The Mitchell Mystique

Alfred Korzybski, a little known scientist, claimed, “the map is not the territory.” He was and is right. We, the Mitchells, bonded over our aversion to self-identifying as “Mitchells.” Not because we were not proud; we were and are. Mostly because of the baggage that accompanies the generalization of an idea. In our case, we feel like a bunch of kids–well, they tell me I’m an old man–on a con with a wide, deep gulf filling the discrepancy between what people believe a Mitchell symbolizes and Us…The Map of the Mitchell and the Territory of its Scholars.

There’s something reassuring about our collective uncertainty. Despite the photographic evidence below, we don’t fancy ourselves philosopher kings and queens. And that suggests humility permeates throughout our cohort, and we presume throughout the ever-growing family of Mitchells.

Don’t be fooled by the smile…

 

A common error mistakes playfulness as immaturity or paints jest as irreverence. I love this group because they don’t fall prey to pretense: they take the honor bestowed upon them seriously without taking themselves seriously.

 

“Why are you smiling?”
“Why not?”

 

As the “old man,” it took me a while to understand, embrace, and live that truth: to live out the realization that love should be a part of all we do, and if it is not, we should go in search of it. It’s here. It’s been here this entire year. Even if Chris’s face says otherwise:

 

Scorn for me from my roommate.

 

We are selected from an applicant pool. This very process makes a value judgment on us and everyone not selected. Of course, we all know that every opportunity is not right for every person. Moreover, our being picked provides us with no more worthiness in life than anyone else. We, this group of Mitchells, gladly acknowledge the lion’s share of arbitrariness that fell in our favor, that brought us here, together. We know caprice may not be so “kind” in the future. Until then, we will lean-in to our fortunate happenstance.

Fatou is NOT PICTURED. If it was a selfie, of course, she would be. <3

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Stay Calm and Look Around

About a month ago, I sat in a Dublin cafe, reading Pamela Paul’s New York Times piece “Let Children Get Bored Again.” It was a parent-focused article, arguing that the pressure on parents to fill children’s lives with constant activity, entertainment, and education actually denies children the chance to develop creative responses to boredom.

Since I am not a child or a parent, the article was not written for me. But the image it painted of lives stuffed with motion stuck with me. As a graduate student living abroad, I feel a constant pressure to do something. Buckle down on school work so I can meet up with people or explore on my own later. Share stories with the people from home. A morning without class means a morning to look for job opportunities. After all, we are down to our last few months in Ireland. And if there’s a spare moment on the bus, that’s a spare moment to keep up with articles and podcasts flooding over from the United States. There’s always something to do, someone to talk to, somewhere to go, some words to read. As I sat in that cafe, using my phone to do exactly what Paul recommended not doing for kids, I thought – what if I looked for moments in my life to cultivate boredom?

For me, cultivating boredom has meant choosing to put my phone down and focusing on the space around me. I put my phone into airplane mode during our weekend on the Aran Islands, and I spent more time talking to our tour guide. I used airplane mode again during our weekend in Northern Ireland, and I spent more time holding the landscape in my mind. A few days ago, my phone died on my way to a show at the Gaiety Theater, so I spent intermission people-watching the audience.

A view of the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Northern Ireland. Given my intense fear of heights, I was happy to survive the crossing and have this quiet moment to appreciate the view.

The geological feature known as “The Wormhole” on the Aran Islands. Whenever a wave goes in, the water is sucked out the bottom so it looks like a constantly draining bathtub.

These moments of boredom have not given me a grand creative resurgence. But I have noticed something that I think is important for any student to know – when I put down my phone and calmed my mind, when I took time to watch and speak with people instead of constantly producing something, nobody was disappointed. My exercises with boredom made me realize that I self-inflict some of the pressure I feel to constantly fill my time. In the same way that Paul argues children will eventually accept boredom as part of creativity, I am learning to accept calmness as part of productivity. When we let go of the need to constantly move and constantly do, we can instead appreciate the busy, quiet, stressful, peaceful, awe-inspiring, boring, human moments that can exist in any moment. I believe these small moments of appreciation are a necessary and productive use of time. After all, as I said, we are down to our last few months here. Let’s use them well.

These puppies joined us on the ferry from Galway to Inis Mór. They do not have much to do with this blog post, because no matter how busy I was I would have made a beeline for them. I just wanted everyone to be able to see how cute they were!

