Christmas, the Cold, and Complicit

“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

Dear Reader,

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.

Winnie Li poses for a photo with us at a book talk in Belfast.

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.

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The Guildhall

An odyssey across my many encounters with an iconic Derry building

The Derry Guildhall

I first met the Guildhall of Londonderry on the night of Halloween. An early evening of torrential downpour made way for clear midnight skies, and between the parting clouds, I saw the hall’s clock tower.

Tall and orange.

(But mostly orange.)

That orange clock face watched quietly over the festivities that evening, its neo-gothic façade blending into the rest of the town’s elaborate Halloween decorations. But despite its foreboding exterior, the Guildhall seemed to invite me back.

I returned to the Guildhall of Londonderry less than two weeks later, on the second Friday of November. That night, Derry was the second stop on a winding expedition from Dublin to the village of Burnfoot in County Donegal. But at nearly an hour past midnight, we were fatigued and famished. Our attempts to flag down a train station taxi willing to drive us to the village proved futile, but across the River Foyle, I spotted the tower of the Guildhall beaming back at me.

We made our way across the Peace Bridge to the Guildhall and to our delight found a 24-hour Kebab House just across the square. Sat on the freezing stone blocks outside the hall and scarfing down chips before the seagulls could snatch them, we called a cab from one of the two taxi company phone numbers the Kebab House employee had recited for us from memory.

The next morning, we returned to the Guildhall with the intention of stepping inside. Before we made it through the entryway, however, we were stopped in our tracks by the Queen of Hearts. Or rather, we were blocked by a woman in a stunningly elaborate costume of the Queen of Hearts. As we looked out onto the square, it occurred to us that nearly everyone in the square was dressed in high-quality Alice and Wonderland costumes. After mustering up the courage to ask the Queen of Hearts why everyone in Derry had seemingly stepped out of the storybook, she clued us into the city-wide outdoor puzzle game running that day hosted by a puzzle app. How nearly the entire city—from the infants in Cheshire Cat onesies to the Queen of Hearts herself—managed to pull costume-quality outfits for the sake of an app’s puzzle game remains a mystery.

The hall’s entrance and the Queen of Hearts

We eventually entered the Guildhall where we were directed to some stained-glass artwork and an exhibit on the building’s history. It detailed the building’s completion in 1890, its clock tower modeled after London’s Elizabeth tower, the terror attacks during The Troubles that destroyed most of the original building, and the city council business occurring inside through the present. Upstairs we stumbled upon the main hall with its historic pipe organ where a funeral fair was just wrapping up. Empty caskets for sale lined the room along with booths on various end-of-life topics. And the organ was already decorated for Christmas.

The pipe organ, the Christmas wreath, and the funeral fair
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Island Adventures

With the end of our first semester and the turn of the new year, I have been feeling lately that my precious time in Ireland is quickly slipping away. But sitting down to write this blog was a welcome reminder that I’ve actually made a decent dent in my Irish bucket list. Below is a brief catalog of my adventures around the Island–and I can’t wait for many more!

Killaloe, Co. Clare

In late October, one of my new Irish friends, Sarah, hosted me and another one of our friends from the law school at her home in Killaloe. Nestled on the banks of the River Shannon, Killaloe is a lovely little town that reminded me a lot of where my parents live in Northern Michigan. Sarah and her parents were incredibly kind and gracious hosts, showing us around the town by foot and boat, welcoming us into their beautiful home, and making us delicious meals. Spending the weekend with them and their lovely pups George and Rua somehow cured a bit of homesickness I was quietly I was nursing.

Donegal / Derry

In November, Ali generously invited the Mitchells to tag along as she did research for her book in the North. While Ali was off muckraking, the small collection of Mitchells who made the trip spent a memorable day exploring Derry. The highlights included getting lost in the mall, a funeral convention in the town hall, excellent Mexican food, and many Derry Girls fangirl moments. Spending time with the Mitchells is always a treat, but this goofy little trip was especially so. I feel so lucky to have such a fun group to go call upon for random adventures!

Co. Kerry

Over Christmas, I was incredibly lucky to have my family visit me. We took a road trip around Kerry, stopping on the beautiful Valencia Island (pictures below). Being able to share my life as well as explore new areas in Ireland was really special. My parents immediately began planning this trip when they found out I got the Mitchell so we’d been looking forward to this for a long time.

