A Home without a House

Often, the distinction between a home and a house can be subtle, if not lost.

A house is a place where one physically resides and sleeps, eats and lives; a home is a place where one invests there life and love—“not where I breathe, but where I love, I live” (quote by Robert Southwell, SJ).

Only twice have the two over-lapped: the house in which my family and I reside and the rooms I resided in at The University of Scranton—both were simultaneously homes and houses.

But I have been at home many times before: at Gonzaga College High School, rowing on the Anacostia River with Gonzaga College H.S. Crew, climbing the Rocky Mountains with friends and family, watching the Red South Dakotan sunset on Pine Ridge.

I have found another home in Ireland, but it is without an address. Yes, I live at Trinity College. Yes, I work at Trinity College (maybe spending more time in the Reading Room than my Dorm Room). But I do not have a home at Trinity College. I have found a home in Ireland with my fellow Mitchell Scholars and with the land.

I am at home sipping Hot Chocolate while planning European and Irish excursions with Peter (who is sipping Tea or Coffee). I am at home exploring the mountains and fields of Sligo with Claire. I am at home frequenting the rustic farmer’s market at Kilruddery House in Bray with Megan on the weekends. I am at home walking the streets of Galway with Azza, with no purpose other than to tread historic ground in company. I am at home in conversations over Dinner with Phil and Emma. I am at home debating the philosophical underpinnings of the challenges of the World with Wills. I am at home discussing the future of medicine with Carla. I am at home exploring the beauty of Glendalough with Micaela. I am at home learning the history of Dublin with Byron at the National Museum. I am at home sharing stories of hikes and trips around Ireland with Ally.

And I am at home with the natural beauty of Ireland. From the surrounding hills and waterways of Waterford to the mountains of Sligo. The rolling hills of Wexford to the mudflats of Galway. From the changing landscapes and ecosystems of the Wicklow Mountains to the tranquil sea of Bray. Ireland is full of beauty, beauty outside the person. But there is also beauty in the land of the communities formed by people. Not the buildings—houses—of these places, but the homes. The home of the Irish speakers at the Flea Market in Galway. The home of the farmers of Sligo. The home of the Jazz community in Cork. The home of the worshippers at Mass in Dublin. The home of crystal at Waterford.

A thought I have reflected on the past few months since the election is how much less polarized the Irish community seems to be. It may be naïve, but I believe that the Irish people appreciate Ireland as a home, not a house. In turn, they identify with the home, not the houses. In America today, the politics of identity—of polarization—has taught us to view our slice of America as a house. When I return home to America in a few months, I hope to relate that America is not a house, but a home: A home I hope Americans will begin to find in one another again. A home I have begun to appreciate more while finding another home in Ireland.

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Alliance in Science

As an aspiring physician-scientist, a common question I get asked by friends and family at home is why I would want to come to Ireland for my gap year. When people think of Ireland, they generally picture the magnificent culture, landscape, music, and arts available here. Yes, these are all great perks of being in Ireland. But if you look past the amazing culture and beautiful landscapes of Ireland, you can see that the scientific and biomedical opportunities available here make spending a year in Ireland make sense for someone in the scientific or medical community.

Ireland has such great biomedical research opportunities that I actually knew of NUI Galway’s Regenerative Medicine Institute before I knew about the Mitchell Scholarship. With Ireland’s first human use stem-cell manufacturing facility, NUI Galway is a global player in the field of regenerative medicine. Knowing what a great opportunity working with researchers at NUIG would be, I looked into opportunities that would allow me to pursue studies here and found the Mitchell Scholarship. Since arriving here, I’ve been continually impressed by the research being done at this university, and further surprised by the biomedical opportunities even outside of the university. For example, something I didn’t know before arriving here was that Galway and the surrounding area is a huge hub for biotech and medical device companies such as Boston Scientific.