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The Irish Way

When I first landed in Dublin last August, I had very little idea what the year had in store. I had not been to Ireland, I knew only the basics of Irish history, and candidly, I had not even been to an Irish Pub more than a few times. I spent the summer wondering how I would mix with the culture at Trinity College, the city’s social life, and the people. This month, I am just beginning to process what I have learned and how my time here has changed me.

My second term has brought friends visiting from America, and with that, the opportunity to really reflect on my experience and to share it with others. On each visit, I have been eager to walk my friends to my favorite park, Merrion Square. I have taken them to the sites of Ireland’s layered history, such as its independence movements. I have shown them the breathtaking views at Howth and along the Wild Atlantic Way. My best friend noted that I was even using Irish phrases. As I enjoyed good craic at my favorite pubs with friends new to Ireland, I was reminded of how special these experiences are.

Of course, each visit has included a good Irish shower. I came to Ireland hating rain. But I have grown fond of traversing the proverbial quiet drizzle on my way to class or a meeting. It makes the sunshine that much sweeter. In some ways, the island’s history, Irish emigration around the world, and the country’s modern political experience is marked by metaphorical rainy days with some clear skies. Perhaps that is what a quote attributed to Y.B. Yeats captures: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

At first read, this notion might sound depressing – it did to me. But I have come to find that an appreciation for tragedy is part of the Irish way. From my brief experience, it seems the Irish have a unique way of growing from tragedy while also just sitting with it, making humor of it, and sharing in a common experience.

As I study international politics at Trinity, I have naturally asked myself what this lesson means for global affairs. I think the Irish way is evident in so-called “soft-power” or soft-influence. While it would be hard to capture in a quantitative study, I can say I am personally experiencing it this year. I am getting a better sense of how history and culture shape us and how that carries across communities. In the United States, many see revolution with unabated pride (at least in civics class). Ireland recalls a few more challenging times, but carries on with fortitude, hospitality, and charm.

I, like many others around the world who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in March, can absorb and be a part of Ireland’s complicated history, culture, and outlook. As several Mitchells welcomed friends to town, this much was clear. Our class has experienced Ireland collectively and we love sharing it together. We enjoy talking about our experiences and giving friends our own piece of the Irish way. Politically, economically, and socially, this exchange is important for the United States and Ireland.

As I think about returning to America, I am beginning to see what I might bring home. I am very privileged, but I will inevitably encounter tragedy. And if I start hoping the grass will be greener, I will remember that it takes some rain – and maybe an escape to a pub with great friends – to get there.

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I was ready to quit…

In my January blog, I wrote about how excited I was for the conference I was planning through my internship with AkiDwA and Wezesha. However, at 2:30 am on January 25th (a couple hours before the event), and after 15+ hours of running around to finalize everything from programming, speakers’ remarks, press release, materials, attendance list, I was ready to QUIT! “As soon as this conference is over, I am quitting this internship.” I kept telling myself and anyone who asked how I was holding up. But I did not realize this attitude will change after I see the final result of the work–a full day convening that actually brought various parties together to discuss migration and integration in Ireland.

Held at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the event brought together Irish leaders together from NGOs to City Council members, Ministries, and partners from nine other European Countries (from Italy to Macedonia, Malta to Bulgaria). I couldn’t help but smile (internally) by how well everything came together. With the changing demographics of migrants from different background settling in Ireland, I was amazed by the discussions around integration efforts Irish natives and politicians are taking to forge better resettlement policies—there seemed to be a genuine attempt to integrate newcomers. And of course, the cherry on the top of the day was seeing a few of my Mitchell cohort (Celia, Cam, Sky) in the crowd–cheering me on like proud parents!

Cam, Celia, and Sky came to support me at the conference.

Despite this satisfactory feeling of my labor, I STILL PLANNED TO QUIT! “I need to focus on my dissertation, the main reason I am in Ireland,” I repeated to myself. But then I was made an offer that was hard to refuse—I was offered an opportunity to lead a job readiness skill building project for women at one of Ireland’s biggest Direct Provisions, Mosney. Direct provisions are accommodation centers for asylum seekers in Ireland. Nearly 40 of these centers are spread across the country and over the years have received some criticism due to its over-crowdedness, human degradations, lack of freedom, and a long wait (refugees/asylum seekers spending 3 years and more at the centers). I knew the conference planning had produced a lot of stress and anxiety I had not experienced since I moved to Ireland. But… I did not want to say no to this new opportunity because it would allow me to work directly with asylum seekers (particularly women) in Ireland. The pilot program is delivering five job training sessions to 10 women at Mosney and working with them to find job placement.

