August 2013 issue

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Northern Irish gem

As far as English language destinations go, Northern Ireland is not the first to spring to mind for many students, but more and more study travellers are now discovering this hidden gem. Gillian Evans finds out what this part of the UK has to offer.

Language travel’s “best kept secret” is how Francesca Giacomini, Marketing Director at NW Academy of English in Derry, describes Northern Ireland. Karen Russell, Business Development Manager at IH Belfast, adds that it is a “brand new” destination for both study abroad and tourism. “Northern Ireland is one of the few places left in the UK which can give students a truly unique and authentic experience,” she asserts. “[It] is unique in that it is an English-speaking country which has not yet been saturated with international students. That means there is less likelihood of our students spending all their time socialising with people in their own language, [and] it is very easy for students to connect with the local culture, meet local people and enjoy the famous craic!”

Scenically, Northern Ireland has much to offer too, with rugged cliffs, wide sweeping beaches, and emerald green mountains and hills. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s scenery has stimulated the imaginations of many a writer; the granite Mountains of Mourne inspired CS Lewis’s depiction of the land of Narnia in his world-famous series of books, while the resemblance of Cavehill to the face of a sleeping giant is said to have fuelled Jonathan Swift’s imagination to write the story of Gulliver’s Travels. The region itself is also steeped in myths and legends. The Giant’s Causeway, with its polygonal columns of layered basalt, the tops of which form stepping stones that lead from the cliffs into the sea, is said to have been a bridge carved by giants linking Ireland and Scotland.

“Northern Ireland has some of the most beautiful, wild and undiscovered landscapes in all of the British Isles, which never fail to astound and impress our international students,” confirms Sinead McCaul, Deputy Director at Foyle International, an English language and vocational college in Derry. An example of this can be seen at Donegal, which has, according to Giacomini, “soaring sea cliffs that plummet 300 metres, deserted white sandy beaches, jaw-dropping landscapes, excellent seafood and quiet cosy pubs”. She continues, “Donegal forces you to sit back, slow down and admire the view.”

The scenery aside, there are plenty of other attractions for students. “The six counties of Northern Ireland are justifiably famous for having some of the most beautiful and unspoiled landscapes in the entire United Kingdom and there is something for students of all ages and interests to discover: dramatic coastlines, Celtic heritage, fantastic metropolitan shopping areas; a vibrant and exciting nightlife in our world famous pubs and clubs; some of the best restaurants in Ireland; and a rich live music scene,” says Russell.

Named City of Culture 2013, Derry is an historic city with a vibrant social scene. “Derry is a university city with a young population and great nightlife – there are pubs, clubs, theatres and venues to suit all sorts of tastes,” says McCaul, adding, “Getting bored in Derry is not an option!”

Situated on the banks of the River Foyle in the northwest of Northern Ireland, with hillsides laced with pastel-coloured houses and tall grey spires of the many churches, Derry has one of the most well-preserved city walls in Europe. Dating from the 17th century the walls stretch for a mile and tower as high as a two-story building in some places. Named by Rough Guides as one of the world’s Top Ten New City Breaks for 2013, Derry plays host to an annual jazz festival and in October, the Turner Prize contemporary art award will be held here. It boasts the longest bridge in Ireland and hosts the largest Halloween Festival in Europe. “Students are [captivated] by the history and beauty of this city and some of them even decide to move here!” says Giacomini.

Belfast too is a magnetic city that attracts students time and again. “Many of our bookings come through word-of-mouth and students telling their friends and family about the fantastic experience they have had here,” says Russell. “Many of our students love it so much that they extend their stay or return again and again.”

Northern Ireland’s largest city, Belfast, is lively and fast-paced with a mix of both modern architecture and old buildings, standing as a reminder of its industrial shipping past. Describing the city, Ned Cohen at Belfast Metropolitan College says, “Belfast has the history of the shipyard where the Titanic was built and the linen mills that built great fortunes. Across the city there are parks and houses that are a testament to this rich tradition that are supplemented by the new optimism and creativity that has seen new cultural quarters – the Cathedral Quarter and the Gaelteacht Quarter – and hundreds of new restaurants, theatres and clubs; the redeveloped Titanic Quarter, which now houses international finance companies; Belfast Metropolitan College; and the Northern Ireland Science Park.”

