Learning During the Age of COVID

The past eight months have been different for everyone. Going back to school this year after working in the state legislature for over four years, I was eager to see how a legislative session (which in Maryland spans from January to April by constitutional mandate) would operate during a still-raging pandemic. While my brain was still thinking about what my former work career would look like, I didn’t spend much time thinking about how my learning experience over the next year would differ from my past academic experiences.
Over the fall semester, I was fortunate to be based at a small outpost of Trinity College Dublin located in Belfast, and benefited from being a member of a cohort of less than ten masters students. While almost every other student on the island of Ireland was dealing with remote learning, our cohort was meeting for in-person (socially distant) class each week. After almost six months of relative isolation (including a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Northern Ireland), it was so refreshing to be able to learn and socialize with my peers again. We understood the risks associated with the pandemic, but each did our best to maintain our “bubble”.
Moving into the winter, the UK-based COVID variant increased caseloads throughout the island, leading to additional restrictions, and for the time, an end to our in-person class experience. But, I can confidently say that my learning experience has not suffered. Over the past months, I’ve spent plenty of time on Zoom (like most of the world at this point), but I’ve connected with some of the top conflict transformation scholars in the world, from Colombia to South Africa to Palestine. Although my cohort hasn’t been able to retreat to the various conflict resolution centers located in Northern Ireland, we’ve made up for it by creating meaningful interactions with both local and global practitioners. I cannot give enough credit to my professors, and the support staff at Trinity College Dublin for making these experiences possible, and maintaining an extraordinary learning environment during such a difficult time.
Moving out of the most severe COVID restrictions in Northern Ireland, I’m confident that we will finish the year strong – similar to how we started it – with safe and responsible in-person learning opportunities. While so many experiences have been impacted by the pandemic, I feel so fortunate to be in a situation where I can still make the most of this incredible learning opportunity in a place like Belfast. I look forward to closing out the academic year strong, and using the additional freedoms to continue the on-the-ground research necessary for my masters thesis.

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Dubliner

The Dublin Bay changes everyday. It is no small miracle. There is enough excitement there to last several human lifetimes. Tide lapping the edges of the seawall, waterline so far out you can walk in the middle, white-capped swells or lake-like glass, moody green or pacific cerulean that tricks you into thinking it might even be warm. (It’s never warm.) 

The Bay can be read like tea leaves, sketching the story of this land. Straight across from my usual perch loom the cliffs of Howth, the island flashing its archetypal beauty, craggy rock meeting bold sea. 

At its heart, to my left, towards the city center, the port, container ships and lighthouses and smokestacks and cranes jutting up like so many nods to Ireland’s industry. An Irish friend comments on the strangeness of leaping from a largely agrarian economy to an advanced tech-based economy in a few decades, skipping through many stages of industrial development along the way. There aren’t that many smokestacks. Is this why the air is so fresh? Still, I’m told, when there are cranes in Dublin Bay, people stay, jobs on the way. 

Worry about jobs seems much farther away if I face right on the Bay, where the moneyed suburbs of Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey parade their arching stone pier, sailboat-dotted marina, curving beaches that emerge and submerge with the changing tide. And then the mouth of the Bay, opening onto the oceans, the occasional ship a messenger from all water elsewhere, Wales shimmering just out of sight like a mirage, and the rest of the great continent beyond.

I’ve become a Dubliner this spring, leaving behind sleepy Galway to make my way in this storied city. I came for the faces—even when you can’t meet new people because of lockdown, you can watch them, catch snippets of their conversations as they pass by two meters away in the park. 

There is a character in James Joyce’s Dubliners, Mr. Duffy, who yearns to break out of his own, largely self-imposed, lockdown. “He lived at a little distance from his body,” Joyce writes, “regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a verb in the past tense.” 

These days have been strange. Everything I came to Ireland for—theater, music, public conviviality—is dormant. By many accounts, it has been a tremendous disappointment. Yet—and this is no easy consolation, but rather a recognition—there is still so much to attend to, so much to see. I can’t help sometimes but feel myself a character like Duffy, ensconced in some larger story, carried forward by some larger yearning. Mr. Duffy walked. Mr. Duffy looked at the Bay. Mr. Duffy considered life’s feast.