To be clear, I do not think this project is the answer to fix the direct provision system—it will not reduce the long wait asylum seekers experience in Ireland, nor will it give them the freedom to choose where and how to live. However, I want to believe it is a step (maybe non- linear) towards bringing asylum seekers (who are authorized to work while their cases are pending) in contact with locals through their job placements.

Leading this project will hopefully provide a full picture perspective to complete the intersectional frame between migration, policy-making and resettlement/integration for migrant women in Ireland.

Mosney Direct Provision

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A Door Too Small for its Purpose?

The main entrance to Trinity’s campus is a rather small wooden door that can accommodate, at most, two people simultaneously, provided both are content to shimmy sideways and squeeze past each other. As a gate to one of Ireland’s largest universities and tourist attractions, it simply does not seem up to its task. But entering through that door is an experience that will never get old.

The main gate to Trinity

My favorite routine is seeing the dynamic and rapidly changing center of Dublin dramatically change upon crossing the threshold of my college. The shouts of tourists, the melodies of buskers, the rumble of buses, the clamor of vendors, and all the sounds that move Dublin—these all are turned away at the narrow door. And in their absence, you become aware of the ways your body relaxes upon arriving in a place where you’ve made your home.

This Mitchell year started with three timorous raps of the brass knocker on that door. At a rainy August daybreak, Sky, Fatou, and I began this year removed from the frenetic pace of our lives in the US. And since that day, I have been working to build and share my home here.

A selfie of the Trinity Triumvirate’s first (rainy) day in Dublin. As evidenced by its amateurish quality, this selfie was taken weeks prior to Fatou Keita revolutionizing the genre and earning the undisputed title of “Selfie Queen.”

Building my home means collecting artwork and ticket stubs and haphazardly slapping them on the walls of my dorm room. It means popping down a flight of stairs, enjoying Fatou’s famous jollof rice, and feeling the surprise of a perilously hot pepper causing my face to flush and cry and melt; it also means incorporating her gentle, constructive suggestion to perhaps try adding more spices to the chili I occasionally make for us.

It means inflating an air mattress, cramming more people than are allowed into my space, and staying up wildly late with Jackson and Alexander, filling my building with silly debates and belly laughter. It means meeting friends through sports and rehydrating after trainings with pints at the on-campus pub.

Our basketball team before the All-Ireland final

It means being walking distance from a weekly ukulele singalong night, rocking up alongside Shauna and Connor (an honorary Mitchell) armed with the instrument given to me for my birthday. It means keeping a running tab of coffee shops for study sessions with Chris, and brunch spots to frequent with Sky.

It means watching a sparsely attended play with Celia and breaking down the aesthetic and technical choices over cheap slices of pizza and Twix McFlurries. It means meeting the friends visiting my friends, and learning about the lives they lived before becoming characters in your life.

Mitchells and friends enjoying the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin

Each time I walk through the door that seems too small for its purpose, I am reminded that this experience is about making a place that’s worthy of the experiences we are creating together. It’s important to pare down the things that fill this space in order to make room for the people that enrich my life here.

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Presence

A few weeks ago, I found myself across the island for New Music Dublin. As I sat waiting for the next performance with my professors— composers John Godfrey and Karen Power, also up for the festival—another Cork–based composer walked in to take her seat. “Oh!” said John, “there’s Maria Minguella.” He turned to me and asked if I had met her yet in my Cork escapades. “Yeah, I know Maria,” I responded, grinning. “She was my ride up here, we sing in choir together.” Both my professors chuckled and John remarked that I had managed to meet quite a lot of people in the scene, to which I responded something to the effect of, “You know, it’s pretty easy to meet people if you just show up to things.” John gave a full laugh at this, then replied, “and you’d be shocked at how many people haven’t figured that out.”

For better or worse, we were both right. Time again I’ve met people (sometimes future collaborators!) simply by my presence and willingness to introduce myself. In music, it’s what you have to do—though the slow-to-die myth of the genius composer suggests that if you just write a perfect piece then the people will come, people actually come if you went to their thing first, had a chat with them, and shared your upcoming projects. But showing up isn’t just a matter of personal gain; it means something to others when they see you present and engaged.

