in “the States.” As a 17-year-old that had just said goodbye to my family and was on my own for the first time in a completely foreign country, this man’s warm welcome was an enormous comfort. Luckily for me, this would be the first of countless pleasant encounters with the Irish people.

In the first couple weeks, while I was still suffering from a combination of homesickness, jet lag and culture shock, much of my time was spent staring out the windows of our large coach bus at the picturesque countryside, unlike anything I had ever seen. Similar in size to the state of Maine, Ireland’s small square mileage allowed us to see so much of the country on weekend trips, while engrossing ourselves in the rich culture and history.

One of the most memorable excursions was a weekend trip in November to Northern Ireland. Belfast, a city 100 miles away from Dublin, could not have been more different. Because Northern Ireland is a country of the United Kingdom, we had to prepare our passports and convert our euros to pounds for the transborder journey. The short ride was equal in distance to the trip from Boston to Hartford, Connecticut, but the vast differences between Belfast and Dublin in culture and political atmosphere were immediately apparent.

I was vaguely familiar with the conflict in Northern Ireland, but it was not until I experienced it up-close that I could truly grasp the hostility deeply rooted in the region. Much of the political and cultural conflict can be traced back to the strong division between Protestants and Catholics. When the Republic Ireland was established as a free state from Great Britain in 1922, Protestants and Catholics had opposing views on what the fate of Northern Ireland should be. Protestants wanted the country to remain united with the United Kingdom, and thus were known as unionists. The Catholics who identified as nationalists wanted to unite the island of Ireland as one country and be independent from the British rule.

These contrasting views laid the framework for nearly a century of conflict between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that affected the identity of the citizens, with Catholics identifying as Irish and Protestants identifying as British. The conflict escalated in the 1960s, becoming a period known as “The Troubles” that lasted until the turn of the century. As the minority of the country, the Catholics were unsuccessful in paving the way for a united country, and thus the island remained divided as two distinct countries.

Upon arrival in Belfast, the historical lack of unity was clear. We visited the peace walls that divided sections of the city, separating Protestant from Catholic neighborhoods. The walls were covered in extensive murals, quotes and graffiti highlighting Belfast’s common forms of political expression through art. We were all able to leave our own marks on the peace wall with a marker, representing our hope for a unified future for the country.

As we made our way through Belfast, our tour guide recollected his own experiences as a child, walking to school and running into alleyways to avoid the exchange of gunfire between neighbors. The gloomy and grey weather intensified the experience as we drove past graffiti-marked walls depicting messages such as “Give peace a chance” and “Don’t push away our culture.”

The weekend excursion to Belfast and the opportunity to catch a glimpse into the conflict that has engrossed Northern Ireland for so many years was humbling. As the peace efforts continue, the country is working towards constructing harmony. While much of the education system of Northern Ireland is made up of Protestant or Catholic schools, many are aspiring toward more inclusive educational environments. Additionally, according to surveys conducted by Northern Ireland, intermarriages between the two religions are becoming more common for the younger generations.

After the excursion, we were all eager to get back and to appreciate Dublin’s friendly atmosphere, including the vibrant nightlife and entertaining street performers lining the cobblestone streets. Still, the opportunity to understand the historical struggle that defined much of Northern Ireland and its people was second-to-none. Fortunately, the future is hopeful for peaceful coexistence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.