It is an anti-spectacular approach to living, to be blown away by the changes in the Bay. To move through the lettered city and feel it haunted by those who have come before and those unknown others who people it now is to feel yourself a link in the human chain, a co-constructor of this place that, like Duffy, like the water, is always becoming.

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Melting into Infectious Light

The sun rises early–earlier. And its razor blade blaze cuts my curtains and finds its way to my tired eyes. I missed the ever ephemeral nighttime and find myself still in yesterday, today. I trim my beard and wash my face. There’s a satisfying ritual in applying each step of a skincare routine. Rinse your face in cold water (yesterday is gone). Wash, gently, for thirty seconds (synonymous with forgiving undone tasks). Rinse, again (yesterday is surely gone). Apply your toner (notice your imperfections). Apply your serum (there is beauty in them). Apply moisturizer (set your intentions). Apply sunscreen (youth is not forever).

Blackrock is full of white-haired couples and grey-haired droves of men with bike helmets and awaiting flat whites. I am a sore thumb. Young and with stinging sun-scared eyes. I sit beyond the train station, on the water. A dog wades in, anticipating the ball that follows. Green streak on grey sky. She shakes herself off and I am dressed in droplets that catch the sun. I have recently completed an essay summarizing the applications of variational autoencoders in natural language processing. I write a poem:

There’s sand in my wallet
Between its toes
And chafing the thighs of my credit cards
200 grit
Like I could rub it between my fingers
And not notice when it finally breaks skin with its persistent caress

I could empty every sleeve
Almost throw out that Loyalty Card
With only one cup marked
From my year in Minneapolis
and the morning I roamed into Saint Paul

Reassemble it, meticulously
Punch cards into an IBM1401 machine
Marvel at how slim it has become
How much time I will save
Now that gift cards are stacked
And my Visa
with roll-over points
Sits in the most prominent spot

Then find my card declined
At a coffee shop whose wifi is noted to be:
“Off until 2PM”
Because there is still sand in my wallet

And it has eroded away the strip
And I have missed out on my points
that promised to take me to Hawaii one day
And pay with cash instead
And nature revels in Her small victory.

I don’t sleep that day. I am euphoric. I play music and take a long walk. Then, as night approaches, I push through sleep again. Awake becomes synonymous with alive. I can’t describe that night. Sorry, it escapes me.

But I become aware at the edge of Sandymount. We have sung through the nighttime/daytime/sometime streets. Hammond Song. “We’ll always love you / but that’s not the point.” We leave our shoes and carry the tired to sleep on our backs. We embrace and kiss cheeks. Why do I always sleep past noon? I am, briefly, a child again. Stomp and ask dumb questions. The tide has taken the water so far out that we can’t reach it. First, there is stiff wet sand, then sheets of shells, then sand dryer than before. There are saltwater rivers and ponds. Birds flock and mingle. They seem tired and rudely awakened by our jubilant parade.

48 hours without sleep.

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A Reflective Recap

I wrote my last blog post about gratitude, and I’ve had a lot to be grateful for since that post was published. I started working for a venture capital fund named SOSV that currently employs two previous Mitchell Scholars Meghan Hind and Kelly Kirkpatrick. Their mentoring has been invaluable to me, particularly since I have no background in finance whatsoever. 

I spent last weekend at a picnic by Menlo Castle with excellent homemade sandwiches and even better friends. I’ll spend this weekend celebrating Mitchell Scholar Kyle Berlin’s birthday with The Dublin Boys, and on Sunday I’ll go paddleboarding with some local Galwegians. Things are looking up! It seems that after a long year of tough lockdown and isolation the Irish summer proves to be a promising one.

Mitchell Scholars Mason, Kyle, & I at our favorite pub in town- Tonerys!
The owner Peter is here with us. He insisted we get a photo before lockdown began.

The sun doesn’t set until nearly 10PM in Ireland during the summer. The impact this has on mental health cannot be understated- sunlight! It’s here! The days are long for fun and adventure, even for those who like to sleep in (admittedly like me). For once in my life as a ginger, I am not the palest person in my friend group. I think the Irish definitely have me beat on that, and I had a good chuckle watching my Irish friends lather themselves in sunscreen in 50 degree weather (and still get burnt to a crisp!).