Outside of the specific academic programs and biomedical opportunities Galway has to offer, however, simply studying in a different glocal university is a tremendous opportunity. Being in this different cultural and academic setting is crucial to grow as both an individual and scholar because of the different perspective it offers. For example, I have the opportunity to work in a vastly multicultural setting in the lab I work in – my supervisor is Irish, my PI is from India, the post-doc I am working with is from Spain, and there are countless other cultures being represented in lab.

My experience in lab has shown me how research is done in many parts of the world and likewise forges a relationship between the US and global standards. Contrary to popular belief, advancement in science doesn’t only occur by sitting alone at a lab-bench – advancement in science comes from collaboration between scientists. By allowing me to bring my skills and scientific approaches to Ireland, the Mitchell Scholarship will allow me to force an alliance in science between the US and Ireland.

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NUIG’s shiny new biomedical science building

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Thinking back + looking forward

Classes at Trinity begin this week, but my first semester technically hasn’t ended yet: we’re still finishing papers and preparing for final exams. Between assignments, applying for conferences, and other work, I’ve spent a lot of time on campus, writing about experiences and research projects preceding my arrival to Ireland, which has kept me focused more on the past than the present. Once these tasks are out of the way, I am excited to explore much more of Ireland than I did last semester; the few day-trips I’ve managed to take already were a great preview of what is to come.

In October, Chris and I went to Sligo. It was a short but incredible trip, which started with heavy fog and rain that filled my supposedly waterproof boots. As the clouds began to clear at Carrowmore, we began a four-mile walk to Knocknarea, stopping at stables and Queen Medb’s Activity Farm to ask for directions. (After making a similar trek with Megan from Wexford’s city center to the Irish National Heritage Park, much of which consists of narrow, winding roads without sidewalks, I think we’ve got the hang of navigating Irish towns without a car.) At that point, Maeve’s cairn was still invisible, as the top of Knocknarea faded into the mist. The weather didn’t look too promising.

The fog remained just long enough to provide us with a dramatic approach to the cairn before dissipating and unveiling the Atlantic. A description can’t do justice to the view, so I included some photos below. I was happy to cross “megalithic tombs” and “flocks of sheep” off of my sightseeing to-do list, but luckily there will be much more of that in the coming months. Within the Republic, trips on my list include Tara, Kells, Clonmacnoise, and the Aran Islands. The best part will be sharing these journeys with friends and family, especially those who don’t know much about Ireland beyond its capital city.

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I’m also looking forward to our trip to Belfast, where I’m eager to see the city’s murals and peace walls. In 2015 I curated a photography exhibit on Belfast with the organization ART WORKS Projects, with work by sociologist David Schalliol, and I can’t wait to walk the streets I’ve seen in photos.

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Though I’ll have fewer classes this semester, which will allow more time for travel and my internship with Art for Amnesty, I’m also excited for my classes and dissertation work. My MPhil cohort is a small group of American and Irish students, researching everything from Norse mythology to Sicilian architecture. With our Latin and paleography classes, I can now (kind of) read the Book of Kells, which has made my frequent trips to see it a bit more purposeful and academic — for those outside Dublin, you can enjoy the digitized version here! I’ve now visited most of the major manuscript collections in the city, spending hours poring over parchment, and look forward to doing more of that. I’ll conclude with a scene from class in the Chester Beatty reading room:

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Half-Irishmen, Stouts, and the Dilemma of Belonging

I occupy a strange identity space here in Ireland. I’ve never lived somewhere where the vast majority of people look very much like me, yet lead lives quite different than my own.

I have red hair, a red-ish beard, and a boatload of freckles to boot. I got a sunburn in Ireland… in the land of perpetual-overcast. Both my parents claim distinctly Irish family names (Prindiville/Prenderville and Murphy) inherited from ancestors who emigrated from Kerry and Mayo almost 150 years ago. Similar to many who grew up in the Chicagoland Irish-Catholic milieu, I’ve always had an understanding that my family was “Irish”—a valued and much-loved aspect of our identity.

