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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Silence is Requested

With just a month left to go in my fall term at Trinity, I realized I’d missed an entire library at Trinity. I do not know what I had previously figured was the source of the “B” in BLU Complex, the trinity of Trinity libraries whose names I can now effortlessly rattle off: Berkeley, Lecky and Ussher. I don’t know to which corner of my mind I relegated the comment about Berkeley’s trademark austere aesthetic the librarian made at the introduction to Trinity’s library complex. Nor do I know why I did not bother to seek a third wing of demarcated austerity after locating the first two un-austere wings. On reflection, I recognize I may have had going a low-effort cognitive process, the kind of puzzlement you don’t consciously register yourself as having, attempting to match a sufficiently austere patch of the library to her description. 

In my defense, the three libraries—which adjoin at a central atrium, giving them the feel of one large library—have no prominent labels to indicate their boundaries. The atrium inspires all the feelings of a high-stakes trust fall: you must simply walk through passageways on faith that they will take you somewhere. You enter at a turnstile, go down a staircase, and for some reason, are promptly confronted with an upwards staircase of the same height, undoing the work you accomplished with the first staircase. After you ascend, to your north is the library I now know to be the Ussher: rows of stacks on one side and rows of desks on the other, with an atrium in the middle and windows all along the side. To your right is the library known as the Lecky. Passage to the Arts Block can be made through this minefield of pewter blue metal study desks and kindergarten classroom carpentry.

Other than those two libraries, there’s no obvious place to go from the main atrium, the Berkeley apparently missing. One day, though, I noticed that before the self-cancelling staircases is another staircase, directly to the right of the turnstiles when you enter. Anticipating the revision of my mental model to come, I ascended the stairs, passing a sign that says “Silence is Requested” tiled onto the staircase on my way. When I emerged, I didn’t need to be told to silence myself—my surprise at what I found took care of speechlessness for me.

I do not know if I love the Berkeley library, exactly. But I am intrigued by it and its “austerity.” Berkeley makes me feel like a knowledge astronaut. It is brutalist, which I don’t usually go for, but in the best way, with a retro-space station feeling to it. It evokes placelessness; when you are there, the world eerily condenses to your book and you. 

My attraction to Berkeley is no doubt equally for what it represents to me as what it is. Missing the existence of the Berkeley Library was just the kind of mistake that characterized my last semester at Trinity—the kind of mistake that keeps you constantly on your feet and curious about what might be waiting at the end of every staircase.

My last year at Columbia was like watching a movie you’ve watched a lot before: You don’t exactly know the next line by heart, but when it’s spoken you feel as if you’re speaking along with it. Over my first semester at Trinity, by contrast, I was constantly struck by the inapplicability of my yardstick, although I don’t know what I expected to do with a yardstick in a country on the metric system. Everything was a mystery to me. Where do I buy towels?  How does the microwave work? How about societies? Where’s the best place to get a quick lunch? Does this school have a meme group? How do I get mail? These curiosities were initially dictated by my needs, but they soon came to arise without prompting, the same way I remember them arising when I was new to Columbia and curious about everything: who are the paintings of? What’s the full story behind the little fun facts I hear from the tour guides that stop outside my window? Is the Berkeley Library up those stairs?

Adjusting to Ireland, like adjusting to Trinity, has provoked these curiosities and confusions, too. I like the small mix ups and embarrassments that remind you that things can be done a different way from the way you’re used to: from my flatmates’ endless confusion at my using the word “rag” instead of “tea-towel” to all the times I’ve tried to stick my chargers in plugs without an adapter. 

I know my process of acquaintance will likely peter out this upcoming term. I realized that I’d exchanged my yardstick for a meterstick when I caught myself ordering a “filter coffee” yesterday in New York City. But repetition, like acquaintance, is a unique mode of experience, and one I look forward to bearing out in a new context. As I continue to visit it next term, the placeless Berkeley will turn into a place: the place where I read that book, wrote that paper, and thought that thought. It will be a place where silence is requested not because a new experience demanded speechlessness, but because I already knew the words to the script, and I just got to mouth along.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Becoming Fluent: Looking Back on Our First Semester

My third day in Ireland, in a jet-lagged, sleep-deprived haze, I approached the clerk at the Ballymun Ikea, where I was sojourning to stock up on kitchen supplies and throw pillows. 

