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The Agreement (Extracts)



By Ron Bishop

Joe CanningAs a recently-retired scientist who wanted to find out something about historical sources, three weeks at the Leuven archives learning how to digitise original documents sounded almost too good to be true. But it wasn't!

Three weeks seemed a long time in prospect, though. It was a surprise to realise that I hadn't been away for that long since I'd first gone to college nearly fifty years ago. How would the aircraft museum cope without me for so long? The bird observatory? The bell-ringing team? The church visitors? The wife??? Well, fine, as it happened - nobody's indispensible! The free broadband in our rooms meant that I was never more than a mouse click away from all the email debates with these and other friends and there was very little disruption to day-to-day communication even if it did mean a lot of late nights keeping up.

And three weeks was just about right to achieve one of the aims of the programme - to gain some familiarity with life in another EU country. A couple of months would have been even better, but after two or three weeks we really were starting to feel a part of the city of Leuven. We could walk anywhere and always quickly came across somewhere we recognised, so we didn't get lost. We could handle shops, buses and trains. That may not sound much, but it's hard to be confident about that sort of thing after only a week or so. Memorable impressions of Leuven included the cobblestones, hordes of bicycles coming from every direction, and the beautiful restoration of the Oude Markt, City Hall and University Library after the war damage. The Béguinage or Groot Begijnhof was a wonderful concept as well as a wonderful place (even in the rain), and our guide there also made the best paella IN THE WORLD.

There were lots more to admire in the city, too, and of course in Brussels and Antwerp where we also visited. Our visit to the European Parliament explained many things, both good and bad, about how the European community works. We quite narrowly avoided being run over by the King's motorcade as he sped home for lunch on a rainy day. It was a surprise to realise how small Brussels must have been in the 1840s when the Bronte girls were there for a while. The three galleries we visited were totally different and yet all fascinating. Antwerp had beautiful churches and paintings, and a unique printing museum. My grandfather (who may have visited Belgium as a soldier during WWI but would never speak about it) was a newspaper printer and he would have understood everything on display there, despite the 300 year gap.

On our day off I visited Diest, a small city about 25 km east of Leuven, to meet two veterans of the Belgian Army's stay in Carrickfergus in 1945 (my research project). The city's alderman responsible for heritage affairs also gave up his May Day holiday to welcome me officially to the City Hall and show me round, and the hospitality and friendliness of all three was beyond words. That applies, too, to all the volunteers and staff of SAL, the Stadsarchief Leuven. They all seemed to devote almost every day of the three weeks to meeting us, showing us around, teaching us and helping us - way beyond our expectation, and I really don't know how we're going to be able to reciprocate at that level when they visit Northern Ireland in September. They were just invaluable, and we got on so well!

Two experiences have been particularly influential. One was completely unexpected. In Northern Ireland parlance, I'm a 'blow-in' from 'across the water' and, despite 40 years in Ulster, my cultural and historical background has been essentially English. Of course I've been aware of the Irish dimension in the history of where I live, but somehow I've felt distanced and uninvolved in it. Now I've spent three weeks with people who have been aware of it and involved in it, intensely, for most of their lives, and it has rubbed off on me. I had no idea of the role of the Irish College and Leuven as a focus of Irish (Gaelic) scholarship in the dark times following the Flight of the Earls and the apparent English ascendancy in Ireland from the early 1600s. It was both enlightening and inspiring to spend such a long time in that beautiful and restful place, and I've learned so much so quickly from it and from my colleagues in the Armagh Group about Ireland's real cultural and historical heritage.

The other was of course a major aim of the visit - the whole archive experience. We visited four different archives in Leuven alone and one in Antwerp. You might expect one really good archive in a country, but five in just two cities? We were all so impressed by the amount of public money and space devoted by Belgium to modern, efficient archive premises (though personally I also loved the ancient little archive room in Park Abbey - truly an Aladdin's cave! Please can I be buried there when I die). Learning to prepare, scan and conserve documents, whether 250 years old or from recent times I remember perfectly well myself, was fascinating. To find almost my own name jumping out at me from a 1750s register was a real surprise! But the most important thing was also by a long way the most difficult - transcribing. Poor Inge demonstrated the patience of a saint as she guided us slowly and painstakingly through pages of early fifteenth century Latin script - first letters, then words and, worst of all, abbreviations. Clearly this is going to take months of struggle to gain any proficiency, and yet it's the one way in which we can continue to contribute to Itinera Nova now that we are no longer there in person. I just hope I can manage at least one act!

Overall, it was three weeks in another world. In many ways, it was like being a student in halls again - closeted with new people with a common purpose in a comfortable place and with nothing else to worry about apart from studying in the evening for our presentations. And then giving them - it's two years since I last gave a lecture after a lifetime of doing it and it was so much fun! And eating far too much lovely food - Belgians certainly know how to enjoy themselves at the table! I really knew nobody before this visit - I had only met my NI colleagues very briefly before we came to Belgium. Yet within hours I felt as if I had known them and our Leuven friends for most of my life - we seemed to bond so quickly and easily. Thank you, Marika and Liam, for all your work organising the SVP in the first place and thank you everybody (no names, but you all know who you are!) for making it such an enjoyable and worthwhile experience. I look forward to September!

May 2012