Teaċ Daṁsa: Mám, Myth, and Legend

1. Mám: Mountain pass. Mám Trasna fadó, The Old Pass.

2. Mám: Yoke. Faoi mhám an pheaca, under the yoke of sin. 2. Lit: Obligation, duty, function.

3. Mám: Handful. ~ mhilseán, of sweets. Scaipeann sé ina mhámanna é, he throws it away in handfuls.

Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, Ó Dónaill
The Poster for Teaċ Daṁsa’s Mám

The Irish word “mám” is a slippery one. It does not exist in most Irish dictionaries, appearing only in Ó Dónaill’s 1977 Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. It comes from an oral tradition in which spelling, and indeed linguistic signification in the broadest sense, is not standardized but contextual and relative. It is a strange word, but perhaps a stranger title; acclaimed Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan reappropriated this peculiar word for the title of his newest piece, Mám, developed in collaboration with twelve international dancers from the Teaċ Daṁsa company, the virtuoso, Irish traditional concertina player Cormac Begley, and the European classical, contemporary collective, stargaze.

Within the first few weeks of my arrival in Dublin, I had the opportunity to see Mám. I enter the auditorium to find a haunting image: a young girl in a communion dress lying on a wooden table. Above her looms a large goat-headed man, slowly expanding and contracting the bellows of a concertina. The rest of the stage is empty. The girl crawls to a drawer on one end of the table to reveal a bag of crisps, which she promptly devours. The curtain behind the goat-headed concertina-player collapses revealing twelve dancers in black suits, their faces covered with black paper bags.

Nothing could have prepared me for the explosive phantasmagoria that would be unleashed before me over the course of the next 90 minutes – an experience itself as perplexing and ungraspable as the word mám for which it is named. This young girl bears witness to the wild, ritualistic fever-dream of the adult world collapsing around her, adults who seem violently entangled in an urgent need to recollect, recall, or regain something that has been lost but appear at the same time as apparitions of the future. Over and over again, the mythological collides with the mundane, the holy with the profane. The image of this girl standing down a goat-headed concertina virtuoso, much like the chill of a wet Irish morning, has worked its way inescapably into my bones.

Teaċ Daṁsa, meaning “House of Dance” in classical Irish, was founded in 2016 in an attempt to forge deeper connections with the traditions, language, and music of Ireland. The company’s work is deeply connected to Irish mythology, untangling the complex cultural heritage that makes up contemporary Irish identity. They combine traditional forms of Irish music and dance with the contemporary European experimental tradition of Dance-Theatre — the result is not only a captivating excavation of Irish culture but a ferociously entertaining piece of theatre.

Above all, Dolan his dancers understand the messiness of what it means to be Irish — or perhaps, what they really understand is the messiness of what it means to be alive. Somehow, out of a hyperspecific examination of the iconography and cultural/artistic heritage of Ireland, Mám achieves something universal. In many ways, I have found that what is most remarkable about Irish culture is the incredible closeness of the mythological and the mundane. Political, artistic, cultural, religious, and social mythologies still run deep in Ireland — a current that Teaċ Daṁsa not only expresses with power and precision but truly revels in.

As an American encountering Ireland for the first time, I could have had no better reception than the work Teaċ Daṁsa. Their work allowed me to let go of preconceived notions of Irishness and understand the complexity of the cultural landscape that I am entering into. I carry Mám in the back of my mind wherever in Ireland I might find myself, and every day I find myself lucky enough to be in the position of that little girl: an observer awe-struck by something far greater than myself.

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Taste buds & Trinity

As a rule, I am very bad at predicting difficult things. Do not ask me to measure pasta or whether you will need a jacket. It’s only my luck that the one time I got a prediction right, I didn’t believe in it.

Between November of 2018 and August this year, I had the “moving to Dublin” conversation ad nauseum. Confronted with a failure of my predictive faculties, I resorted to rehashing each time the same platitudes that I would have an amazing time next year reading philosophy, exploring Ireland and making new friends. But I also found myself halfheartedly making a nontrivial prediction over and over: that living in a new country would feel somehow different from the rest of my life, on an experiential level, since I had gone to college 30 minutes from where I grew up. This prediction met knowing nods. But I had my private doubts. I recalled how in the past whenever I reached a milestone I would build myself up for decisive change—matriculating at college, moving to California for a summer internship, graduating—only to be disappointed when the external change did not suffuse experience, when life just continued to feel like living.