“Is there somewhere I can find a shopping cart?,” I inquired.

The clerk stared back at me with a mixture of confusion and what might have been disgust. After a thirty-second pause, she ventured brusquely, “A trolley?”

It was not the first miscommunication, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But, on less tired occasions, differences in dialect often proved more amusing than uncomfortable. Several weeks later, on a weekend trip to the West with my fellow Mitchell scholars, our tour bus stopped for a break in its daylong circuit around the Ring of Kerry. I headed into a Centra, where I found myself at the same instant espresso machine as an older local man in a gray tweed cap. He spoke a few words to me in Irish, and although I didn’t understand them, I could tell by the friendliness of his intonations that he meant them as a greeting.

“Oh,” I responded without thinking, “How’s it going?”

“How’s it going!” he exclaimed incredulously, shaking with laughter. “How’s it going. . . How’s it going!” It was clear that my greeting was as foreign to him as his was to me. Struck by the strangeness of the situation, I laughed along with him. Afterwards, we introduced ourselves, shook hands, and wished each other a good day. The unexpected humor provided an opportunity for human connection.

In the classroom, I had to learn an entirely different vernacular altogether. The Mitchell Scholarship gave me the opportunity to switch disciplines from English to philosophy, and, as I quickly realized, the two areas of academic inquiry often employ language in radically divergent ways. On the first day of my “Continental Philosophy” survey course, I struggled to follow the three-hour lecture. The words the professor was scrawling on the board—“other,” “encounter,” “recognition”—ought to have been familiar, but I got the sense that their ordinary meanings had been replaced by specific technical definitions beyond my grasp. It was all I could do to frantically take down the professor’s exact words in my notebook, hoping that something she was saying would prove useful (or at least intelligible) later on.

In the meantime, I was also taking “French for Research Purposes,” a course meant to enable graduate students without prior knowledge of the language to learn how to read French competently within a few weeks, without necessarily being able to speak or listen to it. Geographically, Ireland proved particularly well-situated for this task. When rote memorizing French grammar became dull, it took just thirty euros and a few hours on a Ryanair flight to get to Nice, where I spent the weekend trying out my new reading comprehension skills on museum wall texts and farmer’s market produce labels.

The view of the fall foliage outside my UCD dorm room provided the motivation I needed to wake up early and study French vocabulary
The Dublin Mitchells were excellent study buddies at Accents Cafe in the city centre

In the final week of classes, I sat down to type up all of my handwritten notes from the semester. As I reread my notes from that first “Continental Philosophy” class, I realized I was doing so with a newfound fluency. Without fully noticing the moment of transition, I had become someone who could deploy terms like “phenomenology” and “dialectics” while appreciating their intellectual histories and shades of nuance. Equally, I could now effortlessly substitute “lift” for “elevator,” “chips” for “fries,” “fill-it” for “fill-ay.” In my term papers, I wrote “theatre” instead of “theater” and kept my end punctuation outside of my (single) quotation marks.

There is still so much I have left to learn in the next few months, within and beyond the classroom, but if my phone now autocorrects “let’s” to “lads,” that seems like a good start.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lived In

To celebrate finishing my first set of final exams in Ireland, my suite-mate, a Co. Kildare native, took me to a local favorite, the Red Torch Ginger Maynooth, a stylish cocktail bar. While walking over from North campus at around 9 pm, vacant streets prompted me to ask him about a trend I had noticed during my time here: “Why are the streets of Maynooth, a college town, so quiet during the night? Where is everybody?” To this, he whimsically replied, “Considering our weather, I’m sure most prefer indoor activities.” When we arrived at the bar, his joke seemed to contain more than kernel of truth–completely packed, the bar contained a vibrant and warm energy that seemed to exist in a completely separate world from the outside. A riveting conversation comparing differences in American and Irish evenings ensued, but my biggest takeaway from the night was that these possible cultural differences did not exist in a vacuum. This bar, like others, had a built-in coziness and intimacy. The vibrancy I experienced may have resulted not from the possible unpleasantness of the outside but from the draw of what was inside. The Red Torch, like so many other buildings in Ireland, feels lived in.

