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REFLECTIONS ON NORTHERN IRELAND VISIT

By Claire Dejaeger

We left Brussels for Dublin on 9 September with 27 degrees Celsius- it was nice to see Liam, Ron and Joe back after four months and to re-experience the convivial atmosphere from Leuven.

All through our visit we had to brace against the elements with raincoat, umbrella and a warm pullover as clouds, spots of sunshine, strong winds and downpours competed with each other every other moment of the day.

Our visit was set in three locations, Armagh, Derry/Londonderry and Belfast.

Armagh

Armagh, a small historic town with steep hills and winding streets, is the capital of County Armagh and the See of the Archbishop of the Catholic Church as well as of the Church of Ireland. Both churches are dedicated to St Patrick as the latter christianized Ireland from Armagh. St Patrick would leave his shadow on the rest of our visit in Ireland, as would the Celtic Crosses. At the Catholic Cathedral we met with Joris Minne, the Cathedral's organist from Belgian origin, an enthusiastic storyteller who played some beautiful pieces of organ music for us.

Armagh and Leuven have very close links. Cardinal Tomás o' Fiaich, a staunch supporter of the Irish language and culture, studied at the Irish College in Leuven, and did a lot of research into the Irish College's origins and history. The Cardinal started a library and archive, which is named after him, the Tomas o' Fiaich Library and Archive in Armagh (COFLA).

The Leuven Irish College beginnings are linked with the Flight of the Earls, who had found refuge at the Irish College in Leuven in 1607 on their way to Spain/Rome. Roddy Hegarty, the director, introduced us into the period of the High Kings, pre-Plantation Ireland, and we visited the O'Neills coronation site.

A FULS volunteer taught us the basic structures of the Irish Language, but I must admit that apart from' slauntche' I cannot yet reproduce any other sound - the big problem for learners of Irish is the non-link between spelling and pronunciation.

We were also enrolled in archival work dealing with files related with The Troubles. I became very quiet and still, realizing that we were handling documents, newspaper clippings, tracts, prison statements, human rights issues, that have so deeply affected people's hearts and lives.

The Robinson library is named after the Church of Ireland Cardinal Robinson. He wanted to give Armagh a university, thus he started with the Robinson Library and gave the head start to the Armagh Observatory. The many historic buildings shaping the charming city of Armagh of today were built under his authority.

At the County Museum we read The Covenant against Home Rule, an important document still until today (the100th anniversary signing of The Covenant would be the subject of the march of the Orange Order in Belfast on 29 September, on the last day of our stay). The Registry is a renovated architectural gem. We were introduced to Celtic druid times at the Navan Fort where an old Celtic ball game is still being played, and we visited a Celtic dwelling where a 'Celt' told us about Celtic life and its quite modern Brehon Celtic laws.

Each visit added a new piece to the puzzle of Irish history and we realized we needed many more before we would be able to see the whole picture.

The Charlemont Hotel, a wonderful inn-hotel, made us feel home away from home and our first week had passed in no time. Talking to people in Armagh we sensed a feeling of hope and optimism that The Troubles - this violent episode in Irish history - is now something of the past, is being considered as a shared common heritage, and the moment of a new start and a period of cooperation.

Derry

Londonderry, the walled city, is a beautiful historic town on the river Foyle. Londonderry was the backdrop of our second week.

Derry was unfortunately also the scene of many of the bomb attacks during the Troubles, and will forever be linked with Bloody Sunday.

You cannot avoid history in Londonderry, the walls being the most famous, visible and enduring physical legacy of the Plantation and the 1689 Siege of Derry. Plantation is the organized colonisation of Ulster by people from the British Empire starting in 1607).The Famine, the emigration to the US, the discrimination of the Catholics, the equal rights movement marches, Bloody Sunday, The Troubles, the 1998 Peace Agreement, the Saville Report, they are all pieces of the puzzle of Irish history that we were slowly putting together.

To hear about Bloody Sunday on a very wet Monday, to see our guide, a born storyteller acting on the stage of the walls in his short sleeved shirt braving the weather - rain, sleet or snow our walking tour will go - that was extraordinary. We were quiet and still in front of the Bogside murals, the 'you are now entering free Derry' mural, the Bernadette Devlin mural, the Irish flag in the Bogside, we heard the story of the apprentice boys, the cat walk, the shift of population. We walked through the Fountain, a protestant area just outside the walls, their curbs painted in the red-blue-white colours of the British flag, their protective fences and a billboard with Londonderry West Bank still under siege NO SURRENDER.