It would seem that culture shock often occurs in the midst of an overload of dissimilarity—navigating sights, smells, and social mores that are wholly unlike one’s lived experiences—yet my Irish culture shock occurred in a sea of similarity. Navigating what it means to be “Irish” has been one of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of my first four months on the island.

On my first day in Cork, a kind woman from Kerry stopped me on the street and asked for directions, assuming I knew my way around. When I began explaining how to get to the local Tesco where she was headed (luckily my only point of reference on that first day), she was visibly surprised at my Midwestern American accent. This has become such a frequent occurrence that my Irish friends now make fun of me for it. I’m Irish to the eyes, but not-Irish to the ears.

The root of the distinction is clear—ethnicity and family cultural heritage versus citizenship, residency, and upbringing—but it still is a bit strange in the moment. Sure, it’s funny and worthy of a little friendly jab from the lads, but it also poses some fascinating questions about belonging.

Returning from Dublin Airport in December, I had a great conversation with my cab driver—John—about this kind of belonging. John moved to Ireland from Nigeria almost 20 years ago. He and his wife are Irish citizens and their children are enrolled in a national school in Dublin. By the distinction mentioned above—citizenship, residency, and upbringing—he, and most surely his children, are Irish.

Yet when I asked John if he “felt Irish,” the question became more complicated. “Of course,” he answered quickly. Then he paused. “I love it here,” he continued. “This country has welcomed me and it’s my home, but I don’t know if I will ever be Irish. Truly Irish…”

John’s hesitation alluded to one of most important questions for liberal democracies in our age—who are “we” and who can belong. For nation-states like Ireland, if you’ll allow me to use the phrase, where the marriage between a distinct ethnicity and the boundaries of the state is so strong and storied, the question becomes even more pronounced.

In a sense, both John and I are experiencing similar forms of half-Irishness: I am ethnically Irish, yet live here while not a citizen; he lives here as a citizen, yet is not ethnically Irish. Half-Irishness is a confusing and strange identity space for both of us.

The Irish State has determined that citizenship—one form of Irishness—is a broad construct that applies to many different kinds of people. How Irish society moves to adapt to new understandings of what it means to be “Irish,” however, will offer a fascinating study for questions of belonging and identity in the twenty-first century.

When I asked John if he had taken a liking to Irish stouts, our conversation took a more jovial tone. “Oh yes! I’m a Guinness guy,” he responded. I’m becoming a Murphy’s man myself. Maybe that’s all it takes to make a half-Irishman whole.

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That’s So American of you and Second Semester

First semester is over and the highlight of my upcoming semester is an internship at the Ottobock prosthetic building company at Cappagh National Hospital in Dublin. As my final project I will be building a muscle simulator to engage phantom limb sensations for mental as well as physical therapeutic purposes. To do so I will be meeting with prosthetic users through my internship at Ottobock to gain precious feedback on the device design process. I will be spending time with two primary patients from the very first appointment, right up until I have to return to the US next fall.  Hopefully it will be with both a lower limb and upper limb amputee to broaden the feedback experience.  I will get to know the two patients very well and see how they progress over the period of a few months.  The patients are assessed approximately 4 weeks post amputation, then again two weeks afterwards for fitting of the first prosthesis and gait (walking) training for one week.  The patient then takes the prosthesis home with them for approximately two weeks and then usually needs to make adjustments to the socket after this time.  This is approximately the timeline of device design, fitting, and use that I will be able to observe. I will be learning about how devices are created and positively integrated into user’s lives while at the same time gaining knowledge on how I ought to build my project’s device. I should be beginning in the next few weeks and it is shaping up to be a great semester!