Showing up is hard, and it’s something I struggle with. Countless times over the course of my school years an event popped up on Facebook—a friend’s concert, a lecture, a protest—and, despite my interest, I didn’t go. Usually I’d turn it over in my mind, ultimately figuring that I couldn’t spare the evening: there was just always too much work to do. In some cases that was true, and “showing up” in Cork hasn’t always been a stress–free decision, but reflecting on it this year has made me ask, “where can I show up more?”

In music, it’s a relatively low–stakes situation, and on the whole my presence affects very few (mostly me). But what about situations where my presence does matter, or could make a difference? Which of my communities do need to see me there, maybe not in collaboration but in solidarity? Who are the people who do need active support or encouragement, not because they have no voice but because others won’t listen? How and when can I re-prioritize my tasks to foreground active participation and recognize when a community needs me more than I need perfect marks?

It’s ever easier to be well–informed without showing up, and it is important to recognize your limitations. But people in Cork show up: to solidarity protests, to concerts of unfamiliar music, to gatherings. Maybe it’s at the expense of an assignment or a quiet afternoon, but maybe it also demonstrates a healthier understanding of the relationship between yourself and your community. I’ve gotten okay at showing up in the music world, but after this year I think I have some further reprioritization coming my way.

Showing up to Crash Ensemble at New Music Dublin

The Cork St. Patricks Day Parade is, more than anything, a family affair of community gathering. Followed immediately by the less-family affair of gathering in the pubs.

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Could I interest you in some…science?

In February, those of us in the MSc Science and Health Communication program had the chance to actually do a bit of science communication by competing in FameLab.

FameLab is an international science communication competition in which scientists, from undergrads to professional researchers, have three minutes to explain some scientific concept to the public. Props are allowed but only what you can carry on stage. And no biohazards…or lasers. Local and regional heats were held around Ireland to determine who will compete at the national final in April.

There are “three C’s” that FameLab participants are judged on.  Content, Clarity, and Charisma. Content is normally fairly easy for participants to get down. The content of the talk has to be scientifically accurate—it wouldn’t be any good for a science communication competition to promote pseudoscience. Clarity and charisma, however, are what make FameLab a challenge.

Scientists (I acknowledge as one) aren’t exactly known for their ability to communicate complex concepts to the public or be wildly entertaining, and yet that’s what FameLab asks participants to do. Scientists are used to communicating with each other using as much detail as possible while intentionally avoiding flourishes. FameLab wants the opposite; it asks participants to really sell the excitement and wonder of science.

Our FameLab journey started with the DCU mini heat. A small crowd of our fellow classmates was the perfect environment for me and the other participants to take a risk and dare to make science exciting. It was a great way for us to practice our science communication skills, and I also learned a few new things that evening as well. Did you know that elephants and ballerinas aren’t so different or that we may be able to clean the world’s priceless historical, cultural, and artistic treasures with the bacteria that live on their surfaces?

See, science CAN be interesting!

The MSc Science and Health Communication participants at the DCU mini heat

First and second place at the mini heat qualified to compete in the Dublin regional final. In preparation, everyone who qualified from the various mini heats was invited to attend a communication master class with the with Fergus McAuliffe, former FameLab Ireland and FameLab International winner. Fergus spent some time giving advice on how to structure our speeches, how to practice our timing, and even how to calm any nerves on the day, but most of our time wasn’t spent passively listening to Fergus, it was spent actively… acting.

Improv games are always a bit awkward in a group of strangers but being in a room full of other scientists stepping out of their comfort zones made it easier for me to do so as well. By the end of the evening, and after more than a few self-deprecating laughs, we were all more confident in our abilities to communicate with clarity and charisma no matter how much previous public speaking experience we had coming in.

Unfortunately, our mid-year Mitchell retreat conflicted with the Dublin final, and my FameLab experience came to an end sooner than I had hoped. However, FameLab was a chance for me to challenge myself, push through the nerves, and begin trying to make science accessible for more people.

FameLab has allowed all of us in my program to grow as science communicators, and it will be exciting to see where we all end up in life, but first we will be cheering on our classmate, Aisling Brennan, when she competes in the Ireland final in April!

