Lessons in patience, humility, and taking the scenic route

The day before I left for Ireland, I spent my morning as most not-so-religious 25 years olds do prior to leaving home for a year: having a coffee date arranged by my Nana with the priest from my local parish. Father Dan is originally from County Kerry, but has been a staple in our community and family for as long as I can remember. That morning he wanted to hear about my upcoming Irish adventures and share some advice. As we wrapped up our time together, he left me with an incredibly important lesson for anyone entering a new space: to be respectful, open to new experiences, and to remain humble. After our talk, I began thinking about how best to prepare myself to sit in the discomforts and uncertainties that will inevitably arise as an outsider in a new country.

Well, I can certainly tell you that I did not plan to sit in that seat so soon- yet there I was, not even 48 hours later- standing in the Dublin airport at 6am as a customs officer stared at my documents and said, rather loudly, “Well, what is so compelling about you?” I was taken aback. In my head all I could think was, “Nothing sir, literally nothing, I am so sorry goodbye.” Before I could respond or get on the next flight home, he continued, “This letter here from the Mitchell Scholarship says there is a compelling reason that you are here today, well, what is it? Why should I let you into this country?” Halfway through awkwardly explaining my course of study at University College Cork and interest in Ireland’s criminal justice system, he stamped my passport and declared me “compelling enough”.

This question, “what is so compelling about you,” haunted me my first few weeks here in Ireland. While my transition to living in Cork has gone rather smoothly, I’ve felt at ease living here in a way that has not come as naturally in other places, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that my transition back to being a full time student presented a new set of personal anxieties. The self-imposed pressure to pick the perfect classes, dive in headfirst with student groups, and hit the ground running with research, all weighed heavily on me. For someone who hasn’t been a student in over three years, returning to school felt more like unchartered territory than something I would easily get back into the swing of. When things didn’t click right away, different versions of that question of being “compelling enough,” crept into my psyche and filled me with doubt.

While discussing some of these anxieties with my professor, he asked, “Kathleen, have you considered taking the scenic route?” At first, I was perplexed by this. However, after thinking more about this, the lessons from Father Dan about being open during my time here filled my mind. I realized that this was not only my professors polite way of telling me to calm down but also that his advice applied to how I should spend all my time in Ireland, both inside and outside the classroom. Over the past two months, I have come to appreciate what taking the scenic route really means: slowing down, opening up, asking questions, and practicing patience with myself. I am finding that each day here in Ireland is an opportunity to discover new routes to enjoy and lessons to learn.  My cup overflows with gratitude and excitement as I look towards a year of learning, exploring, stumbling, and growing along the way.

Smiling in awe of Brother Anthony at Glenstal Abbey talking about his trees

University College Cork’s beautiful main campus

Enjoying Trinity’s amazing library

Befriending the locals in Kerry

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“Iasacht Lamh”: A New Irish Beginning

Upon the completion of my first two months in Ireland on the Mitchell Scholarship, I have much to be thankful for and even more to anticipate. These past months of adjustment have revealed the charm of Irish culture and challenged myself and my fellow class to maximize our time here.

As someone who is accustomed to a very rigid schedule of eating, exercising, and studying, Ireland has in effect thrown all of that out the window. Which is a good thing. Oftentimes, structure impedes exploration – and a set routine can confine one entirely to their comfort zone.

One day in September I was talking with my cab driver about places to go and things to try out. He told me of an Irish expression – “iasacht lamh” – meaning to “lend your hand.” Originating from an old tale of feuding families, the expression depicts one family member trying to make peace with the other side by offering a handshake through a carved hole in a wooden door – a risky leap of faith as their opponents stood on the other side with knives and swords aplenty. Albeit an extreme analogy, this saying symbolizes the excitement of embracing uncertainty: “lending your hand” to new experiences.

There are other slogans and hot takes that local cab drivers have willingly dished out, not all entirely appropriate for a published blog, but this advice has proven to be particularly useful. Here in Ireland, I’ve settled into a new rhythm of unpredictability – which has already yielded fruitful experiences.

Walking along the cliffs of Howth and Moher and traversing the mural-laden streets of Belfast are just a few things that have added to my experience. Learning of Ireland’s difficult colonial past and struggles with ethnic conflict make me appreciate all the more a society’s ability to reconcile and move forward, even with all the baggage. The first impression one gets when traveling the Emerald Isle is the awe of its immense natural beauty. For me, such scenery proclaims God’s majesty and serves as a reminder of how much we take for granted.