Among Belfast’s numerous cultural attractions is the Ulster Museum. Located within the city’s botanical gardens, the “treasure house of the past and present” boasts a collection of art, history and science exhibits telling the story of the people of the north of Ireland. The Ulster Musuem is part of the National Museums Northern Ireland umbrella, which also includes the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, the Ulster American Folk Park, the W5 Science Centre and the Amagh County Museum.

According to Russell, Belfast’s nightlife scene has been voted one of the best in the UK. “Year-round you can find live music every night of the week and on a Wednesday night, our students enjoy experiencing a traditional Irish session in Maddens pub where they can learn Irish dancing and listen to traditional music,” she says. “Throughout the year there are festivals each month in the city so there are always fun and interesting things to do. In fact there are more festivals in Belfast than in any other city in Europe.”

For those students wanting a taste of both of Northern Ireland’s largest cities, some schools in the newly formed English UK NI group organise intercity events with other members. Russell explains, “Belfast students can go to Derry and students from Derry can come to Belfast and be welcomed and shown around by the students currently studying in that city.”

At the time of the launch of the regional sub-group last year, Paul McMullan, Principal of IH Belfast, said, “It made sense to form English UK NI as it gives us much more power as an active body in approaching and working with our tourist [board] and other organisations.”

The group contains the four schools contributing to this article, as well as two other members – Into Queen’s University of Belfast and the University of Ulster. McMullan adds, “What we’re trying to do is pull together not only the English UK NI members but the many other bodies, government and otherwise, involved with tourism and inward investment. We want to be working together to put Northern Ireland on the map.”

Regardless of where the schools are based, all are agreed that one of the biggest attractions of Northern Ireland is the friendly population. “There is an expression in Belfast, ‘The people make the place’,” relates Russell. “The people of Belfast are famous for being open, warm and friendly and visitors from other countries are welcome wherever they go.”

McCaul agrees. “The warmth and friendliness of the welcome [students] get here is always commented on.” She recounts many instances where local people go over and above what is required to help their students from offering them a free lift or taking them on a tour of a local area to giving them a free pint of beer just because they are visitors to the region!

Agent viewpoint

“Major attractions in Northern Ireland are its blend of culture and legends, historical wealth, heritage, and natural scenery. Outstanding landscapes and unique environmental spots are the main attractions of Northern Ireland itself. But, if I had to highlight one, I would definitely choose the Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage Site and one of the world’s natural wonders. Belfast is a fascinating and vibrant city, which has become a trendy site to visit and one alternative to Dublin as an urban destination. Most of our students point out three facts about Northern Ireland once they’re back: first, the hospitality and kindness of Northern Irish people; second, the good value for money – even though the official currency is the pound sterling, visitors find prices are much cheaper compared with other Irish cities like Dublin; and third, the coexistence of Catholics and Protestants. Despite living within the framework of peace and respect, you can still feel the differences and segregation between both communities in the atmosphere. We send adult students and for younger students we offer a two-week adventure programme on the bank of Lough Erne.”
Karen Molina Pérez, ESL idiomas en el extranjero, Spain

“What our students like about Northern Ireland is the people in general, the food and the city of Belfast itself – we only send students to this location. They like Belfast because this is where the Titanic was built and for its beautiful landscape. They are surprised by the old-fashioned architecture mixing with new and modern buildings.”
Patricia Bihari, World Study, Brazil

“I have travelled in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. Compared with the [hustle and bustle of] London and Edinburgh’s coldness, Belfast made me [feel] peaceful and warm. It impressed me as a good place to live and study. When I meet my students, I often tell them my impressions of Northern Ireland. As an overseas student, he/she prefers a safe place with hospitable local people. Many Chinese students know about the Titanic and Belfast is its birthplace. In this area, the students are surprised by the city’s fashion and the fact that Northern Ireland has its own culture, which is different from other areas in the UK.”
Ada Zhong, Agent representative for Belfast Metropolitan College, China

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