During trips into Dublin City Centre, I frequent Stephens Green Shopping Centre. The interior, ornately beautiful, provides plenty for a pedestrian to take in. The glass ceiling permits the entry of sunbeams on (albeit rare) sunny days that glow up the light interior. The bilateral arrangement of shops separated by bridges that permit easy travel back-and-forth and to escalators to ascend or descend its multiple levels architecturally present a natural walking route for shoppers to enjoy the entire centre. An American may immediately notice the lavish, older architecture that is serving a very modern function. Thus, the centre, and Grafton street (which the centre leads directly to), reflects the duality of the lived in experiences of Ireland succinctly – an old, brilliant history and a prosperous, modern identity.

Similarly, right outside of Maynooth University’s main library, a beautiful bronze statue of Pope John Paul II embracing two kneeling children exists. It is based on a photograph of the pope’s visit in 1980, in which two children knelt before the Pope to present their gifts, who reached out his arms as a gesture of affection. Behind the statue, the Heritage Wall, erected in 1993, honors Irish families who have displayed considerable generosity to Maynooth. I have, upon entering or leaving the library, reflected on Ireland’s prominent Catholic past, as displayed by the monument. To me, this conscious arrangement of the monument next to the library has presented the campus as lived in and reflects that its, like Ireland’s, storied history exists alongside–not before–contemporary experiences.

As I frequent Dublin’s restaurants, pubs, shopping centers, and parks, and continue my education at Maynooth, I am sure that I will continue to admire the distinct architecture that I am privy to. In summary, Ireland has felt distinctly lived in. Its rich history takes no backseat to its modern vibrancy and warmth. As a result, I will continue to visit historic sites, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which has hosted countless experiences within its four walls.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dublin Port: An Odyssey

Every so often I make an effort to take a walk to a Dublin neighborhood that lies outside the limits of my normal daily route straight through Dublin city center. On this particular day, I had decided to venture off towards Dublin Bay. I had long noticed on Google Maps a large peninsula jutting out into the bay, right over the horizon from the Docklands where I attend classes, but it had never occurred to me actually to go there myself. I started wandering Eastwards and quickly found myself in the heart of Dublin Port. Nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered there.

I first found myself in an enormous corridor of shipping containers as far as the eye can see. The vastness of the industrial landscape was overwhelming.

As I continued on I came upon various piles of garbage and recycling organized into categories — concrete, auto, industrial, plastic, etc. The piles themselves appeared like mountains, and from a distance, they could almost be confused for natural formations of rock and earth. At first, they seemed reminiscent of the desert landscape of Beckett’s Happy Days, or of the rolling hills of early Irish romantic poetry. Upon closer inspection, the illusion is shattered as every particular bit of rubbish can be made out and identified in detail.

I keep walking. On my right, I pass the new Dublin waste to energy plant, an enormous futuristic building with a smokestack and a large plume of what I have been assured is nothing more than water vapor. Just beyond the waste to energy plant, however, loomed the towering twin stacks of the Poolberg Power Plant. Two of the tallest structures in Dublin, I had seen them before from the city center and long wondered about them. I wander into the facility, much of which it seems has been shut down in recent years. In front of the facility is a bizarre scene: a bathtub containing a pair of moldy boots, industrial piping, and an array of abandoned children’s toys including a toddler’s swingset and stroller. It was a scene I only could have imagined in a postapocalyptic nightmare or on the set of an experimental play.

As I move on I find a vast beach that stretches out for what seems like kilometers in front of the Poolberg Stacks. I walk along this beach until I get to the end of the peninsula and happen upon the Great South Wall, a 1.5-kilometer seawall leading out to a lighthouse. I get out to the lighthouse, look back, and behind me, I am able to see the entirety of Dublin Port.

I would later learn that I was looking back at the port responsible for over 50% of Ireland’s trade. That site has an annual throughput of over 38 million tonnes. Never before had I been so aware of the industrial underbelly of any large city. I was simultaneously horrified by the endless piles of waste, mesmerized by the organizational efficiency, and awe-struck by the invisibility of the entire process. It occurred to me that most Dubliners, myself included, are probably completely unaware of the cities supply chains and power sources. As a theatre director and art student, I was also captivated by the aesthetics of industrial landscapes. These industrial spaces occupy a vastness that in a certain sense mimics the vastness of the natural, geological beauty of Ireland’s West Coast. The experience was, as silly as it may sound, in many ways sublime. I became aware of myself, and my smallness, as an individual in a new way–and I was compelled to know, and come to know, the spaces I inhabit a little bit better.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When Words Escape Us, Places Stay With Us

Winter vacation lasts a long time at Trinity. Returning to Dublin today, I spent the last month away from campus after finishing up final term papers in mid-December. While I’ve used that time to recharge following a busy term of rigorous studies and prepare for another one ahead, I’ve also found myself spending a great deal of time reminiscing on recent experiences as well. The four months I spent in Dublin fall term have been the longest single stretch of time that I have gone without visiting home or seeing my family. Naturally, they and everyone else that I spent winter break reconnecting with were eager to hear all about my experiences in Ireland.