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Mitchell Welcome Reception at the Royal Irish Academy

Glenstal Abbey, Limerick

As a proud Tennessean and adopted Kentuckian, my belief in “southern hospitality” can now make a new exception. People here have been incredibly accommodating and have gone the extra mile to help. During my first week here I emailed a local pastor, out of the blue, about visiting his church. The next afternoon, we were sipping coffee together with his wife, discussing each other’s lives and the mission of the Church. The next week, I found myself at their home with other young adults from our congregation eating soda bread, vegetable soup, and watching the GAA finals. “The land of a thousand welcomes” holds fast and true.

When our Mitchell class visited Glenstal Abbey, a poem by the late Irish poet John O’Donohue was read to us before we departed. The words of the poem not only confirm Ireland’s long tradition of literary genius, but also perfectly speak to the start of this new experience – a full year of study, fellowship, and exploration:

“Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening…

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

Here’s to a new Irish beginning, a year of lending one’s hand to new experiences and people, and a new rhythm of risk and promise.

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19 Plays in 22 Days

For a theatermaker in Dublin, October is the biggest month of the year. The Dublin Theatre Festival takes over the city. As someone who just moved to Dublin, it was my chance to dive headfirst into contemporary Irish theater. Through these plays, I glimpsed a cross-section of what Irish artists are thinking and talking about. The Festival left me with questions and ideas that will follow me through the rest of my studies in Irish theater.

One trend I saw was the use of presentational ensemble theater to call attention to communities in Ireland that are not usually represented onstage. Rapids was a documentary play where actors performed the stories of people living with HIV in Ireland; the five actors in The Good House of Happiness incorporated their personal experiences as East Asian immigrants in Dublin into the script; and this is a room… featured an ensemble of teenagers who acted out scenarios about homelessness and Dublin’s housing crisis. In all three, the actors were careful not to claim ownership over these stories, and not to reduce entire populations to one narrative. Rather, these pieces were about the act of giving voice to someone else who might not otherwise have a voice. They educated their audiences but they were not didactic.

Another theme that ran through the festival was gender. The Sin Eaters was my favorite play that I saw in the festival. The all-female cast showed how generations of Irish women have lived with trauma from violence committed against them and their ancestors. It was site-specific to a chemistry lab in the Poolbeg Towers. There were eight people in the audience, and the actors led us on individual journeys through the space.  By creating individual journeys and not providing us with any space to share our experiences with each other, the piece highlighted how women are too often isolated from each other. They seldom get a space to talk about the different kinds of violence they’ve experienced, so they think they’re alone. After the show, I stood in a circle with four audience members I didn’t know. We shared the different individual scenes in which we took part. Maybe that conversation was a model for how we break the cycle of violence.

A question that I have been struggling with is the role of internationalism in Irish theater. My professors and colleagues say that there was an unusual shortage of international acts in the festival, and that these Irish companies were only programmed because the festival was unable to program more international acts. There is a sense in the theater community that internationalism is inherently progress. This attitude is very different from what I’m used to in the United States, where, often, theater communities only look inward to find new talent. To an extent, I agree with the importance of looking outward – theater should be diverse and multicultural – but, from the plays I saw, it is clear that internationalism is not the only way to achieve progress. All of the aforementioned plays were made by Irish theater companies. They were innovative, subversive, and rigorous. I wonder if, in looking to other countries for cutting-edge theater, Ireland shortchanges its own artists and the inventive work they are doing. As an American who came to Dublin to make theater, I will continually navigate when it would be helpful for me to bring in my perspectives as a newcomer from another culture, and when I should step back and listen. If the Dublin Theatre Festival has taught me anything, it’s that I have a lot to learn.

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Part of the Mosaic

I used to joke that living in Wyoming had ruined cities for me–four years of small towns and empty plains make it hard to adjust to a concrete jungle. I had never been to Dublin before this year, and approached the change with apprehension–would I be able to keep up with the frenetic pace of a global capital? Or would I be lost in the chaos? During my time here, Ireland has surprised and delighted me, perhaps most powerfully in its ability to shape itself around the needs of each of us. A living mosaic, Dublin can be taken as its impressive whole or seen up close for the distinct, small spaces that compose it. I am glad to say that I have found my eye in the middle of the city’s living storm; far from being lost, I feel very much in place.

