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REFLECTIONS ON THE EXCHANGE WITH FULS

By Rudi Thomassen

When I applied to take part in this project, it was mainly because I hoped my knowledge of English could come in handy. But in the back of my mind there was a shimmer of the question: "What the hell may Ireland and Belgium have shared historically?" Well, I got answers - and a plural is the only adequate form here! - and was astonished to find out that there was a lot more than I had ever imagined. (Just imagine, for one thing, that the French of Louis XIV at Namur had won the battle, had it not been for the help of among others: Irish under Richard Kane; had the French won, we would quite likely be French speakers all over Belgium now and our local politics would be very different…)Which for sure made the whole experience something to experience Europe in a way that broadened our scope.

During our visit in Armagh, Derry and Belfast, what we saw and heard made me believe that the conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants had probably several common points with the tensions between French and Dutch speakers in Belgium, in both cases the social and economic aspects being at least as important as the religious one in Ireland and the linguistic one in Belgium. Solving the conflict and guarantee peace, mutual understanding and respect cannot but be based on the same principles, although, very fortunately, in Belgium everything has remained far less violent and I do hope it will remain so, perhaps the influence of the EU may come in useful there?

I was particularly impressed by the positive spirit we encountered in most places, and by the way most of the archives and museums we visited try to get children involved, thus spreading a sense of history. On the other hand what we saw proved how precarious the peace in this northern part of the Irish isle still is: we saw secluded neighbourhoods, banners, marches, all of them signs of continuing resentment and strife. And heard the hopes of many, and the resentments of some.

The open-mindedness we encountered in our exchange partners was heart-warming and very stimulating. I think it has resulted in a few friendships that I hope will continue. The fact that some contacts have been going on after our visit makes me think they will.

I still remain very grateful to all those who invested time and energy to make the experience a very rewarding one: in the first place there were the FULS volunteers who hosted us so well, but also springs to my mind the name of Roddy Hagerty, who invested quite a lot of time and energy to lead us into Irish history and to wonderful places. Staff (and volunteers?) of the Robinson Library in Armagh, of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, of, of, of… I'd better not try to name them all for fear I might forget to mention some, as my memory is something very comparable to Emmental cheese (hahah, a remainder of my Swiss roots?), with names very often escaping through the holes.

A thousand (and one) thanks to all those who helped to make this project become an unforgettable experience.

September 2013