Unlucky Number 13

I have lived abroad before. I spent my freshman year of undergrad in Florence stumbling through broken Italian and a phone with no service. I spent my junior year in London adjusting to British politeness and the constant rain. I thought I was used to adapting, and figured that these skills would suit me well during my year in Galway. I was correct, but it would be rash to say that the challenges of COVID-19 didn’t put these skills to the test.

I love meeting new people. There are very few things more satisfying to me than hearing someone tell a story the way they deem it should be told. It is an actual thrill to watch as a person decides which bits of themselves to share when you first meet. You can practically see the internal dialogue in their head: what makes me interesting? what are the defining features of myself? what, right here and now, should I share with this stranger?

It is because of this love for the unfamiliar person that I often stumble into bizarre situations. I will stop a stranger in the grocery store if I’m lost on what to cook for dinner. If I hear someone tell a funny joke near me, I’ll laugh. I am the first person to message a random organization on Instagram because they posted something I found intriguing or important, and this is exactly how I ended up playing in the National Volleyball League of Ireland. 

When I saw NUIG Volleyball post an Instagram story of them training, I sent a message asking if I could join the next practice. They responded back immediately, letting me know that the next practice was that very night. I should preface this with the fact that I am not an elite athlete by any means, although that’s the distinction I received in order to play volleyball matches during COVID-19 lockdown in Ireland. I played volleyball in high school as a right side hitter and on an intramural team at New York University. 

I almost didn’t go to that first practice. The location was in a Catholic school I’d never been to. I had no idea how good these girls would be, and worst of all I hadn’t brought the proper shoes or knee pads for volleyball. Fellow Mitchell Scholar and housemate extraordinaire, Mason, told me I’d regret it if I didn’t go. As usual and annoyingly so, he was right, and so off to practice I went despite the typical Galway weather of rain, wind, and more rain.

The volleyball scene in Ireland is minimal compared to the United States, and because of this everyone seems to know everyone. When COVID-19 caused all university play to cease, I was invited to join the Galway Volleyball Club to compete against other teams across Ireland. I train with men and women alike, and my teammates are Irish, Polish, Greek, Croatian, Canadian, American, Italian, French, Malaysian, and the list goes on. My coach, Luke, plays for the local hurling team and calls me “Florida” as a nickname. Our team captain loves to say “Becca Brett” really fast because it sounds “very American” to her. When we create cheers during matches, most of my teammates don’t know what I’m saying. This confusion is because in Ireland certain volleyball terms are different than in the United States, like opposite hitter instead of right side, wing instead of outside hitter, or the fact that liberos aren’t allowed to serve ever. 

Unfortunately, Level 5 lockdown has suspended game play and training for the Galway Volleyball Club. In December, I look forward to seeing my crazy bunch of teammates again and screaming “Opa!” together after scoring a point. I may wear the unlucky number 13 on my jersey, but I am lucky in the sense that a random message on Instagram has brought me fifty new friends. I know that Ireland will continue to grant me sweet surprises such as this.

Our first match was against IT Carlow on October 11th.
Although I was a right side hitter in the USA,
I play as a middle hitter in Galway because I’m one of the tallest girls on the team!
Our home court is in Claregalway, a 15 minute drive from the city center.
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Learnings of a Perpetual Tourist

I landed in a nearly vacant airport with a stern voice warning of the pandemic over the intercom. I had come to Ireland on a nearly vacant plane and had slept on the flight with my mask on. I sat on a bus with ten rows between me and the one other passenger and recounted moments from last I was here as we drove through Dublin to the university. The welcoming committee stood behind glass. I zigzagged through the rope course where crowds were meant to queue, unsure of when to acknowledge the gazes of the biding staff.

Life is constructed in such a self-centric way. “I” am the subject, always. And from such vantage, each reality is formed. However, in these moments, I am pulled from my pinhole view. The world expands rapidly and panoramically. It was naive to see this pandemic as my issue, or America’s issue, or any derivation or combination of the two. But I am naive, and experience is my teacher. And so Ireland has taught me to step back and observe how connected and interdependent the world is.

It is obvious, but I will state anyways, that my experience here has sidestepped expectations. I haven’t met an Irish person. I haven’t been to any buildings on campus. I haven’t spoken to a classmate. I haven’t even seen all of my professors’ faces. I feel, in many ways, like a perpetual tourist. As a tourist, I have strolled streets and peered in windows that spill gold onto the sidewalk and wondered what dinner the dwellers will have that night. I have eavesdropped on conversations and made a mental note of where my witty comment would fit. I have showered and dressed and sat alone, hoping for a pair of eyes to find me and confirm my existence. To remind me I am real.

