My Mitchell experience is coming to a close and I have reached that point at which I must reflect back on the past year. In the end, my Mitchell experience lived up to my expectations and hopes, and even brought a number of pleasant surprises.
One of these surprises was the extraordinary dynamism of the island of Ireland. Indeed, it was this dynamism that in many ways ended up defining and dominating my Mitchell experience both in the North and the South. The dynamism and critical shifts that are taking place in the North are certainly self-evident and dramatic. These were changes that literally took place in front of our eyes. Many people called the elections and subsequent formation of government the “actualization” of the peace process. In any case, a society that had been wracked by decades and decades of violence, hate and conflict, seemed to finally be turning the corner. Here we were witnessing a society that seemed very much ready to move on, with leaders that finally appeared to be catching up. Being there to witness this in person is something that I will never forget.
Though perhaps a little less self-evident, the changes and dynamism within the Republic are no less fascinating. Ireland is a society that has undergone fundamental and dramatic changes over the past fifteen years. Where before, Ireland was a country that most Irish people wanted to leave, now most are staying and some of those who left are even coming back. The “Celtic Tiger” has launched itself into the forefront of the global economy, transforming itself, almost overnight. It has been fascinating not just to see these economic changes firsthand, but do see how such a rapid transformation has affected the people of Ireland on a societal, cultural, and political level.
Where before, Ireland may have understood itself as the perennial underdog, its people “poor but honorable,” it is now having to re-assess itself in this new context. The Irish have always distinguished themselves from other cultures and nations, in part by the unique perspective that their history of poverty, oppression, and tragedy has given them. But now as a member of the “rich club,” how do they retain that difference, and how do they continue to make it “cool to be Irish” in the 21st century? In some ways, I found parallels in Ireland’s experience within my own individual experience. As someone who has always viewed himself as an underdog, I have now been blessed with unusual opportunities and have reached a level of unique privilege. Just like with the Irish, however much I would like to deny it, I’m not quite the underdog that I used to be. In this way, there is a lot that I can learn in the future from the Irish people in how they adapt to their new status.
There are many other interesting questions that come as a part of the transformation that Ireland is currently undergoing. What role will religion and faith play in this new Irish society? How will the Irish deal with the increasing diversity in their country? The Irish were once intensely devout Catholics and largely homogeneous. Both of those things are changing. The political landscape in Ireland is also quite interesting. In addition to the historic elections in the North, we also saw an election in the South that returned the ruling party to power once again. There seems to be a great deal of satisfaction with the way things are going politically. But it’s a strange, almost awkward satisfaction. Something isn’t right. Indeed, there is some danger that this satisfaction might turn to complacency, or even a fear of any further change, changes that will need to be made to ensure that Ireland remains competitive.
Other issues arose as well. Just as Ireland is at such a critical juncture with regard to how it understands itself, it is also at a similar juncture with regard to its relationship with the United States. How do the Irish understand and integrate their new relationship with the United States now that the United States is not the foremost destination for Irish immigrants that it once was? Furthermore, how can Ireland continue to find a way to provide a link between the United States and Europe when their values and priorities seem to be shifting apart in such dramatic ways? What does the U.S-Irish relationship look like in the 21st century, how is it different, and how can it continue to work to the benefit of both nations? These questions remain unanswered, and perhaps at this moment, unanswerable. What is certain though is that the answer to these questions will be critically important to both nations, as will the relationship itself. Furthermore, as an American studying in Ireland, these are questions that are unavoidable.
Though Ireland itself is undergoing tremendous changes, my time on the island, as I had hoped, was for the most part pretty relaxed. One of the great things about post-graduate academic programs in Ireland and indeed, the Mitchell scholarship program in general, is that you largely determine the pace of the year. The Mitchell year could be a time to slow down, relax, think about, read about, and experience things that you might never again have time to. Some of the things that I accomplished and experiences that I had fell into this category.
I found myself cooking regularly for the first time (though with all due respect to Irish cuisine, this wasn’t entirely by choice). While at Queens, I found the time to take Salsa classes and brush up on my Spanish. I worked out regularly and ironically, despite all the time I spent with friends at the pub over the course of the year, I feel healthier than I’ve been in a long time. Then again, as they say, contrary to popular belief, Guinness is actually one of the more nutritious and low calorie beers out there (There is even a billboard that reads “176 calories per glass. We don’t understand it either.”). Or as the slogan goes, “Guinness for Strength”! So maybe it’s not such a coincidence after all.
But my pace would shift at times. If there were things that I wanted to pursue in greater depth, and often there were, I always had the opportunity. Sometimes my days would be packed with guest lectures around campus, internship duties, and finishing up blogs. But I never felt as though anything was forced upon me. If there were things that I wanted to learn more about, I always had that option. Education at its best. I never felt overwhelmed or stressed and therefore my experience was not just highly educational, but refreshing and rejuvenating as well. Though I have grown a great deal over the past year, I am not tired or beat down. To the contrary, I feel as ready as I have ever been for the challenges that await me.
My last few months in Ireland also consisted of a number of memorable experiences. My family came and visited me over St. Patrick’s Day, which was particularly notable. As part of this visit, my Dad was adamant that we take a “pilgrimage” to the Guinness Factory in Dublin on St. Patty’s Day itself. Needless to say, our pilgrimage lived up to all expectations. My Dad is hugely proud of his Irish heritage, though only having visited there twice late in his life, a pride that was passed on to him from his parents. Indeed, it is interesting how the “idea” of Ireland is passed on from generation to generation among Irish Americans. I have to wonder how my experience in Ireland over the course of the year will change the way in which I pass on my Irish heritage to my children. For me now, Ireland is not just an idea; it is a real place with a culture, society, and history that I now have some level of familiarity with. I can no longer just pass on the Irish mystique. What I pass on will have more substance, and therefore, I would hope, perhaps greater value. In any case, my year in Ireland will be the focal point.
I also had the opportunity to travel to some other parts of Ireland besides Galway and Dublin. I visited Limerick, Cork, and traveled throughout the Southwest with the other Mitchell Scholars. It is true what they say, to truly get a sense of what Ireland is like as a whole, you have to visit different parts of the country. While Galway could feel small to me at times, it took a couple trips to other parts of the Western coast and South to realize that in that context Galway is truly a bustling urban metropolis!
I absolutely love the city of Dublin. It is one of the few cities in the world that has truly embraced the rest of the world, while still maintaining a distinct domestic flavor and spirit. Dublin is an international city, but it is also a thoroughly Irish city. But Dublin is a world apart from the rest of Ireland. Despite all the advances made by this “Celtic Tiger,” there are still, without a doubt, more sheep in this country than human beings. For some reason, that really fascinated me, leading to much amusement for the other Mitchell Scholars. Though all of those questions relating to the transformation of Ireland are perplexing, the greatest puzzle for me continues to be how on earth a country can be so successful when 95% of its land seems to be taken up by sheep grazing? Ahh, even after a year attempting to decipher it, the impenetrable Irish mystique remains!
I gained a lot from this past year, some of it expected, some it unexpected. I made friends that I hope to grow closer to in years to come. I deepened my interest, knowledge and passion for expansion of human rights protection and the prevention of conflict. I grew as a person, taking advantage of opportunities to consider new perspectives and experience new things. And finally, I developed a relationship with a place and people that I hope will last for the rest of my life. If Ireland wasn’t an important part of who I was before, it certainly is now.