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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See You Later, Ireland

This term, I had felt like I had found my communities in Ireland. My classmates and I had become much closer, as we helped each other with group work and spent ample time together after class. My suitemates and I had begun frequently eating lunch and dinner together and sharing details about our lives. Finally, I had learned how to best experience and utilise Dublin for my own interests.

Keshav Goel performing stand-up at KO Comedy at the International Student Bar in Dublin City Centre.

I had been commuting into Dublin city centre semi-weekly to participate in open mic nights at several comedy clubs. These clubs were hosted in or attached to pubs, so the audience was comprised of an organic mix of comedians, passers-by, regulars to the pub, and bartenders.

Keshav Goel performing stand-up at a student-organised comedy showcase event at NUI Maynooth run by the Maynooth Comedy Society.

This was in stark contrast to my performances on campus at NUI Maynooth run by the Maynooth Comedy Society, where my jokes fell on the ears exclusively of other students. As I frequented both comedy circuits, I discovered a warm and intimate community of other comedians that would perform at the same venues regularly. This community, along with that of my classmates and suitemates, had me positioned to have an incredible spring term. However, by now we know how this story ends.

Due to the progression of the COVID pandemic in February and March, I, along with other Mitchell Scholars, made the incredibly tough decision to leave Ireland early for the year in mid-March. Everyone’s experiences with COVID are different, and I appreciate the tough familial, medical, economic, and emotional circumstances the pandemic has put everyone through. Therefore, I will not speak for anyone else’s experiences but my own, as I recount what I have been most thankful for as my swift departure from the island unfolded.

As I packed up my dorm, I received ample help from my suitemates. I asked for advice regarding check-out procedure, and they allowed me to clutter the public spaces with my many suitcases as I packed up my dorm to move out definitively. Once I was done packing, I shared goodbyes with some classmates who travelled to campus to see me off and share one final Guinness with me (this was before quarantine protocol had been discussed in Ireland). We shared our experiences with the program, had some laughs, discussed our homes (namely California, Ontario, and the Greater Dublin Area), and reflected on how we had gotten very close. I messaged comedian friends in Maynooth and Dublin updating them with my departure status. Finally, I said goodbye to my suitemate, after we discussed plans to see each other again back in the US. Though my departure was haste, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on the communities I had been privileged to become a part of. The pain involved in each goodbye occurred only because I had enjoyed great experiences here, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I will almost certainly be back. Therefore, I do not say goodbye, but see you later, Ireland.

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Extreme Social Distancing

I braced myself against the stone structure on the summit and took a deep breath, savoring the fresh, mountain air. While the intense wind was cold and biting, I stopped before descending and took a second to reflect on the freedom and joy I felt in that moment, surrounded by rolling green hills, the rapidly proliferating virus seemingly so far in the distance. It was March 15th, shortly before the UK’s deep dive into lockdown, yet social distancing had begun days prior. Already feeling the effects of withdrawal from human interaction, Rohan and I decided to hike Slieve Donard, the tallest peak in Northern Ireland. We jokingly termed our activity “extreme social distancing,” for what could be a more effective isolation strategy than wandering into the wilderness and climbing as far away from the rest of society as humanely possible?

It was a lovely day, capped off with steak quesadillas at the taqueria near my apartment building. Yet, in the following days, the crisis escalated, heightening stress levels and government restrictions. I decided to remain in Belfast, largely due to family circumstances, but also because of the deep sadness I felt at the thought of putting an abrupt end to my life in Ireland. I never wavered in that decision; indeed, the number of Irish friends that reached out, offering spare rooms and family support, as well as the virtual moral support of other international friends who stayed, has convinced me, now more than ever, that Belfast has become my home. While every aspect of daily life here has changed since lockdown began, I’ve developed new practices and behaviors that have allowed me to adjust to quarantine with relative ease. I schedule daily calls with friends and family members, use the “Netflix Party” feature to chat with my sister while re-watching our favorite shows, and venture outside for my government-sanctioned daily exercise trips. My most enjoyable new hobby is my current effort to explore every Belfast park while staying six (or, most of the time, sixty) feet away from all of the other wanderers.

