“I remember the night that he came in from the wintery cold and damp
A giant of a man in an oilskin coat and the bundle that told he was a tramp
He stood at the bar and he called a pint then turned and gazed at the fire
On a night like this to be safe and dry is my one and only desire!”
– “Donegal Danny” by The Dubliners
Belfast changes dramatically in the winter. As regional and international students leave campus, the surrounding area suddenly becomes more sparse and more insular. Without any real warning, one day you notice that someone has put Christmas lights in all the shops you frequent, the comfortable din in your study spaces has gone quiet, and your recommended ads have been suspiciously infiltrated by seasonal affective disorder lamps.
Despite these changes and my obligatory grumbling about the cold, I found much to be grateful for in these past few months. As the fall semester came to a close, Asha, Sarah, and I had the opportunity to connect with Winnie Li, a Mitchell Scholar from the class of 2001. Winnie was visiting to participate in a panel at Queen’s and stopped by a local bookstore to discuss her latest novel, Complicit. After Winnie’s talk, the group of us grabbed dinner and talked about everything ranging from upbringings, culture clashes, DNA ancestry tests, and our friend Ellie’s deep love for dessert.
While it may sound like a relatively routine evening, it underscored some of the core components of what makes the Mitchell Scholarship unique. Taken together, the four of us had relatively little in common across most of the aspects people usually derive meaning and identity from. That four Americans with such disparate backgrounds could be brought together by an interest in Ireland despite not having any recent family ties there speaks to the enduring relevance the island has in the contemporary American imagination.
The evening was also a promising example of the Mitchell alumni network. Even before I left the States, I had calls and coffees with previous scholars who were excited to share their experiences and offer advice. Plenty of organizations have a wide array of impressive and accomplished alumni, but the small size of the Mitchell cohorts, and of the institutions we go to, has made it much easier to connect with people who may otherwise seem intimidating or inaccessible.
Winter also brought new opportunities to host and to visit. Tourism in Ireland is typically associated with St. Patrick’s Day or the warmer summer months. Convincing anyone that an island famous for its rain is worth a visit in December is a tall task. Nevertheless, from east to west and north to south, the clear cold of the winter pairs well with the long contemplative train rides, the hot whiskey toddies, and the late night conversations by the fireplace that come with travelling across the island. If you’ve come across this post because you’re thinking of applying or studying here independently, I hope you get to see for yourself.