"Starting an English degree at Queen’s was challenging. Making the final transition from secondary to tertiary education required some adjustment on my part, and settling comfortably into a new academic environment was not immediate.
However, the tutors and lecturers in the School of English, with their extensive support and advice, assisted me greatly in overcoming these difficulties. With regard to independent research, I was encouraged to explore my own ideas and interests and considerable support was given to me by the School’s enthusiastic experts who were ever present to challenge, validate or supplement my ideas. Unlike studying English at A-level, where one is often confined to a single literary work per term, a wide range of texts are covered throughout the year and I found that something new being introduced each week kept me interested and engaged with my studies. Starting Queen’s was challenging, yet has proven to be both stimulating and immensely gratifying."
"I am constantly being asked why I chose to come to Queen’s over some of the Universities in the Republic. While I could never see myself in Galway or UCD, arriving in Belfast for the School of English Open Day felt completely different. Tea in the Great Hall, a tour of the student accommodation, a meet and greet with other perspective students, and I felt immediately welcomed into the University atmosphere. It has been well-accepted that living in Elms Village is one of the highlights of university life. At the end of my first week in University, I managed to miss the last bus back to Sligo and was stranded in Elms for my first weekend. Although most Northern Irish students go home, there was still plenty of International, Irish or British students around to keep me company and I soon stayed for weekends out of choice instead of necessity. It helps that Belfast is an extremely vibrant city. No matter what your interests are there is something for you. Last month I even attended the MTV European Music Awards!
I won’t lie, when I first arrived everything was a bit daunting. Technically I am an international student so arriving in Northern Ireland meant a new bank account, a new phone number and a new currency. Nevertheless within a couple of weeks all those pitfalls had been smoothed over and the benefits greatly outweighed any negatives. Although I had the extra burden of fees, the financial benefits of Queen’s were a strong factor in the university’s favour. My friends were paying nearly double the rent for university accommodation and shopping is at least 10% cheaper. Dublin is just two hours away on a bus so I was able to visit friends while making new ones in Belfast. In my third year the only negative about living on two sides of the border is the abuse I get at home about my supposed Northern Irish twang.
The staff at the School of English are extremely helpful and are always there to offer advice on choosing modules or difficulties at any stage of your study. There is a diverse range of topics for you to choose from so you are sure to find something you’ll enjoy. Personally I discovered an interest in Medieval English but have tried my hand at creative writing and Victorian literature as well. As I did the Leaving Cert exams instead of A-levels, I was conscious of a jump in difficulty. However, once I got into the swing of things the difference wasn’t as monumental as I thought. There is a great deal of personal study as opposed to classroom time so you are pretty much free to work where ever you like. There are few degrees where sitting in bed reading is a genuinely productive endeavour!"
I did my undergrad degree in English and history at Tulane University in New Orleans. After working for a non-profit for a couple of years, I decided that I wanted a chance to focus on writing, as opposed to tacking it onto the end of workdays. I researched a few other creative writing MA programs here and in the States, but none seemed to fit my style as well as Queen’s. I was intrigued by Belfast, first off. I knew I was ready to come back to the UK to continue my higher education; I’d lived in Scotland and travelled all over the UK and Ireland, but had never been to Northern Ireland, so that seemed the perfect place to start.Luckily Queen’s had a creative writing program that seemed to be right up my alley. I liked the sound of the Seamus Heaney Centre, which was dedicated entirely to creative writing, and felt drawn to the personality of the course: neither overly intimidating nor didactic, it seemed to be entirely about giving space and guidance for writing as opposed to working miracles or overloading students with dogma and structure. I arrived in September 2005 and they haven’t gotten rid of me yet.
I’ve found my work and my ideas about writing have been both supported and challenged, expanded, revised and invigorated. I concentrated on prose fiction and scriptwriting in the MA, which meant lots of in-depth workshops on my own and my classmates’ work with Glenn Patterson and Daragh Carville. Then all the right ingredients came together at the end of my master’s degree and I was lucky enough to stay on as one of the first four students to begin PhDs in creative writing at Queen’s. Since arriving here, I’ve finished a first draft of one novel and am in the midst of working on a second as part of my PhD thesis, which focuses on non-partisan political novels. Being a writer at Queen’s has meant being introduced (and I mean that literally) to the Irish literary scene very quickly. Thanks in part to the series of visiting writers presented by the Heaney Centre each year, I’ve met authors and poets such as Ian Rankin, Roddy Doyle, Alan Sillitoe, Liz Lochhead, Colm Toibin and most recently Anne Enright.