Then August 25 happened, and somewhere between lugging a cumbersome bag half my body weight across the Atlantic and today, things did change. Predictably, it feels different when I’m doing things like taking a train to the countryside to meet 11 new friends for a weekend in Kerry, or enjoying cliffside strolls in Dublin Bay on a Saturday, because those are things I could never do in New York. But on days like today, too, when I did similar things as I did on a typical day at home—coffee, class, office hours—it still feels different. It’s not just Dublin that’s the change; it’s also me and my experience of the world.

How can I describe what is happening to me? I’ve got plenty of books that might help answer that question from this “land of saints and scholars,” where I bought out half the Heaney shelf in a Kilkenny bookstore, and where my quest to stuff the entire history of philosophy into my brain for my MPhil means I spend most of my free time with my nose buried in Hume or Descartes. But, in an unscholarly turn, my mind keeps lingering on a poster that hung in my elementary school infirmary. This poster, which featured “fun facts” about tongues, was at least in the spirit of Descartes in that the information on it was highly dubitable. One of the facts, for example, was that your taste buds change over every 4 weeks; the poster concluded from this that you might hate broccoli yesterday and like it tomorrow.

I long ago learned from Google that the poster was false, but my life in Dublin is forcing me to give its claims a second chance, both literally and metaphorically. For I am observing changes in my experience, like the transmogrification of taste buds, which happen almost arbitrarily, small changes that are harbingers of bigger change. Today for example I noticed I no longer desire savoury breakfast foods, only sweet ones, when before I was firmly team dinner-for-breakfast. Yesterday it was a realization that I keep wearing a pair of plaid trousers (not “pants”—learned that the hard way) that I rarely wore back in New York. Tomorrow, as sure as the sun will rise, I will be subjected to a new revolution in my firmly-held attitudes, maybe not about Oxford commas (unnecessary), surely not about Renoir (can’t paint!) but perhaps the green bubbles on iMessage (disconcertingly verdant). And the day after that, or the day after that, it’ll grow into something bigger.

I enjoy surveying my new arbitrary predilections for now, and I am excited to see how they compound into non-arbitrary change in the rest of my time here. I can’t comment on where you’ll find me in ten months—my track record at predicting change isn’t great, after all—but for the time being, if you need me, you can find me at Kaph, Meditations on First Philosophy in hand, thinking about taste buds and sipping on a cortado, because for some reason, I really like those now.

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Counties You Can Count On

Since arriving in Ireland in August, I have been consistently blown away by the island’s breathtaking beauty, especially as I have come to discover that said beauty is itself anything but consistent. They might call Ireland “the Emerald Isle,” but it has become clear to me that there’s more than just one shade of green – not to mention other colors – adorning its canvas.

In front of the Campanile at Trinity College Dublin and my dorm, the Graduates Memorial Building

Dublin in particular has been an incredible home base from which to experience Ireland, encapsulating much of what I love about this magical place. Walking the cobbles of Trinity College, I feel lucky to stand at something of an epicenter. Surrounded by gorgeous Georgian architecture and more pubs in Temple Bar and around Grafton Street than I can count, I can conveniently enjoy both tranquil walks through the paths of St. Stephen’s Green and exhilarating hikes along the cliff trails of Howth, both of which have become favorites. With theater to fill my nights and incredible food to fill my stomach, Dublin offers plenty to keep one entertained.

Climbing the ruined fortress walls of the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois inspired me to undertake the challenge of visiting all 32 counties on the island of Ireland

Yet, driving one August day through County Laois and chancing upon the Rock of Dunamase – the ruins of a medieval hilltop castle on the side of the highway – I could not help but get out and explore, climbing along the remains of fortress walls to peek out at the fantastic green of the surrounding farmland. That moment demonstrated to me that Dublin and did not own a monopoly on what makes Ireland special. Gems, both famous and hidden, were spread out across the whole of the island, often far off the beaten tourism trail. To truly appreciate this island means to travel it, taking in all of its wonderful diversity.

As such, I’ve made it my mission to embrace as much of the rich treasures that Ireland has to offer by setting an ambitious goal to visit all of the 32 counties on the island during my year here as a Mitchell Scholar. Simply passing through does not count – I intend to do something to take in all six counties in Northern Ireland and all twenty-six in the Republic of Ireland. So far, I have documented visits to 11 out of 32 and have enjoyed my time in each, creating memories in all that will last a lifetime.

Visiting Glendalough in County Wicklow on a sunny September day

I will always treasure the feeling of the sun warming my skin in County Wicklow as I lay down in a field of green grass at Glendalough, taking a page from St. Kevin’s book as I shut my eyes and opened my thoughts to the nature and history around me.