 

Fellow Galway Volleyballer Giulia & I at Menlo Castle

After a long and tumultuous application cycle, I’m very thankful to have been accepted at Georgetown Law where I have received a full-tuition scholarship. I look forward to being in DC and close to all of the US-Ireland Alliance festivities. A special shoutout to Mitchell Scholar Achille for also going through this crazy law school application process with me, and being a great friend to vent with about the process.

Galwegians Cerena, Giulia, and I hosted a paint night in March!

I guess what I’m trying to convey is that I’m just so, so, so grateful for such a wonderful year. Despite the pandemic and being presented with every obstacle humanly possible to making friends, I will be leaving Ireland with several friendships that will last a lifetime. Whether with the other Mitchell scholars, my coworkers at SOSV, or the friends I made at the Galway Volleyball Club, it has been an incredible year. I can’t thank Trina, Carolina, and the US-Ireland Alliance enough for such a life-changing opportunity. I will definitely be back to visit!

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Dublin by the Sea

When most people think of Dublin, industrial brick and mortar are probably the most prominent images that come to mind. Visitors often forget that Dublin is a city by the sea. I am guilty of this too. 

Dublin is an industrial city through and through, but its sandy beaches and pebbled shores are not to be overlooked. As the weather has warmed up and lockdown restrictions have loosened up, I’ve been able to explore some of Dublin’s finest shores. It’s not often we experience weather warm enough to spend a full day seaside. So when those rare moments do arise, I’m sure to take advantage of them.

Howth

I visited Howth with a group of international students at UCD. Just a 28 minute DART ride from UCD Campus, Howth is the ideal day excursion from Dublin. Howth is most famous for its cliff walk. On a clear day, it’s a lovely scenic route that takes you along the coast with awesome views. Although Howth is a relatively easy walk, it is steep at times and you will be walking over some very uneven ground. The hike is most enjoyable when you aren’t in a hurry. Also if you’ve got a nice pair of Bluetooth speakers, be sure to blast music on the go!

Bray/Greystone

If you’re looking for a manageable challenge, the cliff walk from Bray to Greystone is very enjoyable. On my trip, I experienced typical Irish weather (i.e. 4 seasons in a day). We did get some glimpses of sunshine.  But towards the end of the hike, we were faced with cloudy and damp weather. However, that didn’t seem to take away from the beauty of the beaches. Multiple layers of blankets and fish & chips brought all the warmth we needed. 

Sea Point / Dun Laoghaire Pier

Seapoint is located near the port town of Dun Laoghaire in County Dublin. The beach is flat and shallow and the area is suitable for swimming at high tide. There are many rocks. To the south of the beach, the sea covers some of these rocks; you should take extra care swimming in these parts. On a recent trip, Kyle, Joseph, and I bravely hopped into the water. They lasted 10 minutes. I lasted about 10 seconds.

Blackrock Beach

Blackrock is a 12-minute ride from UCD’s main campus in Belfield. Outside campus, I probably spend most of my time in Blackrock. There’s a spot on the water, right behind the train station, that has more or less become my reading nook. Rain or shine, you’ll find me there. 

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Onion Skin

Perhaps the most important tool in digital animation is the onion skin — the ghost of your previous drawing overlaid onto your current frame. In traditional hand drawn animation, light boxes allow animators to layer their drawings on top of each other to observe and draw the minuscule changes that over time create motion.

The first frames drawn in most animations are the keyframes — the highs and lows of motion, the tops of arcs, the landing of jumps. When first layered on top of each other, the distance between them can feel uncrossable.

Looking at one or two consecutive frames can also feel infuriating; a step so small, that it seems to bring you no closer to your desired destination.

Over a hundred frames laid one on top of the other, however, and a strange and wonderful palimpsest emerges — a different kind of story than when they are played as an animation.