There are many elements that make up homesickness, not least of which is your native language. Growing up in Mozambique, I took for granted the particular musicality of Portuguese. After moving to the U.S., I missed those familiar sounds painfully. I had no expectation that this particular aspect of homesickness would disappear in my new Irish life, and was therefore astonished to discover a vibrant Brazilian community across Dublin. Without seeking it out, I had found in Dublin what I had missed so much for so many years–voices that sounded like home. This has struck me as a defining characteristic of Dublin: alongside a strong Irish identity, there is a welcome diversity of experiences and origins. I have no anxiety that I am out of place, because there is no firm standard for what in place even looks like–there is room to be colorful while still belonging in the mosaic.

In my postcolonial studies I was always struck by the way that colonization scars a country: while the details of occupation may differ, trauma marks the population. I have been struck by the foundation of cultural understanding that I have found with other postcolonial students: our fierce patriotism exists alongside both a grim recognition of enduring challenges and a lingering resentment for the abuse that enabled them. In my studies, the world has been presented as a dichotomy: colonized vs. colonizer becomes interchangeable with developed vs. undeveloped. Ireland defies that pattern. Although it is an economic powerhouse with a strong influence in global politics, its own historical trauma remains a part of the national psyche. When classroom conversations turn to oppression and occupation, students lean forward, engaged by the recognition that these are not curses suffered by strangers, but a reality. In my life, I have fought to break down the layer of insulation that exists in wealthy nations to separate them from global crises. In Ireland, I have found that I don’t have to fight as hard: there is empathy for those who suffer at the hands of imperialism and respect for those who overcome it. This recognition that we are not so different has made me feel deeply at home in a new country.

Many Mitchell scholars can point to Irish ancestors whose influence lives on in their last names, in their hair color, in their national pride. Several others, like me, have no genetic ties to the island. And yet, I feel at home. Ireland’s complicated past and diverse present resonate within me and provide a sense of belonging. I am so proud to be a part of this living mosaic, and I am so grateful to have found where I am in place.

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Out and Proud in Ireland’s LGBT+ Community

Two months ago, I moved to Dublin from the greater New York City area and have been thoroughly enjoying settling in to my residence at UCD. I walked out early one morning from my apartment to a full rainbow across the sky, which was an absolutely glorious way to start the day!

View from the entrance to my apartment in Glenomena, UCD Belfield.

I majored in Chemistry as an undergraduate and am beginning to work on my application to medical school for this upcoming admissions cycle. During my Mitchell year, I am taking time to explore my interest in Gender Studies through a specialized track in the School of English & Drama at UCD. I decided to spend my first semester reviewing some of the classics and have been up to my ears in Austen, Trollope, Dickens and (of course) Joyce since I’ve come to Dublin.

In addition to my coursework, I’ve had the pleasure of interning at GCN magazine, Ireland’s longest-running LGBT+ publication.

About GCN

Since 1988 GCN (Gay Community News) has provided a unique angle on culture, news, politics, entertainment, celebrity and lifestyle. GCN is integrally linked to the Irish gay and lesbian identity and has become the most recognised and established gay magazine in Ireland, leading the way with top-rate journalism, sterling production values and visually unique covers. While other LGBT+ magazines have come and gone from the Irish market, GCN stands firm as the best-known and best-loved publication for readers who value us for exactly what we are: an attractive, colourful, up-to-the-minute, gay glossy that is never afraid to pull punches and never fails to get right to the heart of what’s important to gay Ireland today.

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I’ve had the chance to try my hand at writing news stories about a variety of different topics, including the abortion referendum, direct provision, UN proceedings, Twitter policy changes and US election results.

GCN magazine staff (minus Stefano) at the GALAS in October, 2017.

Coming to GCN twice a week has really allowed me to immerse myself in the LGBT+ community in Dublin and learn more about the specific concerns and questions they are facing at this time.

The GALAS

I had the opportunity to attend GCN’s annual GALAS, Ireland’s LGBT+ Awards, last month at The Mansion House. The GALAS were set up by GCN and the National LGBT Federation to honor LGBT+ people and organizations for their contributions to Irish society. The awards are also to honor politicians, employers and others who are committed to advancing equality and social acceptance for LGBT+ people in Ireland. I had the opportunity to meet Katherine Zappone, lesbian senator and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as well as hear an address from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the event.

Katherine Zappone, Winner of Political Figure of the Year

I continue to be amazed by the vibrancy and beauty present in Ireland’s LGBT+ community. I feel so fortunate to be here to experience and learn from the work of Irish LGBT+ people, and perhaps bring this passion back home to the United States with me to continue the seemingly never-ending fight for equal and fair treatment for LGBT+ people under American law. Thank you for this incredible opportunity!