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Dispatch from the Underground

No one ever wants to see that second line appear on their COVID test. I can attest that this is an especially unpleasant experience the day before you’re supposed to get on a transatlantic flight. It’s a situation that has landed me in my parents’ basement-turned-isolation-ward, rather than returning to Belfast as I had hoped to be doing.

The good news is that I’m completely fine so far health-wise (shout-out to the bivalent booster for preparing my immune system – have you gotten yours yet?). The bad news is that I’m just about crawling up the walls from boredom.

I’d like to say that this newfound free time has led to some epiphanies and profound reflections about my hopes for the new year. The truth is that at the moment I don’t have much in the way of profound thoughts, but I do miss Belfast. I miss the late-night conversations and Fleabag watch sessions with my housemates. I miss the feeling of leaving a classroom questioning what I thought I knew. I miss the warm glow of candle-lit pubs filled with the twang of a fiddle playing Irish music. I miss the way everyone in Belfast seems to know each other, which turns introductions into a game of discovering which friends you have in common.

There’s also plenty to look forward to in the semester ahead. I’m excited to start work on my dissertation, dive into my internship at a youth development organization, and travel to new parts of the island. I want to do more hiking when the weather improves, and maybe even try outdoor rock climbing (which still mildly terrifies me, even after plenty of practice on the indoor rock climbing wall).

Before I caught COVID, being back in Boston gave me the chance to catch up with my family and friends. As wonderful as it’s been to revisit my old life here, I’m left feeling even more grateful for my Mitchell year. I spent the last few years working in government on coronavirus response, and I don’t know a single person from that world who isn’t working through their burnout right now. Talking to old friends has helped me to appreciate how much things have changed for me this past year. I don’t know if it’s the change of scenery, the stimulating intellectual atmosphere, or the fact that I now get to just be responsible for my own education for a while instead of feeling responsible for the world – but something about being in Belfast has been restorative for me.

In my underground, makeshift COVID isolation room, the hours and days blur together. As I wait for the two lines on my COVID test to become one, I console myself with the knowledge that soon I’ll be back in Belfast, where each day offers something different and new to discover. I’ll think back to this period of sameness and boredom and use it as a reminder to say yes to as many new experiences as possible.

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Only Dull People are Brilliant at Breakfast

On Turtlenecks 

Nothing spells a Dublin winter like sweaters. Seriously. Never before have I felt so welcomed for my love for turtlenecks. People who don’t wear turtlenecks don’t know what they are missing out on. It’s like wearing a jumper and a scarf, but sexy. They’re practical too. I have never been cold with a turtleneck on. Even on the most chilling winter days, my turtlenecks never fail to warm me to a modest sweat. A gentle dampness. Just enough to wonder if I ought to take another shower before I get into bed for the evening. Sure, if you don’t wear a layer underneath sometimes they get a bit itchy. But it’s winter! We should be layering anyway. Plus, wearing a turtleneck makes me feel like a professor of English literature. (Every CS student’s twisted fantasy.)

By the way, if you’re the type of person that washes a sweater after every wear, please stop reading here. We can’t be friends. 

On Helvetica

It’s 7:32 am. I wish I could say I had woken up, had a coffee, and was on my way back from an exhausting leg day at the gym, but actually, I was still asleep. 

It’s 9:27 am. I arise from the depths of my down-filled duvet (an Irish winter necessity I have come to learn) and with my data visualization final project due in just seven hours, I stumble to the kitchen to begin the day’s work. 

“All project reports must be submitted in size 10 Helvetica font,” the rubric read. Who even decided Helvetica should be the default font for assignments? I wondered. We live in an amazing era of technology. Sentient programs like ChatGPT can answer any intellectual question we propose; our phones can instantaneously translate text in a photo to hundreds of languages; facial recognition software can identify a person with haunting accuracy. Most importantly though, text editors have dozens of beautiful fonts to choose from. Why should we be bound to the sterile dryness of fonts like Helvetica and Arial?! It is time for a revolution, and I’ll be the pioneer! No more assignments turned in with Helvetica font! No more writing in Times New Roman! To death with the stale and dull aesthetics of the past! 

On Trinity Campus 

Trinity is simply stunning. I just got back to Dublin two days ago, and taking the bus from the airport into the city center felt like I was transported between two worlds: from the unceasing mundanity of suburban New Jersey, into the wintry fairy tale of a frosty Dublin. Maybe one day I’ll build a train from New Jersey to the front gates of campus. I’ll name it the Trinity Express.

