I spent this Halloween in Derry, Northern Ireland with some of the Dublin and Belfast-based Mitchells. Derry claims to be the birthplace of the pagan holiday of Halloween, and its ancient city walls on the steep banks of the River Foyle made for an especially beautiful and historic backdrop for our Halloween celebrations. Our gaggle of Americans – three 80’s workout instructors, a Despicable Me minion, and Rosie the Riveter – fit right in with the eclectic Halloween crowds in Derry.
Before coming to Ireland, my only knowledge of Irish history came from a survey course of Irish literature. Throughout the course, my professor would talk of the “slipperiness” of Irish and Northern Irish identities, things so full of contradictions and humorous double-speak that they defy description. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what my professor meant, but after learning more about the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland and struggling to describe my new home to friends and family, I started to see how complicated it was to talk about Ireland.
Everywhere I looked in Derry was another layer of history. The ancient pagan celebration of Halloween is heralded as a proud part of the city’s history, and the well-preserved 17th century city walls and Georgian architecture testify to the city’s role in British trade. Derry’s city murals memorialize Bloody Sunday and the H-Block hunger strikers but also Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, and the pubs hang the flags of separatist movements from all over the world. I was struck by how prominent the theme of “solidarity” was in Derry’s murals and other public spaces. Before moving to Ireland, I lived in Lesotho, where the legacies of Apartheid and the freedom struggle are also recent history, but demands for solidarity or social justice were not nearly as visible as they were in Derry.
In one of my classes on humanitarian emergencies, my professor attributed Ireland’s generous history of humanitarian aid to the island’s experiences with the Great Famine, The Troubles, and immigration. Virtually every young Irish person I’ve met has spent a significant period of time in America or has a close relative that is currently living in America, and the people that haven’t been to America have almost certainly lived and worked in another country. When the Dublin Mitchells and I went to visit Glenveagh Castle in Donegal on our way back from Derry, we were told the castle’s original owner made his fortune in America, and all the subsequent owners were American, another testament to the closeness of Irish and American histories. It seems like far more young people in Ireland have lived abroad than my peers in America, and that difference shows. I’ve noticed that my American classmates will always introduce themselves by the city or state that they live in, assuming my Irish classmates will know where Boston or San Francisco is, but my Irish classmates are always surprised when an American can name a city in Ireland besides Dublin.
I feel incredibly lucky to have this year to learn more about Ireland, a country that is far more cosmopolitan than I knew to expect, and perhaps my favorite thing about Ireland so far is that all my conversations and learning can be over a pint of Guinness with the people that consider banter their national pastime.