Peppered with questions about Ireland by each family member, friend, and acquaintance I saw this break, I enjoyed discussing my life at Trinity and sharing stories from my travels around the rest of island. Certain escapades and details I found myself recounting again and again, grinning while retelling comedic episodes and describing new friends.

Yet, always, I have felt that my reflections on my experiences of Ireland so far have fallen short somehow, failing to ever fully express the totality of what my time abroad has meant to me. Certain elements of my time in Ireland elude easy articulation. The sheer drama of its cliffs cannot be explained by quantifying just how precipitously they plunge into the sea, nor can I adequately paint the different shades of blue that color the shimmering sea around Ireland with words. To say that I visited ruined castles and monasteries cannot convey the atmosphere of mystery or the cloak of history that covers such wondrous locations – while they blur together in description, each one I’ve encountered is unique in the peculiar feeling it elicits. How can I even begin to explain how an Irish Guinness tastes different from those poured abroad?

The remains of a church on Inishmore

The shortcomings of words to capture the magic of my experience in Ireland reminds me, like so many things do, of a moment from my time there. Since my last blog post, my quest to visit every county on the island has taken me west to lively Galway, where I went with a friend to see Galway Town’s lovely Christmas market. I found the town enchanting – filled with music, it will surely be a great new home for the many future Mitchell Scholars who will be based there next year. But the real highlight of my trip to County Galway was an hour ferry ride away from town on the remote island of Inishmore.

One of the larger clusters of cottages on Inishmore

One of the Aran Islands, Inishmore is a firmly Gaeltacht region, one of those places where Ireland’s indigenous, but endangered Gaelic language still remains dominant over the more widely spoken English tongue. It’s a small community – it’s population numbers just 800. Aside from the steady stream of tourists who come and go each day, the island is largely closed off from the rest of the world – legal protections make it all but impossible for a non-native to purchase property there. Living life much like their ancestors did and speaking their traditional tongue in each other’s company as their first language, the people of the island community are incredibly close-knit and share an inward-facing existence unique to their location and heritage. Their little island is a rich, all-encompassing world, a whole planet unto itself for its locals who know a million small secrets that the many visiting outsiders, whose fathers and grandfathers didn’t also call the island home, could not understand.

The ancient cliff-side fortress of Dun Aengus on Inishmore

On a guided tour of the island with a Gaelic-speaking local, I marveled at the many gorgeous sights that our guide revealed to us, awed by the wonders both man and nature had achieved on Inishmore, from the ancient stone fortress of Dun Aengus to the natural sinkhole called the Wormhole. Yet, as our group sat down for lunch at a local pub inside a cottage that looked like it might have stood there for hundreds of years, I watched as our guide shared local small-talk, lively debate, and hushed conversations of the important kind all in fast and spirited Gaelic. As the dozen or so locals in the pub conversed energetically in a language totally beyond the grasp of the tourists, it was as though we outsiders were not even there. Yet it wasn’t simply the sounds of words that I felt eluded us tourists as we eavesdropped, but their significance as well.

Humbled, I asked our tour guide whether he could explain to us some of what people were talking saying. Graciously, he tried his best to explain in English but despite speaking the language fluently during the tour found himself at times lost for words. There are some Gaelic words, Gaelic ideas, that are hard to express outside of the community’s own language, he explained. While English may be sufficient to chronicle the history of Dun Aengus to tourists, it could not convey the meaning of the local small talk or the peculiar experiences unique to the island that it describes.

The sun begins to set at the Wormhole on Inishmore

While struggling to adequately explain my own time in Ireland to people who haven’t been there I sometimes feel like that tour guide in the Aran Islands, grasping for words to explain places, experiences, and ideas that are beyond the skills of language I possess to give them shape. When we looked at out the sunset over the water on Inishmore, boat preparing to depart, my guide tapped me on the shoulder. “That’s it,” he said to me, “that’s what we were talking about before that I couldn’t describe. Do you understand?” Watching purple and orange colors swirl around in the sea and sky as small waves lapped slowly against the pebble shore I nodded that I did.

