off the cuff

Digging into history

Great people have wandered the halls of Queen’s University. I only hope the spirit of determination and success all the former students still lingers in the halls of the university

17:11 October 16, 2016

There’s something special about walking through an old university, basking in the warm glow of an established and prestigious learning environment as well as the crushing feeling of inferiority remembering the great minds that have also graced the halls of the various ageing buildings.

The university I’m attending has a rustic beauty to it and in the autumn in Ireland, with the leaves on the trees turning bright oranges, blood reds and earthy browns, it beckons a new era of knowledge for its returning students. And for new additions like me the red-bricked fortresses of thought, where discussions of every subject take place under the fading sun, bring a yearning to do justice to those who previously studied under its roofs.

Great people have wandered the halls of Queen’s University, such as the Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, who was from the same county as me in Ireland. I’ve long suspected that there’s a genius writing gene floating among the Irish; it may have skipped my generation.

Heaney died in 2013 but his work is revered by people in Ireland and across the world for its beauty and relatability. He gave meaning to everyday life in Ireland and the everyday actions of its people. He wrote the following lines about his father and grandfather digging peat (an old source of fuel that’s found in the ground in certain parts of Ireland), and how he wouldn’t be following in their footsteps. As a journalist, the poem has always touched me:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap,

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge,

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb,

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.”

Another former Queen’s student is the legendary actor Liam Neeson, who also has a few great lines of his own, such as these from the action movie Taken, in which his character, a former special ops expert, goes to great lengths across the world to save his daughter from human traffickers: “What I have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you...”

I’m hoping my university life can lie somewhere in between these two schools of thought, the Heaney school of reaching people through words, and the Neeson school of reaching people through deeds — although my international relations will be distinctly different from Neeson’s character’s. I won’t be jumping from bridges onto ships owned by international villains to rescue people — my ways will be more subtle; babbling about the merits of immigration and the underlying theories of globalisation and capitalism until the ne’er-do-wells are unwittingly lulled into unconsciousness.

My skills aren’t that great I’m afraid, particularly language skills. My masters class is a mix of people from all over the world; the US, Indonesia and China, and I’m hoping for some interesting discussions in the months ahead and I look forward to getting to know them all. They put monolinguists like myself to shame. Why, oh why, did I not stick with French lessons, or take up Arabic when I lived in the UAE? I did learn a few words of salutation, though, and on the upside, I can ask for a drink in four different languages. So if I was stranded in a foreign country without a phrase book, I might never go thirsty — take that, Liam!

Another former Queen’s student is former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, so overall I’m not in bad company. I only hope the spirit of determination and success all the former students still lingers in the halls of the university and that it will bring a bit of inspiration to lowly learners such as myself.

Christina Curran is a journalist currently studying a masters in international relations at Queen’s University, Belfast.