We learned about the blue coat schools (the Presbyterians were the first to introduce school uniforms) and the booming shirt manufacturing and its subsequent decline. Here the scars of the past are all over - too many historic buildings inside the city and their archives have been destroyed.

From the windows of the Tower hotel near Butcher Gate where we stayed, we could see the Peace Bridge, symbol of hope and reconciliation.

The preparations for the 2014 celebrations for Derry as the cultural capital of the UK are going full speed. Derry/Londonderry/Legenderry (Legend'derry), what's in a name? - Derry people are proud to show their capital to the world.

On our way to Derry we passed Sion Mills, with the Herdmans flax-spinning mills on the river Mourne dating back to 1835 - the mill closed in 2004. The Henderson family started a non-sectarian social experiment for the workers, providing them with quality housing, education for the children and recreational facilities. Later in the Roe Valley Country Park Trail we would see more of the flax growing and flax yarn production of the area.

Roddy brought us to The Grainan Aileach and Earl's place, a stone fort on the Inishowen peninsula. We had a short stop at Limavady, to have a look at Eddie and his wife's solo art exhibitions.

In Lifford's Old Court House and Donegal Heritage Centre we met 'Half Hanged McNaughton' again, in a dungeon this time (we had already made his acquaintance at the Derry Tower Museum, where his ghost still frightened me with "boo.."), and we had lunch with the Donegal historical society. The society has played a crucial role in saving the Court House from demolition. Volunteer work pays off.

At Cavanacor House - a plantation house, where one of the future US presidents was born, which is now Eddie and Joanna's home, we were welcomed with afternoon tea and delicious homemade scones.

We visited the (haunted) Prehen House and the Ulster American Folk Park where our weekly Leuven talk would take place and where we learned about massive Irish emigration to America after the Famine of the mid 1800s caused by a potato blight We participated in a NewBuildings historical society evening followed by an Irish folksong evening and Irish coffee at Dick and Mayread Brennan's house, a heart-warming treat and get-together with the locals, genuine Irish hospitality, with thanks to Bridgeen for the organization, Maureen for the singing of Irish/Scottish songs, and Rudi for his guitar accompaniment.

The local authorities in Strabane, a town on the border with the Republic, told us about their history. The locality suffered a lot under The Troubles and the economic outlook is still not very bright. After a busy day we took the time for a Guinness at The Farmer's Inn pub in Strabane.

Derry has added many more pieces to the puzzle of Irish history and we thought we had more or less become experts. Alas, that would prove to be wishful thinking. The Norman Kings, St Columb, the Williamites-Jacobites war, Presbyterianism, Church of Ireland, Methodism, the role of William of Orange, the strategic position of Ireland as a base to invade Britain through its back door, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Famine, the Work House on the east side of the river Foyle, the Covenant, Partition, the two world wars, all elements of the puzzle of Irish history that were waiting to find their place in the overall picture.

Belfast

The last leg of the visit brought us to Belfast on the river Lagan, the capital of County Antrim and surroundings.

I spent three weeks in Belfast in 1965 to practise English, staying with an Irish family connected with the flax trade between Northern Ireland and Flanders. A great deal of Flanders' flax was sent to the spinning mills in Northern Ireland and England. I visited the Linen Museum at Lisburn, hoping to find out more about flax trade relations since the 1950s, a subject dear to me that I want to further explore.

The Linen Hall Library in Belfast is a real gem, with a nice cafe overlooking the Belfast City Hall. Interesting collections, again in relation with the bloody past of the city, are preserved here. The political collection, spanning the entire period of the Troubles, and the embargoed collections made me wonder if all this bloodshed could have been avoided, if people had felt more compassion and less arrogance and had had the courage to start a dialogue with each other. Again and again in similar conflicts the contempt of one group of people towards an other, is so damaging to all interrelations.

We would become aware of that again on the last Saturday of our stay when the Orange Order was marching through the streets, and in front of our hotel, the Jurys Inn, to commemorate the signing of hundredth anniversary of the signing of The Covenant against Home Rule.

These orange orders, fortunately they are a minority, have never shown any respect nor tact and have made provocation and humiliation part of their trademark. Their tradition of marching bands may be part of their culture and may have enriched the lives of many members of the communities, but they cannot deny they have a very sectarian streak. We visited the City Hall, the PRONI archives in a magnificent new building with state of the art interactive touch screens, we had the opportunity to visit the amazing Titanic Museum, a touristic attraction that should have a Guggenheim effect for the tourism industry, the Ulster Museum, the Botanic Garden Park and Queens' University.