From these moments, I have grown. I have found deeper reasons to study in the absence of validation. I see that my knowledge is my power and I will forge and yield it. I have unearthed a bolder self in the absence of recognition. A will to exist and be good anonymously. Most of all, I have affirmed my passion. The work of ethics in machine learning is the work of the observer. Observation of a field, of its effects, of who controls the data, from whom it has been taken, and toward whom it will be applied. I must release myself from all of these roles and yet know them all equally. I see now the beauty in this solitude state. Perhaps a twisted trick, but one that has pushed me in ways I could not push myself. It has forced me to face the uncomfortable self-lackings that constant companionship conceals.

So, while Ireland has not spoken to me, she has taught me. I will stay steadfast in pursuit of my passions. I will walk the streets and wonder. I will think critically and question before accepting. I will step back and widen my view. I am a tourist, perpetually. And yet, this place has begun to shape me.

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Made to Feel Most Welcome

I was very nervous about leaving the United States. I had never been outside of the country before. I had never been more than a few hours away from a member of my family. I had never gone so long without seeing my siblings. Family interaction is crucial for me and—as one of fourteen children—I never had to look far for someone to talk to. The days leading up to my flight, I was swimming in anxiety. The pandemic made things worse. The image I had of myself was one alone in my dorm room, working through my class material, eating alone, day in and day out, rinse, and repeat. I was excited at the opportunity to see a new country, of course, but I was sure that I would be going through the experience alone.

In retrospect, those fears were entirely unfounded. The day that I arrived, I took the shuttle to campus and was struggling to pull my suitcases along the cobblestone of Trinity’s courtyard. I had asked a guard where to check-in, and they said they weren’t sure. As such, I was wandering around campus aimlessly. I was in a place I had never been before without any sense of direction. And after no time at all, a woman approached me, and even behind the mask, I could see her smile. She could tell immediately that I was American (either by the accent or the black Chuck Taylor’s) and she offered to show me to Trinity’s main gate, where I could collect my room key. Along the way, we chatted about the Irish weather (I had been on the island for a few hours and it had already rained twice), the impending American election, and the state of Trinity that year. It was perfectly cordial—not so much like the forced amicability of Ohio, and certainly nothing like the strict “keep to yourself” mentality of New York City. It was a sincere and genuine conversation, even if it only lasted a few minutes. That same day, I had a similarly pleasant conversation with the woman distributing the quarantine meals. She and I have kept up a bit of a friendship, and she has recommended a number of spots for me to explore (my advice has always been to make friends with the lunch lady).

Things have only improved since those first few days. Not only the interactions with staff at Trinity, nor simply with classmates and professors at school, but everyone here seems to be amiable and ready to converse. What’s more, they seem ready to make friends. Ireland is a place for all types of people, which I am coming to learn more and more. Dublin is a world capital and a cosmopolitan city, and the demographics are changing daily. As a host of new folks come in, they are greeted warmly by the Irish, accepted, and made to feel most welcome. I’m happy to say I’ve already made friends who seem lifelong. To think I was so foolish just a few months ago…

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An Intimate View of Northern Ireland

It’s hard to move somewhere new no matter what. Add in an unprecedented global pandemic, and the task of moving to a new continent for a year can sometimes feel like an impossible task. But out of those moments of self-doubt, of discomfort, of ambivalence, I’ve found you can create experiences that make all those feelings worth it.

For the recent past and the foreseeable future, a fourteen-day period seems to have overtaken the seven day week as the appropriate marker of time. The first day I was legally permitted to leave my apartment – it rained in typical Belfast fashion, going back and forth from sunny to pouring multiple times in the same hour. Walking down the street, I laughed to myself at how oddly lifelike the passing pedestrians were compared to the characters on Netflix I had spent my isolation with. I know the analogy about an alien on a foreign planet is overused, but returning back to the public from solitude – and in-turn entering a completely new society – was an experience and feeling I didn’t expect to be so captured by.