Living in Ireland has given me great outside perspective on America as well as insight into what other’s think of America. To paint with a broad brush, most Irish people I have met are both genuinely curious and well informed individuals. This makes for good conversation whether it be politics or academics. The conversations I’ve had at school with those who know me as well as those in coffee shops who notice I am American have been both stimulating and eye-opening. To live overseas and see America from the outside has been invaluable.. and at times humbling. For example, I was watching sports with some Irish friends and the soccer match ended in a tie. I (not knowing anything about soccer and being a passionate hockey fan) asked, “Is there a shoot out now or what?” Someone turned to me and said, “How American of you” and everyone laughed at me. “You Americans always need a winner, shoot out, face-off. You have no patience. It’s a long season, we will play them again, and a tied match is still worth a point.” These experiences have made me reflect on my unseen behaviors and have given some insight into how others view Americans.

Looking forward to the coming semester and working on my master’s prosthetic project. Below are more photos from my travels around Ireland.

 

Howth Cliffs, County Dublin

Howth Cliffs, County Dublin

St. Stephen's Green Park

St. Stephen’s Green Park

Howth Summit, County Dublin

Howth Summit, County Dublin

Temple Bar District, Dublin

Temple Bar District, Dublin

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The Island of Artists

Close up of the #WakingTheFeminists reunion

Close up of the #WakingTheFeminists reunion

They say Ireland is the island of artists, and I do believe it’s true. But as I tenderly balanced a garbage bag above the video camera to ensure it didn’t get damaged from the good Irish rain, I started to wonder how films get made in Ireland.

I was working in Dublin as a production assistant on a feature documentary focusing on gender inequality in Hollywood and the film industry. The Irish-American director, Tom Donohue (Casting By, Thank You For Your Service), had scheduled a week in Dublin to capture interviews with the makers and shakers of #WakingTheFeminists, the legendary gender equality in the arts movement sparked in 2016.

2016 was an important, tumultuous year of remembrance for Ireland as history was reread and rewritten to include women for their integral role in the 1916 Rising. Previous celebrations of the struggle for Irish independence had conveniently written women out of the history of the event, blurring their contributions into the background. 2016 was going to be different, though, until it wasn’t.

The Abbey Theatre is Ireland’s national theatre, and a gem of the arts worldwide. It was founded by W.B. Yeats in 1904, and in 1925 became the first publicly subsidized public theatre. Ireland, from its foundation, has prioritized the arts; as well, the arts have prioritized Ireland. Seven of the main revolutionaries in the 1916 Rising were actors and staff at the Abbey Theatre, including Séan Connolly and Helena Moloney, actors who fought for the Irish Citizen Army.

The Abbey Theatre announced “Waking The Nation,” its program for the 2016 season, but within a few hours, artists around the country noticed something missing: women directors and playwrights. They were counting; it was less than ten per cent. Artists united to start the movement: #WakingTheFeminists would demand greater gender representation – on stage, behind the camera, in written works and in the public eye.

When I was asked if I’d be interested in a production assistant job on a film focusing on gender equality, my answer was an immediate yes. Working with a four-person crew on set meant that I could listen to these inspiring interviews. From Lian Bell, the stage designer and celebrated leader of the #WakingTheFeminists movement to Maeve Stone, the director who coined the very phrase, I was able to listen to their stories of bringing together the intricate, passionate community of Irish artists – women and men – and their reflections on what gender equality looked like one year later.

Working on this film helped me understand how art is integral to our politics, and how artists have a role to play in pushing forward equality of all types. Ireland surely is the island of artists, but especially artists whose works reflect and reject the status quo.

 

Azza on the microphone for interviewing Lian Bell, founder of #WakingTheFeminists

Azza on the microphone for interviewing Lian Bell, founder of #WakingTheFeminists

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The Great Debate

Since I arrived in August, Humans of Dublin as told by Megan McNulty has been unceasingly growing as a catalogue (mostly in my mind of course) of fascinating characters and touching stories about people – like myself – who are trying to make a living in this weirdly untouched-by-time yet also increasingly cosmopolitan city of Dublin.