The pandemic feels all-consuming. It’s difficult to conceive of anything else to talk or think about, and I’m often unsure of whether I should allow myself to indulge in such thoughts, given the stress and suffering people are experiencing throughout the world. However, in moments of deep breaths, of video chats with old friends, of walks through empty Belfast parks, it becomes easier to remind myself of all that I have to be grateful for. These moments truly help me, as does the daily practice my Belfast friends and I adopted, in which we share things we’re thankful for, in greater numbers on each day of quarantine. The intentionality and reflection required by this practice helps me cultivate perspective and find comfort even in this uncertain time. With that in mind, and with the hope that you may find a similar exercise helpful, I’ll share my list with you as well.  

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Unexpected Endings

It is always hard to move on from a home, but there is something especially difficult and jarring about having to do so at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, our experience in Ireland ended abruptly for many of the Mitchell Scholars due to the ongoing pandemic. Faced with the prospect of being isolated in our tiny UCD dorm rooms for months on end and the prospect of closing borders and further travel restrictions, Annabel and I decided together that we needed to return to the US. Within 36 hours, we were both on flights back to America.

Being in self-isolation has felt like a state of limbo. I left my life in Ireland behind—I even cancelled my housing contract with UCD as it looks unlikely that I will be able to return to Ireland over the summer. Despite the permanence of my departure, I left with so many loose ends that my time in Ireland feels unfinished. Classes are continuing online, meaning that while I will still be able to earn my degree it will be without the intellectual engagement and access to academic facilities that is necessary to thrive. My classes had just fallen into the steady balance of participation and professor facilitation that is the hallmark of any good seminar, and I am disappointed that our time in the classroom has been cut short. I have scaled back my nascent thesis project to account for the fact that I can’t be in Ireland to do my research. Blossoming friendships with my Irish classmates now feel stuck in purgatory—Facebook messenger and WhatsApp are poor substitutes for the quality time that is needed to forge a closer bond. Trips—to Croatia, Liechtenstein, Wicklow, Isle of Man, and the south of France—that were being planned just two and a half weeks ago are now dreams for a nearly unimaginable future in which we can go outside, board a plane, and frequent rooftop bars and quaint wineries without fear of getting sick. The pandemic also means that I am unable to go through the motions of returning from a stint abroad—no reunions with friends or family, no meals at my favorite restaurants in my home town. As a result, it feels like life has been put on pause, like I am stuck between life in Ireland and whatever comes next.

When I find myself in the midst of a quarantine malaise (which is often), I think about one of my favorite weekends of the entire year. Annabel, Rohan, and I had travelled to the Isle of Man for a weekend spent hiking and imbibing in the charming environment of Foraging Vintners, a local winery that we had long admired via Instagram. After a catastrophic hike that ruined Rohan’s hiking boots, we finally reached Foraging Vintners, and despite the day’s many misadventures we felt contented, reassured that yes, it is possible to make friends like this after college. Although our time in Ireland has been cut short, we can now rely on our friendship to get us through the dark days ahead. I’m thankful for the many friends and memories that have filled my heart over this last year. I’ll see you soon.  