Sitting between two neolithic passage tombs at Knowth in County Meath

I will always be mystified by the megalithic remains of Bru Na Boine in County Meath, where I crawled through an earthen tunnel to reach the center of the Newgrange Tomb where the sun works wonders on the winter solstice.

Holding the keys to the castle at Termonfeckin in County Louth, where this medieval tower sits in the yard of an otherwise inconspicuous modern home

I will always chuckle when I recall pulling into a local woman’s driveway in County Louth to check out the castle casually sitting in the backyard of her modern home only for my rental car to break down in her driveway – she offered me tea as my friend and I repaired the vehicle.

Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge was a highlight of the beautiful star-studded coastline of County Antrim

I will never forget swinging above the swirling sea on the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in County Antrim, holding on for dear life.

The Guildhall in County Derry was converted into the Museum of the Moon for the city’s annual Halloween extravaganza

Nor will I fail to remember the spooky Halloween I spent in County Derry – dressed as Batman – listening to a pipe organ concert under the moonlight in a costumed crowd.

The Slieve League Cliffs in County Donegal are amongst the highest in Europe and certainly amongst the most beautiful in the world.

The feeling of wind in my face atop the Slieve League Cliffs of County Donegal will stick with me.

You could see why Lough Gill in County Leitrim was so inspirational to Yeats when you visit

And so will the glow of Lough Gill when I recited the poetry of Yeats by its shore in County Leitrim.

Lady’s View above the Lakes of Killarney with the other Mitchell Scholars on our group trip to County Kerry in October

The Lakes of Killarney also shine in my memory as I think of the boat ride I embarked on with fellow Mitchell Scholars during our cohort trip to County Kerry, arriving at an abandoned monastery on the island of Inisfallen.

Behind me on top of Knocknarea in County Sligo is no hill or mountain but a cairn, a massive pile of rocks created in ancient times which supposedly marks the tomb of the mythical Queen Maeve.

And no vista I lay eyes on can now escape comparison with the one I beheld after hiking Queen Maeve’s trail to the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo, rocks in hand.

The island of Ireland is replete with more colors and hues than I can count in a lifetime, but I am determined that this year I will encounter at least 32 of its varieties.

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Seeing and not seeing

Damp from the perennial Irish drizzle and out of breath after running to compensate for the inevitable delays of Dublin public transport, I reached Number 11 Parnell Square East, a Georgian brick building that hosts a variety of cultural events, from poetry readings to performances. The oak door swung open from within its columned façade, and I entered the lobby where eleven other theater-goers waited. We were there to see Faultline, an immersive show co-produced by ANU Productions and Dublin’s Gate Theatre with the aim of bringing to life historical materials from the Irish Queer Archive.

It was not the first piece of experimental theater I saw in Dublin. During our orientation weekend, the Mitchell scholars all went to see Beckett’s Room, another Gate Theatre production in collaboration with Dead Centre. Like Faultline, Beckett’s Room endeavored to uncover an overlooked history, contextualizing Samuel Beckett’s literary abstractions by depicting his Paris apartment under Nazi Occupation. The show’s gimmicky conceit was its exclusion of bodies; reenactions combined voice acting, projected subtitles, and puppetry. A hovering kettle poured tea into a cup, a suspended pipe puffed smoke, a book floated off the shelf—all accomplished through trick wires operated by hidden puppeteers.

Beckett admired Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” which argues provocatively for the superior grace of marionettes relative to human dancers. Still, the elimination of bodies from the stage in Beckett’s Room felt as much like a radical departure from Beckett’s methodology as an extension of Beckett’s interests in experimentation. It’s true that Beckett’s plays often obscure or immobilize actors’ bodies, but they do so, paradoxically, to make the constraints of embodiment all the more present.

In Faultline, bodies were unavoidable. As the play began, audience members were ushered into the basement of 11 Parnell Square East, which became three primary settings: a gay nightclub, a men’s bathroom, and a call center for a gay and lesbian helpline. Ensuing scenes thematized the dangers of bodily difference in 1980’s Dublin—police neglect and brutality, familial and religious rejection—through both naturalistic dialogue and dance. The action took place mere inches from audience members, whose own bodies were necessarily implicated as actors navigated around them within the tight space. While Beckett’s Room called attention to the ethics of witnessing by refusing to visually depict the violence it recounted, Faultline did so by making it impossible not to watch. Unsettled by prolonged eye contact with an actor during one scene, I averted my eyes to the set wall, only to see this graffitied phrase: “What you looking at?”