The latest addition includes another fortuitous train meeting with a young woman nostalgic of her ‘old life’ back in the country as well as a lovely experience with a Polish taxi driver who confided in me his deepest relationship fears and hopes.

The unstoppable conversationalist that I am has loved meeting the variety of people who call Dublin home, but it has recently occurred to me that many of my impromptu tête-à-têtes – especially the ones I cherish as most stimulating and inspiring – would have never occurred in the United States.

I characterize those conversations, which I will undoubtedly remember forever, as being part of the long-standing Irish tradition of partaking in ‘The Great Debate.’ Though I believe most people here are more outwardly friendly than many Americans (don’t tell Uncle Sam I said this), the Irish are also simultaneously much more likely to broach the tumultuous topics of religion and politics. Whether at a pub several pints deep, on a street corner anticipating a changing light, or even at a fancy restaurant dressed to the nines: one living in Dublin cannot escape the issues which many Americans would not dream of discussing in the public sphere.

It’s not only questions about one’s political party or who was voted for in the last election. These discussions truly leave no issue out of bounds – from the size of government to social welfare policy, to abortion law and even the role of the Catholic Church. Nothing is safe.

Religion!? Politics!? How rude, you may say. Why would the Irish purposely create tension among friends, colleagues, and even strangers, and why would they not just leave their personal opinions to their ballots and pews? These questions are not unlike my initial reaction, but I now believe that foreigners like myself could learn from the Irish tendency to look awkwardness in the eyes and face disagreements head on.

Participating in The Great Debate doesn’t create tension; it undermines it. It doesn’t sustain grudges and hurt feelings but rather incites reconciliation and mutual respect. When I defend a Church program and my counterpart disagrees vehemently, there are no fist fights or exchanges of profanities. We clink glasses, say sláinte, and laugh thunderously. Yes! We accept that we have different opinions and value the opportunity to challenge our preconceived notions.

This tradition of partaking in The Great Debate sets Ireland apart from so many nations. I have seen that it enhances the entire population because people become increasingly open, honest, and politically and socially adept. So although many people think a trip to Ireland will only impart a greater appreciation for whiskey, Guinness, and leprechauns; I have found that there is a much greater reward hidden just beneath the surface of a chat in a pub or an interaction in a shop.

Smiles and laughs after a lengthy talk at my gym’s Christmas party!

And talking with new friends about German and US politics in a classic Irish pub!!

Gym Christmas Party

Irish Pub

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A Weekend of Jingles in Dingle

There I was, stuck on a packed tour bus on the westernmost cliff of Ireland, while the sun set over the sea below and Coolio’s 1995 smash hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” played on the speakers. I closed my eyes, smiled, and took a beat to myself before rejoining my fellow busgoers in song. It was one of those rare moments of pure elation, often longed for but experienced so rarely in life. I couldn’t help but laugh and think, “How did I end up here?”

I’d joined four Irish friends at Other Voices, a music festival in early December in Dingle. We’d piled into a car in Dublin on Friday afternoon, forgoing my favorite fast food stop and souvenirs at Moneygall’s Barack Obama Plaza in order to make good time to the west, cruising on the motorways and then on the winding, narrow roads of the Irish countryside. I had been recruited for this trip as soon as I arrived in Ireland in September, and had spent the months leading up to the weekend trying to figure out what Other Voices really was. It seemed a rather under-the-radar, low-key music festival that brought up-and-coming bands from the island and beyond. In recent years, it has grown to become an annual invasion of 10,000+ people into quaint, unassuming Dingle. While there is one centerpiece lineup in the town’s St. James Church each evening, many of the gigs are small, informal affairs in any of a dozen pubs.

