Analyzing Schoenberg’s first string quartet, Alban Berg wrote “a great deal is achieved if it is demonstrated in the details, on a single example,” going on to then analyze the first ten bars as a microcosm for the work at large. In this reflection, I’d like to do the same with my stay in Ireland, focusing on two short days in the hamlet of Coleraine. This stay had nothing to do with my University-sanctioned education but hopefully everything to do with my Mitchell-sanctioned education. Here is what I learned, in no particular order of significance:
–Ireland is very spread out. Unlike that slightly bigger island to the right, Ireland’s population is heavily concentrated in a few cities. This means that it is fairly normal for non-city slickers to live next door to a family of sheep, own a horse, and drive over a minute from road to house. A photo book once told me that parts of America were like this, and I may have seen one in a flight from New York to California once, but suffice it to say that this was a culture shock.
–Dinner matters. There is a centrifugal pull toward it, with the kitchen being occupied during the day by various family members contributing their culinary expertise. It has no particular beginning or end, but is more like a state of mind. Being acclimated to a grab-and-go lifestyle, this was disconcerting at first, but I eventually realized that the Tracey family’s dinner was the pace at which life was supposed to exist. Somewhere along the line, I pressed fast forward and forgot to hit play.
–The police get a bad rep in Northern Ireland. It is a typical trope of police psychology that they feel underappreciated and underpaid (which is true), but in Northern Ireland there is the extra burden of necessarily participating in the conflict. This is particularly problematic for a Protestant family in the police force, which is generally associated with some of the police violence during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the fact that the policeman and policewoman’s house at which I was staying was liberal and progressive, there was no way that they could escape this association.
–“Feck off” is not an invective, just a polite way of saying “Could I have 5 minutes to myself?”
–In economic terms, the Irish have a huge comparative advantage in humor. So much so that they should stop all industrial production and just export everyone as writers and comedians. The highlight reel from a night at Coleraine’s Kelly’s club is funnier than SNL. Right now, there is only one Northern Irish sitcom and a mediocre stand-up scene at best. This is probably due to the relatively small population centers that cannot support a humor industry. But, in our increasingly globalized world, there is no reason this geographic factor should stop them from capitalizing on their immense natural resource.
Family is like our modern conceptualization of what an atom looks like. There is assuredly a nucleus, but after that, it is more useful to think of the rest as a series of probability states rather than a fixed entity. Furthermore, families are covalent, changing via marriages, alliances, and fights over sheep. Aunt means good friend, cousin means friend, and friend means someone I may have met.