Both Beckett’s Room and Faultline had hits and misses. The former challenged staging conventions, but sometimes obscured the gravity of its historical material in the process. The latter made accessible an archive that might otherwise have remained untouched in a library, but left me wanting a more rigorous historical methodology. Nonetheless, what I love about theater in Dublin is its willingness to experiment. More insulated than much professional American theater from market demands, Irish theater takes risks in its topics and formats. In exchange for only a few euros and a few hours of my time, there is always a thought-provoking new theatrical approach I can see—or not see.

Several Dublin Mitchells and I went to see a contemporary reimagining of J.M. Synge’s Irish classic, The Playboy of the Western World, at The Gaiety Theatre
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Coffee, Companionship, and a Castle: Life at Maynooth

“We’ll just stop here,” I suggested to my father after walking through downtown Maynooth for the first time after an eleven-hour flight from California during move-in. We were unfamiliar with the town (or country), but the distinct, bright orange columns and smell of coffee and pastry lured us into a hole in the wall called “Coffee Mill Bistro.” A few weeks (and many cups of coffee) later, I have realized that the Coffee Mill has been the location of many firsts: my first meal in Ireland, my first exchange using Euro, my first between-class cup of coffee with classmates, and the first restaurant I think to show my friends who are visiting me from across the pond.

My program at Maynooth has introduced me to the warm and remarkable company of my classmates. Though it only contains thirteen students, it boasts tremendous diversity: I have been fortunate to share the company of two Nigerian, one Canadian, one German, and eight Irish students, and we have started to become quite close. One aspect of the year that I am looking forward to most is building on these connections and forming friendships that will last a long time after I leave the continent.

Maynooth is also incredibly well-connected. Though located in County Kildare, one short train ride takes me into Dublin’s city center, and this has been very conducive for getting to know the other Mitchells in the area. I have spent nearly every weekend with them, working on homework together in Accents Coffee & Tea Lounge, drinking Guinness at Pillar Bar, or lounging on St. Stephen’s Green. When I talk to my friends or family back in the US and they ask me for some highlights, I inevitably bring up my experiences with my friends—American, Irish, or other–that have been afforded to me by Maynooth.

Living in Maynooth has also made me privy to experiencing Ireland from a very particular perspective. A relatively small town with a population of around 35,000, Maynooth boasts a surprisingly robust downtown with dozens of restaurants, four banks, three clubs, two shopping malls, two universities, and even a castle. As I walk around town, I have noticed differences in people with whom I share the streets: of course there are approximately 30,000 students also at NUI Maynooth, but there are also elementary/middle school students, bankers, restaurant workers, tourists, and members of the clergy. On several occasions, my conversations with new acquaintances have revealed that they come from Dublin, small neighboring towns such as Trim, or even other counties such as Cork. But the metropolitan aspects of a bustling college town on the periphery of Ireland’s largest city juxtapose with its history, exemplified by the Maynooth Castle (used in wars but now a tourist attraction) and the church (used to ordain priests but now part of South Campus). It is on my walks downtown when I see the Coffee Mill share a wall with Maynooth Castle that I reflect on my gratitude to be here, where aspects of traditional Irish culture and history meet a cosmopolitan college-town.

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Bread and Roses

When a local finds out you’re new to Derry, one of the first questions they ask is whether you’ve been to one of two pubs: Peadar O’Donnell’s or Sandino’s. As it happens, this post is about one of the most memorable nights of my life, which took place in Sandino’s. I’ll save Peadar’s for another blog post – or maybe I won’t. (As a TripAdvisor reviewer put it, “I won’t insult you with the importance of this place historically and culturally one way or another: either you know about it or you f**king don’t.”) Either way, it’s telling that both places are named after socialist revolutionaries; this is a city of activists.

At 5pm on October 21, 2019, many of those activists gathered in Guildhall Square to celebrate decades of organizing and agitating finally paying off: at midnight, both the decriminalization of abortion and the legalization of equal marriage for LGBTQ+ citizens would go into effect. The political circumstances surrounding these victories – a collapsed Northern Irish government and a last-ditch effort (or political charade, depending on who you ask) by the ultra-right DUP to thwart the bills’ passage – notwithstanding, this was cause for celebration, and what a celebration it was. 

A view of the Derry walls from the Guildhall square. Festive pink and yellow smoke rises from the walls, and a rainbow and trans (blue, pink, and white) flag wave to the right of the image. Banners hang from the walls that say "You are now entering Free, Safe, Legal Derry" and "Trans People Demand Respect - The Struggle Continues"
A view of the Derry walls from the Guildhall square. Festive pink and yellow smoke rises from the walls, and a rainbow and trans (blue, pink, and white) flag wave to the right of the image. Banners hang from the walls that say “You are now entering Free, Safe, Legal Derry” and “Trans People Demand Respect – The Struggle Continues.”