On Hot Water Bottles

Now, this is perhaps the biggest paradox of them all. How I’ve gone twenty-two years sleeping in barren solitude, I cannot tell you. Hot water bottles—small furry pouches filled with hot water before bedtime—have changed my life. Not enough to go out and buy one, but just enough to acknowledge the physical (and emotional) warmth and well-being I have denied myself for years. They help relieve stress and ease pain, and, particularly during these winter months (cuffing season), mimic the gentle warmness of a friend, partner, or sibling snuggling beside you.  

On Oscar Wilde 

I am ashamed to say that all my life I have been pronouncing the Wilde in Oscar Wilde incorrectly. And for a computer-science graduate who scoffs at the idea of any text where periods represent the end of sentences, maybe this isn’t that much of a surprise. Thank you, Maebh, for correcting me without judgment by the way.

The other day I wandered into Hodges and Figgis, the local bookstore by campus, where I can proudly claim I spent more last month on books than I did on groceries. (I leave it to the reader to conclude if this is a boast about my astute husbandry in grocery shopping, or about how much I spend on books that never get read.)

On this day, I stumbled out with Wilde’s Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast, which, I think sums up the past few months here in Ireland quite nicely. Early routines have faded in and out and mornings have often turned into afternoons. Through all of it though, not a bland moment has passed. I’m excited for the adventures to come. For more wily Irish witticisms, for more spontaneous quests around the island, and for more time to soak up the wonder of each and every day.

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The Question Isn’t, ‘What Are We Going To Do?’ The Question Is, ‘What Aren’t We Going To Do?’

My inspiration for 2023 is the easy-going Irish disposition and approach to life. Balancing hard work and life experiences is an important skill. I’ve always managed the hard work, but I am working hard in 2023 to avoid letting life slip to a secondary priority. To do this, I’ve had to get creative. With creativity and modern technology, learning and hard work can be done anywhere. Sections of my thesis were written in buses, planes, and trains using my phone, computer, or loose papers of newspaper. In 2023, I am finishing my masters and experiencing experiencing all of Ireland I can.

            Some highlights from my masters so far are my neural engineering course, my audited courses, and my thesis. Of the modules in my masters, neural engineering is my favorite. Biomedical interface has enabled treatment of previously untreatable conditions. I’ve really enjoyed researching new treatment options in the therapeutic pipelines for otherwise debilitating diseases. Even though our engineering module concluded last semester, I am excited to consider neural engineering in an applied context this semester by exploring startup culture at trinity with societies like Trinity Entrepreneurial Society. Alongside these societies, I plan to audit an intellectual property course at Trinity Law, to learn a bit more about the red tape often attached to the practical application of biomedical devices. Also, I recently started work on my thesis. I am researching chronic pain in osteoarthritis patients. I am looking forward to making more progress on this in the coming months.

            Outside academia, I am focused on being a tourist. Even though I have a full year here, I am doing my best to not let the novelty wear off while I continue to explore all Ireland has to offer. Trinity’s location really helps me with my sightseeing. I’ve recently started visiting the National Gallery of Ireland, which is facilitated by the gallery’s location two minutes walking from campus and three minutes walking from my favorite bakery. Over the holidays, I visited Dublin’s Zoo Lights with other Mitchell Scholars and partook in the Irish tradition of the twelve pubs of Christmas with other students from my masters. Outside Dublin, I’ve been hiking in Bray, walked in the beach in Portmarnock, and took my first plunge into the Atlantic on this side. I already have plans to extend my Irish tourism with a trip to visit my Irish friend Kelsey in New Grange this weekend. And, next month I will be visiting the Mitchell Scholars in Galway.

            I still have much to accomplish in Ireland. I am excited to contribute meaningful and interesting research towards chronic pain management. I am also look forward to learning and experiencing as much as I can in my host country for the year. Life in Dublin moves pretty fast. I want to use 2023 to stop and look around once in a while, otherwise I could miss it.

Mitchell Scholars visiting Dublin Zoo Lights
Getting creative with my work in Bray by stopping for a quick Zoom on the boardwalk
Hiking in Bray with Fares and Marie
Seagull spotted on the quay
Spotted a cute dog in Portmarnock
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Pastry Watch #1

Many questions befall the American student who considers attending graduate school abroad. What kind of cell phone plan should I get? Will my terrible American health insurance extend its terrible American coverage overseas? Most importantly, how far away from campus do I have to walk for a good bakery? 

