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By Joe Canning

Joe CanningI found this visit to be enjoyable and very useful even though the programme on some days was very hectic. I consider myself very lucky to have been chosen for this exchange project, because a younger person could probably have contributed more to it and derived greater benefit from it.

As a person who has to deal with archives I could not help being impressed by the provision in the city of Leuven for this essential source for historical research. First of all is the existence of four separate and distinct repositories, and then there is the extent and antiquity of the documents held in them. When one considers what Leuven suffered in two twentieth century wars the survival of so much valuable material is remarkable. The workshops in which we took part in the City Archives were very instructive, and I got some ideas from them that would be applicable to the archives in the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library.

The conducted tours of Leuven and the visits to other Belgian cities were very informative and seeing so many outstanding works of art was an enriching experience. I had been in Leuven on a number of occasions previously, but had really been only familiar with the centre of the city and had not found out much about its history but Jules Audiens soon put that right. There were so many buildings of architectural merit to be seen, and those that stand out in my memory include the City Hall in Leuven and the abbeys at Park and Vlierbeek, and the cathedral and St Paul's Church in Antwerp, and as a person interested in railways I was very impressed by the station in that city. For anyone interested in Flemish painting, there was no scarcity of examples, and for me the work of Pieter Brueghel the younger stood out.

When I visit a continental country I try trace any Irish connections, particularly those listed by Tomás Ó Fiaich in his book "Gaescrínte sa Eoraip". So when I visited the cathedral in Brughes I was able to mark another one off my list when I saw the mantle of Saint Brigid. In this city I was also able to attend the veneration of the Holy Blood in the basilica of that name. One of my disappointments on this Belgian visit arose from my attempt to follow up another Irish connection. The town of Geel, about 30 miles northeast has a long association with the Irish saint Dympna and there is a church dedicated to her. On a previous visit to Leuven I set out to go there on a Sunday but when I boarded the bus in Leuven I had only a 20-euro note and the driver could not give me any change. When a new opportunity came round in the course of this recent visit I was determined not to let it slip. The only free day in our programme was Saturday, but when I arrived in Geel I discovered that St Dympna's Church did not open on Saturdays!

Keeping to the religious theme, I was very pleased to find that there was singing at the three Sunday Masses that we attended. The second one was special for us as it took place in the church of Vriebeek Abbey and the choir was conducted by Rudi Thomassen, one of our Belgian colleagues. The third Sunday was also special; it was in St. Quintin's Church and on this occasion the Gregorian chant was used.

One of the benefits of an exchange visit is meeting new people. Apart from our meetings in Belfast this is the first opportunity the Irish group had of been together and I am certainly glad that I have met the others and have learned a lot from them. With regard to our Belgian colleagues, I could not praise them highly enough; they were always helpful and contributed enormously to making our visit to Leuven so memorable, and in my own case some of them went out of their way to help me with my particular interests.

We went on this visit as volunteers to meet Belgian volunteers. However, we learned that volunteering is somewhat different in Belgium from what it is in Northern Ireland. The number of people in heritage-type societies was very impressive and the willingness of libraries and archives offices to take on volunteers was noteworthy. While some of us would like to see something similar happening in Northern Ireland, it is not clear as to whether it would be universally welcomed.

May 2012