“You alright down there?” I looked up the towering cliff face to the small face peering down at me. With one toe jammed onto a small purchase in the granite and another slipping a bit from its wedged hold on the rock face, I wasn’t so sure. Fifteen minutes ago, following Roisin up a difficult route along the sea cliffs in Donegal had seemed a fantastic idea – the crowning achievement for a long day of scrambling up easier climbs. But now, having fallen at least five times as I tried to scale a particularly sheer portion of the rock, with my legs trembling and my fingers numb from the sea wind, I was doubting I could make it up. I sat back in my harness for a minute to give my muscles a rest before attempt no. six. At least, I reckoned as I gazed out over the blue-black Atlantic and listened to the waves crashing beneath me, the view wasn’t bad.
I had been prepared for all sorts of new experiences during my year in Northern Ireland as a Mitchell – arguing about the nature of freedom with my philosophy professors, digging into archival materials in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, enjoying a pint with friends at the pub. Stranding myself halfway up a sea cliff was not one of them. But after I joined the Queen’s University – Belfast Mountaineering Club my third week on campus, I quickly found myself immersed in all things climbing and hiking related. My weekends now took me to new rock faces and mountainsides around the island, from the boggy slopes of the Mourne Mountains to the sheer sea cliffs outside of Glencolmcille. Thus far, I’ve almost gotten blown off a mountain top in lashing rain, fallen asleep in front of a peat fire in Queen’s cottage in the Mournes, built new calluses and new friendships. It has simply been exhilarating.
Thus far during the Mitchell year, tackling the odd sea cliff has only been the most obvious challenge. Moving to a new place and beginning a new program – even when one eagerly looks forward to the transition – poses all sorts of new hurdles. From learning to navigate a new city to building a community of friends and intellectual sparring partners to immersing myself in a new academic project, I have been tackling uphill slopes of all kinds for the last few weeks. Fortunately, in Belfast and at Queen’s, I have found people eager to guide and support me as I get my feet underneath me. (They might make fun of my tendency to say “y’all” and my deep-seated affection for peanut butter in the meantime.) After just a couple months, I have not fully navigated any of these adjustment issues – nor did I expect to have – but I can now see the way up. Each day, I find a new handhold, a new sweet spot for a foot, that I can use to leverage myself into a full and productive life here in Northern Ireland. Attending poetry readings from my favorite writers, drinking milkshakes at Maggie May’s, holing up in the coffee shop with Philip Pettit’s Just Freedom, discussing sectarianism with a Catholic and a Protestant from neighboring communities in Belfast. And I still have months and months to go.
On attempt no. 12, I finally managed to snag a good handhold high above my head and haul myself up the rest of the cliff. Roisin greeted me a whoop and a hug. I shook out my arms, ate a huge spoonful of peanut butter, and then plopped down next to her to watch the sun set over the Atlantic as Sinead followed me up the route. Later, we would all walk down the potholed country lane down to the hamlet’s only pub for pints of fresh Guinness and hours of banter beside a peat fire. Sitting there surrounded by new friends from all across Northern Ireland (with the odd English lad thrown in the mix), I felt so fortunate. The Mitchell has exposed me to a side of Ireland that I never would have seen without it – and to a version of myself that I might never have uncovered otherwise.