Oxford University Society’s Northern Ireland networks officer Joby Mullens visits the country’s lively alumni network in the bustling capital of Belfast.

Belfast

By Joby Mullens

I’m sat in one of the many hip cafes in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter – the city’s dynamic cultural heart – on a chilly November afternoon, enjoying a coffee with OUS Northern Ireland Chairman Leona Coulter and Treasurer Sue Moore. Hours before the group’s annual dinner, there’s excitement in the air as Sue and Leona proudly recount the remarkable rise of the fledgling group from its humble beginnings in mid-2012 to its now 160-strong membership and growing.

OUS Northern Ireland was formed by St Anne’s alumna Leona Coulter after she noted the distinct absence of any alumni groups in Northern Ireland. So she contacted the Alumni Office in Oxford to enquire about setting one up. "I anticipated there being 15 people in a pub,” she explains. “But then all of a sudden there were 150 of us!"

From an initial meeting at Belfast Boat Club, the group soon established an 18-strong committee, including core schools outreach and events teams. The group’s inaugural event — a dinner at Queen’s University Belfast — followed in November and was attended by 70 alumni and guests. During 2013, the group has organised an impressive eight events, including a family-oriented screening of the Varsity Boat Race, a bus tour of Belfast in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of renowned Belfast-born author CS Lewis’s death and a wine-tasting evening at a warehouse in the city’s dockside in September.

In May, the group also visited the private 400-acre Montalto Estate and Gardens in County Down for a tour and afternoon tea, which was attended by some 20 alumni. “The event appealed to a different audience to our dinner so a lot of older people came along,” explains Moore. “The majority of people are looking for formal events to replicate the Oxford atmosphere but there are those who go to everything and there is usually a lot of variety in those who turn up.”

Meanwhile, more than 20 students and freshers attended the group’s first schools outreach event at the city’s Campbell College in August. The group now hopes to build on this and encourage alumni in the Belfast area to return to their schools and share their experiences with students. Coulter, a freelance television producer and mother-of-three, said that the event was a resounding success. “I think these types of events are one of the best things for freshers – they seem to find it really invaluable because often they don’t know anyone before they come to Oxford,” she said.

Since meeting Sue and Leona, later that day the group successfully hosted their dinner at Belfast’s Ulster Reform Club. Taking on board feedback from the inaugural dinner, instead of having music, the committee arranged for a post-dinner lecture by celebrated local historian and broadcaster Dr Eamon Phoenix, who spoke in length to a rapt audience of some 60 alumni and guests on the subject of hidden Belfast, in particular the area around the Reform Club in the city centre. “It was thrilling to track the story of Henry Joy McCracken, and the United Irishmen, while we sat just footsteps away from the house of his birth and the site of his execution,” said Moore, speaking after the event.

The group launched a Facebook page in January last year, largely to publicise its events programme, and it now has almost 50 members. And they have recently created a LinkedIn page as a business networking opportunity for group members. Looking to the year ahead, the group are now tentatively discussing plans for an opera trip, with more events to follow. They are also appealing for new alumni to join and help take the group forward with fresh enthusiasm and ideas.

And if the last 12 months is anything to go by, then it looks like 2014 could be another fruitful year for OUS Northern Ireland. If there’s a lack of alumni network in your area, why not kick start one yourself?

Image by jonnyphoto under Creative Commons license.