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Simplicity: Accepting Ireland’s Charge

Sea-soaked air settled into my lungs as I disembarked my bus to the unfamiliar din of chatter; I am definitely not in Kansas anymore. Groan-worthy clichés aside, Cork – Ireland’s second-largest city at 119,230 residents – is more densely inhabited than any town in which I have resided for the better part of the last eight years. Community is life water but the depth of this pool was daunting; I couldn’t wait to dive in!

Seven years ago, holding in high esteem the notion that one should “bloom where you are planted,” my sense of purpose took root in the rich complexity of public service. I had always been acutely aware of my role in my community; I was not conscious of how closely it was tied to my sense of identity. Upon moving to Ireland, harder to escape than excitement at the novelty of public transportation was the feeling that I was an uprooted, invasive species. A mere month in, coffee with a professor to discuss coursework took an emotional turn when I admitted that my newfound lack of responsibility was unsettling. “I am just a directionless tumbleweed,” I muttered into my latte. My professor laughed. Leaning across the table, he asked, “Why does that have to be a bad thing? Be the tree; bow and bend with what comes.” His words reminded me of the Shaker folk song, “Simple Gifts” to which Irish singer, Nóirín Ní Riain serenaded the Mitchells on our trip to Glenstal Abbey:

It’s a gift to be simple, it’s a gift to be free

it’s a gift to come down where you ought to be

When true simplicity is gained

to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed

to turn, turn will be our delight

’til by turning, turning we come round right

Simplicity has never been my forte – not exactly a unique trait within the Mitchell community. The tears shed at the end of Nóirín’s blessing provided reassurance I am not alone in my search for peace in our Irish adventure. Perhaps it is for precisely this reason that I and the other Mitchells are drawn here. To paraphrase my Irish friends and classmates, Ireland is a country of people with intimate knowledge of the healing properties contained in a cup of tea and a long walk. They understand that, too often, we manage to make life unnecessarily complicated.

In time, I have begun to welcome all that I initially found to be overwhelming. I have also realized that aspects of my former life– the unassuming kindness of individuals, a stark sense of community, political immediacy – are alive and well here. Nothing more effectively captures this than my first half-hour on the Island: Distracted by the sea air (or because I had not slept for 48 hours), I managed to leave my wallet on the bus from the airport. I discovered my mistake as I went to pay Henry, the taxi driver who had brought me to my residence. Teary-eyed and irate with myself, I took down his contact information with a promise to pay as soon as I had recovered my wallet. A week later, I called Henry to ask for the best way to remit payment to which he responded, “Take two of your friends out for drinks on me this evening.” What could be more simple than that?

Ireland, I accept your charge to live life awash with the peace of simplicity. I will say “yes” to a night in the city to celebrate a culture I already feel changing me. I will go on long runs for the scenery, not the time logged at the end; I will do front handsprings along the Cliffs of Moher just to feel the sea air hit my face in a new way and, with every cleansing breath, I will remind myself that this year is a gift.

The cliff sheep have found peace in their patch of grass, unfazed by the vastness of the ocean.

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Change

Ireland has been a place lately defined by dramatic change. The change brought by surging wealth developed during the Celtic Tiger years, when the country catapulted from one of the economic under-performers of Europe to the shining star that countries not just here but around the world were striving to be. Change brought, when that glitter and wealth came crashing down in the Great Recession and a new reality came for the Emerald Isle, austerity. The change that peace can bring, and the changed daily norms that the Good Friday Agreement brings to Northern Ireland. Changes in Dublin, transformed from a peripheral European city to a European headquarters of tech, finance, social media, and a 21st century economy.

I came to Ireland to study how communities change, how economies change, and how the people present in times of change impact their communities and transform to exist in a new environment. Being from Flint, Michigan, the reality of change’s inevitability sunk into me growing up as I saw an entire economy transformed, an entire community’s foundation shifted, and family members impacted daily by this new norm.

Just last weekend with the University College Dublin Politics and International Relations Society, I spent three days in Belfast and experienced both the dramatic changes occurring in that community (redevelopments of the Center City, the Titanic Quarter, the Cathedral Quarter) and yet see how the vestiges of the past still color everyday life through “peace walls” two dozen feet high and murals serving as a constant reminder of a not-too-distant past that remains all too present. There’s no place that reminds people of that past more than Stormont today, without government for ten months and counting due to irreconcilable differences.

And yet, despite these challenges, Belfast is a changing community that appears to be embracing a new economy, adapting from a gritty industrial past to invite industries fitted to a new global economy, and I’m reminded of my own hometown in Michigan and the challenges present across America’s industrial heartland. Changes from Belfast’s industrial and shipping past are present in Dublin as well, as cranes dot the sky across the Docklands, a place once known much more for blue collar workers than today’s white collar offices.

