Without a doubt, the past three months have been the most exciting and rewarding for me in Ireland. In this time, I attended two separate and equally enjoyable Mitchell Scholar Retreats, explored Europe and North Africa with my beautiful wife, and packed my bags for home in America.
The first of two Mitchell Retreats was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The other scholars made their way up North for a series of interesting meetings with politicians at Stormont, a casual chat with ex-combatants at Queens University, and quite simply the best historical/political tour I have taken here in Belfast. Our visit to Stormont was an interesting one complete with candid and compelling conversations with representatives from each of the major political parties here in Northern Ireland. Perhaps even more fascinating than our talks at Stormont was the meeting with former combatants from both the Loyalist and Nationalist ranks of decades gone by. Their personal stories gave me a keen insight into the internal thinking of a city and a land divided. Finally, this first Mitchell Retreat was capped by a truly memorable bus tour of Belfast guided by Dominic Bryan, the Director of Irish Studies at Queen’s University. This irreverent and hilarious professor cut right to the heart of the major issues and historical challenges that face Belfast and Northern Ireland more broadly, offering clarity in a city where reality tends to be clouded by perspective.
Our second Mitchell Retreat, on the other hand, could not have been more different. We headed to Southwest Ireland to County Kerry, spending most of our time enjoying the luxuries of the Parknasilla Resort, one of the finest in all of Ireland. Rather than touring prisons or treading through the mural-lined urban streets of Belfast, we spent most of our time taking casual nature hikes along on the Parknasilla Estate and indulging in some of the best meals of my life in Kenmare. This second retreat culminated in Dublin, where we were awarded our class rings by the Taoiseach Brian Cowen in a sort of commencement ceremony for us Mitchell Scholars at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Phoenix Park. It was truly a special evening, and a great way to conclude our time of study and research here in Ireland.
Outside of the two Mitchell Retreats, my wife Kacey and I used the warmer spring weather to travel throughout Ireland and beyond. Outside of Ireland, we traveled to Spain where we played with wild monkeys in Gibraltar, took in a bullfight as part of the Feria de Abril in Seville, and marveled at the architectural genius hosted in Barcelona. We also spent considerable time in Morocco, where I was able to practice my Arabic-speaking skills while teaching Kacey how to haggle in the markets of Marrakech. Kacey and I also were thrilled to ride camels in the deserts that sit in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, to take in the sight of snake charmers in the Marrakesh Medina, and to marvel at the sheer splendor of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Truly our time in Spain and Morocco was invaluable.
Within Ireland, we hired a car on two separate occasions in order to explore Ireland in all its glory. On our first excursion, we explored the Southeast of Ireland. The highlights of this trip were hiking the Wicklow Mountains, strolling on the white sand beaches of Brittas Bay, and standing on the rocky coastal base of Hook Head in County Wexford. Our second excursion in Ireland actually took place over this past week. In a sort of “farewell tour” we headed to the West of Ireland, and I am happy to confirm that the adage is correct: the West is the Best! The highlights of this trip for me and Kacey were horseback riding in the Ring of Kerry, watching the puffins soar in and out of the Cliffs of Moher, and, above all, dangling our torsos off the steep cliffs at Dun Aengus on Inishmore in the Aran Islands. It was truly the perfect send-off for my time here in Ireland!
As for now, my bags are completely packed. My flat in South Belfast looks nothing like the temporary home that Kacey and I had transformed it into. My flight itinerary is printed out, and my passport handy. Tomorrow just before dawn, I will be in a taxi, then a bus, and finally a series of airplanes headed home! The goal of the Mitchell Scholarship program is in large part to forge a bond between the American students that come here to Ireland and the island itself. Mission accomplished! A couple of years ago, I would never have guessed I would have spent a year of my life connecting with this magical place. But here I am, and I will never be the same because of this experience. There is a great scene in the recent blockbuster film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to which I feel I can relate at this juncture in my life. In the scene, Benjamin Button returns to his home in New Orleans after having seen a great deal of the rest of the world. He reflects on his homecoming and notes that the strange thing about coming home is that he feels like everything that was home has changed, but in reality nothing has…In fact, it is he who has changed. I have a feeling I will soon be sharing his sentiments, as I am thrilled to return home but I realize how very much this experience has meant to me. I am forever thankful for this opportunity.
As I await my morning’s journey home, I can’t stop humming that famous rhythm and blues tune… “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come!” I’ll see you soon!