Only by experiencing Ireland could I understand those things about it that words cannot reveal. And when words escape us, places stay with us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Genealogy of Dance

5… 6… 7… 8… 

The eight beat restarts, and the dancer begins to rhymically beat the floor, creating percussive rhythms out of the careful battering of toes and heels against the stage.  Their accent might be on the on-beat, they might stand on their toes or stay flat-footed, their knees might be higher, their toes might be pointed, they might jump from one foot to the other or just in place.  These cues, with the style of music, will eventually tell you the style of dance you are watching (if the dance program didn’t tell you first). At this point you’ll know whether you’re watching an Irish hard shoe jig, American clogging, or American rhythmic tap.

The latter two styles, uniquely American, are the meeting of multiple dance forms from all over the world.  American tap, developed into its current form in the 1920s with the addition of metal taps screwed into the ball and heel of shoes, is the daughter of Irish jig and West African gioube, or stepping dances.  This style in particular is marked by flashy, fast movements and intricate and intense rhythmic sounds set to jazz or pop music.  

An example of American tap of an intermediate to difficult level. Notice the preponderance of the very top of the shoe (the toe) hitting the floor and how we stay on the balls of our feet the entire time. Notice we begin on the right foot. Also notice the music choice and the intricacy of the steps. I am the dancer on the right. Recorded July 2019 in Garner, North Carolina, USA. Choreographer: my tap dance teacher, Meredith Finch Hardy.

American clogging, also a daughter of Irish step dance and a much older sister to American tap, more closely resembles the original Irish folk jigs characterized by large groups of people dancing to universally understood patterns with the addition of simple steps (think square dancing or line dancing, but with rhythmic stomps).  The shoes resemble tap shoes, with metal plates screwed into the ball and heel, but with an additional plate loosely screwed on the top of the tap so that the shoe rattles when you shake it. This addition makes clogging sounds “scratchier” and less distinct from tap. More recently, clogging has adopted some intricacies of tap to form “power clogging.” These dances are most often set to bluegrass music, directly related to Irish folk music, but today’s dances are also set to pop and modern country music. 

An example of American clogging of easy to intermediate difficulty. The upper body should be stiffer, knees should be higher and arms should be tighter, but I was feeling lazy that day! Notice how flat-footed I am and how all steps begin on the left foot. Also notice the music style in the beginning of the routine. Finally, notice how the sound “clatters” from the two attached taps on the shoe. Recorded June 2019 in Garner, North Carolina, USA. Choreographer: my mom! (Donna Petherbridge)

I have practiced both of these dance styles (tap and clogging) since childhood, the two being easily matched with some technical differences.  Where tap is on the toes, clogging is flat-footed; in tap the energy is expended in the highly intricate rhythmic tapping, while in clogging the dancer must also strive to lift her knees to waist height after every step; tap begins with the onbeat on the right foot, where as clogging begins on the left. Despite these differences, these styles of dance are siblings, separated only by time and distance. I came to Ireland in part to learn about their parent, Irish dance. 

This pursuit has led to my development of a genealogy of these styles, with every Irish dance class becoming a lesson in linguistics. I have found where the tap, clogging and Irish dance styles are similar, such as the common use of the “shuffle step” in all three. In some instances, one style inherited a technique that the other abandoned; for example, tap takes the Irish jig tendency to remain on the balls of the feet whereas clogging is primarily practiced on flat feet.  Other times, a step is clearly found in one of the other; for instance, a “rock” in Irish dance, where you rock your ankles to the right and left, translated into clogging’s “broken ankle” step. In other cases, a technique is abandoned completely in tap and clogging, such as the Irish three step, where the dancer hops from one foot to another as if jumping over a small creek. 

A small example of very basic hard shoe Irish dance. Notice the stiff upper body and the combination of moves with and without sounds against the floor. I am the dancer farthest to the right. Recorded sometime Fall 2019 in Cork, Ireland.

