Ellie Concannon

Colaiste Iognaid, Galway

My name is Ellie Concannon and I won the 10th week of the graduate.ie quiz in 2020. I found the quizzes useful as they enabled me to learn about local and national topics- specifically the role of EU bodies, from the EU parliament to the commission as well as EU policies. Through my completion of the series of the quizzes in the competition I became better informed on these topics however it was my trip to Brussels that brought the EU to life for me.

My trip started at 1.15am on Tuesday the 14th of June 2021 outside the Galway coach station . I got a bus to Dublin and arrived in Dublin airport at 3.45 where I was welcomed warmly by Martin Heneghan and introduced to two boys from Achail , Jamie and Diarmud. Even though it was the middle of the night we were all wide awake , so exited to see what was awaiting us in Brussels. Quickly the group of 27 formed and we made our way to Belgium. I got to sit beside a girl from county Galway on the plane over called Tara, we chatted the whole way and I couldn’t believe even though we were both from Galway how different our lives have been , I got to hear about country life and how she farms aswell as how long her commute everywhere, from school to work is , it made me realize how lucky I am to live in the city centre only a quick walk from town , school and the beach.

We arrived in Brussels and went on a bus tour around the city and then a walking tour around the Grand Place , I found it very interesting as the tour guide explained the details on all the buildings in the grand place – how the Greek gods were symbols for all the different Guilds that once ruled Brussels . I found it extremely interesting as we studied the “ceards” in history and it was brilliant to see real buildings that were occupied by all the guilds from butchers to bakers .

We then went on to the European Parliament where we got another warm welcome by none other than Maria Walsh . We were then brought around on a tour of the parliament and learned of all the different jobs in the parliament , not just political but also as translators , photographers , communication and researching – this was very useful information to me and the whole group too as we weren’t aware of all the employment and opportunities the parliament offers . Personally I love languages but was under the impression that to be a translator you needed four or five languages however I learnt you only need two to come to the parliament and then they will even pay you to study more . Next was one of the highlightes for me – being brought into the hemicycle , it was incredible to see all the real seats the MEP’s sit in , Maria gave a comprehensive breakdown of all the seats from left to right of the parliament, as well as how the parliament works – how she only has 60-90 seconds to speak , I was shocked by this as I am a debater and have four minutes to speak so can only imagine how challenging it must be to have so little time to articulate one’s points on such serious and complex topics. Then Máiread McGuinness spoke to us about her career and her life path about how she ended up in politics . Right now I’m going into 6th year so am constantly being asked what I want to do , this question evokes a sense of anxiety as I really am not sure , however Máireads talk made me feel incredibly relieved and inspired as she explained how she only started in politics when she was 40 , she previously studied business and accounting aswell as working in journalism. I love her advice to do whatever you do well and to stay curios always ! Never stop reading or asking questions as that is what keeps critical thinking alive . After this we were led into a conference room where we got EPP goodie bags and brilliant talks from different MEP’s on their roles in the parliament . I particularly was interested by Francis Fitzgeralds role in the fight on violence against women , as due to the recent attacks in Ireland I believe as a young woman it is a very upsetting and pressing issue. Listening to the MEPs discuss the range of roles they have aswell as the range of boards they sit on really changed my perspective as I had thought MEPs had one specific role, I had no idea how diverse their work is or how hard they work , it gave me a newfound appreciation for them and made me realize how important their role is . I definitely will be voting in MEP elections once I turn 18 now . Finally we had a talk by Biliana Sirakova who is the youth coordinator in the European Parliament ,she explained how important youth engagement is aswell as how she is working to give all young people across Europe chances to grow and flourish for example through the Erasamus plus program. I spoke to a boy in my group after who said the information on how now the Erasamus programme is not only for university students but also apprenticeships is amazing for him as he has always wanted to go abroad and plans to do pluming , this demonstrates how helpful the information we learnt in the parliament is to all winners of the quiz .

We were then brought on our bus back to the hotel which was located in the heart of the city . We all went up for dinner together at 7:30 , I went for dinner with my Freind who I know from Galway , Marita as well as 3 other girls called Tara , Laura May and Lucy . They are all from different counties across Ireland from Donegal to Offaly . We got on so well and thoroughly enjoyed our meal in a quaint Italian restaurant. This quiz gives such a wonderful opportunity to get to meet people from all different counties and walks of life, to make new friends and gain new perspectives .