Onion skinning of ~3 seconds of cel animation

The keyframes are typically considered the most important and defining drawings of animation and are typically drawn by the most senior animators, while all the frames in between (helpfully named “inbetweens”) are left to the junior artists. Yet, when all the frames are exposed at once, it’s almost impossible to identify which are keys and which are inbetweens. Most importantly, when animated on one’s and exposed 24 per second in order to create motion, each frame is on screen for the same amount of time.

With less than a week to go before the phased reopening of Belfast, and vaccinations on the horizon, I’ve found myself reflecting on the past eight months, and looking forward to my coming ones. The days have gotten longer, the weather warmer, and the virus increasingly contained. Looking back on this year, my education in animation has been deeply intertwined with my experience of living in lockdown. The growth and change I discovered through both have informed each other in ways that I am sure will be the basis of my art practice.

Animation has given me a framework to tackle the passing of time in lockdown. As a medium, animation is at times monotonous, relentless, and exhausting. The final products can at times feel a Phyrric victory when days of work culminate in seconds of film. Similarly, the milestone days in a pandemic feel few and far between. This year, it has been tempting to write off each day as an “inbetween” something less than a real day. Laid back to back, the changes imperceptible, the infection curve seemingly static forever, and “normality” hundreds of frames away. Yet, I feel immeasurably lucky to have had my my art to inform my life and vice versa.

It was the day-to-day talking, cooking, and drawing that has built lifelong friendships. And the daily walks that have made the Belfast cityscape feel like one I’ll know off the back of my hand. And most importantly, these months were the foundation on what I’m sure will be a fantastic summer of (safely) exploring more of Northern Ireland.

One of my favorite days was driving to an empty Glendalough to go hiking. I took this video of the incredible drive over (big Irish-country-road-driving-on-stick-shift appreciation and thanks to my friend Hannah). The Irish landscape, which I got to explore more thoroughly (thanks to lockdown) is the basis of my upcoming dissertation film.
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Celebrating Northern Ireland

To celebrate what has become my second home, I offer six impactful lessons Northern Ireland has taught me.

1. “Warm” is relative.

Changed from my Tennessee roots, I now become ecstatic at any weather over 55 degrees and sunny. To celebrate, I go to Botanic Gardens, with what looks like everyone else in the city, to eat cheesy chips and Boojum and feel the sun on my face.

Enjoying a warm (60 degrees) sunny day on Belfast’s front lawn.
Enjoying Boojum in the park with the rest of Belfast!

2. Embrace change.

I appreciate my routines. But Belfast has taught me to make the best out of any situation. Not only is her weather constantly changing from my pleasant walk to Tesco to my unpleasant return of unpredicted sleet, followed by warm sunshine, but she is also teaching me to constantly embrace changing expectations, changing experiences, and taking some of the comfortable control I like to use on life away.

3. I need a wee bit more “island living” in my non-island life.

I came to Mitchell during one of the busiest times of my life. I was Student Body President; I was pursuing a double major with graduate coursework; I was leading fights to physically and culturally adapt a university to accept students with intellectual disability. I worked all the time, and I loved it. But Belfast has taught me to slow down. She has reconnected me with my genuine love of learning and reminded me to take a day off and get outside when it’s sunny—you never know if that one sunny day will be followed by a week of rain.

Enjoying Maggie May’s cheesy chips and milkshake on a sunny day, watching the cars go by.

4. Peace is fragile and valuable.

These past few weeks have seen violence tear through parts of Belfast not seen for many years. Young teenagers running through the streets, cheered on by their communities, petrol bombs in hand, I am reminded of how precious peace is. I also find new respect for those who fight to preserve it. Belfast has taught me about the lasting implications of destroyed peace, and it has taught me how to rebuild once peace is stolen. These lessons are relevant for diplomats, and personal lives, alike.

Here I am sitting on the Peace Bench of the George Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast.
While I was not a student in the Mitchell Institute, I still enjoyed the great reputation Senator Mitchell has in NI of a protector of peace.

5. Education holds answers.

Following my coursework, I believe now more than ever that Northern Ireland has something profound to offer the rest of the world about the impact of education for social ends. Last week I got an email from someone in Tennessee looking to improve race relations and disability inclusion in her local schools; she heard about what I was studying and asked me how Shared Education could help her.