There is no doubt that COVID has transformed Belfast. Given the economic uncertainty associated with the pandemic – which is exacerbated by the continued short-term lockdowns being used to manage the spread of the virus – many cultural institutions and businesses in Belfast have been forced to shutter. From the closing of concert halls to restaurants to the all-important pub scene, it’s become more difficult to fully immerse yourself in the culture of Belfast and Northern Ireland. Throughout this year, it will be challenging to engage culturally with Belfast as easily as I had once hoped, but the uncertainty of the next few months will reveal new opportunities.

Although COVID has created many hardships, it has also created once-in-a-lifetime experiences for a long-term visitor like me. Given the inability of tourists to travel to Northern Ireland, those who are here now have free reign over usually packed tourist destinations. My first Saturday out of isolation, I was amazed to be one of a handful of people walking through the Titanic Quarter, and could easily enjoy the outdoor exhibits of Titanic Belfast (one of the most visited museums in all of Europe) without even coming within shouting distance of another person.

The next weekend, I rented a car to drive up the north coast of Ireland to Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle, two attractions that average almost one million visitors in a single year. To my surprise and enjoyment, I spent nearly an hour on the rocks of the Causeway without another person in the entire park. It was a surreal experience and provided an intimacy with one of the great wonders of the natural world that few will ever be able to claim.

There’s no doubt that COVID has turned the world upside-down, and changes what it’s like to study in a new place. But out of those challenges, unprecedented opportunities for deep engagement still exist. You just need to be willing to seek them out.

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Imaginary Cities

It is slightly alien to be living in a new city while most of its doors—including those of my new university—are closed. It puts the city and its people at a remove, that alienness making all stranger, or perhaps merely revealing the strangeness that always was. 

Every shuttered shop, every empty cobblestone corner, every light switched off and pub table empty demands more attention. Each is a reminder of failed public health management on a global scale, of how sites of consumption function as our few spaces of public congregation. Each is a ghostly artifact of the way things were, sheer potentiality for how they might be. The world is turned into a museum, landscape of memory and desire, of absent presence and present absence. Time is suspended (the calendar in the house we live in was still turned to March 2020 when we first arrived, presumably as the last occupants fled with the pandemic to whatever home was more home for them) while promising to progress (we’ll be back soon! proclaim handfuls of hopeful papers posted to dozens of downtown doors).

Perhaps strangest of all, it is still easy to love the city. My Galway has become my imagination of what it might, in its fullest form, be. 

As an American living in Ireland, I have been consistently impressed by the degree to which the Irish people I know follow US politics, especially in this extended election season. They seem to know more about the intricacies of our complex democratic systems than many Americans do.

I’ve also been struck by the degree to which they express an admiration, even a kind of love for the United States, despite our litany of sins. It’s probably to do with the long relationship between the two countries, between our peoples and our politics, the common historical enemy in the English, the history of migration—everyone seems to have a brother in Philly, a cousin in Chicago, and now the US president-elect has a great-grandfather from Louth. 

Still, it is the kind of love for America that I lost some time ago. It’s the kind of love that comes at a distance, the remove allowing for a more idyllic imagination. Where my American peers and I know intimately the ugliness and rancor that run through the American body politic like poison, the Irish are able to project their desires of what they wish America to be upon it like a screen. Surely the same is true in reverse; I cannot know, not in the same embodied way, the ardor of the Irish political dilemmas. This is not to say that any of us is naive as to the complexities of the other, nor that cross-cultural knowing is impossible, only that distance does its work.

And so similarly—strangely—I feel I cannot fully know Galway, the city I live in, in the time of its lockdown. It becomes an imaginary city (as any city always is) and therefore impossibly lovely. When, in reality, in the throes of ordinary time, it is not as perfect as I imagined and hoped, this is then occasion and inspiration to make it more perfect. 

So, too, with America. To love a place is to desire it to realize its highest ideals. May we work to make America the best of what the Irish have imagined us to be.

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Run this town

Going on a nice, long run is one of the first things I do when traveling to a new place. To me, running is one of the most exciting ways to discover a new city.  I’ve found that Dublin is an excellent city for runners. Because Dublin is so compact, many of the most iconic runs are easily accessible from the city center. Moreover, many of these scenic routes fall well within the 5km lockdown radial limit. 

On a good week, I run about 25 miles. But I usually try to run at least 15 miles.  Although Covid-19 has limited the ways for newcomers to familiarize themselves with Dublin, I’ve been able to explore this vibrant city with my running shoes on.

Here are some highlights from the runs I’ve been on this fall:

Stephen’s Green

I ran my first 5km at Stephen’s Green. Smack dab in the heart of the city, this beautifully designed park is a perfect spot for early morning runs. As you lap around the perimeter, it’s hard not to be distracted by warm hues of foliage at every corner. However, I soon learned that running at Stephen’s Green is a nightmare during the afternoon and early evening. At these hours, the park is teeming with your usual mix of school children on lunch break, elderly couples birdwatching, and herds of middle-age women speed walking. 

Dún Laoghaire

The longest run I’ve done was an 8-miler from Belfield to Dún Laoghaire. I ran it on a dewy Sunday morning, which is considerably decent weather for Dublin. This run puts you right along the coast. And on a clear day, the view of the harbor rivals my hometown favorite, Chesapeake Bay. This route has become my favorite–I try to follow it a couple times per week.

Galway

The highlight of my Halloween weekend in Galway was a 5-mile run I ran with Kyle, through the city center and along Galway Bay. Kyle and I are running buddies–two weeks ago he helped me set a new PR in the 10km. 

I think we’d both agree that Galway is not the most runner-friendly city. On our run through town, we paused several times to make way for vehicles and passersby. But once we got to the bay, the obstacles we faced earlier seemed worth it.  The bay was simply breathtaking. So much so, that Kyle and I both stood still for several minutes and watched in awe as the sunset. 

—–
Prior to moving to Ireland, I had been training for my first full marathon. But like almost everything else this year, the race was canceled due to Covid-19. With the help of Kyle and the Dublin gang, I hope to run a makeshift marathon sometime this winter.  Although I won’t have 5,000 fellow runners and 500,000 screaming spectators helping me along, I look forward to creating a crazy route winding past all the new and exciting places I’ve been able to explore in Dublin this fall.

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Resilient Communities

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I sat overlooking the Galway Bay as I listened to a virtual sermon about the importance of having a sense of community. The Pastor, Ryan, pointed out that “happiness doesn’t come from our circumstances. Instead, it comes from our communities.” The current global pandemic – and the isolated world that it has created – has magnified the necessity of having a community of friends, colleagues, and loved ones to fall back on when we need them the most. Our communities help us remain resilient when our circumstances seem insurmountable. 

South Park overlooking Galway Bay.

In that moment of reflection, I thought back to my journey across the Atlantic a few short weeks before. In between conversations with Becca, a fellow Mitchell Scholar, a housemate in Galway, and seat buddy on the flight, my thoughts were consumed by how I was leaving my entire community across the world. I wondered if I would be able to find a sense of community in Galway. Quickly, as we settled into our new home, I realized that the Irish prioritize making others feel like a member of their community.

Marie and Therese, my program directors, went above and beyond to make sure that I had a successful start on the island. They both, separately, offered to pick me up on campus when the bus dropped us off from the airport so that I did not have the drag my luggage to my apartment. How thoughtful!

One of the first people that I met was our landlord, Peter. As soon as we had finished discussing the details of the house upon our arrival, he showed us to the nearest grocery store so we could grab essentials for our new home and offered to introduce us to a fellow American staying in another of his properties in town. A few weeks later, when we could not open an Irish bank account due to a delay in paperwork, he took me down to his local bank and attempted to circumvent the paperwork by personally vouching for me. It didn’t work, but it was an incredibly thoughtful gesture! Peter made us feel so welcomed.

John, a fellow Purdue University alumnus and Ireland native, sent me an email the first week I was in Ireland to invite me to a virtual event for an agricultural alumni organization that he leads. The event was full of insightful speakers and featured topics that gave me great context into Irish agriculture. John called me after the event to ask me if I had any questions. He even invited me to become an associate member of the organization. I’m thankful that John welcomed me into his community.

I came to Ireland to learn more about how Irish rural communities have remained resilient despite famine and hardship. My experience thus far has been a great reminder about what makes a community resilient: its people. A strong community – full of thoughtful residents that care for one another – can conquer any circumstance.   

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“Wee” Means We

“Wee”—everybody says it here. To quote Derry Girls character James Maguire, “People here use the word wee to describe things that aren’t even actually that small!” “Wee” is a great signal that I am far from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

My first 14 days in Belfast were spent in a bedroom by myself. It was a tough way to start a life in a new place. Even after quarantine, life in the times of Covid-19 made it tough to get to know this city and the people who live here.

I felt separated from everything—separated from my family and friends back home; separated from Belfast, as I watched it through my quarantined window or from six feet away, mask on.

There seems to be separation everywhere. Families and friends are physically separated in the face of Covid-19; my country’s citizens are ideologically separated. When I arrived in Belfast, my cab driver talked about a new threat of separation: the latest Brexit deal that could further separate Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland and cause even further separation in Northern Ireland between loyalists and republicans.  

Belfast is no stranger to separation. The Troubles, and the oppression of Catholics that preceded it, brought periods of intense and violent separation between Catholics and Protestants. The separation permeated every area of life.

Belfast’s history of separation, or rather its revolution of unity, is what brought me here in the first place, so it’s only fitting that Belfast would teach me how to see beyond the immediate separation I felt to embrace all the newness that awaited me.

This past weekend I met Norman. Norman is the classic example of a Belfast-native who is warm, welcoming, and excited to help new people understand his home—its history and progress. He reminded me of the people I met when I was in Belfast for the first time, whose warmth was a version of southern hospitality from home.

As Norman took me through the Shankill and Falls roads and told me about his own experience of growing up in the separation of the Troubles, he was quick to also share his enthusiasm of how far his city had come since those days. We talked about shared education and the integrated school he wanted his children to attend. He told me what it meant to him when Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland in 1995.

Norman’s tour helped me feel more connected to Belfast. Norman also reminded me of a Belfast spirit to reject old separation and to look for new connections.

Now, when I hear “wee,” I think of connections to Belfast, instead of separations from home (and Derry Girls, of course—a must-see).

I’m grateful to Belfast and Norman for reminding me to embrace a perspective of discovery, connectedness, and unity, even when it’s easy to see separation. I’m grateful for the reminder of why I chose to spend this year of my life in such a beautiful place as Belfast.

Evan, a visitor from home to share all the wee joys of Belfast. We’re standing in front of the unmistakable Lanyon Building of Queen’s University Belfast.
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Just Some Castle

I finally did it.

My (admittedly mild) goal of touching something older than the United States finally came in the form of an Irish castle that had very little in the way of description or formal marking. These enormous stone ruins were found in a nondescript field that had little aside from a couple lounging in the grass and some dogs playing at their feet. Nobody seemed to give much care about the castle.

A few yards away from them, I could feel my memory recording every detail of the time I stood in its midst. As I walked through the building’s skeleton, I thought of the conversations of gossip, jokes, or politics that must have taken place within these walls centuries ago. I was fascinated. As I left the room, I asked one of my companions about what this place was called.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “It’s just some castle.”

Old stone ruins of an Irish castle.

A quick search on Google Maps revealed that it was, indeed, just “some castle.”  The casualness of it all and the utter lack of information surrounding the place didn’t leave my mind for the rest of the day. How could people live amongst such astounding history with the same sense of indifference one might take towards having multiple banks in your neighborhood? Perhaps it’s merely the natural byproduct of living in a world saturated by these relics.

Coming from Kansas, our greatest sources of excitement are typically focused on what’s new in town. Merely an ocean away, the most common tangible forms of “ancient history” in my life might come in the form of an old tractor or a disconnected payphone. That day, however, the idea of living in a country where there are pubs that have served pints since before the United States was even an idea, let alone a nation, finally sunk in. Although the varying levels of COVID-19 lockdowns have prevented much of us within the Mitchell cohort from exploring a lot of what Ireland has to offer, the lesson that the presence of these ancient buildings strewn across the rolling green hills remains: time simply trudges on.

Although it hardly needs to be said, 2020 has been an incredibly unique year to move to a new country. Watching the consequences of wide-scale political upheaval, record-setting hurricanes and wildfires, and the continuing devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic has hardly been easy to do away from friends and family. At times, the onslaught of this year has felt so unprecedented that it feels like maybe the world is, in fact, ending. But in the days and nights that I can explore my own corners of Ireland overwhelmed and amazed, standing in the aftermath of such great history has been a continually surprising source of immense comfort.

This land has persevered through its own set of plagues, revolutions, and conflicts. Even after a few turbulent weeks in Ireland, I’m confident that we can all do the same.

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Fourteen Days

Like all international arrivals, upon arriving in Belfast, I had to complete a two week self isolation. With the exception of accidentally ordering four bags of sweet potatoes instead of four individual sweet potatoes, it went extremely uneventfully. 