Luckily, as tap and clogging are fairly easily interchangeable, I have found Irish hard shoe dance to be the same. The steps, though certainly foreign and in the context of a completely different style in culture, use the same skill sets I accumulated through my years of clogging and tap. The styles are different, and an untrained eye might be hard pressed to find any similarities at all, but to a practitioner, the steps are often a variation of what the body already has muscle memory for. This familiarity is analogous to my experience in Ireland in many ways; alien, yet surprisingly similar to home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Solvitur ambulando

When asked about the principle that guides the groundbreaking ecumenical peacebuilding that defines her career, Reverend Karen Sethruaman replied without hesitation: “solvitur ambulando.” As I recalled from my afternoons tediously translating Caesar in high school, and as Rev. Karen confirmed, the phrase means “it is solved while we walk.” In peacebuilding and intercommunity reconciliation work, one does not singlehandedly devise a solution and subsequently implement it. Rather, relationships are repaired and institutions rebuilt when people work together, engage across demographic and political lines, and figure it out as they go along. Rev. Karen emphasized the essentiality of the communal aspect of the aphorism: “it is solved while we walk.” In order to tackle conflict and division, one must walk alongside others, particularly others with whom one disagrees, and commit to giving oneself the time and latitude to truly connect and reconcile, to work through the social divisions between the oppressor and the oppressed, and to recognize each other’s humanity. “Theology,” and demographic and political differences, “come after the human,” she insisted. Walking alongside one another, both literally and metaphorically, allows us to transcend theological disagreements and demographic distinctions and recognize the humanity of the other, and thereby enables us to develop authentic connections and effectively collaborate—on peacebuilding work and on everyday challenges.

Walks have defined my first semester at Queen’s. Belfast is such a walkable city that an able-bodied person like myself can easily forsake the bus system in favor of peaceful rambles down University Road. I recently realized that I hiked every single weekend of fall semester, except for the one I spent in the Netherlands with a few of my fellow Scholars. From cliff hikes with friends Autumn and Natalie on the Isle of Man, to leisurely strolls along Lough Erne with Rohan, to ambulatory discussions on police oversight with the former Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, walking has provided me with opportunities to develop profound connections with others, learn from their experiences, and reflect on my own beliefs and convictions. Conversations I have engaged in while walking have challenged my ideological purity on the ethical necessity of open borders, taught me about inequities that plague the Dallas public school system, and undermined my approach to my intended dissertation project. They, more often than not, left me with more questions than I started the walk with. I also got lost regularly, both in Belfast side streets and expansive fields far off my planned hiking paths. Yet, however meandering the path or circuitous the discussion, taking the time and space to engage with others, listen deeply, and reflect on my own values and beliefs has been indescribably integral to the development of both my character and my academic capacity. I cannot wait to discover what walks await me next semester.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Trip up North

Shortly before the start of the spring semester, I welcomed my first visitor to Ireland. My friend—who is half Irish!—studies civil conflict and political psychology, so she was keen to visit Northern Ireland and learn more about the Troubles, the period of civil conflict between republicans and loyalists that lasted from the late 1960s until 1998.

Just twelve hours after I returned to Dublin from Wales, I hopped on a bus to Belfast to meet my friend. From there, we took another bus to Derry, a charming town that was the heart of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and a major flashpoint in the Troubles. Upon our arrival, we realized just how small and close-knit Derry is: our Airbnb was within a 5-10 minute walk of the infamous Bogside neighborhood, the walled city centre, and the modern Peace Bridge. Our first evening, we went to see the nationalist murals commemorating Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement in the Bogside. We meandered around the city walls, looking out at the sunset and surrounding hills. The next day, we took a tour of the Bogside and visited the Museum of Free Derry, which compellingly tells the story of the civil rights movement and the brutality of Bloody Sunday, a tragic event in which Catholic protesters were needlessly attacked by the British military and police.

Hannah and I in front of Derry’s most famous mural.
Derry at sunset.

We were also able to meet up with my fellow Mitchell, Alison, for dinner and a benefit concert for the Bloody Sunday March. The concert featured outstanding local musicians and represented what is so unique about Derry. We recognized several people in the crowd who we had seen somewhere else in the city. It was heartening to see such a large crowd gathered on a random Wednesday night to support their community. As people sang along to the music, I realized that I’ve never been in another place where people who have suffered and struggled so much retain so much optimism for the future and joy in their community.

Enjoying the concert with Alison.