We had ended up stuck on Slea Head because we’d been lucky enough to snag tickets on the Music Trail West, a 100-person bus trip around the Dingle peninsula with stops at a gin distillery, a heritage center, and – of course – a few pubs, for private concerts and drinks. Now, as we headed for our last stop, we’d come upon a hairpin turn and found a line of small cars facing us. Because the road was so narrow, each of the two dozen cars heading toward us would have to reverse a few hundred meters and turn off to the side of the road to let our bus through. It was taking quite a while, but none of us minded. In addition to the musical stylings of Coolio, we now had pods of dolphins below jumping around (I can only assume they also felt much nostalgia for “Gangsta’s Paradise).

I have had those “How did I end up here?” moments increasingly frequently the longer I’ve been in Ireland. I have no doubt that this is because of the fine people whom I am lucky to consider my Irish friends. Whether their bringing me all the way to Dingle or just to Sunday roast dinner, they are enriching my year here beyond what I could have anticipated. Don’t worry: I’m sure they’ll give me a hard time once they’ve read this.

 

 

Inside Paidi O Se's on the Music Trail West

Inside Paidi O Se’s on the Music Trail West

Murphy's Ice Cream - Legendary stuff from Dingle

Murphy’s Ice Cream – Legendary stuff from Dingle

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Trying my hand at the drums between sets at a Dingle pub

 

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Home on the Grange

Five thousand years ago, Neolithic Irish settlers erected an imposing, circular passage tomb in the hills alongside the River Boyne. And 5000 years later, there it remains: one of the world’s oldest archaeological monuments, just an hour’s bus ride away from the Dublin city center.

The Newgrange monument is a perfect example of a sight I wouldn’t have visited, if not for my fellow Mitchells. I am as indoorsy as they come, and if you find me in the great outdoors chances are I’m only there at the behest of others—in this case, Byron and Megan. But standing in the tomb’s inner chamber, marveling at the ancient engravings and watertight, vaulted ceiling (“Not as drop of rain in 5000 years!” boasted our tour guide) I found myself deeply grateful for having acquiesced to coming along.

The settlers who built Newgrange engineered it not only as a place of burial, but also as a meteorological litmus test, with its precisely situated Roof Box letting light into the chamber only when the sun is at the angle that signals the winter solstice. Our tour guide simulated this effect by switching off the lights (apparently the looseness of the stones from which the tomb is constructed made it easy to install modern lighting), and shining a flashlight along a rectangular path perpendicular to the Roof Box. During the actual winter solstice, spots on the tour are rewarded by lottery. Last year, our tour guide informed us, 32,000 people entered into the drawing for a mere 100 spots.

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No photos allowed inside the monument… But check out that exterior!

As soon as I’d entered the chamber, via a cramped passageway that forced even the shortest among us to duck, my emotional state had entered into a tug-of-war between fascination and claustrophobia. Five thousand years of stability notwithstanding, it’s hard to be surrounded on all sides by stone slabs last handled by someone whose birth predated Stonehenge, and not start to fear today will be the day when it all comes crashing down. So, after a couple of minutes of inspecting the interior, Megan and Byron and I exited into the light of day. We spent the rest of our allotted time at the monument strolling alongside its quartz cobblestone exterior—the only part of the monument that is not original, but the result of a reconstructive pioneered by famed archaeologist Michael O’Kelly.

Our journey to the monument had passed quickly, with our tour guide offering historical commentary on the passing landscape, which covered epochs from the Stone Age to the Troubles. Wending our way back toward the city center, the landscape seemed both more vibrant than it had previously—vivified by my new awareness of its history—and quieter in the fading evening light. Hopefully my experience at Newgrange, positive as it was, will push me to be less aggressively indoorsy during the remainder of my time here. As Megan reminded me on the bus, I still haven’t made it to Glendalough!

