January 2009 Reflection

One week before flying home to the United States for Christmas, I stood atop Edinburgh Castle and watched the Scottish capital’s annual “Santa Stroll” take shape. A few hundred people gathered in the Princes Street Gardens below, paying 10 pounds for a Santa suit and the right to participate in this march across the city. Watching the incredibly long procession of people (and pets) clothed in red suits, hats, and white beards wind through the gardens and city streets of Edinburgh–from a tower of the medieval castle that overlooks the city–was a sight I never anticipated and won’t soon forget. Later, a friend and I joined the crimson crowd and felt as though we were living in a “Where’s Waldo?” cartoon. In my previous reflection on my time as a Mitchell Scholar, I wrote that my months in Ireland often feel like a series of once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. This theme has continued, as Edinburgh’s fantastic (albeit slightly absurd) Santa Stroll exemplifies.

Christmas time in Ireland, and it seems in much of Europe, is celebrated with traditions that pervade much of society. Particularly in Ireland, where over 85 percent of the population identify themselves as Catholic, the idea of the “holiday season” that we are accustomed to in the U.S. has almost become a joke. The public finds little need for religiously-sensitive public holidays or alternative greeting card messages in a country with such a small religious minority, and early in November the city of Dublin is literally draped with “Merry Christmas” décor.

I enjoyed celebrating the holidays (or, celebrating Christmas) with the Irish students in my masters’ program at parties complete with mulled wine and mince pies. A group of German girls in my apartment block also began festivities early, gathering each Wednesday from mid-November onward to share Christmas treats and drinks traditional to their hometowns. This merriment and anticipation started well before Thanksgiving and introduced me to a Christmas season that I am told carries into the New Year in Ireland. While I returned home to Buffalo for Christmas, I nevertheless felt that I enjoyed much of the season and experienced true holiday revelry in Ireland.

In the midst of these weeks of Christmas cheer, I enjoyed a visit from Will, my best friend from college. Together at Notre Dame, we started a campaign to work for a moratorium on executions in Indiana and educate citizens about the death penalty. He now continues this work in a professional capacity through an organization he founded and directs, the Indiana Coalition Acting to Suspend Executions (InCASE). During his visit and in his role of InCASE Executive Director, Will gave a seminar to PhD students at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway. At the start of the lecture, when Will asked how many individuals in the room were opposed to the death penalty, every hand shot up. Feeling a bit like Dorothy, I knew we weren’t in Indiana anymore, and I happily watched as the discussion rolled along with ease and without disagreement on the fundamental principles in question. It was an incredible experience to watch Will discuss Indiana’s death penalty with these Irish professors and students, and offer ways for them to effectively impact this issue that we both care about so deeply. Will’s lecture was an instance of the cultural exchange and sharing of ideas that I am in a unique position to facilitate as a Mitchell Scholar, another reason I was so pleased with the event.

Our Mitchell Thanksgiving celebration was another highlight of the season and yet another remarkable experience of the year thus far. Our weekend with all the scholars together in Dublin for the holiday began with a visit to the home of President Mary McAleese, who received us with brilliance and candid humor during a wonderful and surprisingly lengthy conversation over tea at Áras an Uachtaráin—the official presidential residence. President McAleese shared stories and discussed Irish history as well as current events, and impressed us all with her sincerity and insights. In the next two weeks before second semester courses begin at Maynooth, I intend to travel into Northern Ireland to see some of the areas that President McAleese discussed and the very neighborhoods where she spent her childhood.

Sharing opportunities like this visit with Mary McAleese with the other Mitchell scholars has brought us together in our common memories and collective realization of just how lucky we are to have these opportunities. I look forward to more travel across Ireland and Europe and more nights out in Dublin (likely starting with a celebration of Barack Obama’s Inauguration next week) with my fellow scholars. All the while, I will be on the lookout for events as meaningful as meeting President McAleese, as worthwhile as Will’s death penalty seminar, and as fantastically ridiculous as Edinburgh’s Santa Stroll.

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