Induction for international students at the University of Ulster (a.k.a. UU) is not unlike freshman orientation at UR. We had a very detailed itinerary with several meetings and speakers. Some parts were — how shall I say this? — less exciting than others. It definitely included information that I needed to hear, but my favorite day, by far, came on Friday– the day of registration and the city tour.
I had my enrollment form filled out and all ready to go by early Friday morning. I’m pretty sure my school here is fairly new to the whole online registration thing. I had a paper form filled out by hand, but then they led students into a computer lab where we basically input the contents of our form into the computer system. It was good for me, though… I was out of there in no time.
Some American friends and I decided to walk to the city center early to look around before the tour started. It is so liberating to attend a school that is embedded in a city. It takes about 20 or 30 minutes for me to walk to the middle of the Derry. Sure, UR is on the edge of Richmond, but it is pretty isolated. It is a great experience to go to a different type of uni (as the Irish students abbreviate). It is also a very different type of city. Derry doesn’t really have the glassy and steel office buildings and skyscrapers that litter Richmond’s downtown. Most buildings are made from stone or brick. Especially in the city center, buildings are hundreds of years old.
One similarity the two cities share is a winding river running through. However, for us, the James acts as a fun place to hang out with friends during the summer. The Foyle River here in Derry acts much more like a dividing line, but the people here are trying hard to change this aspect of the city. Before I can explain the geographic significance of this river I need to give a brief history of the country:
Northern Ireland has a sad history which is probably all that many Americans know about the place. Locals refer to these times as “the troubles”. They were a time of unrest and disparagement between Catholics and Protestants about the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK or the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 started to put an end to the bad times and the country has been recovering ever since. Derry has actually been chosen as the first UK City of Culture for the year 2013 (which makes the inhabitants extremely proud). I may have to make the journey back then to take part in the festivities.
So, back to the Foyle. The city center is located on the western banks of the river. This part of the city is called the “city-side”. The opposite side is referred to as the “water-side”. Traditionally, Catholics live on the city-side and Protestants live on the water-side. There is however a tiny bubble of protestants who live on the city-side. They show their pride here with murals and by painting the curbs red, white, and blue. Here are some pictures of that community:
Let’s return to the tour, where I actually learned all of this information. So, my friends and I were exploring the city before we were to meet up with our international group. We decided to enter The Guildhall, which is basically the city hall where the council meets. This building was amazingly beautiful. As an art person, I could really appreciate it. The floors, ceilings, walls, and even windows were beautifully made. The windows were stained glass dating back to the 1910s. When we met up with our school group here, we actually were able to sit in the same room the council meets and hear the Mayor of Derry speak. Here are some photos of this building and the mayor:
Our tour guide, Garvin, showed us around the old city walls and energetically told us the stories of the city. The walls surrounded the original city of Derry for protection. They are quite wide and tall and the public is allowed to walk on top of them around the city.
Some cafes and churches are actually located on the walls. They are about 1 mile in circumference. The views from the walls are spectacular. Derry is located in somewhat of a valley, so you can see surrounding churches, neighborhoods, mountains, and the Foyle River. I can actually see the Foyle River from campus. The views here are unlike anything I have seen. Although the tour was optional, I am so happy that I came along. I know so much more about this beautiful city. Here are some pictures from my adventure around the walls:
My main advice to anyone wishing to or planning to study abroad is to take advantage of any opportunity that is offered you. If the school planned a city tour, take it. If there is a seemingly boring residence meeting followed by dinner, go. Attend as many events as possible. Meet as many new people as possible. Immerse yourself in the culture. Become part of the culture.
Fun Fact #3: Derry, Northern Ireland is home to the oldest department store in the world, called Austin’s. Yes, it is older than Macy’s in New York and Harrod’s in London. It recently celebrated its 180th birthday.
Fun Fact #4: To be called a “Professor” in Ireland is much, much more impressive than to be labeled a “Doctor”. It’s a little tough keeping this cultural difference straight.
My son John is in Milan corresponding from there on his adventures. I was following your posts because it’s been 27 years since I was last in Derry and I am glad to see that you are experiencing a much different city than I did. Back then my hotel was shrouded in barbed wire and blockades against car bombs. When I walked down town I frequently saw British Army troops on patrol – my visit to the shopping district was a combat patrol for them. We walked side by side – they had automatic weapons and full combat equipment – I had an Austin’s bag.
Nevertheless, there always was, and I’m sure still is, great beauty in Northern Ireland and I hope you enjoy your stay.
John Grady ( father of Johninitaly Class of 2013.)
The people here keep telling me about how lucking I am to be here now. Everyone is very proud of the state of Derry right now. They just hope that it all keeps moving in a positive direction. They recently put in a walking bridge across the Foyle called the Peace Bridge which they hope will help bring the two sides of the river together. Its a beautiful peace of architecture and I think everyone is glad to have some unity. If you read my next post when it goes up though, there are sadly bombs going off every once in a while, but most of the time the police are in control of the situation. I still definitely feel very safe here.
Thanks for reading!!