6. People make a place.

My classmates at Queen’s have made a wonderful impression on me. They have given me hope for the future of education. They have made me wrestle with challenging questions. They will be who I return to when I come back to Belfast, and I can’t wait.

These are some of my lovely classmates for a socially-distanced “hello” on a walking trail along the River Lagan.

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Family history

I was in the kitchen making dinner the other night. During finals season, my schedule takes a horrific turn, and since I get more work done in the evenings than the mornings, I often find myself staying up into the wee hours of the night and waking long after the sunrise. One unfortunate result is that I most often begin making my dinner after 10PM, and as my suitemates prepare themselves for bed or put together an evening snack, I am working away on some potatoes. I’m peeling skins when one of them comes in the room, asks how I’m doing, how was my day, what have I been working on—in the manner of conviviality and good fellowship. I tell him that I had been working on an essay all day (my energy comes in bursts; I don’t work for two hours every day the whole semester; I work for days in a row, twelve hours a day; I’m a sprinter, not a distance runner). After asking what my topic was, I launch into a diatribe about the 1641 rebellion in Ireland, which started in Ulster among the elites of that age but was quickly taken up as popular insurrection, folks from all swaths of Gaelic and Old English society finding themselves wrapped up in the action, balancing economic and religious and political motives, and…

I stop myself. I realize I was explaining a prominent subject of Irish history to an Irish man, and a well-read one at that. I apologized profusely. I hadn’t meant to be condescending. “Oh, not at all, at all…” he tells me, and continues, “In fact, that’s one that they skip over in schools.”

That’s the first thing that struck me: that this land is so full of history that school administrators are forced to choose which events are most salient, which are most important, which had the most lasting impact. Perhaps by virtue of occurring during the early modern period, the 1641 rebellion does not command the same general awe as the 1798 rebellion, or the Irish War of Independence (notably, many of the “rebellions” could have been called “wars of independence” had the Irish won; something to think about).

But what struck me later as I got back to work arguing for the material interpretation of events over the ideological, was that I have gained something of an understanding about the social and political history of this place—or at least some of the greatest hits. I’ve read the lamenting poems of Feargal Óg Mac an Bhaird after the Flight of the Earls after their defeat in the Nine Years War. I was there, in a sense, with Theobald Wolfe Tone as met with the conspirator William Jackson—and I saw Jackson collapse on the floor dead after eating poison on the day he would be sentenced in the first ever trial for high treason in Ireland. Then of course there’s James Connolly. I came here to learn more about myself and the land that my family is from—I take some small amount of pride in knowing what I know now, about a land that has come to mean so much more to me than an abstract sense of ancestry.  

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What Lies Ahead

The first time I ever truly encountered the world on my own was when I moved to New York City for the summer while I was nineteen. I was in town for an internship ahead of a semester abroad in Hong Kong, which, for logistical reasons, I’d depart for in August straight from LaGuardia. In other words, I showed up to my Brooklyn apartment in May with a suitcase and the knowledge that I wouldn’t see home until the end of December later that year. Having never left the Midwest for a city any bigger than Minneapolis, I was a ball of nerves when I stepped into my bedroom.

My welcome to New York City was given to me in the first Irish accent I had ever heard. Emmet Lyons, my new roommate, had just moved from Dublin with a dream of breaking into the broadcast journalism industry after graduating from University College Dublin. In true New York City fashion, Emmet hustled through a series of odd jobs in the media and film scene while working at the gift shop in NBC Studios. We lived with a rotating cast of strangers in a room that held a set of dual bunk beds while paying an exorbitant amount of rent that, frankly, I’d rather not print. Perhaps due to the regional warmth that both of our homelands were known for, we quickly became good friends and spent most of our summer nights on the roof wondering what in the world we were going to do with our lives. It was one of the best summers of my life.

When our time together neared its end, I vowed to myself that I’d one day make good on my newfound dream of visiting Emmet in Ireland, though I wasn’t quite sure how that would happen. I never would’ve imagined that I’d retell our story three years later in the Mitchell interview that would send me to Dublin and Emmet’s alma mater. In a stroke of pandemic-induced luck, Emmet ended up moving back home from London and we recently had the chance to reunite, making good on a promise we made in pure aspiration.

