Come November, Ireland grows cold and dark. The light of the day begins to fade at four, and doesn’t return again until nearly nine the next morning. The days can become hard, difficult slogs through the dark of winter, but in the evenings — in the evenings, there are long nights spent playing boardgames by the fireplace with friends. There are hours in a pub in Ballycastle, listening to Irish music while gently sipping your fourth pint of Guinness. There are Christmas markets that open after Thanksgiving in Belfast, and brilliant stars that seem all the more vivid on cold, near-winter nights.
I will miss this place, and all the little bits of joy that can be found here.
Ireland has not always been easy — this last month, especially, has so often felt like a slow crawl to the finish line, determined to complete what I set out to do and yet at the same time feeling desperately ready to return home. But as this co-op and time abroad has drawn to a close, I’ve been trying to pause, and appreciate this island, and my time at this place called Corrymeela.
These months have not only given me a community of friends and coworkers from all over the world – America, France, Colombia, South Korea and Ireland – but have also let me be a small part of this long, difficult path to reconciliation that comes after conflict. They have given me a chance to bear witness to the trails, frustrations, hopes and triumphs experienced by the men and women who do the difficult work towards peace; they have allowed me to meet and work alongside young adults, school teachers, academics, refugees, and people of all kinds of different faiths, all of whom have a place in the ongoing story of Ireland.
For all of that and more, I am grateful — for this island, for the people that call it home on both sides of the border, and for Corrymeela, this place that has served as my second and final co-op at Northeastern University.
This island is not a monolithic place, no mater what the postcards and travel brochures and romantic movies might show. It is a place of multiple, often competing identities: Republicans and Loyalists, Protestants and Catholics, recent immigrants and multi-generational families who can trace their roots back centuries. There are Dubliners and Belfasters and Derry folk, Leavers and Remainers, people who identify as British, people who consider themselves Irish, and people who don’t fit neatly into any category within the Unionist/Nationalist divide.
It is a place of great natural beauty, of centuries of history, and of a warm people who are among the kindest and most hospitable that I’ve ever met. But this island is also a place of profound violence, of division, of sometimes great hatred and intolerance, and of a deep, lasting memory of trauma. It is a place that still struggles to move forward from its past, that has become shaken by recent world events, and that yet continues to move warily forward into a more and more uncertain future. It is a place that is still healing, still reconciling, still learning how to live in peace with itself. But this is also an island where people can still learn to live together — on both sides of the border — despite differences in beliefs and identity. This is, above all, a place where peace is still possible.
I am reminded often of a brief exchange I witnessed during one of my final programs at Corrymeela: of watching a girl from Cork, one of the most Republican cities in the South, talking and laughing with a Unionist girl from Belfast. Hearing their respective accents bounce off each other – one soft and rolling, the other a little harsher, distinctive of the Belfast streets – reminded me both of how different people on this island can be, and yet how much hope there still is in its future, even if the shine of optimism that came 20 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement has faded. That is true not only of Ireland, but also Europe, the United States, and other parts of the globe going through their own periods of confusion in this rapidly changing world.
At a time when politicians and media are constantly try to divide us, it gives me heart to see these little bits of human connection that I have seen at Corrymeela. I’ve seen it in Protestant and Catholic teenagers making friendships across sectarian divides on a week-long camping trip; I’ve seen it in refugee and asylum seekers speaking of their struggle to make a life in a new country alongside working-class families from Belfast. This is not an easy thing, this peace. For every bit of hope and every success, there are just as many setbacks and frustrations. But I’ve learned much from being a part of this work, even as I have struggled myself throughout my time here.
Those struggles haven’t gone away; not entirely. But I have worked, fully and to the best of my ability, with this process of peace and reconciliation despite that. I have come to know another country, and tried to understand it as well as I can given the short time that I have lived here. And I have become part of a community — if only for a few months — where I have felt accepted, and welcome, and passionate about. Above all, I am thankful for that.
This will be my last semester at Northeastern, this coming Spring. Only six months ago, I thought I’d be graduating a full year past that date, but I’ve found myself feeling, if not fully ready, than at least prepared to take the leap and move on to the next thing past university. For now, I am finally home – home, in the hills and mountains of North Carolina, home the Avett brothers on the car radio, home with old friends and family. For a month, I can just try to appreciate all that I have here in these mountains, and for the people and places that have led me into what I have become now.
Bosnia and Serbia are some of those places; as is Jordan, as is France; as is Boston. Northern Ireland is as well, and the people at Corrymeela — the volunteers, interns, staff members, program workers and community members – have become some of those people who I will be forever grateful for sharing these months beside. Thank you all, for everything.
I’d like to leave with a few of my favorite memories from this time in Northern Ireland. These have been hard months – but they have also been months filled with so many moments that I will be carrying with me as I go forward. To share a few:
Eating pizza in the warm glow of a restaurant in Donegal, as the furnace blazes to ward off the thrashing rain outside, and listening to Irish band after Irish band in a music festival at night. Falling asleep in a tent in the wee hours of the morning, listening to the now-comforting sound of raindrops tapping rhythms on the tarp above your head.
Hiking the Moyle Way, nearly fifteen miles in a day, and feeling the familiar weight of the pack as you let the miles work off the thoughts and stresses of the past few months. Feeling the sun warm on your back on you as you climb your way through the glens, with the thick forest of the Breen woods beyond, and camping under the shelter of the pines.
Drinking with coworkers and friends in a craft brew pub in Belfast after an afternoon exploring the city, and coming home to stay the night with a Romanian-Palestinian family and their two young children, who are already fluent in three languages. Finding yourself speaking Arabic in the midst of East Belfast, of all places, with a family that has taken you in mere hours after meeting you for the first time.
Kayaking across a Lough alongside a group of teenagers from Northern Ireland, and arriving on an island in the middle of the lake to eat lunch beneath the ruins of an ancient stone monastery. Later, taking this same group through the streets of Belfast on a photography project, and witnessing the tapestry of neighborhoods, murals, and walls that make up this incredibly complex city, so steeped in all-too recent memory.
Traveling to Scotland and London, and finding yourself traveling alone — really alone — for the first time. Later, in November, escaping the cold of Northern Ireland to see a friend in Valencia, and speaking Spanish over red wine with study abroad students from Germany, Austria, Italy and France.
There are more. But for all the difficulties of this incredibly difficult year, these moments stand out. And they’ll be what I’m taking with me, as I go back for a final time to Boston and on to whatever is beyond that.
I think that’s it, for now. This isn’t the end for this blog — there are a few more travels, and with hope at least one more international academic experience, before this site will have reached its logical end. Still, it is becoming time to close the door on many things – on Northern Ireland, on Boston, and on a whole section of my life that I was not prepared to end quite so soon.
Farewell, for now — to Ireland, to Corrymeela, and soon, to this entire difficult, challenging year. Here’s to the next, and the things that are still yet to come.
To end on a suitably Irish note:
Goodnight, and joy, be to you all.