“This is one of those moments on a lifelong bucket list.”
Spending St. Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland was an incredible opportunity. As a group of friends and I lined the streets, along with thousands of other people, we had the experience of a lifetime. While celebrating, we cheered on the parade in Belfast, shopped at an incredible market and celebrated our last day in Northern Ireland together. I loved celebrating such an important holiday while in Northern Ireland, especially after learning so much more about the place’s history, politics and culture. Spending St. Patrick’s Day and overall traveling to Northern Ireland is definitely an experience I will always treasure.
The daily details:
The St. Patrick’s Day parade began at 11:00 a.m. and a group of us on the study abroad trip went and watched as men, women, children, and dogs marched in celebration. We listened to music fill the streets, watched incredible floats glide down the road and enjoyed seeing people dance and celebrate. However, I found one symbol missing: the Irish flag. The observers of the parade were decked out in green, shamrock decorations, and carried the flag of Ireland, however, not the parade participates. We later discussed how this is due to the politics surrounding the flag and the political position it represents. As Belfast and all of Northern Ireland works to unite itself after the hardship experienced during the times of the Troubles, the Irish flag would be a political statement. Instead, the parade was filled with Irish music, symbols (like the Chinese dragon) from other cultures, and even a float of a spinning globe representing different countries around the world. I found this to be a unique take on the appearance of the St. Patrick’s Day parade and thought-provoking. For it demonstrated how visitors and other parades around the world could proudly wave the Irish flag while the people in Northern Ireland had deep politics associated with that luxury. This continued to demonstrate to me the depth of the political separation in Northern Ireland and how the people there are working toward unity and reconciliation.
On the topic of political division, a group of friends and I were walking to the market after the parade when I spotted English flags waving across the street. A group of individuals flew these flag in support of England and their loyalist views. As we walked by, I noticed a sort of symbolism for the political tension we had been studying. For, a couple days ago, we had learned about the mental walls that stood firm in the minds of Nationalist and Loyalist living in Northern Ireland. These mental walls were the blockage that kept the two sides divided and distant even when no physical barrier was present. While there are plenty of physical barriers in Northern Ireland (walls that stand above the separated societies) there are also plenty of open areas that are purely separated by the understanding that the people across the street are different. While standing in the middle of Belfast, I watched in astonishment as Irish kids covered their shoulders and held up the Irish flag directly across the street from where protesting adults stood with England’s flag waving. After seeing this, I began rushing around to my other friends in the group and talking about the incredible symbolism we were witnessing. This moment demonstrated how hard it is for people to break down their mental barriers. People hold their views, stances, and beliefs incredibly close to their hearts and (while typically a good way of maintaining morals and values) this can also be a fault in the acceptance of others. While I personally believe there is hope for Northern Ireland’s people overcoming these deeply rooted mental barriers (and feel that after talking to local, many people are already working towards unity), I do feel it is necessary to respect the difficulty in acknowledging the past while also moving on from it. Ultimately, as written on a mural in Belfast, the three key ways to balance the historical struggles with a hopeful future is to, “Remember, Respect [and work towards] Resolution”.
While walking around Belfast, a man held out a flyer to me. Being polite, I took it and looked down to find it read in big bold letters, “Yes! For Irish Unity”. As I continued reading the flyer produced by the Irish Republican Socialist Party, I continued to see how much the people in Northern Ireland have to work in order to fight for their political beliefs. Interested, I read the flyer to find information on how the Irish Republican Socialist party has campaigned since their “formation in 1974”. It continued to discuss the impacts on unionization after the Good Friday Agreement, referenced the implications of Brexit on the matter of Irish unity, and ended with wanting an “Ireland that cherishes all the children equally”. Being handed this flyer while walking the streets of Belfast on St. Patrick’s Day continued to illustrate to me how constant people are working for human rights and pushing for a united Ireland. The flyer acknowledged how Northern Ireland is still not institutionally a part of Ireland and the continuing implications that follow the current system. While speaking to many nationalist on the trip, they expressed their hope for the future of Ireland to be a single country and how this desire has been ongoing for centuries. Ultimately, it made sense for the party to call attention to a united Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day and educate those supporting the Irish culture on the very real politics surrounding the lives of those living in Northern Ireland.
Ultimately, coming and studying in Northern Ireland was a truly life-changing experience. I enjoyed learning more about human rights, Ireland, Northern Ireland, history, politics, and international issues. This trip has sparked a passion in me to continue studying these topics and I’m looking forward to learning more. I can’t thank those who worked so hard to make this trip possible enough and believe anyone considering studying abroad should go for it!