Belfast Reflection

4 October 2017

Mary Kate Walsh is from Philadelphia, USA and was an international student at St Mary's during the Spring term of 2017. Below she shares her reflections on the five months she spent in Belfast:

I went against everything I was ever taught as a child within hours of arriving in Belfast for my study abroad program: I accepted a ride from a stranger. Completely disoriented by our new surroundings, my new friends and I found ourselves at Kennedy Center instead of Castle Court, on the opposite side of town. An older gentleman overheard our confused voices and inquired about where we were trying to go. Without hesitation, he said, "I'm waiting for my wife to get out of the store, and when she does, we'll give you a lift." I have lost count of the number of times that I have shared that story, but I never tire of telling it because that man and his wife ignited a flame of Irish hospitality that never extinguished during the entirety of my stay in Belfast. The Irish have a fiery desire in their hearts to give constantly, something that can only be experienced and felt, not articulated in simple or complex words.

Voices filled the void of endless wonder in my head of Ireland when I told many people at home that I was to study in Belfast. These voices, however, were that of utter confusion, when I happily proclaimed, "Belfast", each time they asked what part of Ireland I was going to be living and studying in for five months. They wanted to know, "Why not Dublin or Galway or Cork?" They questioned my choice due to the city's past. They mistakenly judged based on ignorance, a label unfortunately given to Americans. I never once doubted my decision, and upon completion of the international program at St Mary's University College in West Belfast, I knew that I was right never to doubt and always to believe.

I believed in Belfast the moment that I saw the green fields appear from the misty clouds, which were whisked away by the plane's descent onto the landing strip at George Best Airport. I believed in St Mary's as soon as I entered the back entrance on Beechmount Avenue and felt a sense of a family-oriented community, similar to that of my university in the States. I believed in the authenticity of the Irish people that I met, starting with the couple that played the role of Good Samaritans, and ending with the flight attendant on my Aer Lingus flight home, who allowed me to move up to the front of the plane so I would catch my connecting flight in Heathrow. The people: they made my trip worthwhile. I traveled around Ireland and saw the major tourist attractions, such as Giant's Causeway, the Cliffs of Moher, the Blarney Castle, and the Guinness Factory. But, at the end of the day, I have pictures of those places to tap my memory. As for the conversations and encounters I had with every single Irish person, I do not have pictures, but rather, permanent impressions imprinted on my heart. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but impressions are worth more than just a compilation of letters.

Among the several people from Ireland that I had the pleasure of meeting, there were a few that played a pivotal part in my journey and left an indelible mark on my life. Luckily, when I walked outside the George Best airport on January 5, I searched for the woman from St Mary's who patiently awaited my arrival. Little did I know that this very woman would end up being one of the most influential people in my life. Briege, the international coordinator at St Mary's, assumed the role of mother to all international students for the semester. Without her, my friends and I would have been left wandering aimlessly around the halls of the university—and Belfast for that matter.

Around the corner from her office and out to the back entrance of the building lay a wall of murals that I never paid close attention to until the Black Taxi tour that I took one week before my departure from the country. My driver openly shared his experience during the Troubles and tried to get my friends and me to understand a fraction of something so vastly complicated. We did because of him. He even extended beyond his typical tour time to tell us more, to show us more, to teach us more.

Even after living in the heart of the city for five months, I still cannot fathom that my residential street housed so much terror and violence, according to my driver. Yet, the people in the neighborhood were the friendliest and most welcoming people that I had met, a rather resilient community. Among them was a woman who worked at the corner store at the end of my street. One morning during the wee chat that we typically had, she could not believe that I did not want to go home and that I "fell in love" with Belfast. She said, "You would not have wanted to stay thirty years ago". Upon this statement, she began telling me stories about the hardships she endured and tragic events that she personally experienced and witnessed. Holding back tears, all I could do was listen. I did not understand, nor will I ever understand. I understood her words, but I will never understand the true meaning of them. Her story is one that I will never forget. Her fortitude, so apparent on her face, will never leave me. On my walks home from school and the store, I would wave to my friend, James, the owner of Starvo's Chippy, who would be standing at the counter every day of the week. He is the true definition of the friendly and hospitable Irish, never without that infectious smile. I would go every single Thursday to get my fish supper with one of his homemade sauces, and he would entertain me with new stories while I waited for my dinner to cook. It is important to get to know the locals, and I am so grateful I decided to walk into his shop on that dreary day in early March. The first statement of, "£7 if you have it please," turned into a priceless friendship.

Besides individuals, two important groups contributed to the conflagration set in the cold windy winter. Twenty-seven primary school students and two cooperating teachers at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Dunmurry, completely stole my heart during my school placement there. For six weeks, I spent every day there and even got to teach my own lessons. Mary and Aoibhinn, my co-ops, showed me the true ropes to being a successful teacher, including making a proper “wee cup of tea” (something on which I became dependent in the early mornings). Before Belfast, I did not think that I wanted to be a teacher anymore, and the wonderful kids I taught, as well as the teachers, quickly suppressed any lingering doubts. Another thing that has never left my mind is traditional Irish music, and that brings me to the second group of just four people who perfectly closed my journey with their extraordinary tunes: BackWest. While on a weekend trip to Cork, my friend and I wandered into a random pub, looking specifically for Irish music. What we heard was the best music we heard during our time in Ireland. After I bought their CD mid-show, Pl, the singer, announced that the next song was for "Mary Kate from Philadelphia." I soon figured out that Maureen, Brendan, and Peter, the other three members, were from Galway, and he was from Tyrone, close to Belfast. While drinking my Guinness, I heard his voice echo throughout the room, "And folks, we have a gig in Belfast in two weeks." I stopped in my tracks and ran to the stage to tell the band that I was currently studying in Belfast. Embarrassment or shyness is something I rarely feel in social settings, and I am happy that is the case. Pl personally invited me to their gig, and I went. It was my last Friday night in Belfast, and I spent it listening to their authentic music, taking in a culture that I was soon going to leave. They invited me to hang out after the show to talk to me and even drove me home. Only in Ireland would this happen, and I loved every second of it.

And so it went: an international coordinator became a loving friend, a corner store worker became and remained a beacon of hope in a troubling world, a chippy owner became my inspiration to show compassion to others, a taxi driver shortly became my newest role model with his resilience, two cooperating teachers and a P5 class of 27 students became my biggest reason to smile for six weeks, and a talented and kind four-piece band became the greatest grand finale to the best adventure of my life. Thank you, Belfast for everything: slainte to West Belfast, the wee portion of town that provided me with a forever home, equipped with an unceasing fire that warms and welcomes. Until next time, when I come back to West Belfast.

Mary Kate Walsh
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
School: Immaculata University (Malvern, Pennsylvania)
St Mary's University College International Student (Spring 2017)

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