Though the evening’s emotional speeches celebrated the day’s momentous achievements, they reminded us that decriminalization does not necessarily mean easy and safe access to abortion for women. In Northern Ireland, there’s still a fight ahead; I was reminded of the current climate in the United States, where a woman’s right to choose is still constantly under attack.

As if the event organizers had read my mind, the celebration in the Guildhall closed with a beautiful a cappella rendition of “Bread and Roses,” a labor song associated with a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912; the lyrics assert women’s rights to both fair wages and dignity. The use of this song stressed the interconnectedness of struggles for women’s and working-class rights in Northern Ireland and internationally. Interconnectedness is a common thread in Derry politics: opposition to oppression in Northern Ireland is often equated to struggles for equality all over the world. Derry activists believe in solidarity, and nowhere in the city is that more obvious than at Sandino’s, where the night’s celebration carried on.

On an average night, Sandino’s is a leftist’s paradise. Stickers, posters, and artifacts from various socialist struggles around the world adorn the walls; tonight, however, the dial had been turned up to 11. The upstairs bar, packed to the gills with revelers, was draped in banners from pro-choice and LGBTQ+ marches over the years; slogans included everything from the straightforward “Decriminalise: Free, Safe, Legal,” to “Save Sodomy from Ulster.” While we counted down the minutes until both bills took effect at midnight, we were entertained with music, spoken word, stand-up comedy, and no shortage of tearful speeches celebrating the work of Northern Irish activists. At midnight, an explosion of confetti cannons and The Cranberries’ “Dreams” over the speakers had everyone hugging, dancing, and weeping in joy and relief. Sandino’s overflowed with happiness that night, and I feel infinitely lucky to have been there to celebrate alongside the incredible activists of this city.

A dark stage with no people on it. Behind the stage are a projected photo of a banner with an icon combining the raised fist of protest and the women's symbol, with a circle above a cross. To the right of the image is a yellow banner whose words are not entirely legible but reads that reads "Alliance for Choice Derry - Decriminalize - Free. Safe. Legal." In the foreground are the backs of several people's heads, waiting for a musician to come onstage.
A dark stage with no people on it. Behind the stage are a projected photo of a banner with an icon combining the raised fist of protest and the women’s symbol, with a circle above a cross. To the right of the image is a yellow banner whose words are not entirely legible but reads that reads “Alliance for Choice Derry – Decriminalise – Free. Safe. Legal.” In the foreground are the backs of several people’s heads, waiting for a musician to come onstage.
A dimly lit bar ceiling with a large banner draped overhead. It reads, "Queers Against Fascism" and shows the Antifa symbol - black and red flags against a white circular background. Underneath the banner is a "Yes" sign from the Together for Yes campaign in the Republic of Ireland.
A dimly lit bar ceiling with a large banner draped overhead. It reads, “Queers Against Fascism” and shows the Antifa symbol – black and red flags against a white circular background. Underneath the banner is a “Yes” sign from the Together for Yes campaign in the Republic of Ireland.
The interior of a bathroom stall, with graffiti that reads, in all caps, "The women of the North are now free." "Free" is underlined twice.
The interior of a bathroom stall, with graffiti that reads, in all caps, “The women of the North are now free.” “Free” is underlined twice.
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A New (Circadian) Rhythm

Entrance to The Glucksman on the campus lower grounds.

In contrast to the neo-gothic architecture found in UCC’s picturesque main quadrangle, the Glucksman stands on the lower campus grounds as a sleek, modern building composed of simple geometric shapes and glass floor-to-ceiling windows. Walking through the elegant gallery—which I would later learn was recently named one of the “1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die”—I find a concrete sculpture of a highway ramp with a mattress in place of the roadway. Wandering further, I come across an intricate installation made up of melting wax candles, evaporating water, and growing plants. I stare blankly at what looks to be a series of drawings of weeds, possibly at different stages of growth. Later, upstairs, I visit a dark room with a projector playing sped-up footage of commuters making their way to and from work in a dense city.

Jitish Kallat’s Glyph as part of the Glucksman’s Circadian Rhythms exhibit

The central theme of the exhibit is circadian rhythms—an exploration of the beat that life makes through its regular cycles and patterns, tied both to the turning of the Earth and the molecular symphonies in our cells. The pieces on display at the Glucksman force us to meditate on our “biological clock,” and how it sometimes comes into conflict with the unyielding pace of our lives. I need only reflect on circadian rhythms for a short time before being reminded of when my own was knocked off-tempo by the inevitable jet lag that comes with a transatlantic move across several time zones—my first few days in Cork started, consistently and despite my best efforts, at noon. While my body was adjusting to a new day/night cycle, recalibrating its release of cortisol and melatonin to match its new Irish environment, I found myself adjusting to other, larger rhythms of life as well.