In no way has my experience here been a limited or solitary one, despite being able to work on my own writing. Due to its quite free form, creative writing at Queen’s is very much what you make of it. Opportunities abound to join existing groups and events or start your own. I’ve attended the Queen’s Writers Group, which has allowed me to get to know local poets and their brilliant work. As a PhD student I’ve been teaching on an introductory course in creative writing for second-year undergraduates, and during my MA, I initiated a creative writing project in a local secondary school. I’ve co-written and directed plays, travelled, sung in choirs and work part-time at a local charity café. It’s been a wonderful place in which to make a home, as well as a great place to study.
If you haven’t been to Belfast, you’re hardly alone. I moved here from Los Angeles – not exactly the classic relocation decision, but a brilliant one nonetheless. Belfast is no London or New York, and thank God for that, says I. It’s perfectly sized, really affordable, close to the sea and some of the loveliest parts of Ireland, and always adding to its menu of things to do. I had an immediate sense of community when I arrived, particularly at the cafes and bookshops around the university area; everyone actually does know your name.
After a brief flirtation with the idea of studying Art, and in spite of the encouragement of teachers to study Law or Politics, when I finally filled in my UCAS form I thought better of pursuing bankruptcy of either the financial or the moral variety and chose the subject I was always supposed to be studying – English. My older brother had made the same choice, and was halfway through his degree at Queen’s, so I had been hearing wonderful things about the course here before I ever set foot on campus. Indeed, I had even been making use of the library’s well-stocked shelves to complete my A-Level coursework! While I considered looking further afield, a visit on a rainy open day confirmed my suspicions, Queen’s and myself were a perfect fit.
I wasn’t wrong – I’m now in my seventh straight year studying English at Queen’s! I loved my time as an undergraduate. Thanks to both the expertise and warmth of staff, lectures and seminars were things to be enjoyed not endured. The opportunity to study and independently explore almost every genre and era of literature under the sun was incredibly rewarding, as was the School’s recognition and encouragement of personal success. Early on in my degree, I developed ambitions to undertake postgraduate studies. As my interests always had been (and still are somewhat) in Irish and Early Modern literature, I assumed I would have to choose between them when the time came to specialise. However, upon encountering the introductory module ‘Late Medieval Literature’ at Stage 2, my fate was sealed. Although my formal experience of medieval literature had hitherto stretched no further than two weeks of accidentally studying ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ at A-Level (we were supposed to be studying the Metaphysical poets – long story) and one week of intentionally studying ‘The Miller’s Tale’ at Stage 1, by the end of my BA I had (voluntarily) read Chaucer’s complete works and had been able to incorporate my love of traditional music into my studies by producing a 10,000(ish) word dissertation on Chaucer and folksong.
Over the course of my MA, with the help of a superlative teaching team I expanded my understanding of medieval studies, enjoying everything from manuscripts to mystics. The weekly seminar series ‘Medieval Cultures’ introduced me to topics and international academics I may never have encountered otherwise. Moreover, having seriously overestimated quite how much free time I would have on my hands, I formed the Belfast Mystery Players – an unashamedly amateur group dedicated to the performance of medieval drama, which with the School’s support staged a mini- mystery-cycle. After all that, it was a foregone conclusion I’d want to stay put for a PhD. In addition to researching a thesis expanding my study of folkmusic and its relationship to medieval literature, I have been able to teach on the very module that made me a medievalist – a surreal, sobering, but most of all satisfying experience.
Halfway through what is sadly the final qualification the School of English can offer, I feel a part not only of the People’s Republic of Medievalism, but of a vibrant community of postgraduates, keeping my interests open through the weekly Research Seminars and the crowded calendar of cultural events always on offer. Though I grew up about thirty miles from Belfast, in the town of Portaferry, for the last six years both the city and the School of English at Queen’s have made me feel right at home.