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REFLECTIONS ON MY VISIT TO NORTHERN IRELAND

By Martin Van Boom

The "Green Island" was, except for some news items on our local television stations, unknown to me.

I did spent two and a half days in Galway, to discuss the possibility of going to work for the Galway National University of Ireland, but, due to rain and heavy fog, I do not remember much of this visit.

There was no next time better, because in the end I did not accept the job. Ireland remained a mystery to me.

Until recently, when I began participating in a Gruntvig Senior Volunteering project. As a participant in "Leuven-Armagh Links" I was offered the possibility of a three weeks visit to Northern Ireland, as part of an exchange program between the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and the City Archives of Leuven. Our Irish friends Bridgeen, William, Joe, Ron and Eddie visited us in April 2012, our group went to Ireland in September 2012.

September the ninth, sunny and warm, we left for Dublin, full of expectations. In Dublin William, Ron and Joe met us. By minibus we went to our first stay: Armagh.

Armagh, the city of saints and scholars, is the county town of County Armagh and is the seat for both the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland. Both their churches (in Armagh) are dedicated to St Patrick. According to tradition, when Christianity spread to Ireland, Armagh became the island's "ecclesiastical capital", as Saint Patrick established his principal church here.

We stayed in a lovely hotel, the "Charlemont Arms". Our journey through past and present was started and Joe and Roddy were our first hosts.

I have best memories of both cathedrals, the Robinson Library and Navan Fort, but do have some nightmares when I think of our introduction to the Irish Language.

The second week we spent in Londonderry/Derry, in the "Tower Hotel". It is the second-largest city of Northern Ireland and close to the border of county Donegal. The old walled city lies on the west bank of the River Foyle. The name Derry is preferred throughout Northern Ireland's catholic community, whereas unionists prefer Londonderry. In the UK the city is known as Londonderry, in the republic of Ireland as Derry.

Derry is the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples of a walled city in Europe. It is here that that "the Troubles" is regarded having started with "The Battle of the Bogside".

Here we learned more about "the Troubles". Walking on the walls, looking around, you could well imaging how it must have been during those days. Streets bordered with red, white and blue stones, the English flags, the fences around blocks of houses. No surrender! I could feel the tensions.

Bridgeen and Roddy guided us around. Northern Ireland's history came alive. Places that impressed me most were: Grainan Alleach, Lifford Old Court House, and Prehen House. Also instructive was our visit to the Ulster American Folk Park. Not to be forgotten our visit to Cavanacor House, home to Eddie and Joanna, tea and scones, delicious!

Up to Belfast, the third and last place of our three-week visit.

Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland. Most of the city is in county Antrim, but parts are also in county Down. The city suffered greatly during the "Troubles", but now undergoes a period of calm, economic and commercial growth.

In this city, William was our principal host and guided us around the most interesting places. Noteworthy were our visits to Linen Hall Library, and City Hall.

Of course we also visited the new "Titanic Museum", opened in March 31th 2012. This famous ship, build in Belfast (1911-1912), sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK to New York City. The ship was constructed by the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, at that time the largest shipyard in the world.

On our last day, the Orange Order marched through Belfast (Home rule opposition centenary parade), passing in front of our hotel the Jurys Inn. This order is a protestant organisation and its name is a tribute to the Dutch-born king William of Orange, who defeated the army of the catholic king James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Ulster bands and groups of people dressed in period costumes marched along for hours, impressive but at times very scary, giving me the chills.

I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to participate in this exchange program. Throughout this three week period we learned a lot about Northern Ireland's past and present, a subject barely touched upon by our schools and news sources.

Because of the fact that the Irish group consisted of people of different organisations, it was difficult to be implemented in their volunteer work. A pity, but discussions about their work made up for this.

I now have a better understanding of the catholic-protestant conflict. I heard about it through our local news, but did not realise it was that bad and had so many consequences for the people and the country. It was nice to discuss economy, history, religion and politics with people from another country. Finally, I tasted very good whisky, may be not an objective of this trip, but I would not like to have missed it.

In conclusion, it was a very good but unfortunately rather wet experience, a good example of life long learning, worth to be continued.

I would like to thank our Irish hosts William, Bridgeen, Joe, Ron and Eddie for their effort and time spent, to give us a wonderful time in their country.

One last advice, please try to apply for some European money to improve weather conditions. Your country will even be more beautiful in the sunshine.

September 2013