March 2009 Reflection

“He’s asking if you know about Michael Collins…?”

Surprised, I looked down at the wide eyes of a 9-year-old boy who just landed at the Dublin airport with his family–Ireland’s newest programme refugees. His question, the first thing he asked in the arrivals hall, was relayed to me through an interpreter. As I answered him, I’m sure my look of amazement rivaled his own. He was eagerly taking in the sights of his new nation, while I was imagining how a child fleeing a conflicted home in the Middle East had learned about a revolutionary Irishman from an earlier century. (The answer: an Arabic television station played Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Michael Collins with frequency in the weeks before St. Patrick’s Day, and the family watched repeatedly to learn about Ireland.)

I met this boy and his family upon their arrival to Ireland through my research internship in the Office of the Minister for Integration, where I work with a team of civil servants who annually resettle 200 UN programme refugees. Most of the refugees arrive in large groups, forty to eighty at a time, while several single families are also selected for resettlement in Ireland each year. During my time in the Office, I’ll participate in the spectrum of resettlement processes: from meeting families in the first moments and days of arrival to meeting with those who have now lived in the country for a decade.

Welcoming this family as they landed at the airport was especially poignant, as the week they arrived also held a meeting with Senator George Mitchell. While this family came to Ireland from the Middle East, Senator Mitchell headed in the opposite direction—stopping briefly in Ireland before returning to Jerusalem to continue his work on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The opportunity to speak with Senator Mitchell about his work and his personal background will undoubtedly be one of the most remarkable experiences of the year. His generosity in sharing his time and insights with my class of Scholars is something none of us will soon forget.

While Senator Mitchell’s work in Ireland and the Middle East has focused on conflicts that are centuries old, my work with refugees in Ireland places me among new issues arising, with diversity of every kind continually increasing here. Throughout the economic downturn of the last months, Ireland continues to change. Sadly, some traditional features on the island may be lost to the financial crisis – not the least of which is the Waterford Crystal factory.

After the company that owns Waterford Crystal announced bankruptcy in February, the artisans of the factory remained, occupying the plant in hopes of a bailout by the Irish government. A New York Times blog article reported that while production had ceased, the workers were continuing to offer tours to visitors that arrived at the factory (an attraction that has drawn three hundred thousand tourists to the factory annually in recent years). My fellow scholar Catherine and I decided to head down to Waterford, both to visit the city and to take advantage of what might be our last chance to see the crystal factory. But upon arrival, we could see this wasn’t going to be a typical visit. The visitor centre was adorned with protest signs and slogans from the workers’ union. The chalkboards in the visitor café, rather than announce the day’s menu, declared “United we stand, divided we fall.”

During our visit, our impromptu tour was led by the man who personally cuts the designs onto some famous athletic prizes, from the Ryder Cup to the highest trophies in the NFL, NHL and NBA. Like many of the artists at Waterford, he has worked there for three decades. His explanations of how the process of shaping and cutting crystal was therefore a detailed one, impressing upon us what a loss to Ireland the permanent closure of Waterford Crystal would be. While American investors have purchased the Waterford name, it remains to be seen whether the factory and visitor centre will remain in Ireland—or if production will be moved elsewhere to cut costs. Our visit was enjoyable, despite the atmosphere of an uncertain future that hung over the place.

While doing any tourist activity in Ireland, there is always an element of uncertainty. Typically, it’s not about economic survival, but simply about the weather. My Irish classmates always take pleasure in reminding me, if I’m ever less than thrilled with a rainy afternoon, of an old saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes. The truth of this statement was demonstrated all too clearly when I took a couple visiting American friends to Powerscourt House and Gardens – a beautiful old estate south of Dublin in the Wicklow mountains. The gardens are old-style Italian, Japanese and French designs that stretch for acres and are absolutely green and beautiful. But in the two hours we spent at Powerscourt, we also saw the whole place blanketed in white. In a matter of minutes, it rained, snowed, hailed and finally, returned to blue sunny skies. So, typical for Ireland, we experienced Powerscourt in all four seasons—all in the course of one afternoon.

I’m now looking forward to visiting Belfast at the end of the month with all the Mitchell Scholars, to meet with political and community leaders and revisit the rich and troubled history of the city. In light of the tragic acts of violence in Northern Ireland in the last two weeks, I imagine our discussions of past, present and future with leaders in Belfast will be both difficult and enlightening.

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