On Wednesday we went to the parliament and had a brilliant discussion with Maria Walsh on different topics from the European policies such as the introduction of universal charging plugs by 2024 , why language learning is different in Ireland and Brussels and mental health – the issues with the Irish system and why mental health is so much more of a conversation in todays society . I found these discussions thought provoking and enjoyed sharing my opinions as well as hearing the different opinions of others in the group . I felt very happy as Maria Walsh made us all feel our voices and opinions were important and valued. After an enjoyable lunch sitting in the park togther with the group having some ice cream we went to the parliamentarian. I found this fascinating, going through all the years of Europes relationship from World War One , with photos, stories and Audio really brought the history to life . It also made me appreciate how important the EU is and how we must remember why it was founded – to foster peace and prosperity between countries rather than war , based on the fundamental principal that we are stronger when we work togther. I enjoyed seeing the videos of different people across Europe who EU policies have aided and protected . I came out of the parliament with a much better understanding of the history and importance of the EU .

On our pre dinner break I shopped around in Brussels picking up some souvenirs and gifts for my family, I was delighted to get to use my French . Everyone I spoke to was so encouraging which was brilliant as it have me more confidence speaking French which will not only help for my French oral next year but also beyond that whenever I need to use French . We were delighted to be brought for dinner by the delegation . We had a brilliant dinner and I had a very eye opening conversation with other people that were on the trip about their lives and their opinions and personal experiences with therapy . We also had a vote and debate led by Maria Walsh on lowering the voting age to 16 , as well as if there should be a fine on those who are registered to vote but don’t . I got to speak personally with Maria about issues I feel strongly about such as gender equality , consent education , more regulation on social media and tax on period products , it was amazing to speak to such a powerful figure and get her opinions and understanding.

On Thursday we ventured out of Brussels on a historical excursion. We went on a tour of the graves from World War One . We stopped in Ipris and were told the history of the area aswell as getting to see one of the 19 craters left by ammonium explosions that the allies set off in World War One under German bunkers . I couldn’t believe the fact that the explosion had been so powerful that in Sweden they thought there had been an earthquake in Ipris measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale . We then visited the Irish peace park which I found very moving especially the poems engraved on the stones by Irish poets which encapsulate the futility of war . For example one extract

“ I wish that I were back again

In the glens of Donegal ,

They’ll call me a coward if I return

But a hero if I fall.”

Finally we saw the sad sight of the largest burial site of English soldiers from World War One in the world , with around 12000 graves .

We stopped off in Gent for 3 hours on our way to the airport . I was amazed by the ambiance and bursting of life and culture in every corner . I love the gothic architecture and medieval buildings. I enjoyed lunch on the riverside once again in French . I learnt it’s a huge hub for students and definitely made me consider Gent as a place I would love to study in the future .

The three hours felt like two minutes and we were back on the bus to the airport . The bus back consisted of laughing chatting and singing as all 23 of us had become such good friends during our trip to Brussels. I was so sad to be going home but so happy with all I had gotten out of the past few days , I genuinely can’t describe how incredible the experience was , it allowed me to see first hand the work the MEP’s do , why the European Union was set up and how important it is , how the European parliament works also to get a better understanding of all the jobs and opportunities in the parliament . I also am now aware how important it is to keep informed on what’s going on in the parliament . I understand the power of my vote and will be using it as soon as I turn 18 ( one more month !) I learnt more about the First World War , I got to explore Brussels and Gent , I got to practice my French . But above all I felt understand and heard not only by Maria Walsh and the other MEP’s but also by all my piers . I made amazing friends who I plan on staying in contact with and visiting across the country . I am so grateful for this experience and I will be recommending Graduate.Ie to “gach Mac agus iníon máthair ” . I might be a bit bleary eyed now as we touch down in Dublin ach mar a deir an seanfhocal

“Imníonn an tuirse ach fanann an Tairbhe”.

I will cherish this trip forever , it was a once in a lifetime experience