 

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Sharing Ireland With My Family

My full name is Micaela Erin Flynn Connery.  We have a sign “No Irish Need Apply” to remind us of when relatives first moved to Newport from Ireland many years ago and how they struggled.  My grandparents, although born and raised in the United States, always emphasized being Irish as an important part of their identity.  I remember my Grandpy hanging an Irish flag outside our house each summer on vacation.  My Pop-pop sang “An Irish Lullaby” any chance he had.  With such roots in and love of Ireland, being able to share this country with my parents and sister — on their first trip ever — was a gift. 

I met them early in the morning on Christmas Eve at Dublin Airport.  The arrivals terminal that morning was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. Happy tears welled up with each granny in a Santa hat, dads taking selfies with arriving kids, and tiny tired babies meeting relatives for the first time.  I waited excitedly with my reindeer antlers and “Welcome to Ireland” sign.

We started our trip with Christmas in Dublin.  A Mitchell Scholar and now wonderful friend, Ally, let my family stay in her apartment (we would have been a little tight in my dorm room!).  I decorated the apartment with garlands and thinly lights — plus a homemade cardboard tree.  Under the tree was a gift for each of my family members: a small Irish souvenir wrapped it with a card telling them all about one of the cities we would visit.

We were busy for our three days in Dublin — shopping on Grafton Street and listening to busking on Christmas Eve, mass at Rathmines Church and mingling with the folk group I sing with there, pints in cozy pubs while meeting my classmates from Smurfit.  On St. Stephens day we walked through the green and had afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel, where the constitution was drafted in 1922.  But, the far and away favorite of Christmas in Dublin, and the entire trip, was sharing Christmas dinner with the O’Rourke Family.  Maeve has become my closet friend in Dublin.  It was so unbelievably generous to include us for Christmas for a fun night full of great food, music, and new friendships.

We went from Dublin to Dingle, by way of Wicklow and the Rock of Cashel (yes… not really on the way but worth the 8 hour road trip!).  We visited Killarney, took a Jaunting Car around the lakes and had tea with friends who live there.  We drove up to Galway, taking the car ferry over the Shannon River and stopped at Cliffs of Moher with lunch in Doolin.  The trip ended in Galway with lots of live music, good seafood, and New Year’s festivities.  I even managed to get in my annual New Year’s Day plunge, just in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean this year.

My family left with an appreciation for all Ireland has to offer — incredible scenery, rich history, strong culture, and lively pubs.  They heard trad music, drank pints, saw beautiful sights, and drove winding one lane roads.  Still, as anyone who has spent time on this island will say, their favorite moments were about the people they met here and how much hospitality, kindness, and good craic they so willingly shared.

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Studying the ABC’s

“Better you than me,” the Tesco customer service agent quipped with a chuckle as she rang up my groceries after asking what I am studying in school.  I laughed and promised that my studies toward a Master’s in philosophy of religion are not that abstract or distant, nor are they something to be dreaded.  But I walked away a bit disappointed in myself, since I knew that I should have had a better sound-bite answer for anyone who happens to ask me what I am doing during my year in Ireland.  I proceeded to consider the various thinkers I had been reading and the range of questions I had explored since the beginning of the semester, trying to conceive of a way to present them simply and accessibly.

And then it hit me.  Of course I know what to say.  Philosophy of religion addresses the ABC’s of life—the most basic questions we can ask about our existence: Does God exist?  What relevance does God have for the human person—might we be made in his image?  Do right and wrong exist?  What is truth?  How much of these things can we know through our natural reason alone?  What is faith, and where does it begin?  And so on.

My sense is that, these days, when many people think of philosophy, they think of names in textbooks, old guys with huge beards, tonsures, or fancy wigs, and abstract, even irrelevant ideas.  Furthermore, many—especially of my generation—believe that the questions listed above simply do not have answers.  At the end of the day, they say, it’s “your truth” or “my truth,” but, sorry, there is no capital-T “Truth.”