In this changing world, how do we make sure everyone feels included, an equal part of this new reality? That question of inclusion is present in Stormont, it’s present in the Belfast and Dublin neighborhoods not yet seeing the kind of investment pouring into the Docklands and the Titanic Quarter. It’s present with those left on the outside of Ireland’s pernicious housing crisis, as home prices and rents skyrocket to Celtic Tiger era heights and beyond. Understanding this question will be the focus of my year here.

In studying this change, I hope to change as well. Ireland provides such a rich environment to study and learn from Europe’s friendliest people. The lived experience of this country provides so many lessons to be brought back to the United States, and I hope to grow and change myself as I learn with and from the Irish.

Cranes dot the sky in Dublin’s Docklands

UCD Politics and International Relations Society at Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast

2 Mitchells in Stormont

Stormont Parliament Buildings

 

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Meeting the Road

I used to run in Haiti under a sun made of fire. As I would pass along the road, a flurry of bare feet, brown eyes, and small arms would emerge from the frames of palm-thatched houses. Although their legs made two strides for every one of mine, they would keep pace with me past mango trees and cow-dotted hillsides until we reached the unspoken borders of their villages.  And every day I would be asked, “Poukisa w ap kouri?”Why are you running?”

I now run in Ireland under a sun I’m not completely convinced exists. As I pass along the canal that connects Maynooth to Dublin, I make eye-contact with wary herons and greet older Irish women attached to matching, canine companions. I weave and curve with the water, the road, and the train tracks through fields of sheep and cabbage. And every time I step out into the seemingly unforgiving wind and often horizontally-approaching rain, I ask myself with a bit of grin, “Why are you running?

I have juxtaposed climates and lifestyles. I no longer own a goat, eat rice and beans every day, or am required to treat my drinking water. Unbelievably, I now have a heated shower, a turtleneck, and a fantastically operational toilet. And yet, I am still finding similar answers to a singular question: “Why are you running?”

In Ireland, as in Haiti, I am running because it gives me a sense of belonging and deepens my understanding of the people around me. The Maynooth running “regulars” have taken me under their metaphorical umbrella.  They, in their t-shirts and short shorts, have taught the mittened, gloved, and beanied me that “t-shock” (“Taoiseach”) is not a rapper but rather the title for a political office in Ireland (a Prime Minister-like position), when to use a few cardinal (yet mildly inappropriate) Gaelic phrases, and how to get the best bang-for-my-quid in the realm of biscuit buying. More profoundly, they have taught me to be unafraid of interacting with the unfamiliar. The Irish ability to strike up a conversation, even while running, is awe-inspiring. I am consistently surprised by their openness and kindness to a total stranger. I have learned that by trading social aloofness for neighborly camaraderie, it is possible to generate an uplifting atmosphere of inclusion and togetherness. I have learned that this is possible anywhere.

I am also running to remind myself that to run is a gift. It symbolizes the fact that I was born with functional limbs, that I am well-nourished, that I have the time to spare, that I am incredibly and unfairly privileged. My studies in Ireland revolve around disease, developing systems, and drastic health inequalities. I am here to learn, to participate in an academic setting, and to develop as a scholar. But already I recognize how the Global Health literature informs my past experiences in Haiti, and offers suggestions and interventions for future accompaniment. And when I run, I remember that it is my fundamental responsibility as a scholar to use what I learn for those for which running is not an option.

On my first Sunday in Maynooth, I attended a Catholic mass in St. Mary’s Chapel. At the end of the homily, the choir sang an old Irish Blessing. I had heard it before as a poem, but it suddenly held new meaning. It begins, “May the road rise to meet you.” I remember thinking that, in so many ways, it feels like the road is. In so many ways throughout my life, the road has. Accordingly, I’ll keep running and learning in the hopes that someday, I will be able to gratefully meet the road half-way.

Maynooth University, South Campus

Maynooth Grounds and Gardens

The Canal: Maynooth to Dublin

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The Benedictine Monk

Moving to Ireland was a whirlwind. I left my corporate comfort at Deloitte in the nation’s capital, moved home to South Carolina for a week, and shipped out to the land of Guinness without much thought. I was the last Mitchell to arrive and only had a couple days to settle before our Orientation weekend.