We then returned to Belfast, which was more familiar territory for me. I had visited twice before—once in 2018 and to attend the Rally for Choice at the beginning of my Mitchell year. I gave my friend an informal tour of the murals on the infamous Falls and Shankill roads, which are nationalist and unionist strongholds, respectively, prompting us to discuss the role of historical memory in Northern Ireland. After a failed attempt to visit the Museum of Orange Heritage, which was unfortunately closed for remodeling, we decided to take a wee stroll through the nearby glen. As is often the case in Northern Ireland, ‘wee’ was not an accurate descriptor of the size of the glen. Our relaxing walk quickly became a sweaty hike involving slippery, decaying leaves and climbing lots of stairs. We eventually reached a field that allowed us to look out over the entire city, and as we gazed upon the spires and the sea I thought about just how lucky I am to get to spend a year in this green and pleasant land.

Hannah and I at the end of our accidental hike.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Fahrenheit and Family Leave

I often tell people, both those who love me back home and the friends I’ve made in Ireland that I’ve been homesick this entire time—but that I’m not too sad about it. I was lucky to go back to the states for two weeks during winter break, which let me reflect on what I value so much about my home, and what that home is sorely lacking.

For example, I think measuring things in kilograms and kilometers is the superior system. However, driving in the US again showed me that while I understand kilometers so much more clearly now for walking distances and small trips, giving me driving directions in kilometers (your next exit is in 5.2k…) is way less intuitive than miles. Likewise, packing and repacking my bag until my digital scale showed me under the Aer Lingus limit of 23 kilos made instinctive sense. I can move between these measurements easily now. 

The measuring system I truly do not understand is Celsius. I understand 60°F as a beautiful day for hiking if there’s no wind, but tell me it’s 15°C outside and I’ll probably just stare at you until I can pull out my phone and make Google do the conversion for me. 

But this blog post isn’t about how weird and different measuring systems are. It’s about the laughing and struggling as I tried to explain just how cold and snowy it was in the states to the Dublin piercer about to shove a 14g (or as they measure piercings here, 1.6mm) needle through the back of my ear, and realizing that I can get by better than I think. 

Earlier in the semester, in my Gender, Policy, and Inequality class I had another kind of shock. My professor was explaining characteristics of welfare states and brought up child allowances as an example of that. I remember feeling so confused as everyone else nodded along, (a similar feeling to when my German and Swiss friends are talking about the weather in Celsius, actually) and then a moment of cold realization. 

A realization that in some countries, people are paid weekly from the state per child to support the cost of raising a child because the state has decided this is something that matters. A realization that in some countries, women are granted 6 months of paid leave (or much longer!!) after having a child, and there are also transnational pushes for paid second parent (or paternal) leave so that dads can be home too in the first years of their children’s lives. A realization that I have spent my entire life as an activist in the US on the defensive, fighting to secure basic bodily autonomy and abortion rights and literally getting lapped by other countries when it comes to supporting reproductive decisions. 

So, I am homesick. Things are different here. We all know this. However, I refuse to idealize the place I left, and I refuse to idealize Irish and EU policies as a panacea for the issues I see back home. I want to be able to move between both systems. I want to take the things I am learning here and go back and make my own little corner of the world better—whether that’s measuring my veggie purchases at Kroger in kilos or working towards a liberatory future where everyone is empowered to make real choices about their bodies, their families, and their futures.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Ode to the Pub Society

Shortly after my arrival to UCC in September, I quickly came to discover the unique challenges faced by international graduate students in that most-important task of life: making friends. Having come directly from an undergraduate life where I felt thoroughly embedded in the college community, I found myself uncomfortable at the prospect of breaking into what looked like established cliques and unsure of where I belonged in the campus ecosystem. In a desperate attempt to forge alliances with other friendless students, I joined UCC’s International Student Society (ISS) and hoped to meet other people new to Cork.

The student group, which includes both international students hailing from countries all over the world as well as local Irish students, hosts weekly events and organizes trips to various destinations throughout Ireland. It serves somewhat as a home base for UCC’s extensive cohort of Erasmus students—the European Union’s wonderful student exchange program which I only recently discovered and am now a huge fan of. On an ISS-sponsored tour to the historic Jameson Distillery in Midleton, I met a group of friendly Erasmus students who bonded over a shared enthusiasm for Irish pub culture as we made our way through the grain store and the Old Distillery building and learned about the whiskey-making process. Together, we made a pact to visit as many pubs in Cork before they departed at the end of the term. United by a common goal, we dubbed ourselves “the Pub Society” and planned to get together over some traditional Irish music at Cork’s Sin é for our first meeting.