A few weeks before the world exploded, the Mitchell Scholars got together one last time for our mid-year retreat in Belfast. Some of us climbed up to the top of the Giant’s Causeway and were promptly blown to the ground by strong winds.
Making our own dance floor during a night out on the Belfast weekend.
A snapshot of the misery we experienced during our hike on the Isle of Man. Highlights include: not being able to find the trail, getting hailed on, getting lost in a cow field, getting stuck in mud, and missing the bus to civilization because we were on the wrong side of the road.
Annabel and I went on vacation to Portugal a few days before we came back to the US. After months of the grey Irish winter, we got sunburnt after a day spent on the beach reading and drinking wine.
Saying a chaotic and very sad goodbye to our Mitchell year as we arrive at the Dublin airport at 4:30 am, with all of our earthly possessions in tow.
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Coronavirus, Gratitude, and Stage Beyond

Nobody needs me to tell them that we’re living in a very strange time. Many of my fellow Mitchell Scholars have left Ireland and returned to their homes in the US, and we’re all taking classes virtually now that social distancing protocols are firmly in place across the Ireland and the UK. There are certainly a lot of downsides to a global pandemic, but I’m trying to stay focused on the things that make me grateful to still be in Derry.

I am grateful for my health and the health of my housemates here and my family back home. I am grateful for a cozy wee house (see my previous blog post for details), my cat, and the fact that my fiancé is holed up with me here. I am grateful for occasional drives along the north coast when we desperately need to get out of the house.

I could talk at great length about all of these things, but I want to spend this post focused on my gratitude for Stage Beyond Theatre Company, with whom I have been working since January. The shape of that work has changed significantly in the past few weeks, but the community and joy attached to it remain.

Stage Beyond is a theatre company made up of adults with learning disabilities. My first day with them was the day they auditioned company members for a new video game inspired adaptation of Hamlet, written by Colin Murphy, that was scheduled to tour around Ireland this May. (Unfortunately, the tour was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak).  I’ve been working with the group on Hamlet: Call of Duty for ten hours a week since auditions, and have been blown away by the ensemble’s enthusiasm, adaptability, and raw talent.

Two actors goofing off with the prop scull during a Hamlet: Call of Duty rehearsal. Their scripts are open on a table in front of them.

The group welcomed me with open arms, lots of questions about New York City, occasional chocolate bars and sausage rolls from the Centra around the corner, endless puns and riddles, caricatures drawn in Sharpie, Fortnite flossing lessons, and serious excitement about the American drama games I taught them. When I missed one day of rehearsal because of a class, every single company member approached me the next morning and asked me whether I was feeling alright and told me they missed me. I felt so at home with the Stage Beyond company, and that feeling only grew when the coronavirus scare began. The company’s director offered me a spare room in her house and the actors checked in every day to see how everyone was feeling. On the last day of rehearsal before programming stopped for social distancing, we spent the day reviewing games we’d learned together and shared impressions from movies over tea. We tossed around the idea of doing a radio play version of Hamlet – stay tuned; it might happen! And while we all wanted to hug on our way out at the end of the day, we tapped elbows and wished each other our best instead.

I miss my Stage Beyond pals every day I’m in isolation, and hope I’ll be able to work with them again this summer before I head back to the states. I’m so grateful to have been welcomed into their community and for their support during this bizarre and scary time.

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A City of Neighborhoods

            We hear it each day – that today is unlike any other point in history. In New York, Andrew Cuomo recites it nightly to his brother on CNN. In Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster compete to see who can reel off more platitudes in a single day. To some degree, we have all internalized this refrain. Some have turned to raiding supermarkets to stockpile toilet paper (newsflash: toilet paper actually won’t save you from the Coronavirus). Others have turned to Instagram to detail their daily routines (I feel a duty to say that unless it it’s gourmet, people aren’t interested in what you had for breakfast). And more than a few have responded to the current bleakness by turning to gin (I may or may not be referring to myself here).

            Thus far I have resisted the more destructive behaviors that forced quarantine can generate. It’s probably a bit worrying how easily I’ve adapted to living in a police state that controls our movement, but that’s a topic for a different blog. In a quest to remain sane in this unprecedented time, I’ve turned to running.

            Now, this is surprising for multiple reasons. I am a generally sedentary individual. I have never had an affinity for physical activity that doesn’t involve a racquet. And I ascribe to the personal philosophy of “Why run when I can take an Uber?”

            But as we are told daily, this isn’t a normal time. In Northern Ireland, we are allowed to leave the house for a daily run or walk (while maintaining a safe distance from others of course), and I’ve jumped at the chance to be outside.

I almost always run through the Botanic Gardens near Queen’s.

            Running through the city these past few weeks has shown that me Belfast is a city of neighborhoods. Starting in the woods of Belvoir Park Forest, I make my way through South Belfast, transfixed by the mansions of elusive BT9 postcode. Then I’ll loop through the Botanic Gardens and eye the now empty classrooms of Queen’s. I might cross the river and jog along Ormeau, daydreaming about when some of the area’s bohemian pubs will reopen. From there I’ll run through East Belfast, where I’ll be confronted by union jacks and UVF murals, and I’ll take a detour to run by the peace wall near Cluan Place. Then I’ll jog back to the river and up to Titanic Quarter, gazing up at the giant industrial steel buildings and the millions of dollars poured in by the government to create the ‘new Belfast.’

Belfast’s Belvoir Park Forest on a rare sunny day

            I am constantly struck by the fact that even a five minute walk in Belfast can lead you to a totally different neighborhood – one with different allegiances, a different history, and a different hope for the future. I will leave my Mitchell year with the understanding that to live in a city offers the opportunity to be both constantly curious and constantly learning. At least, that has been my experience in Belfast.

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Planting Roots, Staying Connected, and Keeping Faith

Planting trees at the interfaith Tu B’Shevat gathering in Navan, County Meath, where I joined the Dublin City Interfaith Forum

I had never been to an interfaith tree planting before this winter and as I rode the bus to County Meath for my first I wondered what it might entail. It was Tu B’Shevat, a Jewish holiday often compared to Earth Day that celebrates nature, and as an active participant in Dublin’s small, but energetic Jewish community since arriving on the island, I had been invited to join in the festivities. I was thrilled with what I encountered: rather than marking the holiday alone, we were joined by Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others to plant trees in the Ireland’s fertile soil, burying their roots in the earth together. Enthused about the event, I learned it was the work of the Dublin City Interfaith Forum. Soon after, I was excited to join the organization’s Youth Board as the new representative of Dublin’s Jewish faith community.

Recording the pilot episode of “States of Mind” with journalist Jackie Fox at the RTÉ News studio in Dublin

My second term at Trinity College was a chance to plant my own roots deeper into Dublin, getting involved in the community in new and exciting ways. In addition to classes, travel, and joining the Interfaith Forum Youth Board, I also embraced an exciting opportunity to appear as a recurring commentator on an RTÉ News program. After becoming active with the Ireland chapter of Democrats Abroad, I was connected with an RTÉ journalist named Jackie Fox who was starting a new podcast for the network about American politics called “States of Mind.” The day after Super Tuesday, I took the bus to RTÉ’s studios to record a pilot episode, analyzing the results and talking about my support for Joe Biden. When the show was green-lit, I took a second trip to the studio to record commentary for the first official episode of the show.

RTÉ Podcast “States of Mind” Episode 1: “No Show Like a Joe Show”
Listen from 12:50 to 24:50 for my commentary and analysis

However, by Super Tuesday, when I volunteered with Democrats Abroad Ireland to help run the primary voting center in Dublin by checking in voters and tallying ballots, one of my duties already included donning sanitary gloves to periodically wipe down the voting stations, protecting voters from transmitting the coronavirus that had begun to seize headlines and stoke fears. As St. Patrick’s Day approached, the growing pandemic increasingly derailed my plans until I had no choice but to make a difficult decision. With Trinity encouraging students to leave  on-campus accommodations, my travel health insurance noting that it would no longer cover COVID-19 cases, and travel suspensions announced by the US and EU, I packed my things and headed back home to the USA, leaving my heart behind in Ireland.

While volunteering to facilitate the Democrats Abroad primary polling center in Dublin, one of my duties was to wipe down to the voting station with disinfectant periodically to protect voters from COVID-19

If the time between January to March was about planting deeper roots in Ireland, this crisis marks the beginning of a new chapter in my relationship with Ireland, focusing on maintaining and nurturing those roots while far away. I am lucky that with all classes at Trinity moved online, I am still set to complete my master’s degree and graduate on schedule, even if the time difference between Ireland and the United States means that my class schedule in self-isolation has been anything but normal. Yet, I’ve been even more grateful to have been able to stay engaged with Ireland from afar through the organizations I remain active with there.

Despite being back in the US, I have still been able to join RTÉ’s “States of Mind” podcast, calling on by phone on the podcast’s second episode. In fact, in a surprise twist, I brought my grandfather onto the show as well, recording an episode in which he and I debate Trump’s response to the pandemic. In this way not only have I been able to stay engaged with Ireland, but I have also been able to engage Ireland with the United States, giving our Irish audiences insight into America’s politics.

RTÉ Podcast “States of Mind” Episode 2: “President vs. Pandemic”
Listen from 15:40 to 25:10 for my discussion with my Republican grandpa

Still, during these difficult times, I am thankful to have drawn strength and faith from my ongoing connection with Ireland. Just yesterday, I helped run a special Virtual Interfaith Prayer Gathering for the Dublin City Interfaith Forum. As a common darkness descended on each of our faith communities, seven faith groups in Dublin joined together online to create a common light, sharing prayers for resilience, healing, and hope together. With dozens joining together on Zoom, I led attendees in singing Mi Sheberach, the Jewish prayer for healing, while listening in gratitude as other faith communities shared their own prayers. While we might not have all been sharing the same physical space together like we did planting trees in County Meath, the virtual space was abuzz with the same spiritual energy that comes from such solidarity. In my case, I could feel it across the ocean.

Leading participants from seven faith backgrounds in Mi Sheberach at the Dublin City Interfaith Forum’s Virtual Interfaith Prayer Gathering on March 30 helped me to find light during a dark time as my connection to Ireland remains strong despite my early return to the United States
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All Good Things Have to End

I don’t know when to quit. 

I never have. I think that’s part of the reason why I made such a good organizer—I feel like to work in abortion access in places like Kansas you have to have a sometimes foolish, never-going-to-give-this-up stubbornness. I will be the first to admit I sometimes make reckless choices, and that I identify spiritually with the meme “the risk I took was calculated, but man, am I bad at math.” This is a very roundabout way of saying that I made the decision to stay in Ireland despite a global pandemic.

I don’t have US health insurance. I have one of those fun pre-existing conditions that impacts my lungs. I know if I get COVID-19 there’s a greater chance than most 22-year-olds I will need hospitalization, probably for pneumonia. I cannot afford to spend days in a hospital and wind up with a $73,000 bill as the cost of keeping me alive and comfortable. I cannot return to the country I was born in and lived in for 22 years because of political decisions that systemically replaced the welfare state with massive personal debt. I’m not going to say that isn’t painful. So, I had to stay.

I love Ireland. I love the way I feel in the countryside, going on hikes in the green, hearing the lovely lilting accent, and feeling the history wrapped into the cairns and bogs. I love staring at the sea in the middle of a hike. I love the way the constant rain makes the world feel so alive. I love the resilience. I love the people. 

Those who say Irish are distant to foreigners have never seen them come together in a crisis. Ladies in my cohort have asked me if I need to move in with them and their kids. A dear friend has offered me a room in the house she’s renovating—a friend on the border in Co. Monaghan told me her parents (who have never met me!) want me to come up if living in Dublin gets too precarious. My master’s cohort has plans to deliver groceries and supplies to each other via bikes if someone living alone gets sick.