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Joy

Upon moving to Ireland, I made a resolution (one of many) to use this year as a time to extend my interests and experiences to those I have spent less time on in the past. My reluctance to seek out organizations and opportunities similar to those I loved in college was motivated in large part by expecting I’d try, and subsequently fail, to re-create my undergrad experience in an environment where student life was bound to be different. In the fall, this led me to kickboxing, Irish dance, and an assortment of lectures and seminars on topics I’d never even heard of.

As an avid Marie Kondo enthusiast, and someone prone to taking stock of life whenever it slows down for a brief moment, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what brings me joy. Kickboxing was exhilarating and dancing turned out to be as much a mental exercise as an aerobic one, as I built up my mental Rolodex of towns in Ireland by learning the names of ceili dances.

The abundance of unstructured time I’ve had these past several months has been a happy consequence of my program holding classes only two days a week. When I picked up fiddle lessons halfway through last semester, I realized the activity bringing me the most joy was the one most similar to what I’ve done before— and it wasn’t because I was re-creating years of classical violin lessons in a new country. How could I be, in a different time and place, and shaped by a perspective changed even from last fall?

Around the time this realization struck, my professors and classmates began to talk about thesis projects. I emailed a few potential supervisors and sat down with one on a rainy Thursday evening to discuss ideas. I asked him if he could tell me a bit about his impressions of rural health in Ireland and highlight some major challenges I could consider a project around.

He paused for a long beat before replying, “In some regard, all health in Ireland is rural health.” It was an oversimplification, no doubt, but his comment reframed my perspective on what I thought I already understood.

It’s impossible to understand the nuance of an experience without stepping into it and looking around from the new vantage point, and I’m re-learning this lesson over and over these days. That same night, I sent an email asking to join the Cork City branch of the Irish Red Cross, where I now spend my Wednesday evenings in the company of Corkers who are as excited by vacuum splints and ECGs as I am. After three and a half unforgettable years with MIT EMS, the pull towards another ambulance unit was irresistible.

I’m tempted to lean into the cliché that one again being involved in emergency medical services feels like home. In all honesty, it doesn’t quite feel like my old service. Routine operations are different in small ways that sometimes catch me off guard and I don’t think I’ll be driving an ambulance down the left side of the road any time soon. All the same, I’ve officially submitted my paperwork requesting an Irish EMT license and entirely shaken the feeling that drawing upon what I know and love will hold me back from learning as much as I can about my new community. Somehow, this milestone feels like a natural, wonderfully inevitable extension of the life I have found here in Cork.

I took a surprisingly circuitous road to realizing continuity can be challenging and eye-opening in a tremendously rewarding way. But when I ask myself what brings me joy, the Red Cross is high on my list. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

A weekly reminder that I aspire to be cool enough to wear a hard hat in public.

Hello from my happy place!

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Twenty-one Years Later. Now What?

I thought about writing this post on a number of recent happenings: watching the remarkable documentary film Free Solo with friends; traveling to Cork with many of the Dublin-based scholars for James’s birthday; running six miles in the pouring rain and sleet to see the new, beautifully animated Spider-Man movie, and falling ill the next day; breathing in the sea foam crashing off the cliffs of Inishmore in the Aran Islands; dealing with the collateral damage of a shattered egg in my grocery bag on the way home from Lidl the other day; among many others.

 

Instead, I opted for a topic I’ve been studying in great depth, both through my course at UCD on policing and social conflict, and through an extracurricular research project I’ve been co-leading on post-conflict mediation. Our mid-year Mitchell retreat in Belfast allowed me to see, for the first time, a portion of the country I’ve spent the past few months researching. The city is dynamic but still visibly, strikingly divided after all these years.

 

The Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10th, 1998. Nearly twenty-one years later, much has changed. But all too much has remained the same. Towering walls cleave neighborhoods and students attend schools on the basis of the religion they have been given by their parents. At a reception held one night at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), another scholar and I struck up a conversation with a student who had just started her first year at the university. She told us that, having attended Catholic schools from the age of five to eighteen, she had never interacted with a Protestant until she began her studies at QUB. In a city of only 295,000 people, how is that even possible?