Orientation proved splendid. It was packed with friends of the Mitchell Scholar program and events that showcased the beauty of Ireland. We, Mitchell Scholars, quickly sensed the significance of George Mitchell’s efforts here and his lasting impact. We were greeted with esteem at every stop and – for the Scholars who traveled from outside Dublin – slept in luxury.

The consecutive events were indeed tiring, but it seemed that Trina – the founder of the scholarship – was most excited about our trip to Glenstal Abbey – a monastery in Limerick, Dublin. She claimed that it would be “unforgettable.” By the end of our visit, her sentiment became an indubitable fact.

Perhaps, one need not acknowledge the peculiarity of why a group of scholars routinely visited a Benedictine monastery. But, at first thought, it did seem strange. Nevertheless, those thoughts quickly faded. As we strolled under the grand arched entrance to the castle-like building, peace and serenity met us.

We then were introduced to our tour guide. He became a monk when he was 19. Today was he was 71 years old. We took up staffs and traversed into the adjacent forest with our leader. He told wonderful stories of the trees and plants, many of which he planted decades ago.

We settled after the tour for tea with the monks. (Tea is without a doubt my favorite pastime here). Our fearless tour guide chose to sit at our table and I felt the urge to pontificate with him. I asked, “Our generation seems to be seeking achievement for the sake of recognition rather than searching for a purpose-filled life. Which do you think is noble?” His answer spurred follow-up questions.

I asked, “Evil is inevitable and often overwhelming. What do you think is the role of good in this world?” And he replied. ” Evil is inevitable for time is like a train with no driver. But what is equally necessary is anger. We need it. It is a righteous emotion, one of which exists beside love and good. Nevertheless, we should strive to be like dolphins in the tsunami of evil doing good here and there.” His poeticism was overwhelming and his imagery was unforgettable. That moment was only compounded when Noirin Ni Riain an Irish singer – blessed us with a string of hymns and a recited blessing by John O’Donahue. Even the water welled in my eyes.

That weekend gave me a deeply spiritual beginning to a deeply spiritual country. It settled my nerves and spurred a serenity that has not subsided. Buried deep within the cobblestone streets, the lush green grass, and towering crucifixes is a resounding sentiment of good in the Irish people. Perhaps that good is the result of many years of bad, or perhaps the good is inherent in the land. Whatever its origins may be, I feel it. And, it reminds me ever so subtlely of home.

P.S. – The staff that was given to us upon our visit to the Abbey found a home in my room on Trinity’s campus, or maybe I just asked if I could take it.

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The Journey Begins

I first visited Ireland with my family when I was ten years old. As a young boy who had never left his country, coming from a small isolated family of four, the experience changed my outlook. That visit, I learned I had more cousins than I could count, my eyes were opened to a world of different cultures and peoples, and it inculcated a love of travel and eagerness to explore what else was out there. Since then I have always dreamed of living abroad in Ireland. I thought of Ireland in its pristine beauty, its lush fields and misty overcast skies, imagining what this experience would be like.

Eighteen years later, my journey could not have been further from how I first thought of it. After nearly six years in the military and four more in college, this journey has been one as much of introspection as it is about outward exploration. I came to Ireland in search of answers, seeking to understand the logic of violence and conflict by studying the troubles and peace. I hope to find some realization about my own past as a combatant and balance it against what I learn.

The reality of Northern Ireland is far different from the childlike adventure I imagined. Living in the aftermath of a post ethnic-conflict, I’ve learned since arriving in Belfast that the underlying tensions of the conflict are far from resolved. There are places you shouldn’t go and conversations you shouldn’t have in public. As a child with the eyes of youthful innocence, I didn’t understand security checkpoints and bomb scares, I wasn’t aware of the palpable ethnic tensions and the fragile peace. Instead as an adult, I’m confronted with these realities witnessing a post-industrial society deal with globalization and the struggle of Brexit, all while balancing its divisive ethnic politics. The trials of a brokered peace and its aftermath are in some ways far more complex and difficult than the conflict itself. And yet, I’m optimistic about the sustained peace in Northern Ireland and its significant role as an example in our world.

There are important lessons to take away from a society that has learned how to sustain and manage its immense disagreements peacefully after a long troubled history of violence. These are things that we in the United States take for granted and given the tumultuous state of politics, would do well to remember. Ireland is more than just the picturesque romantic island full of legend, lore and mystique. It is at once both a reminder of where we come from and a cause to be optimistic about the future of the human condition.

