With vaccinations on the increase and safer travel becoming a realistic possibility during the months to come, memories of past sojourns have become prominent in my nostalgic mind. Chief among them is my final undergraduate semester in 1981, spent at Valparaiso University’s study abroad centre in Cambridge, England. I have written with great affection about this formative time on this blog (e.g., “First-time sojourn across the pond,” here) and highlighted that experience in a reflective essay on my college years published in the university’s literary journal (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, here). Suffice it to say that seeds planted during that semester took hold in so many ways, shaping my sense of vocation and personal culture for a lifetime.
This writing finds myself contemplating a specific set of memories about that semester. Forty years ago this week, I was spending a part of our spring break in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which at the time were marked by “The Troubles,” a span of great and violent political and nationalistic discord over the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. My brief visit occurred during a period of hunger strikes by Irish prisoners being held at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, known as “H-Block” because of its physical configuration. Ten of these prisoners would die of starvation.
Upon arriving in Belfast by bus, I felt very lost as I gazed around, with map in hand, wondering how to find the youth hostel where I planned to stay for a couple of days. Apparently I looked very lost as well, because a man approached me and asked if he could direct me somewhere. I explained that I was looking for the hostel, and he offered to give me a ride there. I readily accepted his offer. (Keep in mind that hitchhiking was a common practice for students studying abroad back then.)
In the car, I introduced myself and added that I had become interested in the political strife surrounding Northern Ireland. Well, that opened up a conversation. It turns out that this fellow was a BBC reporter, and he explained that he had just finished interviewing members of the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that was challenging British rule in Northern Ireland. He then asked if I had a few minutes to spare, offering to take me on a quick driving tour through parts of working class Belfast where he had talked to IRA members. Being a college newspaper scribe and fancying myself as a sort of foreign correspondent, of course I said yes.
I took the two snapshots above during that impromptu tour. To this day, I understand that this chance meeting gave me an opportunity to see parts of Belfast that I never would’ve ventured into on my own, during a violent and painful time in the city’s history.
Belfast felt like a proverbial war zone during my visit. Security checkpoints screened entry into the city centre. Stores and movie theaters employed guards to search bags. One afternoon, as I walked back to the youth hostel, I saw a British troop car ahead of me. Soldiers were exiting it quickly, while their leader was focused on looking across the street. As I passed by, I asked what was going on, and they told me in a terse tone to just keep walking. I followed orders, briskly so. I have no idea what, if anything, happened later. However, I did manage to snap the photo above.
From Belfast I traveled south to Dublin, via three hitchhiked rides. It was Easter weekend, and this marked the 65th anniversary of the historic Easter rising, an armed insurrection by Irish nationalists challenging British rule. Dublin was at the center of the insurrection, which led to nearly 500 fatalities and some 2,600 wounded.
Obviously, the current H-Block hunger strikes gave this anniversary considerable meaning. I took these photos of the Easter weekend protest march and rally. Above, the young man pictured struck a pose for me. (Note also the titles of movies playing at the city cinema!)
The Old Post Office and Bank of Ireland buildings, both of which were occupied by Irish nationalists during the Easter Rising, were prominent sites for this rally as well. I got snapshots of both.
Looking back, I now grasp how I had dropped myself into places that could’ve made for dangerous situations. At the time, I was sufficiently young and ignorant to assume that if any bullets flew in my direction, they would simply miss me.
That I visited Belfast and Dublin during this tumultuous time was a bit of a twist. You see, among our student cohort, I was not the most adventurous of travelers, often preferring to spend weekends remaining in Cambridge, while many of my fellow Valparaiso U students traveled around the UK.
Happily, though, the days spent traipsing around Cambridge did stick with me. I did not have plans to pursue a career in academe at the time, as I intended to go to law school as a prelude to entering the bloody world of politics. But the time I spent drinking in this historic, medieval university city worked its magic on me and contributed to my opting for the bloody world of academe instead.
In any event, my ongoing gratitude for that study abroad experience leads me to dearly hope that international study programs will recover and revive as we get through the worst of this pandemic. As I wrote last May (here), “(o)ne of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities.” We need to restore these chances to have life-shaping experiences.
As I anticipated receiving my first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Friday afternoon, I did not expect the experience to leave me feeling so, well, hopeful and even patriotic. In fact, I half expected the scene at the giant Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood to be like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie, replete with long lines and military personnel.
It turned out there were long lines, but they moved with brisk efficiency. And while the operation was indeed staffed mainly by various branches of the military, the folks carrying it out did so with unceasing courtesy, friendliness, and encouragement. I found myself thanking them over and again for how well this was all handled.
So rather than feeling like I had been cast as an extra in said sci-fi movie, I came away with a deep sense of gratitude, buoyed by optimism that we can get through this and reclaim some sense of normalcy in our lives.
It was quite something to walk into this giant hall and witness a mass vaccination campaign in actual operation. It may be a once in a lifetime experience — er, maybe twice in a lifetime, as I have a return appointment for my second shot in a few weeks. In any event, there wasn’t much time to dwell upon it, because the lines were moving with a speed that an airport traveler standing in a security line could only dream of.
Honestly, when news of effective vaccines first broke, I imagined myself getting my shots in a private room at my doctor’s office. The thought of getting jabbed at a mass vaccination site was not very appealing.
But at the risk of sounding very corny, today’s experience left me feeling like we really are in this together in terms of wrestling down this pandemic and being part of the public health response. Given how divisive things have been in the U.S. during recent years, this was a refreshing sentiment. I know it may not last forever, but for now, I’ll happily take it.
After I got my shot, I treated myself to a bookstore visit at Barnes and Noble, followed by a pickup order of clam chowder from Legal Sea Foods. Although I had planned to get some work done on Friday evening, it didn’t happen, as I fell soundly asleep on my couch after eating. As far as side effects go, I’m doing fine, with some injection site soreness and fatigue. Purely small stuff, all normal.
In sum, it was a good day that helped me to imagine better ones during the weeks and months to come.