So instead, here are fourteen eventful days from after my release:

Day 1: My first day out of self isolation — I had a coffee inside of a cafe and bought a king size duvet for my double bed. My memories of the day are dark at the corners from sun squinting. It was a rare sunny afternoon and I spent all of it wandering the various squares and picturesque entries — small alleys that open into internal courtyards. I think the memory is more overexposed from the influx of new people and scenery scrawled over months of the same four walls of my high school bedroom. 

Day 2: On the evening before classes start, a bunch of classmates organized a meeting at a nearby pub. It’s mostly empty, hard to tell if that was because it was a Monday or a pandemic. We therefore got the full attention of the MC during the drag performance that was occurring behind a plexiglass barrier.

Day 3. My first day of in person class is on Tuesday. Arriving for the first time feels not dissimilar to an airport. I follow the one way only signs to my classroom where I scan a contact tracing QR code with my phone and then buckle my seatbelt and sit down for six hours. Before lockdown suspended in person classes in mid October, we would sit at our computers six feet away from each other wearing masks and jackets (the room’s required ventilation flushes all the heat out of the open door.) Despite all the protective measures, I feel incredibly lucky to benefit from the classroom community during my art practice.

Day 4: I finally finished the sweet potatoes I had ordered in quarantine by making an enormous soup. 

Day 5: It is Yom Kippur. I take a bus to East Belfast thereby doubling its Jewish population. Ella and I watched a live streamed synagogue service from two twin beds in the spare bedroom of her airbnb. 

Day 6: I’m on a break from virtual class when I got a text from my friend to look at Cave Hill (one of those quintessentially Irish, rolling green ones) asking if I can see him from my window. He says he’s between the two radio towers and is jumping up and down and waving. I don’t think I can make him out, but I do tell him It looks like there’s a big cloud growing ominously behind him and the weather website says it’s about to start pouring. 

Day 7: I finally finished the enormous soup that I made to finish the sweet potatoes I had ordered in quarantine. 

Day 8: I woke up in the dark on this Tuesday to walk forty minutes to a bakery in Ormeau with a friend to buy olive sourdough right when it came out of the oven. Forty minutes and our daily 10,000 steps later, we inhaled the loaf in the public park outside the university before class started. Like all good things (in-person classes, pub night, bakeoff, and 3 for 5£ tacos) olive bread occurs only on Tuesdays. While time has lost most meaning during the pandemic, there is definitely a weekly structure emerging which divides the week roughly into Tuesday and anticipation-for-the-next-Tues-day. Of those two days, my favorite day is Tuesday.

Day 9: Northern Ireland announces a four week circuit breaker lockdown.

Day 10: In a book store I picked up “Nobber” by Oisin Fagan because the back jacket promised a tale about a noble traveling the Irish countryside in 1348 “using the advantage of the plague which has collapsed society to buy up large swaths of land.” I’m quite glad of this purchase as in lockdown I’ve been looking for new hobbies that one can do in plague-ridden Ireland.

Day 11: I’ve been running a lot since I arrived in Belfast. On Sunday I woke up around seven and ran to the Botanic Gardens through the city center. The streets were almost entirely empty at the time and without the lively throngs of people I realized that Belfast was a lot smaller than I had thought. I’ve been growing more aware of the different neighborhoods in the city that are carefully subdivided, and stacked side-by-side. Murals and street art give particularly potent insight into a given street’s residents and histories.

Day 12: I wondered if I should cut my own hair. 

Day 13: I decided not to cut my own hair. 

Day 14: Election day has been the longest Tuesday yet. While I had a lot to learn about Irish politics (which I’ve been learning about mostly from friends in my course during our weekly pub trips) almost everyone I had met was in step with every update about the American election. The man at the security desk of my building was refreshing the CNN website faster than I was and when a maintenance man came to fix my floor, he asked if there were any updates on Philadelphia’s ballot count. When I found out the election was finally called, almost simultaneously I heard shouts of joy from a nearby group of Irish teenagers. A group of friends joined me in celebrating outside by the river where we struggled to uncork a bottle of prosecco and hid from spots of rain and from slugs on the outdoor benches. Although I was looking at America from afar, it was a night that made me feel at home here. 

