Although I had some prior knowledge about Northern Irish history and the religious conflicts which characterised the preceding centuries, I was surprised how deeply rooted religion was in everyday life in Northern Ireland. When I first arrived in Belfast, I did not pay much attention to people’s religion because it did not matter to me but I have learnt quickly that such affinities matter to locals. Not only does religion play an important part in building friendships but it is also important for communication in everyday life. If you know your counterparts’ religion, you can address him or her properly without uttering any provocations and it allows you to prevent misunderstandings, especially in regard to political affiliations. Thus, locals seem to have a very detailed knowledge about who has which religion and they acquire certain techniques to find out if they don’t know. The longer you live in Belfast, the faster you acquire these techniques by yourself as it makes your life easier.
The subtlest one is to ask people for their names. If it is an Irish pre- or surname this gives you a first indication that the person you are speaking to might probably be Catholic. Another indication gives the name of the school the interlocutor went to: if the name contains the word ‘Saint’, he or she is definitely not Protestant. Also, the number of children people have is considered as indicator as it is believed that Catholics generally have more children that Protestants. In my view, this indicator needs to be differentiated very carefully as it is rather stereotypic. The same applies to the following strategy: it is said that Catholics pronounce the phoneme ‘h’ as /haitch/ instead of /aitch/. If you want to find out, whether somebody is Catholic or Protestant, let them pronounce a word for you. Well, all of this sounds very easy in theory but it is rather difficult to put in practice.
As indicated earlier, one of the main reasons why religion is so important in everyday life are politics. It seems, especially in comparison to Switzerland, that no secularisation has taken place in Northern Ireland. Politics and religion are still deeply intertwined. Hence, voting for a political party means in most cases voting for party members who have the same religious affiliation as you. Although there are a few exceptions such as the Alliance or Green Party, their influence in the Northern Ireland Assembly is marginal. What is more, the whole education system is based on religious education in one or the other way. Nearly all children start their education in an either Protestant or Catholic school. Their circle of friends is mostly restricted to people of the same religious confession and this does not change when people start studying at University. It seems difficult for them to overcome these habits. Even within the class, people group according to religious affiliations. These are just two examples of how religion impacts everyday life in Northern Ireland, but obviously religion is more present than I expected it to be, be this in politics, university, sports or even your clothing.
Unfamiliar for me was not only the impact of religion on everyday life but also the importance of religion in general. As I am not a religious person myself, it was kind of difficult to feel with the locals, their traditions and their thinking. Northern Irish display their religion much more than Swiss do (flags, signs, etc.) and they are proud to belong to a certain religious confession. I was especially surprised by the unsecularised political system in Northern Ireland which was very elusive in comparison to the Swiss semi-democratic system I am used to. What helped me to further my understanding for this ‘religious thinking’ was to occupy myself with the topic. I did a lot of research to find out more about the political system and parties. The more I knew about the system and the people, the clearer I understood why religion is so important to them: People grew up with religion in every part of their life and they do not know anything else than this.
Experiencing Northern Irish politics showed me once more the advantages of our Swiss political system and how much influence the general public has, regardless of each individual’s religion or background. The omnipresence of religion in Northern Ireland limits in my view the diversity of the community and presses every single action or event into a uniform right-or-wrong scheme. I have learnt that both observation and knowledge are the key factors when developing a strategy to deal with unfamiliar things. Firstly, you have to identify a cultural practice or habit. Secondly, you have to gather further information about it, try to understand why it is the way it is and finally to understand that it is different from home and to accept how it is. In conclusion it can be said that unfamiliarity should not be considered as bad or even derogative, it is a chance to familiarise yourself with something new. Every cultural practice has its own right to be there and is worth it, because it is valuable for the people who live it. It was very interesting for me as an exchange student to explore these practices. Furthermore, it not only helps you to get in contact with locals but they are usually very pleased if somebody is interested in their traditions, history and way of living. Familiarising unfamiliar practices can thus be considered as a regular means of communication.