 

The answer, of course, stems from the Troubles and a much longer, violent history between Ireland and England — but it also gestures more broadly to the insufficient response to the conflict in the more than 20 years that have passed since the Good Friday Agreement brought it to an end. The Eames & Bradley CGP Report (2009) concluded that 3,532 people were killed in the Troubles, and more than 2,000 of the deaths occurred at the hands of republican paramilitary groups. There were 16,209 bombings, 36,923 shootings, and 47,541 people were injured. Even more deaths and injuries occurred throughout Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

 

Behind these numbers lies incalculable human suffering. One report estimates that one in three people of all ages in Northern Ireland have been directly or indirectly affected by the Troubles, and one third of survivors have spoken of serious suicidal thoughts. The absence of post-conflict reconciliation, driven by uncooperative political factions, has left much trauma unaddressed to this day, both at an individual level for victims/survivors and former combatants, and at a collective societal level.

 

My belief — shared by several outspoken voices on the matter, including Alan McQuillan, former assistant constable of the RUC and the PSNI — is that the courts are unequipped for mending decades of sectarian violence. To date, prosecutions of individuals have utterly failed, and have simultaneously squandered resources and time. The adversarial approach of the courts, rather than reconciling people to the past, has persistently reinforced existing prejudices and fostered a continuing sense of grievance.

 

My research with several other scholars suggests that a carefully constructed and monitored process of mediation could provide a way forward. Unless these deep societal wounds are confronted transparently and productively by the affected communities, they will continue to fester beneath a veneer of peace, threatening to erupt in cycles of violence that could trap future generations. My hope is that in the coming months while I remain in Ireland, and in the years after I leave, people across these islands can begin to repair the immense harm that has occurred and heal their fractured communities.

 

Graffiti in Belfast

Scholars celebrating James’s birthday in Cork

Scholar reactions after the Duke basketball team triumphed over UVA.

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A Modern Cinderella Story – starring me

Once upon a time, a young lady was peer-pressured into attending a Ball. This wasn’t just any Ball, this was the UCC Science Ball.

Introducing me as the main character.

She figured it’d be a cultural experience complete with food, friends, and dancing—what could go wrong? The night started off like a scene from a movie, four girls getting ready together, sharing makeup and trying on dresses. They only paused for pizza and chicken nuggets before putting the finishing touches on their evening looks.

Upon arriving at the ball, she sat down to dinner and met the real Prince Charming.

Prince Charming.

Soon, dancing ensued, and her jacket complete with her wallet was left in a pile with friends’ belongings. She danced the night away without a care, until the house lights came on signalling the end of the evening.

Liz, me, and Aoife at the Ball.

As she went to retrieve her things, it was evident things had been moved around and her jacket was gone. She searched everywhere, assuming someone may have taken it by mistake and left it somewhere. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the jacket or wallet, and she was forced to leave without her belongings. Luckily, she had her phone, student ID, room key, and Irish credit card so she could at least survive.

The next day, she went back to the hotel to see if anything had turned up, and sure enough, the jacket had—but no wallet. The beautiful light blue wallet complete with $0 in cash, an Illinois Driver’s License, and Irish Residency Permit, was gone. She pitied whoever took her wallet–for, just as Prince Charming could not wear Cinderella’s glass slipper without its pair, whoever found her wallet would not find much use for an Illinois Driver’s License in Ireland.

It has since been over a month and Prince Charming has yet to show up with her wallet.  However, waiting in line for hours at Immigration to replace the Residence Permit reminded her how lucky she is to be able to stay in this country. She was surrounded by individuals trying to apply for asylum or citizenship for their young children, and here Cinderella was frustrated with her first Ball experience. It was a privilege to even attend the event and be welcomed so warmly into the community when so many others are not as lucky.

“But like all dreams, I’m afraid this won’t last forever” – Fairy Godmother

P.S. Shout out to the Fairy Godmothers that made it possible for me to be in Ireland—Trina and Carolina!

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Knick Knacks and Paddy Whacks

I am an avid fan of camp and kitsch so it is with a somewhat heavy heart that I feel compelled to note the underlying ideological failure of the kitschiest moment of my time in Ireland spent outside a Carroll’s. Unfortunately, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin is not a lovable affront to good taste. Instead it is the clearest example that Ireland, like other colonized nations, has been drawn into the orbit of the neo-imperial trappings of the United States.