I wish instead of writing this sad, sad, post I was getting ready for cans at a friend’s place. I wish that I was still able to walk into my kitchen and run into Annabel, I wish that the last time Keshav, Matt, and I had pints wasn’t the last time. I wish this year had a satisfying conclusion instead of this interminable stasis. But, although my friends are scattered, we are all more-or-less safe, and that is something to be grateful for now. 

If the point of the Mitchell year was to make connections in Ireland, I feel like I did alright. At the end of the day, all we have is each other. All we have is the connections we’ve made and the people we love and who love us. I’m grateful for how many connections I’ve made and how many people are keeping an eye on me now both here and virtually. I’m grateful to this country for taking me in, and I’m in gracious awe that even though I can’t be with my parents, or back in the United States, I get to spend my pandemic in Ireland.

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Noli Timere

In the past weeks, as efforts to curb the novel coronavirus pandemic placed most people across Europe and the United States under indefinite stay-at-home orders, and as I returned to Connecticut in anticipation of impending travel restrictions, I began to see images on social media of Irish houses and hedges draped with banners bearing the same Seamus Heaney quote:

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”

The quote is from a 1972 interview associated with Heaney’s poetry volume Wintering Out, much of which alludes to the turmoil of the Northern Irish Troubles. Now, in a very different crisis, it seems many in Ireland are again finding in Heaney’s poetry what he called in a 1974 lecture, “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” 

This semester, I had a lot of time to think about Heaney during my internship at the National Library of Ireland. On Mondays and Thursdays, I took the bus from UCD to the city centre, getting off around the corner from the library’s dignified columned stone building.

As an intern in the Education, Learning, and Programming Department, I was working on several different projects. I was cataloguing the rare books, manuscripts, and objects on display in the permanent “W.B. Yeats: The Life and Works” exhibition and preparing a report with suggestions of curatorial changes to bring the exhibition up to date, particularly in its portrayal of the women with whom Yeats surrounded himself.  I was working on a study guide for secondary school students related to the “Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again” exhibition currently on display just down the street from the main library building at the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre. And, I was conducting research in the library’s archives with the aim of writing and delivering a public lecture on Heaney’s relationship to Yeats. The lecture was to focus on how Heaney found in Yeats a model of the poet as someone who provides light in times of political darkness.

It is somewhat ironic that, as this topic seems even more prescient, my time working at the National Library has been forced to an early end. Certain aspects of my internship experience can’t be replicated as I shelter at home across the Atlantic. I will miss the impromptu office discussions with my colleagues about Irish history and politics, and I will no longer be able to hold Yeats’ original unpublished letters in my hands. But I am doing my best to complete what aspects of my projects can be done from a distance, including recording a virtual version of my talk. I am optimistic I will one day find myself back under the luminous windowed blue dome of the Main Reading Room, one of my favorite places in Dublin.

For now, I am keeping in mind Heaney’s famous last words, sent in a text to his wife from his hospital bed:

“NOLI TIMERE”

—or, translated from the Latin, “Do not be afraid.”

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A Timeline of Coming Home

Like most of my fellow Mitchell Scholars, what began as a semi-ordinary week in March ended with last-minute flights home, as we desperately tried to outpace the border closures that began to fall one by one. To provide some perspective on how quickly these events transpired, I thought it might be prudent to dedicate my blog post to a timeline:

  • March 6: I turned in a group project that I had been working on the entire week. I wasn’t thinking about COVID-19.
  • March 9: I went to my regular Monday class. My friend and I tried to predict when University College Cork might close. We thought it might take another week; it actually took 3 days. We were still tentatively hopeful about a trip to Kyiv we had scheduled for March 22.
  • March 10: My last class, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had my normal Tuesday lunch date with my neighbor.
  • March 12: At 1 a.m. GMT President Trump announced he was “suspending all travel from Europe to the United States” and neglected to mention that Ireland was exempt. Later that day, the Irish government orders all higher education institutions to close effective immediately. My parents and I agree it’s time to come home.
  • March 13: Carolina kindly books my first flight; I’m scheduled to fly out March 18. I have an online exam scheduled for March 16.  My friend and I grab coffee; he’s still thinking of going to Kyiv.  Ukraine closes their borders to foreign nationals that night.
  • March 14: President Trump announces that the United Kingdom and Ireland will also be subjected to a travel ban, effective at midnight March 16. Carolina kindly moved my flight to March 16; my March 18 flight would have been cancelled as it was meant to arrive at the airport closest to my home and not one of the 13 cleared for screening.
  • March 15: My friend, who I was supposed to go to Kyiv with, helps me pack everything I had brought with me into 3 suitcases. My mom would later comment on how excellent his packing skills were. Like the previous 5 days, my neighbor and dear friend fixed me dinner. She knows I’d struggled to focus on anything else for the past week, and had unilaterally decided to become my personal chef. I am eternally grateful to her.
  • March 16: My neighbor sees me off to the airport at 5 a.m. We hug, even though we’re not supposed to; we figure at this point, with us eating together for five days, it probably doesn’t matter. The flight is barely a quarter full. I sleep across the four seats I have to myself.  I wash my hands so often the skin on the backs of my hands begins to flake off. I land at 3:45 p.m. at Raleigh Durham International Airport. They ask me where I have been for the last 3 weeks. My mom cries when she hugs me; she has never cried picking me up from the airport before. We head home. It’s my brother’s 21st birthday; my mom tells him I’m his present.
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An Exhibit Worth Seeing

Nestled in the Botanic Gardens of South Belfast, not far from Queen’s University, lies the Ulster Museum. The largest museum in Northern Ireland, its facade has undergone numerous changes over the century. Today, it is an amalgamation of the classical architecture of the original building and the Brutalist style of the newer portion built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

I like to think that its architectural style represents a certain duality. It doesn’t fully choose either the past or the future, but appears content to straddle both. Depending on the viewer, or even the day, the building can be regal, inspiring and uplifting or foreboding, overbearing, even uncommunicative. Neither interpretation is wrong.

The Ulster Museum seen on a rare sunny day.

During my first month in Belfast, my interactions with the museum were fleeting. I’d walk by it while on strolls in the Botanic Gardens, or I’d give it a fleeting glance while running late to play tennis. After weeks of eyeing it, I finally found the time to go.

When I strolled into the museum’s main hall for the first time, I was struck by the large dinosaur imitations looming above the throngs of visitors. While most faces stared above, I turned left, dodging the schoolchildren and tourists, to investigate the museum’s exhibition “The Troubles and Beyond.” Opened in 2018, the exhibit tells the story of the Troubles through a variety of objects, artifacts, and oral histories. The Ulster Museum, which is operated by National Museums Northern Ireland, has the onerous task of catering to individuals who experienced the Troubles firsthand, while also remaining accessible to foreign tourists with little understanding of the conflict. Its Troubles gallery captures the difficulty of conveying a traumatic, violent, and recent history. 

The exhibit is divided by decade from the 1960’s to the 2000’s.

A central challenge to constructing an exhibit on the Troubles is that its history is still deeply contested. Questions about responsibility, the motives of the conflict’s principle actors, and the pursuit of justice by the state are hotly debated. Unlike other societies wrought by conflict, such as South Africa or Guatemala, Northern Ireland has not had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As a result, there is no shared historical narrative. Republicans, unionists, and the British state have all attempted to define the conflict as it related to their own interpretation.

But the Ulster Museum handles this challenge well. Embedded throughout the exhibit are narratives and stories from those who lived in the conflict. The museum doesn’t attempt to say that one side is “correct,” but it recognizes the existence of different narratives and provides a space for them to come together. It allows visitors to listen to listen to oral histories, not just from republicans and unionists, but from a variety of people who endured the conflict. The ubiquity of personal stories in the gallery can be a lesson for other memorial sites – stories allow us to empathize with others, understand a multitude of perspectives, and help us imagine the society we want to build.

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