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1% is fear

Standing at the toppings counter and facing the ever-difficult decision of brownie bits or chocolate chips (or, dare I say, both?), I felt my phone start to vibrate. With a mixture of dread and excitement, I looked at the caller ID. Just what I thought – it was the phone call I’d been waiting for; the one that would let me know whether or not I would be heading to Ireland next year as one of twelve Mitchell Scholars. Sending a nervous look my mom’s way and getting a confused look from the teenage frozen yogurt shop worker, I dropped my carefully-arranged cup to the counter and rushed out of the store. Just outside, I took a deep breath, tried to control my shaking voice, and answered. The second I heard the word “congratulations,” everything stopped and sped up at once. I was selected; I was a Mitchell Scholar; I was moving to Ireland! But wait, where did they say I was going? “Any other immediate questions?” suddenly came from the other end of the phone. “Um, uh, yes, sorry. I was too shocked and excited, and I didn’t actually hear…where in Ireland did you say I was going again?” Through some muffled laughter, I heard the name of my future home: Galway. I like to think I thanked them again over the phone, but my memory is a bit of a blur of excitement. I do remember going into the frozen yogurt shop where my mom was anxiously trying to read my face and announcing to her (and presumably the rest of the frozen yogurt consumer population) that I would be going to Ireland! Needless to say, it was a celebration moment more than deserving of both brownie bits and chocolate chips.

Flash forward a few hours, I was in a hotel room with my parents calling various relatives to tell them the news when the official press release listing all twelve winners was released. I was thrilled to see the final group filled with new friends I had made during the interview weekend, but as I read through the list I realized something. I would be the only Mitchell Scholar next year in Galway. I was still absolutely thrilled to know I would be there next year, already enamored with the Salthill Promenade before ever walking it, already awed by the buskers on Shop Street before ever listening to them, but suddenly a small seed of fear settled in beside my excitement – after four years of undergrad with a consistent support system built on expanding existing connections, how would I find a new group alone in not only a new city but a new country? The excitement outweighed the nerves, but nevertheless that small fear persisted throughout the months preparing for my departure.

Suddenly it was somehow mid-August, and I found myself stepping out of the (unnaturally wrong left side) passenger side of a car onto a sunny dock. Jet-lagged and slowed down by suitcases, I rang the designated number on the keypad and an excited, familiar voice came down, “WELCOME TO GALWAY; I’M SO EXCITED TO FINALLY MEET YOU IN PERSON; COME RIGHT UP.” I emerged into the apartment which would soon become my home and into the arms of one of its current residents Azza Cohen, one of the Class of 2017 Mitchell Scholars. Over the next few days, she and her sister showed me around Galway covering essentials ranging from phone plans and groceries to making sure I had my first 99 ice cream cone. As they guided me through the city, we eventually arrived at the university. NUI Galway is a dual language campus with almost all signs in both English and Irish. As she told me about campus life and her experiences as a student, I stopped Azza and her sister on the walking bridge into campus so that I could take a picture of a sign. On one of the posts, the university advertises its status as “Ranked in the top 1% of universities worldwide.” An impressive feat worthy of notice, the sign itself didn’t strike me as out of place. What interested me was not the fact, which I had known already, but the Irish: Rangaithe i measc an 1% is fearr d’ollscoileanna an domhain. Due to its spacing on the sign, I found myself in a new city, trying to get my bearings, approaching the imminent departure of my only guides, and facing a sign the top of which to me looked like it was telling me, “1% is [fear].” Laughing, I took my picture, captioned it “are they sure it’s only 1%,” sent it to my friends back home, and continued on with our tour of Galway.

While at the time I thought little more of the sign than a brief laugh, its message has stuck with me in ways I didn’t then realize. On the night before their departure back to the states, Azza, Daniella (her sister), and I took a walk along the Claddagh at sunset. Bathed in soft purple light, I was expecting a reserved quiet reflective walk. Daniella, however, had one more dream to accomplish in Galway – she wanted to busk on the streets with her ukulele. The only problem was that she absolutely did not want to sing. Knowing from the safety and comfort of the apartment that I knew the words to one of the songs she was able to play, she stopped mid-walk, opened her case, put it on the ground, and began to play. Already feeling myself blush an incredible shade of red, I looked up to see her staring at me waiting for me to sing with her in public for all to hear. Nervously laughing and refusing, all I wanted to do was retreat. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, I had one clear thought: “1% is fear.” Cliched as it may be, in that moment I realized that if I was going to make the most of this year and really embrace my new home and university, especially once Azza and Daniella departed, I couldn’t retreat into the safety of what felt comfortable. I would have to put myself out there; I’d have to do things that I feared. “1% is fear…1% is fear…1% is fear…” I listened to her playing, waited for the cue, opened my mouth, and sang. While that was both the beginning and end to my brief busking career, we managed to make 20 cents for our efforts, and that coin has stayed on my nightstand ever since. A reminder to myself as I came into my new home to welcome the things that I was afraid of, to put myself out there even if I wasn’t perfect at what I was attempting, to embrace aspects of this new place that I never thought I could.

