By Jules Audiens
As someone who has always been driven by the hunger to know and understand why social things are now as they are, I have always been interested in history. I am convinced that in order to understand now, one has to know how it all came about. It is not the history of battles and upper social classes that are my main interest, but the daily life of the majority, their income, their problems in order to survive. It is my knowledge of history that made me apply for this project, in spite of my lack of knowledge of English.
It struck me that in the first contact I had to make clear that the strife between Dutch and French speakers in Belgium is not at all a civil war, and that we have kept it going without violence, having a tradition of consultation and trying to find agreements!
From the beginning it was clear that there was an important structural difference between the exchange partners, the five of us all working on the same spot whereas the 5 FULS members worked in separate locations. Except for Claire, we all came to the north of Ireland for the first time, whereas most of the Irish had already been here.
I was most agreeably surprised by the warm reception at Dublin airport, especially as some of the FULS people had had to travel far for this. We constantly felt that our Irish partners and their environment invested a lot of energy and time to make our stay both very agreeable and highly interesting. I want to mention in particular Roddy Hegarty, who introduced us thoroughly into Irish history and took us on a few tours to interesting and beautiful places.
The Nine year War, the uprising of Tyrone, the flight of the Earls, these were all new to us. I sometimes had the feeling Irish history had only started with these, although I know that the Irish christianised our regions in the early Middle Ages.
I had first thought we would not talk too much about "the troubles", but this did not only prove impossible, "The troubles" proved to be the main theme with which we were confronted in most of the archives that we visited. This became already very clear when we took part in some sorting of the materials in the COFLA library in Armagh. On the street, it struck me that people I crossed often avert their eyes.
In Belfast the Linen Hall Library and the PRONI were both very impressive, the former because of the amount of materials collected about the troubles, showing a thorough will to be all representative and document the troubles from the different viewpoints, the latter because of the superb infrastructure and technical possibilities.
We also visited NICVA, a visit which made clear to us that substantial sums are invested in the working of volunteer organisations, partly with EU support.
In Armagh our feeling had been that "the troubles" were mainly past, and that everybody focused on peace now. But in Derry it became clear that tensions are still very present, and in Belfast it became even more obvious. We saw still secluded neighbourhoods in Derry and Belfast, which showed me that there is still a long way to go to reach long lasting peace. I was also scared by the way we saw the Orange Order march through the city to remember the hundredth anniversary of the Covenant.
Another thing that worried me is that in Derry and Belfast, once so famous for their shirts, there are no shirt factories left and that apart from tourism I did not see much that could replace this loss.
In Derry (/Londonderry: how does a name show that things are not simple yet!), and even more in Strabane, I found myself confronted with poverty, which for sure keeps the tensions going, as I think that they are much more social tensions than religious ones. This, combined with today's financial and economic crisis, is a cocktail that might seriously jeopardize the efforts for peace.
An emotional moment I keep in memory was when the sister of a young lad killed on Bloody Sunday, showed me a photo of her brother in the photo album "Free Derry Wall" I had bought: the lad would have had my age now! I asked her to sign the album on her brother's behalf.
On the other hand Derry/Londonderry features the magnificent Peace Bridge, which I saw gloriously shining from my hotel window every evening, a hope giving symbol indeed.
A few further highlights among the many interesting museums and sites we visited, were the Navan Centre & Fort near Armagh, the Ulster American Folk Park and the Titanic Museum.
In the end I had the feeling that every time I had thought: "Now I know", a next piece of information would shatter my certainties.
Anyway I wish the workers for peace, of who we met many, will persevere and be successful!
I am very happy to have had the experience, to have met all these nice people and in the meantime learnt a lot of English.