To a large extent Irish identity in the United States has been subsumed into whiteness, and has been reconstituted as just another slightly different brand of the same destructive product. As I’ve often interacted with that identity, both in my own negligible roots and in the larger context of the United States, it’s often been as farce because the power exercised by the harmful hegemonic racial impact of whiteness is fundamentally farcical, a pretense of history and “culture” thinly draped over the naked exercise of power.

Actually being in Ireland has given me an opportunity to understand Irishness not simply as a cynical exercise in branding, but as an existing rich identity with meaningful cultural expression. That in turn has pushed me to remember that whiteness is a historically contingent structure that we can seek to deconstruct just as it has been constructed. The reality of Irish identity in Ireland demonstrates that the common artificiality of Irish identity in America is neither inevitable not immutable. I’ve greatly appreciated that part of my time here in Maynooth in my coursework, personal relationships, and professional experiences.

However, American understandings of Irishness are certainly not absent from Ireland, from the Paddy Wagons that traverse the island to any establishment within spitting distance of Temple Bar. This invasion of American sensibilities, which I now know reach their peak on St. Paddy’s day, is malignant not because it threatens some imagined singular “authentic” Irishness, but because it is not about Irishness at all. It is about claiming space for laundering the legacies of white power, of white supremacy. This paddywhackery is harmful not because it seeks to exclude Irish people, as paddywhackery did in the past, but because it seeks to include them and recreate the exact commodified whiteness here as exists in the US. Perhaps my most valuable role as a Mitchell is helping Americans understand where we don’t belong, even here in Ireland.

No matter where we go as Americans we bring America with us, and as a result we change the spaces we are in. Global hierarchies of power do not stop at coast of the Emerald Isle, even after a year, and they do not disappear just because we have forgotten them. It is certainly to his credit that St. Paddy exorcised Ireland’s metaphorical serpents, but it seems he might have made space something for something much worse; me with a shamrock sticker on my nose.  But at least there are no snakes!

Pictured: Me ruining Ireland

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Building a life, but stuck in Fahrenheit

“So, you live here then?” As I handed my Irish residency permit card to the immigration officer at Dublin Airport, I was struck by this simple question. While I still stand out with my American accent, I am reminded by how it is such a rare gift that I am not just traveling around or visiting Ireland; I live here. Somehow, it just took over six months in Ireland to fully sink in.

There are the obvious things that remind me I’m no longer back in DC or North Carolina, like being five hours ahead of my friends and family, hearing Irish people say “grand” and “cheers” all the time, and riding the double-decker city buses around Dublin rather than the Metro. But, it’s the little things that make me feel like I’ve cultivated a life here beyond just visiting, and one that is markedly different from the US, despite the two countries’ similarities.

It’s the excitement of gathering with my classmates at the campus bar after our classes end at 6pm on a Friday. Or, the fact that there is a campus bar at all! It’s how my professor offered me tips for where “real Dubliners” would go on the weekend to enjoy the coast, and how my boss in the Oireachtas looked after me when I caught a cold.

It was also the sense of community I felt when attending Ukelele Tuesday at a Dublin bar, strumming and singing along with the sounds of dozens of others. As a challenge for 2019, my friends Connor, Cameron (fellow Mitchell), and I decided to try our hands at learning the ukulele. As I started practicing, I was buoyed by the comments of my roommates: “it sounds like you’re improving!” But also struck by the realization that I had been unknowingly performing for my five roommates any time I practiced, our dorm’s paper-thin walls not hiding any of my scratchy strums. While self-conscious that my roommates could hear every chord, I realized that by going to Ukelele Tuesday, I’d be playing for an audience just the same. Although this time, perhaps a more willing one.

Even the mundane things, like when I filed my 2018 taxes and had to mark myself as an American living outside of the US for part of the year, filled me with a small joy as I realized the person on that form was me – living out a dream of living abroad and exploring somewhere new. And, no matter how hard I try, I have yet to understand the Celsius temperature scale and have a comprehensible conversation with an Irish person about the weather. “Is that really hot?” one of us wonders as the other tells a story remarking on the temperature outside. While I haven’t necessarily gotten used to the Irish weather (or learned Celsius), I have built a life here. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Showing my best friends (visiting from the US) around Ireland last Thanksgiving

Running in the Varsity Road Relays Race at Maynooth for the UCD Athletics Team (November 2018)

A group of the Dubliners visiting James and Hadley in Cork (February 2019)

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