Proof that Ireland is a land of pure genius

Ireland is one of the most highly educated countries in Europe, with six bustling universities (four in the Republic and two in Northern Ireland) and numerous colleges of technology and teacher training.

The Dublin Institute of Technology alone has 22,000 students and awards its own degrees - and Queen's University Belfast, which has just invested pounds 25m in restructuring its departments, has installed an IBM SP2 supercomputer, the biggest academic computer in Ireland and one of the first hundred of its kind in Europe.

The computer will promote world-class research at Queen's and Trinity College Dublin and encourage hook-ups between research groups and industry throughout Ireland. The installation cost about pounds 1.4m, a total raised pound for pound by both universities.

Sadly, Northern Ireland has become the ideal venue for the study of sectarian strife. The University of Ulster, established only 14 years ago following the amalgamation of the New University of Ulster (founded at the start of the Troubles in 1968), Ulster Polytechnic (1971), Magee College and Belfast Art College, has acquired a fine reputation for "conflict resolution" studies.

More than pounds 140,000 has been received from the European Union Structural Fund to take a close look at the department of education's community relations branch and develop a programme of social, political and civil education in Northern Ireland's curriculum. Teacher training is among the issues to be investigated. The university is also monitoring this year's marching season - the first of which took place within a fortnight of the peace vote and brought riots and mayhem in its wake.

It would suffice if the University of Ulster had become known only for its work on and for peace. But it also stands at the forefront of research in the fields of history and biomedical sciences. It has particularly distinguished itself in the research of biotechnology, cancer, diabetes, radiation science, ageing and vision science.

Farther south, at University College Dublin, a growing interest in Gaeilge - or Gaelic - the language of Ireland, has been noted of late. So the university has launched an intensive Irish language course for its staff .Three levels are being offered, all free of charge: from scratch, intermediate and advanced.

And to the west, on the banks of the beautiful Corrib, and looking out across the big pond, the National University of Ireland at Galway, the Republic's cultural capital. The university, with 9,000 students and more than 1,000 staff, is fighting to preserve the cleanliness of Ireland's green and pleasant land. It has also declared war on the deadly zebra mussel, which migrated to Ireland from the Caspian Sea in the 19th century, following the building of canals and increased trade.

The female can produce a million eggs during her two-year life span, and this tiny striped mollusc obstructs pipes, fouls organisms and creates havoc among anglers and environmentalists alike. Research into atmospheric pollution also holds a high priority and scientists from many parts of the world have flocked to attend its international conference in April on global warming, acid rain and other forms of pollution.

But you cannot really go to Ireland, north or south, without sampling its two lookalike liquids: Guinness and Gaelic coffee. The first, a dark beer with a thick creamy froth; the second a coffee, liberally laced with whiskey and crowned with double cream. So what have alcoholic beverages to do with higher education in Ireland, other than perhaps to drink a toast to peace? You need to go to Cork for the answer.

Since 1982, University College, Cork (or, to give it its full Irish title, Coliste na hOllscoile, Corcaigh), has been conducting a survey of all known archaeological sites - all 20,000 of them - in the county. It has just recorded a major discovery: a poteen(alcohol still) that has remained hidden in the hills between Dunmanway and Coppeen for some 300 years.

According to the university's diggers, this mini-distillery was used not only as early as the 17th century, when home distillation became illegal, but also as recently as the present century. The uncovered poteen is a solid structure, which in itself is unusual. Mobile distilleries became the norm in the 17th century, as they had to be moved when danger loomed.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign that peace is in the air is the September meeting in Belfast of some 400 public relations people - marketing, alumni and development officers - from universities throughout the United Kingdom. The Heera/Case conference (Higher Education External Relations Association and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) at Queen's University is being sponsored by The Independent and will also attract many delegates from universities in North America and from western and eastern Europe. Past such conferences have been at Brunel, Durham, Wolverhampton, Newcastle and Oxford - all mainland universities. Their first venture across the sea to Ireland bodes well.

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