In my experience as a Trinity student over the last few months, those answers are: keeping my international data off and hopping between free wifi spots like a frog around potholes on the information superhighway, NOPE, and not far at all. Bread 41 on Pearse Street is a 5-minute walk from the center of campus, or a 10-second jog from the campus gym. In order to beat the lines that form at the snap of 8 AM for one of the city’s top organic bakeries, I recommend getting yourself to the gym first thing in the morning, exercising, then limping over to the little gray building under the rattling DART bridge. 

It’s not the coziest interior, with all the metal and concrete, so I also recommend getting a pastry then sitting out by the Liffey or under a tree on campus to more peacefully contemplate the miracles of butter, sugar, and flour.

Here is what I’ve contemplated so far:

Cinnamon roll– The first thing I try at any bakery. A very good first impression, this cinnamon roll was the size of my face and lasted for a whole train ride from Dublin to Galway. The savory yeastiness of the dough perfectly grounded the white sugar icing, and the orange zest on top was a lovely citrus flourish. 

Porridge bread– Porridge is the most important meal of the day. I wanted to study in Ireland in part because this country understands the importance of eating porridge literally every day, as I do for breakfast. If you’re looking to add more oatmeal for your diet, this thick, moist loaf of porridge bread is the perfect thing to toast for soup and sandwiches. It’s also great to chomp up a hunk of porridge bread with a bit of cheese after a night out.

Egg tart– Jiggly and delicate filling the color of pre-rain sunshine with a flaky crust. 

Lemon tart– Jiggly and delicate filling the color of post-rain sunshine with a flaky crust. 

(Both tarts are small enough to be gobbled in one bite, which is very satisfying if short-lived.) 

Croissant– Okay, this one I got because I was late to the bakery so the more elaborate offerings had already sold out. It is the mark of a good bakery to produce a luscious plain croissant. No bells, whistles, or fancy jams to distract from the craft and ingredient quality here. 

I intend to try everything on the Bread 41 menu by the end of term, so stay tuned for the next installment of Pastry Watch. My thesis is going fine, also.


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Celtic Glomar

The ping in my inbox made my heart flutter: an update on a long-awaited Freedom of Information request that’s been sitting with the Northern Irish authorities for months. It’s a simple ask, or seemed to be: I need access to ten specific case files of long-ago adjudicated gun possession cases from Belfast, from 1975. My American brain saw this as an easy ask — in the states, of course, I could probably just walk into a courthouse and request the indictment. Bright-eyed and naive, I had launched off the FOIA requests to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland last summer, waiting for the response like a kid on Christmas. 

And now, an update. I was giddy, clicking through to the email. 

[Context: Hey, I’m Ali, and I’m on leave from my job at The New York Times for my Mitchell year, where I’m getting my Masters in creative writing and writing a book for Little, Brown, on American gun running to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I don’t just launch off FOIA requests for fun. Usually.]

Anyway. The email.

“Although PRONI does hold the information which you requested, we are unable to complete your request at the present time, in the absence of the ‘appropriate Northern Ireland Minister,’ which is to say, the Minister for the Department for Communities…PRONI will therefore be temporarily suspending the completion of FOIA requests until a new Minister has been appointed.”

I laughed out loud when I read this. Then I read it again, and laughed out loud again. Then I threw things and yelled so loudly poor Abby Barton poked her head into my office to make sure I hadn’t had a stroke.

It’s done. The end of the road, the last remaining FOI avenue after many others have already been denied. I’m not getting the court papers anytime soon, if I get them at all, at least not through a Freedom of Information request. 

There is something maddening about knowing answers exist, and then knowing I can’t get them. One minster’s not around so the whole country’s FOIA process grates to a halt. Simple as that. It’s easier, I think, when they don’t have the paperwork — frustrating for its own reasons, to be sure, but easier. This, though, to know the information exists, just somewhere I can’t reach — it makes me nearly apoplectic.

Some facts you should know: The court documents in question resulted in convictions, in which the defendants’ names and charges are publicly listed on a government website. All occurred in the mid-1970s. My interest in them is not to shame the convicted — it’s to find them, to reach them. How can they even be given an opportunity, if they want it, to reclaim their narrative, if the Northern Irish authorities won’t provide details on their cases? That’s assuming the defendants are alive, at all. 

It’s got me wrestling so much as a journalist, as a citizen, as an expat. What do nations lose, when they are so sternly delicate with reckonings? Is there value, in being so careful with the past? I tend to be an absolutist with transparency and institutions — governments should be accountable to their citizens, and agencies should err on the side of disclosure, especially when developments have aged out of acute impact. 

And yet, there’s another part of me that understands the instinct, to hold close dark chapters, particularly when they are often one-sided retellings, void of context, and could thrust otherwise private citizens into spotlights. America is by no means a beacon — it has sanitized and twisted and hidden its own complicity in generations of abuse and violence, both at home and abroad. 

To confront this in Ireland is pushing me to live the mantra I’ve intended from the day I took on this book — while the thrust of my reporting is anchored in America, this story is not a purely American retelling. There is value, in understanding the deep, complex nuances of this country, and to respect them. My friends at the FOI office are forcing me to wrestle it, though I refuse to believe any country benefits from such sanitized, secretive handlings of a fraught past.

At any rate, I remain in limbo, because of a silly bureaucratic hurdle. There’s a familiarity to it, really. My last FOIA denial from the F.B.I. made absolutely zero sense, and I don’t think the C.I.A. — whose interface looks like it predates Whitesnake —even responded to the last one I sent. The problem with FOIA is that it’s a toxic lover. I hate it. It wastes my time. It makes empty promises and stands me up at dinner and forgets important dates and never apologizes. Half the time it never even responds to texts or emails or phone calls or carrier pigeons. 

And then, right as I’m on the cusp of walking away, it shows up with flowers and thousands of pages of unredacted peace offerings. PRONI says its denial is only temporary. Damn that glimmer of hope. As that hot new band says, here I go again.

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December Divertimentos

The past few weeks have been beautifully packed with melody, from the power of the Irish tradition of sing along to the energy of music from home(s), the company sounds can keep in everyday life, the experiences that can center around music. December has been a divertimento of sorts, a lively instrumental piece made up of several short movements.

The sing along is a quintessential development of a warm Dublin family gathering. Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of spending the most wonderful time in my Irish host family’s home, and it is difficult to describe just how warm a Dublin Christmas is, it’s as warm as a delicious Sunday roast, prepared by a selfless host mom and dad who took me in over holidays away from home and have always made me feel like family, even amidst one of the busiest times in the place where the family always gathers at the O’Reilly’s, it’s as warm as the family gift of laughter to Tommy Tiernan in Vicar Street or a Pantomime at the National Stadium, as warm as a stocking with your name on it on Christmas morning. Nothing can beat the warmth of watching a dad-little daughter duet of Christy Moore’s Beeswing or a wonderful rendition of Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted To You. The power of music’s ability to bring families together, even when the MC (me) hogs the mic for too long sometimes and insists on singing a song possibly a bit too sad for St. Stephen’s Day. 

After a wonderful day with Irish friends who welcomingly included me in a gathering for a fella celebrating the big 5-0, attempting to understand the world of horse racing in Leopardstown, another Dublin tradition in the time between Christmas and New Years, where you see crowds collectively shouting “go on” to the horse they bet on, whether it be the underdog, or the predicted winner, and the pints of porter just perfectly settled. That evening, surrounded by the warmth of the crowd in the International Bar, we sang Jim McCan’s Grace, a beautiful and painful ode to a love interrupted by the struggle for independence. Days later, I rang in the New Year singing among family and friends that have made me feel so supported and loved during this year in Dublin. 

Most of our Michealmas term assignments for global health were due shortly before Christmas, I used the prompts in all the different classes to explore a community that has been meaningful to me along my journey – I wrote on how war and global disenfranchisement impacted Syria’s ability to confront COVID-19, on the social determinants of Pre-Eclampsia in my medical school’s community of East Harlem, and a comparison with Lebanon’s healthcare sector’s plight to continue to function effectively within the limits of repeated tragedies and economic crisis. Background to all these heavy yet rewarding stories was the music in my room, often overlapped with the sound of tours of trinity’s campus that persist despite the gusty winter winds. Whether it was recents from Taylor Swift’s Midnights, with a shoutout to Ireland’s Wicklow on Track 12, or tracks more reminiscent of very similar time(s) in undergrad that involved weeklong races to a deadline at the end of term, with The Carters’ EVERYTHING IS LOVE, or Troye Sivan’s Bloom, music brought me great solace and motivation. 

At Trinity, I crossed paths with a “trinité” of engineers from Nantes’s Centrale, whose journey brought them together to pursue environmental engineering at Trinity. At the start of the new year, I had another “how am I here” moment visiting the college community they belonged to in Nantes, ironically and unironically singing  Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème at a small gathering of friends and humming the beats of Gazo along the Loire. Also in Nantes, I got to connect with a peace of home in the diaspora, listening to tunes by Fairouz that brought me back to a primary school morning on the bus, while eating Lah’m B’aajin at a small Syrian restaurant in Nantes – it was, as the restaurant’s name proudly announced, a nostalgic “Voyage à Damas”.

I could continue writing on and on, moments wrapped with music were aplenty, they carried me through the years time and time again, and this past month, those moments continued to shape my experience in Ireland and beyond. Whether it was harmonizing to Daniel Caesar and H.E.R’s The Best Part with a fellow Mitchell on the southern coast of Portugal, or connecting with a New York anchor over SZA’s SOS on shared Spotify sessions over ever fleeting FaceTimes. 

I’ll keep listening.

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Nobody Talks About Being Black in Belfast (but I will!)

Happy New Year from your favorite almost-Irish twins! (We are exactly a year and 18 days apart)

As I write this, I am in my room at my Dad’s house in South Carolina. The same place I once prayed to whatever God might hear me to please let me one day be writing a blog about my Mitchell year in Ireland. I decided to use my last US-Ireland Alliance-funded plane ticket to come back home for winter break and I moved my flight to the U.S. up so I could come home earlier, and my flight back to Belfast further, so I could spend a little bit more time bee-bopping in the comforts of familiarity.

It’s now been 5 weeks since I’ve been in Belfast. I’m starting to get emails about Students’ Union meetings and events to RSVP for and information about the first day of my internship (which I’m missing because I’ll be on a plane) and picking an advisor for the 20,000-word dissertation that I have to start writing pretty soon… And I feel terrible admitting that I feel dread thinking about going back.

It has been difficult for me to admit that my first months in Belfast have been as challenging as they actually have been. I want to give everyone the glowing review they’re hoping for. And I feel icky even feeling frustrated and disappointed at all because I know how unique and privileged this experience is in the first place.

The weeks between my last blog post and the week I left Belfast were some of the worst weeks I experienced all year. After 10 weeks of rowing, struggling to find community and feeling out of place socially and culturally, I made the decision to quit rowing. I felt rejected and like I’d wasted my time desperately hoping people who didn’t really care to know me would like me and make space for me in their circle. I struggled all semester with frustration from the academics of my program, not feeling challenged, not feeling like I was learning, and again, feeling like I was wasting my time and energy in a space that was not anything like what I expected. I also was getting Booker T. Washington-ed and Angry Black Girl-ed left and right!

Short story time: after sharing details about my experience getting death threats at sixteen all for petitioning to change the confederate namesake of my high school (an issue of public history and therefore relevant to our class discussion), a white lady (who was there as a representative of career paths we could take with the degree we are pursuing) not only flippantly moved past my larger point— which was about how white people should not force/let Black people be martyrs in justice work, but she also found me after to specifically tell me that any working (white) woman will experience aggressions and that because I “seem strong” I should just suck up any micro-aggressions and “work harder” (basically saying it’s not about race and my experience is just how things are).

Another short story time: I spoke up in rowing about a problem the beginner team was having after receiving some really intense passive-aggressive messages from student leadership and made a suggestion to fix the problem. Said leadership goes on to invalidate and minimize the problem and complaint by saying, “It’s not that hard; just do it.” That doesn’t sit right with me, and I say, “Well, since we’re having a conversation about all of this, let’s also talk about the tone of the messages you’re sending to us– please speak to us with the same kindness and respect that you (leadership) are asking of us (the novice team).” They did not like that. Immediately I was a pariah. Later, a coach tells me (he’s laughing, I’m not) that he heard about this “drama” and was told that I have “anger issues.” No matter how polite I was, because I’d stepped out of the role I was supposed to play & asked for basic respect, I was the angry black woman. I was the angry Black woman because I was the only Black woman there. (This was also the final straw in realizing this could not be a community I continued to invest in.)

These are just two instances that happened less than a week apart. There have been many more. There is something every single day– a challenge, a frustration, a micro-aggression that seems too oblivious and/or well-meaning to address. And this is just a part of being away from home, especially in a basically all-white country. But at least at home, I know the shapes racism takes on a daily basis. Here, it sneaks up on me. Here it’s presented, again, as oblivious well-meaning white people. And that hurts worse because I think I can be comfortable, and then I realize that all along, I have never been as safe as I thought, and I have never really been welcome or included either.

So, as I write this, I’m a couple days away from going back to Belfast. I am ready to return with a fresh mindset about the experience, even as I’m dragging my feet to go. I keep reminding myself that at least I know what to expect now, and I do have friends who have kept me afloat through all of this. There are things I’m looking forward to, like training for the Belfast Marathon and exploring new places and who knows– maybe I’ll find the right kind of community I was searching for in the first place. I have hope that things will be better this time around… I’ve just gotta keep plugging along…

Ps. I also write my own newsletter-meets-blog where I post about my life in Belfast and other girl-in-her-early-twenties-type things. You can check it out here if you’d like to read more about my experience.

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Ireland Officially Declared as the 51st US State – Policy Action May Follow

University College Dublin Glenomena Student Residences, Belfield, Dublin 04. 1 November, 2022.

To begin with breaking news, Ireland was officially declared as the 51st U.S. State last week by an expert.

My last cab driver Brendan, an expert Dublin taxi operator which is high mark indeed for both left-handed stick driving skill and entertaining conversation, concluded ‘Ireland is practically the 51st of the United States’. Of course this would be problematic for a number of reasons and one should keep in mind that Brendan’s cab is a vessel of entertainment (a.k.a. not a source for factual reporting). But, the fake news headline seemed like an interesting place to start this series of Mitchell Scholar blog posts.

I met Brendan after a Ryan Air powered visit to Switzerland for a few short days.

Many see Ireland as a gateway to other EU member states which may be true thanks the brilliant business work of Irish airlines, but I’ve found Ireland feels like much more of a second home on this side of the pond. After a quick return to Dublin it was an interesting dynamic to hop on the train to visit other Mitchell Scholars in Galway and find a feeling that I had returned somewhere very familiar in spite of only being here for a short time – perhaps the 51st state. For many American visitors looking at Ireland as a 51st state may be a subconscious frame to have for many reasons, a unique Irish admiration of the States and American culture among them stemming from multiple causes including our unique ties from diasporic kinship to US involvement in Irish peace negotiations.

Great exploration of the 51st state out of Dublin has been shared with Mitchell Scholars who I already consider good friends, and whose friends from UCD and Trinity have also become my own along the way.

My own survey of the 51st has involved several unusual experiences to have only been here 3 months: realizing my hometown is sister cities with Buncrana, getting a motorbike in Donegal and riding across the border of Northern Ireland which in some cases looked like my home Bluegrass State, nice hiking around the Wicklow Mountains and visiting spooky castles before Halloween.

Underneath a survey of growing familiarity, there has been slow progress on a new endeavor I hope to accomplish in Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar – introducing public policy support for new use of Irish peatlands to potentially restore biodiversity & carbon sequestration along with lost labor markets. There is a kinship of challenges between the 51st and other states where Ireland is also in its own struggle to have a just transition to renewables and new resources, though under a more dire situation with an energy crisis and historic high living costs.

After being in Ireland only a few weeks, despite a learning curve to understand the workings of Irish governance through the Oireachtas I was able to quickly meet with TD Jackie Cahill – chair of the agriculture committee. (After the meeting I also found my way into the Prime Minister’s diplomatic office to snag a photo). After describing the work I hope to pursue, similarities between Kentucky and Ireland which spurred the interest, and getting some initial feedback we were interrupted when a foreign Ambassador came over to greet Jackie.

What Jackie said to introduce me was perhaps an inside confirmation of the 51st state from the halls of Irish parliament – that he was meeting with a “constituent” of his. Yet, I have no vote or constituency here…

So perhaps after discovering Ireland as the 51st state, there may indeed be some sort of policy action to come before my year here is over.

Future blogs may tell.