I could barely wrap my mind around the odds as we stood together and shared a couple of takeaway pints on a beautiful spring day in Dublin. It was nothing short of the kind of magical experience that we’ve all sorely missed in the pandemic era. Although the future turned into a reality we never could’ve dreamed back then, I’m happy to report that our goals remained intact – and then some. Emmet now works for CNN and has an Emmy under his belt while I’m planning on moving back to New York City in the upcoming fall. At fate’s current rate, it seems like I may not be able to see Ireland in the way I had hoped to a year ago. Nonetheless, I’m reminded in moments like this that life still goes on in ways that always have a chance to be a beautiful surprise.

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A Friday Frolic to Westport

As I flew to Washington D.C. for my Mitchell Scholar finalist interview, I daydreamed about the possibility of traveling the Irish countryside, absorbing the breath-taking scenery and chatting with local residents about their rural communities. I wanted to witness firsthand how Irish rural communities are handling the side-effects of rural decline and urbanization. Given the Covid-19 restrictions that have been commonplace throughout our year on the island, turning that daydream into a reality has been difficult. 

Feeling a bit anxious and rebellious last fall, I started a tradition I coined “Friday Frolics.” On Fridays, I would hop on a train or bus and go see a new site. Public transportation routes made it a bit difficult to reach rural places, but one particular Friday Frolic took me to Westport in Co. Mayo. As I hopped off the bus, I realized that I might have found the small rural community that was featured in my daydreams. 

A river through the heart of Westport.

The city has several incredible features. First, a river that flows through the heart of the city that served as the perfect setting drive my morning coffee and read the Irish Farmers Journal. Second, the Great Western Greenway wraps around the city on an abandoned railroad track that was built on a raised elevation above the city’s streets and rooftops. It was full of walkers taking in the incredible view of the city and surrounding countryside. Third, The Westport House is a stunning 18th-century home located on a large piece of property on the outskirts of the city. 

My favorite Westport site, however, wasn’t on Google’s list of must-see sites. After leaving the Westport House property, I grabbed some ice cream at a local shop. As I walked out of the shop, I noticed a rather large hill a few blocks away surrounded by a pasture of sheep. I was not disappointed when I finally reached the top, although the thick grass that blanketed the hill was wet enough to soak my socks. From this vantage point, I could see the entire city and surrounding countryside. I sat in a large rock in awe of the view for nearly an hour.

My view from the top of a hill outside of Westport.

While my Friday Frolics haven’t taken me to the number of rural communities that I had envisioned, that trip to Westport will certainly stand out as learning moment about why rural communities in Ireland continue to survive despite the odds. Rural Ireland has a distinct advantage over the rural communities that I am accustomed to in Indiana – beauty. With each turn that I made in Westport, I was impressed. From the orange glow of the bridge spanning the river through the heart of the city, to the sheep munching on grass below my perch at the top of the hill, Westport had so much beauty to offer. One day, when its hotels are open to visitors, I will frolic back to Westport and take in its beauty again.  

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A Good Show

When my first semester of classes finished in late January, a classmate and I decided to contribute to pandemic-conscious-population-dilution by renting a small cottage in Wicklow from a lovely woman named Mary. Back in August, when Trina was describing these blogs, she said we were encouraged to include pictures, but jokingly pleaded with us “please, no sheep pictures, we see enough!” Just to be safe, I have censored all sh*** from my photos and from here on out will refer to them only as “The Neighbors.” In Wicklow, social distancing is comically easy as our closest neighbor is a ten to fifteen-minute walk away. Our closest Neighbor, however, frequently bumps into the trash bins at night while making cartoonish bleats.

A key feature of Mary’s cottage is that there is only internet connection in one window sill. During the past couple months, it has been easy to waste away hours watching the news, reading long form analyses of the news, or reading many short form summaries of the news in rapid succession. But now, I finally have the isolation needed to connect with real Irish culture — the Father Ted DVD box set my friend brought with us as the sole source of digital entertainment. And who is there more understanding who could guide me through the existential time we live in now other than Father Ted? Like me, Father Ted also wakes up at 11 AM in his twin bed, in his house, in the middle of nowhere, (perhaps surrounded by fields full of The Neighbors?)