In the two months since then, I’ve walked past that same sign countless times coming to and from campus, and I’ve tried to live by its (albeit unintentional) message in ways that I never expected. Like many of my fellow Mitchell Scholars from this year and others, I knew myself as a planner, a perfectionist of sorts who approached things with clear steps, goals, and knowledge of the situation. These were skills that felt comfortable to me; they had gotten me far and enabled some of my greatest accomplishments. Yet in the past two months, some of my most rewarding moments have come from the times when I quieted my racing thoughts, pushed aside my need to be perfect at and in control of whatever I was attempting, and followed the quiet voice slowly repeating, “1% is fear.” Without that voice, I never would have accepted a spontaneous trip to Connemara. I never would have found myself celebrating Galway’s victory at hurling, a sport I found I loved despite never having heard of it only a month before. I would have never laughed the night away while being taught how to make Mayo plaits by a new friend as she prepared to go to the Gaelic football final to support her team, and I definitely never would have been found wearing it in a pub the next day to watch the match and getting friendly elbow nudges from an elderly Mayo resident on the stool next to me whenever points went our way. I wouldn’t have enrolled in optional modules I felt I had the least amount of background knowledge in that I’ve come to love. I wouldn’t have gone for an interview for a job at the Academic Writing Center on campus which has now come to give me some of the most rewarding experiences of my time in the library at NUIG. And without embracing my own fear of discomfort and even failure, I absolutely never would have taken up a new sport and joined the NUIG Fencing Club which has become not only a hobby I love but given me a family away from home full of laughter, advice, support, and joy both inside the gym and beyond.

Without embracing the portion of this experience that relied on moving past my own fears, I never would have found myself mid-competition looking up through a fencing mask at the stands of the University College Cork gym to see the faces of Mitchell Scholars who had hosted me in Cork and travelled from Dublin to support me there alongside those of my new fencing family all smiling encouragingly at me while I tried something brand new to me. “En Garde” I took a deep breath. “Ready” I reminded myself that 1% is fear. “Fence!” And, moving forward, I embraced it.


Me and Daniella making our way to busking fame


Walking through Galway with Azza


Enjoying the scenery near Leenane


Supporting Mayo! (If you don’t already know, then don’t ask about the final score)


Fencing at Wests, hosted at home at NUIG


Ready to fence at UCC (with supportive photos taken and captioned by fellow Mitchell Scholar Miranda)

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Grateful For The Rain

Grateful For The Rain

May 27, 2017

Having spent most of the previous four years in sunny, drought-stricken southern California, I arrived in Ireland last September a bit unprepared for Ireland’s abundance of rain. Especially during the Irish winter, there are some days when it feels like Mother Nature is cooking up her own version of the Ice Bucket Challenge, whether we want to play or not. When the wind picks up, as it often does, the rain seemingly pelts us from the side too, and occasionally one’s umbrella is turned inside out.

But if the rain is occasionally a minor inconvenience, it also provides gentle reminders of some valuable lessons. For starters, the rain reminds us that a little extra preparation, whether in the form of a raincoat or an umbrella, can be extremely valuable. It also reminds us that no matter how well prepared you are, you’re still going to get wet sometimes. Maybe most importantly, the rain reminds us that sometimes temporary discomfort is a necessary component of a meaningful experience. The last soccer game I played this year was scheduled on an evening with heavy, frigid downpours, and when we arrived for warm-ups, many players on both teams seemed to be in a foul mood, myself included. Nevertheless, once the game began, we played with a wild abandon, and left the pitch smiling.

Ireland could not have the incredibly lush, radiant greenery that makes it the Emerald Isle without its abundance of rain. Of course, without rain, most plants cannot grow. Similarly, without experiencing some amount of discomfort, we cannot grow as people. I am grateful for many things about my time in Ireland, including the opportunity to broaden my education, the opportunity to explore Ireland’s natural beauty and cultural heritage, and the opportunity to build deep friendships with the other Mitchell scholars as well as my classmates at UCD. Maybe most of all, I am grateful for the moments of discomfort, because these are the moments that have helped me grow the most.

Rainbow on the River Liffey

Ruins near Wicklow

Field near Wicklow

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