Some members of the Pub Society pictured at the Old Jameson Distillery in Midleton

Though the aim that brought us together was admittedly a goofy one, the friendships I made within the Pub Society quickly became one of the most meaningful and joy-filled aspects of my time in Cork. Over potluck dinners and evenings spent in the city’s seemingly infinite pubs, I realized that this group of friends was the most unique and diverse I had ever been a part of. With people studying abroad from over 8 different countries, there was no shortage of rich stories comparing our varied and similar lives, new music being introduced, and different cuisines being shared. I understood that this is likely what people mean when they say that experiences abroad can enrich your life and broaden your perspective.

Pub Society friends on T-shirt signing day at the end of the semester at Old Oak in Cork City Centre

While I hadn’t expected to befriend so many European students during my Mitchell year, I’m so grateful for the Dutch, Italian, German, Spanish, Danish, French, (etc.) friends I’ve been able to fall in love with Cork with over the past semester. As many of them head back to their home countries, I intend to recruit new Erasmus students to carry on the Pub Society’s mission. In many ways, the cross-cultural connections and relationships being fostered by the Erasmus program mirror the goals of the Mitchell Scholarship. The lasting friendships that I’ve made here in Cork and beyond have already made this year extraordinary, and make me feel like I live in a more connected world.

This customized bottle has become something like a “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”-esque token amongst our friend group–it must be passed on in-person during future visits.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Lovely Wee* House

I don’t like to think of myself as a New Yorker – I only lived there for five years – but when I arrived in Derry, I quickly realized just how many of those New Yorker instincts had stuck. A few weeks into my time here, I found myself in need of a new living situation. Having been through my fair share of nightmarish New York apartment searches, I braced myself, expecting a whirlwind of 10-minute tours followed by pressure to immediately apply for the apartment or gamble on finding something better in a city whose low-cost apartment offerings are fewer by the second.

 In Derry, there is no Craigslist or StreetEasy. It’s more of a “talk to anyone you meet and see if they know of a room for let” situation, with maybe one or two options on SpareRoom, posted by the technologically savvy. My first room viewing scheduled, I planned for at most 30 minutes to see the place, exchange pleasantries, and move on with my day. Little did I know that everyone here has a bit of Mrs. Doyle in them, and refusing a cup of tea is simply not an option. My planned room viewings went from 30 minutes to anywhere between one and three hours long each, and I began to leave behind my in-and-out New Yorker sensibilities. In fact, the longer the tea, the more I tended to like the room, and the housemates that went along with it.

It was after a particularly long tea and chat that I ended up moving into the most wonderful house in Derry (no, I won’t be citing my sources here – it’s just a fact). It’s a Victorian era townhouse once occupied by the architect who designed Derry’s Guildhall and currently occupied by a ghost (she’s friendly, but is occasionally known to slam a door or two). The kitchen is painted bright yellow – a welcome antidote to the perpetually grey sky – and fireplaces abound. We’re visited every Tuesday morning by the Turf Man, who delivers logs and turf (or peat, for the uninitiated) for our fires, and who has the thickest country accent I’ve ever heard.

My cat, Zazz, also loves our new home.

The house itself, while absolutely lovely, would be nothing without its residents, who have quickly become my favorite people in this city. There’s the jazz singer from a mixed Protestant/Catholic upbringing in Omagh and her partner, a Catalonian anarchist and union organizer – we all share a love of good rum, folk music, and left-leaning politics. There’s their seven-month-old son, the smiliest and squirmiest baby I’ve ever met. There’s a nurse from Donegal who works with adults with learning disabilities, and I make theatre with neurodivergent actors, so we always have lots to talk about. And there’s a social work student from Germany who has taught me countless useless words in German (thanks to her, I’ll never refer to my fiancé as anything other than my verlobter again).

I could keep writing about these wonderful people for days, but this ex-New Yorker has a wee fire to attend to, and there’s a long tea and a chat to be had upstairs.

*If you’ve never spent time in Northern Ireland, you might be thinking based on the title of this post that I live in a small house. It is not small, but everything here is wee. Take, for example, the wee signature you give after paying with a credit card, or the wee elephant you might have seen on your trip to the zoo.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment