A Year of Pints and Mires

My mom, who rather coincidentally also studied abroad in Ireland, insists that Ulysses is the best book ever written.  Despite books being woefully inefficient in packing space to entertainment quantity ratio, I wasn’t allowed to leave America without a copy. It’s taken me until a few weeks ago (and ironically a trip to Croatia) to actually crack the thing open, but I think I see where she’s coming from. To be clear, I only just have an idea of what’s going on. That will take a lot more time and a lot more RTE companion podcasts. But with every page I begin to understand what makes Ulysses such a classic – at its core it’s an ode to Ireland and to Dublin. The joy of reading it has been discovering that, after all of my time here, on some small level I feel like I can relate to that. When the book opens at Sandycove Beach, I realise I’ve unknowingly stood in exactly that spot, looking out at Dalkey Island and the other very same landmarks admired by the characters.  I’ve watched the gulls in the Liffey, braved the winds of South Dublin’s beaches, and sprawled in the lush grass of Howth. When Leopold Bloom walks through the avenues of Dublin, I know the streets he takes, and I can envision how they intersect with my own habitual routes. There’s some essence of Dublin’s scrappy character that Joyce nails perfectly, and I would not have appreciated it without the months I’ve spent here. Of course, I don’t claim to have become Irish by any stretch of the imagination, nor really can I comprehend the Irish blood mixed with Joyce’s ink, but I can trace the silhouettes of roots I’ve planted here in his words. 

In admittedly quite the opposite vein, I’ve also found reflections in my favourite show, much of which was filmed in Northern Ireland. Though its similarities with Ulysses end at a penchant for gratuitous vulgarity, Game of Thrones epitomises the other side of my year on the Emerald Isle; the epic sprawl of the (in this case Northern) Irish landscape depicted on screen has been my primary reason for leaving Bloom’s blazed trails behind. Plus, it helps that I can visit The Wall or Winterfell on a day trip. While it sidesteps the culture and people that make Ireland and Northern Ireland what they are today, an imaginative vision of a land where armadas sail past cliffs and soldiers man hill-perched battlements has its merits. At the very least, it’s driven me to spend countless weekends exploring the furthest reaches from my home in Dublin. By my own measure my overarching quest to find the very best views has led me to explore this country quite thoroughly. Introspectively, I often find that the same dramatic flare of both Game of Thrones and the Irish landscape captures how I sometimes think about my own life. A career is a years-long campaign, an exam a siege to be plotted out and endured. There are battles to be won and ideals to be championed and grand strategies to play in the days to come. In other words, looking at landscapes all the time means you’re always zoomed out looking for the big features — quite the opposite from a single day packed into seven hundred pages.

What I’ve begun to realise about this year in Ireland is that I haven’t had to make a tradeoff between the sweeping sagas of Game of Thrones and the daily routines of Ulysses. I am so unbelievably fortunate that the simple moments of my day-to-day life have also been extraordinary. This is the unbelievable opportunity the Mitchell Scholarship has afforded me. No long haul flights, hardly any planning; I could wake up every morning beset by excitement and learning and places to explore. I’ve been living in the moment and living momentously at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that feels impossible to compress into words, but I’ll give it a try by tying together my past few months.

Perhaps my single greatest claim to fame is that a sheep finally let me pet it on the hike from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher. (It turns out that neither offering grass, nor moving slowly, nor reducing your size, nor wearing white were more effective than simply finding sheep acclimated to tourism.) I visited the same pub in Killarney frequently enough that I established a regular seat (the two person booth beneath the stairs) that I shared on separate occasions with my best friend, my girlfriend, one of my college roommates, and my sisters. I got to hear from Geoff Hinton, “The Godfather of AI,” when he came to speak at UCD and hosted a private Q&A with the computer science students. I even spotted wild seals on my sixth hiking trip to Howth. On multiple occasions I accidentally walked in on pubs packed with screaming rugby fans (perhaps the only time the Irish are louder than Americans?), and I learned about how one of my Irish roommates ate baked potatoes with a side of chips at home in Donegal. On various bus or train journeys I got to soak in the lushness of Wicklow, the rapeseed fields of Trim, the wilderness of the Glens of Antrim, the crags of the Ring of Kerry, and the ruins of Kilkenny. Even as I write this the salty sea water from the Skelligs is finally drying out of my jeans.

For the longest time it felt like this year would go on forever until one day it started feeling like it would end tomorrow. I know when I return home in July that family and friends will ask me if I have any major takeaways from my time in Ireland, and I think first and foremost I’ll tell them this: I want to bring the epic adventures of the day to day back to the States with me. Being away has made me eager for my return to Atlanta, not just in that I miss it, but because I want to re-encounter it. Perhaps that is what I’ve learned from Ulysses too, in all its crudeness and minutiae: how to be present when walking the streets of home.

As it seems the end of my time in Ireland has no interest in getting any further away, I do feel the perennial nagging to be sappy for a few beats. For merely the idea of spending a funded year in Ireland I am eternally grateful; add to that the friends — new and old — who have shared in the adventures with me, the countless opportunities to explore corners of the world I never thought I would visit in my lifetime, and the astounding privilege of waking up each morning to a day that is exciting by default . . . I’m simply blown away. To everyone who played a part in that, many of whom are the only people who will ever read this: Thank you

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