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New beginnings

Expectation differs from reality but those expectations have to come from somewhere, right? Countless people, from friends and family, to former Mitchells and Irish accented strangers in New York, defined those expectations of my first few months in Dublin. Here are my reflections on how those expectations fared: 


Cliffs through the clouds

For a ‘warm and dry’ fall, Dublin saw a lot of rain. I learned my lesson that umbrellas break against the typical gale of wind, water manages to find itself where you do not want it, it will rain when you have a big day planned, and the sun will conveniently shine when you are in the library. 

The rain has become a quintessential part of my time in Ireland. Once I accepted it may rain at any given moment, the power of the brackish drizzle takes over. Running in the rain makes the slowest of trots feel like a Balboa power workout. The first few drops are the worst but the momentum to keep going is empowering. 

Rain also brings people together in different ways. I gulped warm cups of tea in Bray with Sam and Swati after a soaked cliff walk. I savored a pint of success after getting into a Camden street bar on Halloween dressed as a (wet) Wordle with Max, Fares, and Sam. I savored traveling five hours to the Cliffs of Moher to see them in their glory for five minutes. 


Music is everywhere! And no, I’m not talking about the same Spotify playlist looping across the city (cough cough Ithaca). I am talking about Debussy playing on the top floor of UCD’s Science Building, Sam and Dolapo’s improv soundtrack serving late nights in the GMB, Afrobeats at Tramline, and of course, live traditional Irish music any time of day in Temple Bar. 

Music has always been a constant in my life. I’ve played the clarinet since I was 7, I jammed to Queen with my Dad in middle school, I strummed on the ukulele in high school, and my headphones are usually delivering the soundtrack to life. This year, I moved music from the background to the foreground. 

I joined UCD’s DJ society after adopting the approach of ‘just say yes’. Do you want to play at the joint techno event with the Sustainability Society? Yes. Do you want to jump in for the first 30 minutes of my residency set Thursday night? Yes. Do you want to mix in the student center on Halloween night? Yes. 

And oh, have I failed. Speakers have been blown out, USBs have corrupted, and the silence of a packed dance floor when one track ends but the other is nowhere to be found are seared in my memory. But through each of those failures, I grew scar tissue and confidence. While I am seeing gradual growth now, that growth will surely compound over the course of the year. 


Yes, lots of drinks. Guinness does taste really good here. A pint replaced coffee as the activity for meeting new people. To be fair, a Guinness chat does sound much better than a coffee chat… 

Drinking has come to take a new meaning here. Each Wednesday evening I steep in the glory of Sam’s whiskey knowledge. And no, it is not the pompous discussion of notes and aromas, but rather starts with the grains, distillation, and the chemical and biological processes that make the foundations of these beverages. Different parts of the process can be swapped to add character and dimensions to the final product: the spice of rye, the smoke of peat, the burn of cask strength. 

On a larger scale, I realized I can find joy in learning about everything. And to go a step further, I can choose where I find that joy. The freedom to be curious is a huge privilege to have. 

I’m indulging in a class on Irish history, indulging in the struggle to code in Python, and indulging in learning to match beats only using my ears. There is something intrinsically rewarding about the process of doing and not worrying about any outcomes. I am relearning that. 


Okay, hear me out on this one. 

Food is the perfect vehicle to bring people together. That can be great food but that can also be not so great food. 

Luckily, Dublin is home to an incredible range of food and Ireland (and EU regulations) create some of the best tasting ingredients I have ever tried. Cooking has become a huge part of making friends, learning about other cultures, and discovering Dublin. 

My suitemates and I bonded over trying each other’s food. Hancy, Taki and Bruce are from different corners of China and each bring a skilled slate of dishes from home. Bruce’s Henan style spiced lamb, Taki’s Sichuan stews, or Hancy’s WeChat inspired Coca-Cola chicken wings send an incredible aroma through the suite. My mix of dishes from Kerala Shrimp curry to Puerto Rican pernil to spaghetti Bolognese spurs a guessing game of where in the world this dish is from. 

Sam and I have taken pleasure in cheffing up meals for the Dublin Mitchells. Experimenting with new dishes like ‘Irish Ceviche’ and vegan risotto keeps even the harshest critics on their toes. Fares’ (pictured) dinner (also pictured), consisting of family recipes from home, was definitely my personal highlight. 

Trudging seven miles through Dublin to satiate a friend’s chicken and waffles craving, or a Korean BBQ dinner with other Social Data Analytics masters are how I have found some of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. In Dublin, think with your stomach, it will treat you well. 

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