Not only does that claim undermine itself (since it claims as objective truth that no objective truth exists), but it also fails to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Far from being abstract and irrelevant, philosophy of religion begins with the questions whose answers matter most in our daily lives and responds directly to those deep longings.  Whenever we make a choice about something in our lives—which happens hundreds of times a day—we implicitly assert a conception of reality and our ultimate destiny that we hold to be true.  “Ideas run the world,” it is said, and the actions they inform have serious consequences for ourselves and others.  So it really matters what we believe to be true—“true with a capital T”—and why.

A Dominican priest once explained to me that philosophy is theory, practice, and therapy.  It is theory because it addresses the meaning of the cosmos, which, in Greek (κόσμος or kosmos), literally translates to the “order of existence.”  Philosophy is practice because, in addressing the order of existence and the meaning of the human person, it helps us to orient our lives in accordance with that order, which in turn helps us to live truthfully, virtuously, and lovingly.  And philosophy is therapy because a life oriented toward the order of reality is a life oriented toward the Orderer of reality—who is God, the Truth itself, and who, having made us in his image, provides us with peace, joy, and rest.

So, what is philosophy of religion?  It explores the ABC’s of life, and its conclusions help us to abide in the Truth, wherein we find the fullness of life.

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Ranging around Newgrange

On Monday Emma, Megan, and I travelled to the ancient ruins of Newgrange and the Hill of Tara in County Meath, about a 45 minute drive north of Dublin. Newgrange is a massive circular mound on a hill, constructed of stone, with a grassy top, with a narrow passageway leading to an interior chamber that floods with light during the winter solstice each year. Its construction dates to 3200 BC, making it older than the pyramids and Stonehenge. An astronomical observatory, tomb, and religious shrine all in one, Newgrange is a reminder to me of the ways that ancient forms of religion were intimately tied to the rhythms of the earth, the patterns of the stars, and the turning of the seasons. The very survival of the ancients would not have been possible without intimate knowledge of the natural systems that made agricultural and pastoral life possible. In this sense, religion was not just a set of rituals and moral expectations that bound the community together, but also a cultural mechanism for intergenerational transfer of practical knowledge of nature.

As a result of the many technological, economic, cultural, and intellectual revolutions that have transpired since the construction of Newgrange, societies have emerged in which most people have very little day-to-day engagement with the natural world. For example, in today’s United States, just 1.3% of the population engage professionally in farming, fishing, forestry, or hunting. Of course, this division of labor has obvious economic advantages. The fewer people in our society that we have working as farmers, the greater the number of people who can be engaged in other kinds of productive activity. But I don’t think this change comes without costs. As many of us disconnect from the natural world, unintentionally or not, we lose a visceral awareness of our continued dependence on natural systems for survival, and this makes it much easier for us to treat our planet with disrespect in ways that are fundamentally dangerous and short-sighted.

As we entered the interior chamber of Newgrange, constructed to flood with light to mark the winter solstice every year, I reflected on how remarkable it is that the structure’s ancient builders had managed to devise such a precise system for predicting cosmological events and marking the passage of the seasons, despite not having the benefits of modern scientific concepts and tools. To the neolithic man, devising such a system must have seemed close to impossible, at least at first. And yet it was done, and done remarkably well. Today, humanity’s relationship with the natural world is much changed. Many of nature’s mysteries have been revealed in intricate detail through rigorous scientific inquiry, and the advent of industrialized society has greatly accelerated the pace at which we as a species are shaping the environment. We now have more powerful tools than ever to multiply nature’s bounty, or to destroy it. If we are to build a truly sustainable global community, I believe that we who live in consumption-oriented industrialized societies will need to find ways to reestablish our connections to the natural world.

Newgrange

Newgrange

Inside Newgrange

Inside Newgrange

On the hill of Tara

On the hill of Tara

At the entrance to Newgrange

At the entrance to Newgrange

Emma, Megan, and I on the hill of Tara

Emma, Megan, and I on the hill of Tara

Posted in Travels on the Island, University College Dublin | Leave a comment