One afternoon brought us to Downpatrick with a visit to the memorial gravestone of St Patrick and the Church where we had a splendid view on the surrounding hills followed by a visit to The Down County Museum and historic goal.

We spent a day at Carrickfergus - where Ron's local history society introduced us into the Norman history of the settlement. The Carrickfergus Castle and the Nicolas Church, the stroll along the city walls, the exhibition on the protestant view on the Troubles - we were even asked to sign the Covenant! We had the opportunity to meet more FULS people over lunch at the historic Dobbins Inn hotel.

On our way back to Belfast we stopped at the Carrickfergus monument commemorating the presence of a Belgian army battalion in 1944.

From the Jurys Inn in Great Victoria Street we had a view on the Belfast Metropolitan College and the famous grammar school, opposite the street was the Presbyterian temple - now a shopping mall - and the famous Crown Bar. At the Europe Hotel the weekend skydivers came down the high rise in support of some children charity, next was the Abbey Theatre. Conclusions

I was lucky to have been chosen as a participant in the exchange program of the EU, the Grundtvig Lifelong Learning program.

And we have been learning all through our visit, about volunteer work, about archival work and while looking into these archival sources about the political situation of the last 50 years, and about Irish history from ancient times up to now. Of course we all knew about the problems between Protestants and Catholics before we came, but his visit has shown us how complicated things are on the ground. So many threads of history and its loose ends have become entangled in a plot of wool and these threads now have to be slowly but surely disentangled and loosened. The three-week visit outmatched our expectations.

Volunteer work

In Belfast at our meeting with the Belfast Office for Volunteer Work we learned about volunteer work and its impact on society. Studies have shown that the more societies and volunteer groups in a city, the better the feeling of contentedness in a community, an interesting idea, that we will take home to defend our own Itinera Nova project. On several occasions we got together with the members of the FULS. With their research and publications they reconstruct the past of their communities, and create a sense of shared destiny among the members.

Archives

The preservation of archives has become a priority and most archives preach a credo of independence of any political fraction, even if they are linked in their origins to a specific group. People feel safe to confide their records to a neutral space where they will be kept and safe for future generations.

So many archives have been destroyed over the centuries, particularly in that part of Ireland, and that is a very positive evolution.

The new approach can be seen in the new premises that are built all over Northern Ireland, the Tomás o' Fiaich Library, the Limavady center, the Ulster Museum in Belfast, the County house in Carrickfergus, the PRONI, all of them architectural outstanding buildings with lots of light and skylights opening up to the ever changing clouds of Ireland.

Politics

With the peace agreement of 1998 - a new breeze of optimism is flowing through the country - certainly there are and will be setbacks - 40 years of riots and violent trouble cannot be wiped out in a streak - but I feel confident that the generations to come will be able to put this episode behind them and start with a clean slate. Plantation, as legacy of division is now also seen as a legacy of cultural and religious diversity, and one of the key strengths of communities in Ulster.

Unfortunately the economic crisis doesn't come at the right moment and cannot backup the peace process.

Thanks

Our friendship and partnership with the Irish colleagues was heart-warming. We will keep in touch and we hope we will be able to welcome them here again in Leuven. I would like to thank Joe and Roddy for the organization of the visit in Armagh, Eddie and Bridgeen seconded by George for a wonderful, most interesting week in County Derry, and Ron and Liam, for the week in Belfast and surroundings, Liam being our overall coordinator.

We had excellent guides, the Irish are born storytellers, and they were able to convey their message, history and archival history with passion and humour.

A special thank also to my Leuven colleagues, for their friendship and companionship, we got to know and to appreciate each other and enjoyed our three weeks together. We had animated discussions over dinner, which made me question my own beliefs and my own right.

In our presentations we were proud to present the excellent work done by the Leuven City Archives under its director Marika Ceunen with the Itinera Nova project, and its project leader Inge Moris. Itinera Nova, is all about making the manuscripts of the Registers of the Court of Aldermen (1362-1795) accessible to researchers and private people through digitisation (transcription and scanning) and to make them available online.

Thanks also to Marika and Inge for the organization of the visit and their motherly care towards us all. Inge accompanied us to Armagh and came to fetch us in Belfast, while Marika and Rob spent a very nice and sunny weekend with us in Derry.

I would like to finish with a quote of Nelson Mandela on archives:

"Anyone who has explored the world of archives will know that it is a treasure house. A treasure house that is full of surprises, crossing paths, dead ends, painful reminders and unanswered questions."
Nelson Mandela, 2005

October 2012