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The Irish Art of Assembly

As an outsider looking in, nothing seems more fundamentally representative of Irish culture than the Irish wake. Ubiquitous in Irish literature, music, theater, and storytelling, the celebratory assembly of the community following a death seems to encapsulate the social, cultural, and historical spirit of Ireland. When the social distancing measures were put in place in early March, I began to see article after article discussing the implications of COVID-19 for Irish funerary rituals, all pointing out that there is perhaps nothing more antithetical to the circumstances of our new global reality than the Irish wake. I was brought to tears by one story of a community in Ballyferriter, County Kerry. Unable to gather for a wake, the entire parish lined the 2km street to the cemetery (all keeping a safe 2m distance, of course) to sing “Óró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile,” one of my favorite traditional Irish melodies.

The evolution of the Irish funeral ritual

Just several days after reading this story, my 93-year-old grandfather (a survivor of the Holocaust) passed away of natural causes unrelated to COVID-19. Unable to return home, my family held a “Zoom funeral,” an unfortunate reality that has become more and more common in the age of COVID-19. This virtual gathering was no replacement for a real one. Out of the isolation of that experience, I came to realize just how irreplaceable the act of assembly is. In these “socially-distanced” community wakes, like the one in Ballyferriter, the Irish people have demonstrated that they fully understand, appreciate, and embody the art of assembly.

As a theater director, public assembly is very much my business. As we find ourselves at this unnerving moment in which assembly is no longer possible, we must reconsider, and indeed reimagine, what it means to be together with our communities for comfort, for celebration, and for grieving. Perhaps it is this unique quality of Irish culture that drew me to Irish theater in the first place.

Unlike many research-based graduate programs, the practical, hands-on nature of my program (an MFA in Theatre Directing) is nearly impossible to accomplish digitally. Instead of conducting courses virtually, the Lir is still holding out hope that we might be able to complete our coursework, and our thesis productions (in my case, a staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome), in person by the end of the summer.

We have, however, been asked to prepare ourselves for the more than likely scenario that the actors will not be allowed to have any physical contact with one another and the productions will be performed without an audience. As daunting as this task may be, it has prompted me to reassess what I understand theater to be, and how I understand its intersection with culture and civic life at the broadest level.

Above all, I have come to understand how deeply I cherish the act of assembly and what a precious gift it has been to spend this year immersed in a culture that shares that love.

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“You can plan a pretty picnic, but…”

“…you can’t predict the weather,” laments Andre 3000 on OutKast’s classic record, “Ms. Jackson.” Three Stack’s iconic line made me chuckle during one of my runs along the River Lee, a favorite route to lose myself in miles of music and Cork’s desktop-background-worthy landscapes. Had, in an alternate universe, Erykah Badu’s mother been Irish, and the song titled something like “Ms. Murphy” or “Ms. O’Connor,” I doubt Andre’s verse would have read the same—you can predict the weather in Ireland; it will rain.

Though I’d been wise enough not to plan any picnics, OutKast’s song made me reflect on the joys that came with the Irish climate: the un-planned picnics (or your outing of choice) that accompanied the unexpected sunny days. A blue sky was not taken for granted. Parting clouds immediately summoned flocks of undergrads to lay out at Fitzgerald Park and coaxed researchers to abandon their pipettes and lab coats for the outdoors. In my case, a blue sky spurred me on my much-loved distance runs throughout Cork.

After hearing it on my run, I had planned on blogging about Andre 3000’s verse to harp on the unexpected joys I’d grown to love throughout my time in Ireland: Cork’s vibrant English Market where I discovered glorious Gubbeen cheese, UCC’s International Student Society where I’d made dear friends, warm and upbeat trad nights at Sin É. But boarding a plane to JFK from Dublin, on the city’s quietest St. Patrick’s Day in recent history, it struck me that Andre’s memorable line perfectly encapsulated the feeling of leaving Ireland four months early in the face of the global pandemic.

It was a timely year to pursue a Master’s in Public Health. I did not anticipate that, weeks after my Infectious Disease Epidemiology modules at UCC, I would be hearing about attack rates and case-fatality rates again as countries around the world enacted public health measures of varying efficacy to contain the spread of COVID-19. If it wasn’t clear before, the need for effective and organized public health leadership has been laid bare in the wake of preventable suffering at the hands of coronavirus.

While I’m heartbroken to have left Cork so early and abruptly, I am lucky to have fallen in love with a city that made leaving so hard, and am endlessly grateful to the Mitchell Scholarship for a life-changing year. I’m going to miss reuniting for one last adventure with my fellow Mitchells in Tipperary, but I know that in them, I’ve made lasting friends. Though the future seems especially unpredictable, I’ll be back, Ireland—no matter the weather.

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