Where are you from? I heard the question repeated time and again. I could feel that each strangely accented word leaving my mouth sent ripples across the Trinity cobblestones screaming, “American! I’m American!”
“I’m from Boston,” I replied.
Spending one early night at the Pav, the Trinity student pub, I heard the now familiar response com from a young Dubliner I had met at Gaelic Football practice, “Oh, then you’re pretty much Irish? If you go far enough back…”
Smiles spilled over pints. I began to explain that, to my own amazement, I have no genetic Irish roots. In fact, I seem to be everything but Irish, a veritable European Mutt.
“Well,” replied my friend, obviously puzzled at encountering his first American who had not come to dig through history to find the one-time home of an uncle, grandmother, or great great grand da. “Why did you come to Ireland?”
Now far away from my childhood diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Super Bowls, I thank Roddy Doyle, Flann O’Brian, and contemporary Irish literature, the perhaps unlikely ambassadors that opened for me a small window into the complex culture of the Emerald Isle. The famine, the war for independence, the troubles, torn identities, inherited hatreds juxtaposed on paper pages against the darkly humored Irish sensibility tumbled me into a budding love affair. So perhaps it is investigation of an intellectual heritage, rather than a genealogical one, that prompted my leapfrog across the salty Atlantic puddle.
Now that I have stepped through this window onto the brilliant green lawns of Dublin and beneath its tall grey skies, I am only beginning to realize the incredible richness of the heritage. I found, through Enda Walsh’s the New Electric Ballroom (now in NY, NY; go see it!), the Dublin Fringe Festival, and the Beauty Queen of Leenane in Belfast, that the themes addressed in the novels are met full in the mouth and lived nightly on the stage.
In an effort to gather a wider context, I turned to Irish fairy tales (a collection put together by our friend W.B. Yeats), which were very enjoyable, yet greatly puzzling. A lot of them start off on track to drive home a strong moral like we are used to fairy tales doing in the States, but then the story ends up twisting so that the moral crisis is entirely avoided! For example, in one story, a man befriends a Merrow (merman) and later discovers that the Merrow is keeping the souls of sailors lost at sea “warm and dry” in lobster pots. The man gets the Merrow drunk and releases the souls, yet feels guilty at having deceived his friend. We would expect some sort of confrontation such as a scene where the Merrow realizes what has happened, but this never comes! Instead, the Merrow just simply disappears one day and the story ends with the man wondering where the Merrow has gone… I am not sure if this theme of conspicuously absent moral crisis reflects something larger, perhaps designed to acquaint the listeners with the harsh idea that reward and punishment are seldom doled out in a strictly moralistic fashion? Perhaps I need to read some more. I picked up another book of fairy tales the other day…
All this was just the start. Faces painted and wearing the county colors, Jon and I cheered as the Kerry Gold stormed the pitch at Croke Park after their spectacular win at the Gaelic Football All-Ireland Final (the US-Ireland Alliance and Ulster Bank defied all odds by procuring us these tickets that are more precious than diamond). I later had the opportunity to play some of this incredible game myself with the Trinity team; considering I was the only one who had not tumbled out of the womb playing Gaelic, I managed not to embarrass myself too badly in our victory over Dublin Institute of Technology! Later, I waded through teetering towers of documents to meet with a Trinity Law professor I had emailed out of the blue to talk about the recent reforms to Irish Mental Health Law.
At every instance I have been struck by how open and welcoming the community has been when I or any of the other Mitchell Scholars have shown interest. And speaking of the Mitchell Scholars, never before have I encountered a group of such singularly interesting, varied, fun, engaged, and thoroughly grounded people; we have had several conversations I would count among the best in my life as we walked the cliffs of Howthe or warmed hands over a peat fire at a cottage on a Derry dairy farm.
I feel like our adventures are just beginning. As I sit here, I cannot help eagerly awaiting what will surely be amazing times to come. Next week we are set to meet the Minister of Education and sit down to a very Mitchell Thanksgiving. Just a few days ago, I went to the Hercules in Dublin to speak to the Irish Wrestling Association Commissioner about starting a club at Trinity. As I was shown around this gym straight out of Rocky (if it were filmed in Dublin instead of Philly) a whole new window opened. There are plans on the horizon to travel to Prague and Pompeii. I can only hope that somehow the time and energy necessary for all this will materialize, and still leave enough for my neuroscience research that promises to bring intellectual challenge and will soon begin. (now If I could only do something about that accent of mine)