Culture shock, too, is something like a social jet lag—an adjustment to the rhythm of life around you rather than within you. As my hypothalamus re-tuned to the timing of the rising and setting sun, I keyed into the social cues and norms of my new Irish home. Walking through UCC’s campus and Cork at large, I was inundated with swaths of young men all donning the same Peaky Blinders haircuts and tight joggers. On crossing the street, I continuously failed to look right, and quickly learned that busses do not stop at your bus stop unless beckoned to. I was surprised to find the city more buzzing on a Tuesday night than a Friday night, when most of the college students would have gone home for the weekend. And importantly, I learned that someone claiming, “It was great craic,” when recounting their night out to me does not imply the same thing it does in the US. Gradually, after some biological and social recalibration, I began to wake up at more reasonable hours and feel more in touch with the culture of the city.

Over the past half-decade at Northeastern University in Boston, I’d grown accustomed to a particular cadence of life similar to most American undergrads—frenetic—and my weeks, months, and years fell into a predictable routine, a fast beat. But after a single flight from JFK to DUB, I found myself landing in a new year, a year with a tempo more like a resting pulse rather than a mid-sprint. Suddenly, I was able to afford time for weekend trips to Killarney or Dublin, learn new sports like kickboxing and tennis, and cross off items on an ever-growing but always-neglected reading list. As I look ahead to my Mitchell year, I’m grateful and excited to have the opportunity for personal growth, reflection, and cultural immersion that comes with a slower pace of life. The rhythm is different but I’m liking the beat. 

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“I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore”

I grew up on the prairie. Not only grew up on, besides a summer interlude living in the high desert and mountains of Northern New Mexico, I have only ever lived on flat expanses of grass in the heartland of the United States. 

Of course, that statement is no longer true; Ireland is not the prairie. 

Admittedly, I’m not here at UCD to study Geography, and there’s a chance I’m mischaracterizing Ireland—because it certainly does have pastures, and farmland, and rolling expanses of green that are browning a bit in the changing seasons—so you know, small disclaimer.

Where I live now, UCD is in an interesting location. Depending on time of day and traffic, I’m about 30 minutes from the busy city centre around Trinity and the River Liffey. I’m also 30 minutes away from my favorite place (so far) in Ireland.

See, while I travel north almost every day to tackle my mountain of readings in coffee shops and other locales for students in the busy city, I feel most clear when I take the same buses south instead to Bray. Even though it’s just on the other side of the line between County Dublin and County Wicklow, it feels like another world. 

Bray is a former seaside resort town with a long rocky beach, and towering cliffs—both of which are constantly beaten down by waves and salt. I have hundreds and hundreds of photos in my camera roll of wave, surf, spray, rock, towering cliffs—sights so foreign from the prairie I’m used to seeing—I can’t get enough of it.

the sea at bray
the sea at bray

On my first visit, an early morning rainstorm gave way to blue sky and sun—and instead of continuing up on my planned hike, I shed my raincoat and boots, and sat on a rocky jetty just staring at the expanse of blue and the rocky cliffs that met it. It’s trite, but I had literally never seen anything like it.   

All the Dubliners (Dublin Mitchells? Dublin Crew?) have places we always take visitors to, whether its Murphy’s Ice Cream, the Book of Kells, or Howth. I take everyone to Bray. My parents—also life-long prairie dwellers recently transplanted to the mountains of Switzerland—joined me on my second Bray excursion in a week where I planned to show them the beach and the Bray to Greystones cliff walk around Bray Head.   

And while I’ve spent most of this essay detailing the ways Ireland feels so different from my home, Bray illustrates for me that it both is and isn’t. 

In the middle of the Bray to Greystones cliff walk, while my step-mom, brother, and I were looking out over the sea and snapping photos of the surf and the blue, my Kansan father stopped in his tracks, turned, looked away from the sea and up the side of the hill to the top of Bray Head, sighed, and said “it looks just like the Flint Hills, doesn’t it?” 

And it did.

more vertical but still the flint hills
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Food for Thought

It is often said that food is one of the best parts of traveling to new places. In this summer following graduation, I gazed wistfully at my Instagram, as many of my friends and acquaintances from Yale traipsed around the globe on culinary adventures—eating gargantuan bowls of pasta on Italy, local pastries in the Baltics, and buying freshly caught fish from markets in Thailand. Living off of a diet of couscous, vegetarian chicken nuggets, and vegetables, I watched my friends’ antics with great anticipation for my own travels and my move to Dublin.