At other times I connect deeply with Mrs. Doyle — making endless cups of tea to stave off the threat of all-consuming dread. On rainy days, sometimes, I feel a teeny bit the Father Jack as I sit completely sedentary in an armchair reminiscing on the simpler, better times of my pre-pandemic youth. But at times I feel like Father Dougal, extremely confused about how I ended up a Catholic priest in a remote part of Ireland.

While sitcoms are by no means a substitute to in person cultural immersion, they do provide a window sorely needed when you are trying to get to know a new country from the confines of your room. At this point, I’d argue, that there’s no better tool for highlighting cultural in-jokes than a laugh track roaring when you are silent. So, whenever the country reopens after this pandemic, I will be totally au fait with the mid-nineties Irish zeitgeist.

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Cucanandy

Some years ago, I saw and heard the Irish music group “Ghost Trio” perform the song “Cucanandy.” This was in the era of live music. The song chilled me to the bones. (This was before chills were symptomatic.) It has haunted me ever since. And now, in these dark days, it reemerges for me again, eerily apropos, playing silently in my head while (I imagine) roaming the (locked-down) landscapes where it was born some unknown time ago.

As a traditional song, the origins of “Cucanandy” are wonderfully unclear, as if it emerged from the salt of the earth itself. Many notable Irish folk singers claimed to have had it sung to them by various female members of their families as they were growing up. Indeed, the song is recognized as a “dandling song”—a song to accompany the moving of a baby up and down on one’s knee, an affectionate vertical rocking. Perhaps this is why it’s so haunting: the song emerges from the grooved recesses of infancy, that alien being we all once were and never can remember or return to. 

Although I doubt my American parents sang this particular song to me as an infant, I can’t be sure, and in any case the song has the crystalline melancholic lilt of any good lullaby. This may explain why many Irish singers, even in vastly different regions (before information was instantaneous and sharing virtual), improbably claim to remember the same song from their childhoods: it is made of the stuff—the overwhelming love, the promise of comfort, the yearning, the loss already emergent if not yet arrived—of lullaby.

Elizabeth Cronin

We can hear versions of the song today thanks largely to Elizabeth Cronin, an influential traditional Irish singer born in 1879 in West Cork. In late January of 1951, almost exactly 70 years ago, when Cronin herself was in her 70s, ill and ailing, the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax brought a microphone to her bedside and she intoned a version of “Cucanandy” that exists to this day. It is marvelous to hear it: a voice from the 1800s, recorded in the middle of the last century, singing just before the shadow of death a song for the liminal time just after birth. Because, as the contemporary Irish writer Niall Williams observed in his excellent novel This Is Happiness, “as you get toward the end, you revisit the beginning.”

Joe Heaney

Later, the singer Joe Heaney (in Irish, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí), born 1919 in my own County Galway, and died 1984 on my own United States west coast, recorded another version of the song for another folk music archive. Heaney moved to the US in part because he thought his sean-nós singing (Irish for “old style”) was better appreciated there than it was in Ireland. The oral, a cappella tradition of sean-nós emerged largely in response to various historical British efforts to crush Irish culture by confiscating traditional instruments. The voice, after all, cannot be stolen.

The song title “Cucanandy” is nonsense as far as Cronin and Heaney knew. Often the song is sung in a medley with other tunes, as in Heaney’s recorded version. The lyrics vary with each iteration. They meld Irish and English language. And, as we’ve seen, in a series of ghostly reverberations, they meld together a larger story about Ireland, the United States, even the history of British imperialism (my course of study here).

The version of the song that hooked me, by the Ghost Trio (itself named after a Beckett play) and later The Gloaming, is not apart from those interlinkings. (None of us are.) The lead singer Iarla Ó Lionáird had Elizabeth Cronin as his great aunt. Her voice is, almost literally, within him. 

Image result for iarla o lionaird
Iarla Ó Lionáird

I’ll close with the verse that seems always to appear, and haunts me so, simple and profound:

Throw him up, up

Throw him up high

Throw him up, up

He’ll come down by and by

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