Though my prior experience studying abroad in the UK should have caused me to curb my enthusiasm, I was caught off guard by how difficult it has been to navigate traditional Irish cuisine (read: pub food) as a vegetarian. Even the charming atmosphere of many Dublin pubs cannot make up for the overwhelming lack of vegetables that are on the menu. When my grandmother came to visit, we wandered around the Temple Bar district of Dublin for about twenty minutes looking for a place that could offer me anything other than a salad. On another occasion, after a play at the Dublin Fringe, my friend and I exchanged panicked looks over our dinner table when the waitress announced that the pub was out of their only vegetarian entree. At a pub in a small town along the Ring of Kerry, I had no choice but to order a cheese sandwich, which was exactly what it sounds like: some bread with butter and Tesco branded shredded cheddar cheese.            

Though it sounds like I’ve had only culinary misadventures in Ireland, moving here has elucidated the real reasons why I found all of my friends’ travel foodstagram posts so compelling: the experiences behind the food, not just the food itself. Looking back on these first few months in Ireland, I remember the conversations with my friends more than I remember the taste of the food we were eating.  I remember laughing with some of the other Mitchell Scholars about how pathetic my cheese sandwich was, or how our friendships were strengthened when we commiserated over the ‘tropical chicken’ that Kathryn got from a horrible Chinese takeout restaurant in Killarney. I remember all of the mishaps that come from having to cook all of your own food for the first time: realizing you’re missing a crucial ingredient or totally failing at coordinating the timing of the different dishes. We even had a terrifying experience trying to cook ‘boil in bag’ rice that culminated in me screaming “Do it! Do it you coward!” at Kathryn as she struggled to pry the bubbling bag of rice out of the boiling water. Recently, we’ve gained some culinary confidence and have started making up our own recipes or patching together meals out of the random ingredients we have in our kitchens. Our experience in Ireland has followed this same pattern: there’ve been some blunders, but we’re making it up as we go along, together.

Smiling with Annabel and Ella in Killarney, shortly after the infamous Cheese Sandwich Incident.
One of our favorite meals to make at UCD is balsamic vegetables with grilled halloumi, served as an open-faced sandwich on baguette rounds.
The funniest culinary misadventures have been the multiple occasions when raw meat has been mysteriously left on our kitchen countertops over night, making the entire apartment smell like raw meat. Unfortunately, the culprits are still unknown to this day.
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From Class Discussion to Pub Conversation: Learning Through Human Connection

An expectant crowd of students, academics, and miscellaneous community members filtered into a stately wood-paneled hall at Queen’s University Belfast. We had all gathered on the brisk Tuesday night to hear renowned anti-Apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele deliver the annual Mitchell Peace Lecture, which, although not affiliated with the Mitchell Scholarship, shares its namesake. Tasked with reflecting on contemporary peacebuilding efforts, Ramphele questioned, “How does one dare to affirm our interconnectedness in the face of strong forces stoking the fires of divisions?” She began her response by invoking the conventional wisdom that inspired the drafters of the South African Constitution: “you can’t change what is going on around you until you start changing what’s going on within you.” Building peace today, she asserted, involves not only macro-level political maneuvering, but also meeting one’s own spiritual and emotional needs and those of others. Only when we embrace the ancient South African concept of Ubuntu, the idea that “I am because you are,” and recognize that our capacity to build a brighter, peaceful future lies in our ability to empathize with one another, can individuals serve as effective peacebuilders and as ethical citizens of the world.

I’ve found confirmation of Ramphele’s testament to the transformative power of empathy and human connection in every aspect of my life in Belfast, whether sitting in class, hanging out in pubs, or hiking the countryside. Over the past two months, I’ve found myself learning from peers in my Religion and Peacebuilding class about their respective traditions’ conceptions of reconciliation and forgiveness, listening to my cab driver as he recounts his participation in the IRA blanket protest, and speaking with a former employee of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive about the NIHE’s role in building cross-community trust. My peers in my academic programme have shared their reflections on ongoing conflicts in their home countries and have informed me of political dynamics and social issues I had been completely unaware of. My fellow Mitchell Scholars have educated me about their various interest areas and experiences in Ireland thus far. It seems that, wherever I go, I encounter people with experiences and perspectives that challenge my preconceptions about political and social issues and compel me to complicate my historical understandings, self-reflect more intentionally, and empathize more deeply.   

I have so much to learn; I don’t yet have a comprehensive grasp on the complexities of post-Troubles Northern Irish politics. I’ve just begun to learn about the wide range of mechanisms that exist to enact post-conflict structural change. I still get lost walking back from the Tesco three blocks from my apartment. It is but the beginning of a full year of academic engagement and personal growth. However, I know one thing for sure: the people here are changing me.

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A Shift in Perspective

This past May, I graduated from Boston University with a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering, so it should make sense to the average reader why I am now doing my M.Sc. in Ireland in International Public Policy and Diplomacy, having never had a formal political or international relations class in my life prior to now. When you study engineering in college, family members, friends in other disciplines and perfect strangers will exclaim, “wow, engineering is so hard you must be smart!” They’re right in the sense that it was hard, very hard, but this constant reassurance that I had already conquered the unconquerable bequeathed me a false sense of security: nothing could possibly be harder than engineering.  I entered my course in Ireland with confidence; two hours later I left my first class panicked and on the phone with my dad as he just woke up on the East Coast, exclaiming to him that there was no way I knew enough to be successful.  Suddenly I was tasked to read up to 300 pages a week, where I had been assigned no reading for the past four years. I quickly learned that I was more than capable of procrastinating a problem set until the night before, but not written assignments.  Even something as simple as citation seemed so different; in STEM papers, every fact must be backed with evidence through citation, whereas in social science, you cite the opinions of other academics and facts to a certain extent may be left uncited.  Suddenly, ‘theories’ shifted from being unequivocable laws of the universe to shared ideas among scholars that only applied to certain cases, maybe. I sat in a Comparative Political Institutions class baffled that the professor was so amazed at an R^2 correlation of a mere 0.62. I was (am) a fish out of water. Yet throughout this sudden shift I couldn’t help but notice the startling similarities between the hard and social sciences.  Academics in both fields heavily utilize the scientific method, though where a hypothesis is proven through an experiment in hard sciences, meta- analysis are interpreted in social sciences. There is the same yearning for a deeper understanding of the world in both disciplines, though while the hard sciences hold out hope for universal theories, social science is made even more difficult grappling with the stochasticity of humanity. From this limited experience, I think that social science is perhaps more challenging than the hard sciences, as you must accustom yourself to the frustration that you may never know the answer to a question.  In fact, sometimes there simply aren’t answers, and not due to a lack of suitable technology, technical understanding or approximation methods that can be addressed in the future. This experience has awakened a part of my brain that I didn’t know was sleeping, and I’m hoping, beyond gaining the experiences in public policy necessary for me to enter public service in the future, that I return to the U.S. more immediately as a better scientist because of it.

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First Impressions

         On my first day in Belfast, I learned that even when the weather app says it won’t rain, it will. On my second day in Belfast, I learned to always carry an umbrella. You may be wondering why I didn’t learn the second day’s lesson with the first, and that’s a fair question. A wise man may have. But hey, I’m not a wise man.

         As someone who is often thinking about the past, I realized quickly that I had come to the right place. Belfast is a city that does not let you forget. There are “peace walls” that loom over the city and divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Street-art denoting political allegiance is commonplace in East and West Belfast. Politics is still deeply polarized in Northern Ireland. (If you’re interested in learning more about Northern Irish politics, check out “Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite,” which is a new book out by Belfast-based journalist Sam McBride. It’ll make you cry, tear your hair out, and lose faith in electoral politics. I’m selling it well, right?)

         But, as is with most places, Belfast is a city of neighborhoods. While the Troubles linger on in the east and west of the city, a tourist walking the leafy roads of South Belfast, or strolling around the banks of River Lagan, would not see obvious signs of conflict. But I suppose that’s the thing: not all signs of the past are obvious.

         Through conversations with friends, neighbors, and classmates, I am constantly learning. These realizations have ranged from the trivial to the serious. My housemates have delighted in sharing British and Irish snacks with me – favorites include chocolate digestives, hobnobs, and Percy Pig. But I have also engaged in more challenging conversations around cultural belonging, identity politics, and public commemoration of the past. Whenever I am beginning to feel complacent, I am jolted back and reminded that there is much I don’t understand about this place and much I need to learn. When I shared that thought with a British friend of mine, he remarked that must be what Meghan Markle feels like each day too. And so marked the first and last time anyone will ever compare me to Meghan Markle.

         My time in Belfast so far has been enriching, strange, fun, exhilarating, and challenging. Each day is a new experience, a new challenge, an unknown. I suppose, in a sense, it’s been exactly what I signed up for.

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