Céilí Chaos

The day after my first Irish dance class in September, I woke up to jelly legs. As it turns out, a lifetime of Indian Bharatanatyam and classical modern dance hadn’t prepared me for the calf strength needed to be constantly jumping on the balls of my feet. Traditional Irish stepdance—an art form that predominantly emphasizes movements of the leg—felt at first like a continuous exercise in tripping over my own two feet, but with classes at only €2 an hour with the UCD dance society, my jelly legs kept dragging me back to class week after week determined to master the steps and shuffles and skips and hops.

Irish Dance Trio

I began the year with individual and partner set dances—dances with set standardized choreography. Over the weeks I learned what an Irish dance shuffle was and how to hop on my toes and that skips usually happened in counts of threes. And just as my confidence in the dance style was beginning to grow, I took my first Céilí class.

Céilí, for the unfamiliar, is an Irish folk dance consisting of a larger group of participants in a social setting dancing together to traditional and often live music. While many of the steps of Céilí dances shared similarities with the individual Irish stepdances of weeks past, adding partners and group members quickly added a new dimension of chaos altogether. Hands grabbed the air searching for a partner, neighbors crashed into each other, and people froze as choreography escaped their brains.

And yet it was the most fun I had all year.

First Céilí Class Chaos

I am no stranger to social dances. An inevitable part of any Texas middle school education is lessons on southern square dancing, and an equally inevitable part of growing up South Asian is being invited to annual garba dances for the Hindu Navaratri festival every autumn. While garba holds some notable differences in execution—participants dance in concentric circles around a central lamp or statue—I was charmed by the similarities between Céilí and my Texas square dancing classes from childhood. Both dance forms involve partners interacting in larger sets of four or more and several standard dance fragments, with many similar fragments across both styles (peep the moments I pass under arm arches like the square dance Rip n Snort.) But while American square dancing usually utilizes a caller to announce the next steps for participants, Céilí usually uses set choreography for the whole dance.

Over the months I have grown to embrace the chaos of Céilí classes—the crashing and bumping and running to catch up to a partner and stumbling through the gent role choreography because I happen to be the tallest person in the class. In many ways, Céilí class parallels the process of learning to live in Ireland this year—figuring things out as I go but enjoying myself along the way.

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His threats are getting longer, and more specific. I bold, italicise, proofread the evidence file again, change the font from Arial to Helvetica. Legibility, style. I save the piece to my flash drive as a doc and pdf, because I forget which file type the Writing Centre printer prefers. In my stomach is the carsick feeling I only know otherwise from live performances. I close my laptop, put the flash drive in my pocket, take a red pen so I can circle what is necessary once I have the copies. 

At the Centre, the printer is plugged in, the outlet switch flipped up, but the grey thunderhead of a machine won’t turn on. At first I was pressing the wrong button, the green one with a tiny house which means Home. The power buttons look different in Ireland. The police don’t carry guns here. The Centre’s four floors are empty, so I can’t ask anyone, and I don’t have time to wait, and I’m sure where I’m going will have a printer. 

On the way to the DART, I see a PSA on the side of a pub. It’s a cropped image of a man’s torso, pulling his buttoned shirt open to reveal some device. It’s either against heart disease or for smoke alarms, I’m walking too fast to check. The caption is Don’t Ignore The Signals

Down the street from Pearse Station, I learn from a poster while waiting for the train, is a Resource Centre, which was a primary school 107 years ago where a few boys scouted for Irish Volunteer strongholds across the city. The school’s roll books called this the Poets’ Rebellion. Someone is playing a melody I recognize but can’t name on the public piano. 

I get a window seat facing forwards so I don’t get any more nauseous. On the way south, the train strides past private backyards and balconies, their laundry hanging in the misted afternoon. We pass a section of Silicon Docks, where some of the tech companies hold their European headquarters. Before the skyscrapers of one-way glass, the Docklands were factories, shipyards, older churns of labour, more immediate exploitation. Before that, a marsh outside a mediaeval city. Where the gallows were, where they burned witches. 

At Lansdowne, a yellow PSA from the Irish Heart Foundation says it’s only 800 metres to the American Embassy, and encourages me to walk to reduce stress. In the next 800 metres, I pass a junction box decorated in green which promises that Fibre Broadband is Now Here In Your Community. The box has the winning piece from a children’s art contest, a kid who’s drawn his family in different bubbles labelled Ireland and Rest Of The World, connected by their devices. A new luxury complex offers apartments On View, By Appointment. In the courtyard, four vaguely Grecian plaster statues of women arranged in a rectangle, twisting around with togas and flowers behind a metal fence. The eye-lines of the statues don’t line up. They can’t look at each other. 

Inspired by a 5th-century ring fort, the American Embassy is a round, brutal building of concrete and mirrored glass, which also looks like a high school textbook’s illustration of rough endoplasmic reticulum. Yucca trees grow by the main entrance, which are from California, like me. The security checkpoint looks like most security checkpoints. A guard sees me waving on the other side of the bulletproof glass, and motions for me to move closer to the intercom. 

“Hello,” I say in the device, as I’ve spoken into devices my entire conscious life. “I’m an American grad student, I’m dealing with a cyberstalker, I don’t think he’s in Ireland but the authorities back home recommended that I file reports locally. I have all the documentation on this flash drive, I wasn’t able to print it before coming here. Is there someone I can talk to?”

While that question buzzes up the chain of command, I turn away from the window towards the three-way intersection. Girls leaving school in groups and uniforms, bare-legged in January. Bird nest scrabbles in sycamore branches. A cyclist’s neon jersey says Be Seen Be Safe. Women push their babies in strollers, tiny faces peeking from layers of knit and puffer tucked against the cold, through the crossroads. I turn back to the window. 

The guard lets me into the checkpoint so I can talk to a woman, who can give me her first name but not her last. I explain that a guy I dated my first year of college has been leaving threats across my public social media, calling, texting. She asks what kind of threats. I say rape and murder, without stuttering. She asks if I’ve made a garda report, I say I’ve informed campus security but I knew the Embassy closed at five while the garda was open all night, so I wanted to get here first. She asks for my passport, to make a copy inside the rough-E.R.-shaped building, and asks me to wait while she sees what they can do. 

It took me a while to get my passport. Long separated, my parents couldn’t agree what my surname was. My birth certificate is under my father’s surname, but my mother got full custody and tried to get my name changed to hers, to make it easier for us to leave America. My father’s lawyers did not appreciate that, so my surname remained his. It has benefits. From commercials I don’t remember acting in as a kid to my most recent poetry collection, I’ve always been known publicly as [redacted], under my mother’s maiden name. My legal life exists more privately. Miss [redacted] is onstage with good posture, making jokes, trying to win an audience. Miss X is shivering under a hot shower. I got my passport when I was 18, able to fill out the paperwork by myself. In the picture, my hair is combed straight, pushed back from my shiny forehead. I am looking directly into the camera. I am trying not to smile.  

The amount of other things I could’ve done today, I say to the guards. I’m fanning my face with the planner where I wrote the email addresses the woman with only a first name told me to write. 

It’s stressing you out then, says the guard at the desk. 

Yes, I reply. It’s the first day back in lecture after holiday. I’m here for my master’s, I just wish I was at the library. 

You’re at Trinity? says the guard by the metal detector. They must be working you hard. 

They’re teaching me how to read, I say, it’s a great program. 

I don’t usually tell people I’m a writer, because then they stop acting weird around me and I can’t take notes, or they act weird in a different way. When asked, I usually say I’m studying literature. 

For literature, continues that guard, they must have you writing so much. I took a business course over Christmas, I had to write six thousand words, it was so hard, like. 

He pulls his phone from his uniform pocket. It’s these things, they’re so distracting. 

Absolutely, I reply. I turn my internet off when I’m working. It just doesn’t exist. 

The Embassy woman returns with my 18-year-old face. Since his finances allow him to travel, and he might have a French passport, they’re gonna try to put a travel check on him so he can’t enter Ireland, but I can’t quote her on that. She says I did the right thing, seeing how he’s sent me weird messages in the seven years since we dated, but they’d never been violent before. It’s probably hot air, but it’s best to get these things down before they escalate. I can’t use the Embassy printer, too much security, so I’ll email the documentation. 

On the way back to Lansdowne, a woman runs alone with her pit bull’s leash clipped to her waist. I pass a pretty bed-and-breakfast in Victorian brick called Ariel House. Ariel was the first character I ever played, in a children’s production of The Tempest: a sprite contracted to serve a magician until she’s freed in the finale. I was eight, with a bad stutter. My mom thought Shakespeare would be more fun than voice therapy. As I walk to the train, I am breathing how I’ve been breathing all week, how they taught us, in that little black box theatre that doesn’t exist anymore. Deep belly, in through the nose, out through the mouth. The kind of breath you need to project, to make sure the back row hears every syllable. The breath you need if you want to scream. 

While waiting for the DART to Tara, I talk to a woman in a midnight blue puffer because she has a puppy. I miss my dog in the states, I explain to her and the black speckled bulldog named Mario. Mario goes to work with her, he’s very well-behaved. Her mom has his uncle, who’s wild, so she was worried he’d be, but he’s so polite. He’d get along great with my Macaroni, who wags his tail at any stranger until they shift their focus to me. The woman asks how I’m settling in at Trinity, with the literature degree. Lovely, just lovely. She doesn’t know any of the Contemporary Irish Women Poets I’m writing my thesis on, not even Eavan Boland, who was on the leaving certifications for a few years, I think. She lists who was on her cert, twenty years ago. 

All the men, I say.All the men, she says.

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What’s the story…with pubs?

From Barcelona to Budapest to Banglore to my hometown in Basking Ridge, New Jersey – there are Irish pubs. And furthermore those Irish pubs feel the same. There is a strange consistency to the Irish pub from the cozy layout, to the wood panels and leather decor, to the offerings of Guinness and hearty food. But what is more confusing is the supposed decentralized nature of this consistency. For example, McDonalds corporate office in Chicago spends countless hours and dollars trying to align their brand across continents while still playing into local tastes and markets. Pubs seem to manage to do this organically. Second, there are many other venues for drinking alcohol that could challenge the Irish pub for world domination. For example Mexican cantinas, German beer gardens, and Japanese izakayas all fulfill the basic tenets that Irish pubs do. I’ve chipped away at an intriguing story behind the Irish pub, its modern evolution, and its global ubiquity. 

The term ‘pub’ originates from ‘public house’ which were opened as an alternative for working men to private drinking establishments that required payment for entry in the late 17th century. Mitchell scholar Sam and I found ourselves at ‘the oldest pub in Ireland’, Seáns Bar in Athlone, County Westmeath, established in the 10th century, where manager Timmy Donovan enlightened us. In the sixth century, Irish Brehon Law codified that every local king was mandated to have his own brughaid or brewer who operated a public house that would welcome anyone who entered at any hour of the day. The law continued that all travelers were entitled to a drink at a public house if they were more than three miles from home but they needed to prove they had traveled for a reason other than a beer. 

During the 19th century, the temperance movement in Ireland forced publicans to diversify as revenue from spirits declined. Many combined their pub business with other ancillary business, such as butchery, post, hardware (Foxy John’s in Dingle), grocery (L. Mulligan Grocer in Dublin) or even as undertakers (McCarthy’s in Fethard). The remains of the ‘spirit grocery’ exist in pubs today with expansive shelves and bar counters taking up the majority of space leaving little room for customers. The arrival of supermarkets and grocery chains closed most spirit groceries and spurred the offering of food with drinks, something seen in many pubs around Ireland today.  

So back to it, two questions lingered since my Dublin debut 1) What are the features of a good Irish pub? And 2) Why have Irish pubs traveled so well around the world?

In order to assist in answering these questions, I enlisted the help of my pub philosophers: the lads Frank and Rory. 

Both lead with efficient service as a key. Frank mentions the lack of table service unless food is being served. Rory states that good service is “not from a spotty face, tweedle-neck 18 year old”. 

Live music, a proper Guinness pour, and cozy rooms come up as must haves as well. A unique Irish pub experience that is worth mentioning are lock-ins. Lock-ins are when the pub has officially closed for the night but the good times keep going after the doors have been locked and the windows have been shuttered. The idea is that once the pub is closed for the night it becomes private property. While the legality of these loopholes is gray, I had the opportunity to experience one with Mitchell scholars Abby and Ali in Galway. 

In response to the second question about pub’s global success. Both credit the widespread reach of the Irish diaspora but I think Rory summed it up best, “The Guinness is always woeful, even crossing over 100km to England. Irish culture is everywhere because we’re at every corner of the world. The British tried to kill us off 150 years ago, which only backfired into spreading us around the globe and bringing us to light through what unites everyone; drink.”

While I wish the story could end there, this is just the beginning. The real answer to my two questions is centered around the partnership of a young Irish architect and the global corporation that produces Guinness stout, Guinness Brewing Worldwide (now Diageo). 

In the 70s Mel McNally, a final year architecture student, studied the design of Irish pubs to understand what makes them work. From that work McNally developed three principles:

  1. That you should be able to see the bar as soon as you walk into a pub and from almost anywhere in the pub. 
  2. Within the larger umbrella of pubs, there are six district styles that define pubs (I borrow descriptions from a 2017 Eater article by Siobhán Brett because they really make sense).
  • 1) Modern: the hipster iteration, the furniture sleek and the setting more contemporary, one conducive to nu-Irish pursuits like craft beer and artisanal gin tasting.
  • 2) Brewery: related paraphernalia, cobblestone, and slate to get at the historical version of its name.
  • 3) Shop: riffs on the rural pubs that doubled as general stores — or the general stores that doubled as pubs – playing homage to the spirit grocery.
  • 4) Country: woody, closer to a kitchen, and liable to feature wall-mounted crockery and/or an open fire.
  • 5) Celtic: plays up ancient folklore and mythology.
  • 6) Victorian: makes distinctively liberal use of brass accents and plummy tones.

3. A range of seating options between privacy and socialization. Pubs should include snugs and barriers breaking bar counters but also common spaces conducive to meeting new people. Rory nails it, “Quiet enough for a drink with the missus but not so quiet that you and the boyos can’t pop in for the evening.”

With these insights, McNally founded the Irish Pub Concept (IPC), a company that offers a service that will design and construct pubs with Irish materials and original memorabilia to create the authentic experience of an Irish pub anywhere in the world. 

Simultaneously, between 1985 and 1995, Guinness’ market research discovered that each time an Irish pub opened anywhere in the world, there was a noticeable spike in sales of their beer, both because of the pub itself, but also as a result of other bar owners adding Guinness to their offerings to compete with the Irish pub. Furthermore, this trend held across a very diverse group demographic, socio-economic and geographic regions. 

The bottom line was McNally’s IPC model drove stout sales. Guinness’ financial backing allowed McNally to expand into continental Europe and eventually world wide by subsidizing new operators and marketing. IPC would offer aspiring pub owners the design plans, a shipping container of Irish made prefabricated materials and locally sourced trinkets to line the walls, as well as the business plan to get off the ground. And as of 2020, some 6,500 pubs have been opened around the world as a direct result of this partnership and numerous more have developed independently. 

While at the onset of my research I hoped to find one story, I found an even better one. The Ireland I am experiencing is one being pulled in one direction by tradition and the other by globalization. And pubs themselves see this after the ‘08 recession, COVID, and increasing costs have made it harder to stay afloat. Authenticity is not sticking with tradition but instead molding and reinventing for the challenges of the day with a nod to the stories of the past. The Irish pub lives on, guided by a few basic design principles, Irish tenacity, and the ghost of Arthur Guinness. 

* I would have loved to be able to cite things for you but 1) these facts and stories have been crowd sourced after a few pints in pubs across Ireland and 2) you can see my academic writing in August when my thesis drops. 

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The Home Within

Trinity’s academic calendar is divided into three terms, the anatomy of my year in Dublin has followed the rhythm from Michelmas to now Hilary, and is approaching a finish with Trinity. It feels like some things are aligning now, in Hilary term, which runs from early January to late March to bring in Spring, and is named after the Feast of St. Hiilary, or the Epiphany. And whether etymological or semantic – with St. Hilarius of Poitiers, a bishop and theologian who arduously defended the divinity of the Trinity at times of heresy, or hilary from the Latin hilarius meaning “cheerful” and traces back all the way to the Greek ἵλαος (hilaos), “propitious, gracious.” And nothing could describe the past couple of months in Ireland more, navigating the home that Trinity has created for me, so far away from home(s).

On February 6th a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck my hometown Aleppo, and Southeast Turkey. The images of destruction permeated my notifications, of a city I once knew, people that have struggled through years of war, economic crisis, and global marginalization, of a city which continues to hold in its wings the people who have stayed through it all, and those who have carried her name with them in new homes around the globe. No number of times that you have to do this routine ever really prepares you for how the news cycles impact the way you navigate the homes you create, the solace you seek, the nostalgia you suppress, the resilience you construct, the guilt you feel, the incongruence you process. The safety check-ins flood the feed, your childhood friends marked safe, others mourning loss, awaiting news from neighbors, questioning how the curse can persist.

It was not the first time I had learned how grief can coexist with a determination in a context so removed from where you once were rooted.  I look outside and see the splintering green grass pave the base of Trinity’s campanile and I remember that it is now the first weeks of spring and how there can be more ways to be grateful for the cold Irish sun. I think of all of the ways I can continue to make the most of my time at Trinity as my return to Medical School nears – how to imagine a future where I can incorporate the praxis of global health in my career. This term, we’re exploring processes of global collaborations for healthcare interventions, and I still use assignments to delve into topics I am interested in, the global discrepancy in dementia diagnoses, the intersection of politics and international aid, the optimization of qualitative research for global interventions. I attended a Doctors without Borders conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, and learned of the efforts in critical care interventions in regions of crisis globally, the universality and urgency of ethical and collaborative medical work. At an Ireland For All solidarity march, I walked along the Liffey as Dubliners countered a growing xenophobic sentiment in Ireland.

To exist across a hyphen is to constantly balance the nostalgia with the hope, and to seek meaning in the everyday, drive a connection with those around you, and a desire to move forward. Tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s day, Dubliners will gather, joined by enthusiasts for the joy that Dublin enables from all over the globe, and the parade will come knocking on Trinity’s front gates, and we will gather, to celebrate all of the paths we took to get here, and all of the places we will go after.

“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
― Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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Into the Bogs we go, Mad as Mist and Snow

Backpacking, an Ambassador-christened Road Trip, and chasing a promise for Irish peatlands.

Dublin 04, UCD Village.

This St. Patrick’s eve all is quiet, except for the typing flurry of we UCD’ers sequestered from the craic to finish midterm assignments. I sit with them, typing this stream of consciousness. If it gets past editing buckle your crios sábhála. Unless you also prefer two wheels, in that case fasten the ripcord of your inflatable airbag to the vehicle. Don’t break down on the N6 like I did shortly after Aadi took this photo:

Happily off to Galway, sadly back by bus.

In Medias Res: Table Mountain Summit, Wicklow.

After 12 hours of walking between the first two days, I managed the first 24 miles towards Lugnaquilla from Sorrell Hill. That felt like an accomplishment given lack of a trail & abundance of blanket bog. The route was miserable from my feet sinking into wet ground, but beautiful from hitting the highest points in Wicklow. Holy solid ground was found at Table Mtn. where clouds parted, sending rays of fading light over the IDF’s temporarily dormant Glen of Imaal artillery range. I didn’t want to wild-camp near the summit, but it was dry. There a blistering wind whipped my tent and brought enough ice pellets to cause suspicion. It had not rained that week yet…

Table Mountain Ridge.

Howling over the ridge the wind quoted Yeats into my gut: “Bolt and Bar the shudder, for the fowl winds blow: Our minds are at their best this night, And I seem to know, that everything outside us, is Mad as the mist and snow”.

I quickly pulled stones from the ground and stacked piles onto the tent stakes. Sphagnum moss in blanket bogs can hold 20-times it’s own weight in water. Irish wind had dried it out. Grabbing some for insulation I quickly lined the bottom permitter of my tent inside & out and plugged all the vents to prepare for the worst. After a feast of ramen and prayer to get through, I buried into my sleeping bag under a mylar blanket. The blanket was blowing inside the tent as the walls shook.

Even Glenomena sounded nice but my dreams went back to this scene of the last Dublin Mitchell visit to Galway at the office of Watkins & Barton:

A Salthill Comfort+ Advertisment.

It was 3:45 AM on the mountain. I was dreaming of warm places from Galway to playing trad sessions next to the fireplace of the Monkstown Comhaltas… then suddenly I heard crunching footsteps. Next was the voice of a concerned Irish woman: “Guys…. Tent.”. Someone spoke over the wind, “Do you think someone is in there ?!?” Of course there was. What I didn’t understand is what group of people would be outside my tent at that hour, on a trail they would have started no later than 1:00am. But they wondered similar of me. Later, morning broke to reveal their concern. My moss insulation froze to the tent with a sheet of ice. To put on my shoes I had to take a butane stove and torch my laces to thaw them. After quickly packing up I admired that the place beneath my tent was the only soft spot of ground.

I made great time not slowing down in the bogs since they were frozen. I reached Lugnaquilla an hour early and came down fast. Cutting through a Coillte pine stand to find no phone service, I hitchhiked a public road to Glenmalure Lodge. With a moss-covered sweater, pine needled hair, and turf thawed on my shoes, I ordered a Guinness that never came and a taxi that eventually did. I was asleep in Dublin before dark. Getting through that surely I can get my thesis done early.

What I did not complete the next week was driving a mid-sized SUV through Conor pass in Dingle when family visited. There are a few benefits to motorbikes – as soon as another car came barreling down with a wheel over the white line I moved left. Suddenly the rear left tire was punctured by a rock wall for sheep pasture. Thankfully this too was endurable. As the AA man changed the tire with an inflatable jack we reminisced on the trip which had more ahead and was already great. Somehow we stumbled upon the US Ambassador and Taoiseach at Waterford’s celebration of the first flying of the Irish flag.

The tricolor was created by French women then flown by Irish revolutionary Thomas Meagher, who later led the Irish Brigade for the Union and became governor of Montana. The celebration was joined by US ambassador Claire Cronin, ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Ukraine, the US military, and Irish peacekeeping veterans. After meeting Leo Varadkar in a somewhat shocked state, I had an exciting family conversation with Ambassador Cronin. With US-Ireland partnerships across the 175 years since the tricolor and 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, I shared how it has been an incredible opportunity to step into a part of that legacy that is the Mitchell program and consider the future of that collaboration. If the program can find the support it needs to keep going, it can keep providing an opportunities for scholars to solve common problems and find new opportunities for all-Ireland and the US. I hope that conversation might continue with Claire.

This led me to consider if the research I’m starting on how to capture new opportunity for Irish peatlands may have dual benefit in the US. My thesis to-be is being mentored by the director of Peatland Finance Ireland, Shane McGuinness. I’ve joined his team under Horizon Europe’s WaterLANDS project headquartered in UCD’s school of Planning, and formed a collaborative with Niall O’Brolchain and others at the Univ. Galway. We want to design and introduce a program to policymakers that might offer a new chapter for the use of rewetted peatlands in Ireland’s rural economy. It was believed that the 2018 turf-cutting bans (now partially failing), and calls to ban horticulture peat in Ireland, left no economic alternative for peat harvest. Let alone one in sync with peatland rewetting. The Bord na Mona seasonal income that families would use to send students to college, or help pay the bills, suddenly disappeared…before this cost of living crisis. But, there is an alternative relatively nobody knows about – yet. German projects partnered with EU programs have created commercial moss farms on rewetted peatlands. Market demands paying up to 30k EUR per hectare exceed the supply. Thanks to the work of peatland partners in Brussels, under EU law Ireland could design a program under it’s CAP strategic plan supporting moss farming. That design is what my thesis outline is aimed at recommending, which I need to submit now. I have a hunch that the work might give insight to how President Biden’s 30 for 30 plan could revive peatland carbon sinks and rural economies in the northern US. Now I’m off for more typing, and responding to an email from a few weeks ago that starts with “Hello from Germany”….

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Things I Learned on the Last First Day of School

The first day of school is the worst.

The first day of school is the worst. I can’t stand it. I really can’t. Something about walking the paths of campus and suddenly feeling cramped really ticks me off. It’s like when your parents decide to host Thanksgiving and as a result, you now have to gracefully avoid the piercing “how is school” and “where are you working now” from hundreds of aunties and uncles you’ve never met before. I hate it. 

The nice thing about coming back to school though is that all of a sudden my day has way more structure. Things have a natural order to them. Which means I also need to be a bit more intentional about making time for the things I enjoy; reading, music, exercise, and time with friends, of course.

Things I learned on the last first day of school.

Things I learned on the last first day of school. Don’t check Instagram. Sit in the front of class to start off the semester attentively and focused. Sit away from friends. 

It took me twenty years of school to learn this by the way. Answer questions on the first day to set a precedent of answering questions. Don’t check Instagram. Smart ideas I have often come from repurposing old ideas or patterns I’ve been exposed to. Sometimes they come from combining multiple ideas in a new and unique way. I guess this is the basis of creativity; mixing old ideas in a new way depending on the external context.  So, what does this mean for me? Absorb more smart information that makes me think. Read more. Listen more. I guess what they teach you to do in primary school really is true. Okay, back to first-day-of-school epiphanies. Talk to people so they include you in their group projects. The only time to check Instagram is to add the new friends you met in class. I guess the first day of school is really about setting a precedent for yourself. For laying the foundation of how you’ll approach and act for the rest of the semester. 

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A Tale of Two Arrivals

“Haven’t I driven you before?”

I’d just gotten off an eight hour flight and a two hour bus ride, heaved my overstuffed carry-on into the trunk of an Uber, and collapsed into the backseat, bleary eyed and barely sentient. The driver, punching the address of my dorm into his navigation app, examined me through the rearview mirror. He’d recognized me. And, after a long, groggy moment, I’d recognized him. He was the same driver who’d picked me up when I first moved to Belfast four months earlier, what felt like a clichéd lifetime ago.

I watched the gray Belfast landscape go past on that rainy January day, dimly aware that I was returning to familiar surroundings. It was a far cry from the night in September when the same driver had picked me up from the Belfast airport (complete with Tayto-themed taxi stand) and brought me through the night to see my new home for the first time.

I had no idea what was waiting for me on that first Uber ride. When I think back now on how nervous I was to move here, it feels almost silly – but there was so much I didn’t know then. I didn’t know that the second I stepped into my dorm building I would be greeted by two of my housemates, and that we would spend hours talking before I even opened my suitcases. I didn’t know how quickly my classmates would become my friends, or how much laughter we would share about everything from Derry Girls to kitchen mishaps. I had briefly met my fellow Mitchell scholars already, but I didn’t know if I’d be lucky enough to form lasting friendships.

I was, indeed, very lucky. My fellow Belfast Mitchells Asha and Gil have become a fixture in my life here (along with our friend Ellie, who has now been mentioned in these blog posts enough that she should get her own). Our friendships have been forged through late nights in study rooms, being sick together in Edinburgh, and inside jokes involving eyebrows being burned off.

I got lucky in terms of my academics too. The Trinity program in Belfast is a unique experience, and I never would have gotten to study conflict in a small-group setting like this if I hadn’t found this opportunity through the Mitchell Scholarship. The bespoke nature of the program means that I have more flexibility to make what I want out of it, and I’m taking advantage of that by tailoring my dissertation topic to fit my specific interests. I plan to write about the role of misinformation in the United States, which will bring me full circle to the type of work I was doing for the Surgeon General before I started my Mitchell year.

All of this was going through my head as I chatted with my Uber driver on my way to start the spring semester. “Last time I picked you up, you were just starting your course,” he said. “How have you been liking it?”

I looked outside as we passed the Queen’s campus, where I spend so much of my time, then back at him in the rearview mirror.

“It’s been wonderful.”

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Dispatches from Galway

Galway is pretty dark and rainy this time of year. So here are a list of all things bright and warm:

  1. Sea Swim Cure! Ali and I jumped in the ocean on Monday. It had been a while for me—I am no Blackrock regular like Ali. However cold you can imagine the North Atlantic is right now, double it. Nevertheless, I hate to report that it did in fact cure my every ailment and solve all my problems. 

2. Ali lets me tag along when she plays the open mic at a pub in town. In between questionable poetry and bog themed dj sets she TEARS DOWN THE HOUSE. What can’t this woman do???

3. Ok this one is cheating a bit as it is not actually about Galway. But living here gives me access to Ryanair and thus weekend trips to the continent. I spent two really lovely weekends in January and February meeting up with friends in the south of France and western Spain—a sentence I can’t believe really just came out of my mouth. 

4. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: running along the ocean is pure bliss. The wind and the rain and the hail is giving me a run for my money, but it’s always worth it. The tides, the clouds, sometimes even the sun on your face?? BLISS

5. I’ve been taking the long way home from the University whenever I can. Walking along the quieter canal off the Corrib River is when I feel most like I am in an ancient city.

6. I’ve found some folks to watch The Bachelor with! Every Tuesday evening we come together to heckle and cringe and it is delightful. 

7. We had a pretty consistent stream of visitors over the last two months! An eclectic mix of Mitchells, old friends, and new friends made sure that even in the depths of winter, there is never a dull moment on Whitestrand Ave!! 

9. Ali’s unflinching, big big love for the Eagles made me sit up and pay attention this Super Bowl season. On the day they won the game that secured their spot I couldn’t have told you for sure if they were a football or a baseball team. Two weeks later, on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, I was lighting candles for their coach, star players, and Ali’s grandma in our local church. 

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The Transatlantic Divide on Legal Regulation of Technology

Laws are critical regulators of science and technology. Local and international laws can ensure that the products of scientific advancement are implemented in a safe and socially responsible manner. Science, technology, and the legal system are highly complex interactive systems that merit an interdisciplinary understanding to ensure the benefits of scientific and technological advancements are reaped in a manner that best shields society from the danger posed by such advancements. 

To enhance my understanding of the complex legal questions underlying the neuroscience and engineering advancements in my field, I’ve been auditing an international law and intellectual property course. One of the largest difficulties continually confronted in the legal field, is how legal systems can keep pace with rapid advancements in technology and science. These difficulties are compounded by the numerous legal entities attempting to differently regulate these technological and scientific advancements on local, federal, and international levels. 

These complexities have been well illuminated by issues of legal ownership. Prior to my time in Ireland, my conceptualization of ownership was filtered through my education and lifetime in the U.S. lens, where intellectual property ownership is largely viewed as the inherent right of the creator to sole ownership of their ideas. Although similar general principles underlie ownership here in Ireland and Europe, there are some important differences, like moral rights. Moral rights largely protect two rights: the right of a creator to claim authorship and the right for this creator to object to distortion of their work that could harm their reputation. In Europe moral rights are inalienable and non-transferable, in the U.S. such rights are frequently transferable. Although moral rights traditionally are associated with creative products, they have new interests relevant with the creative products generated utilizing modern technology and science tools. Ambiguity over if a creator can object to the utilization of their technology for purposes they feel are unethical or who has moral rights over the creative outputs of products generated primarily with machine learning and open source intelligence. 

More broadly, recent widespread use of accessible artificial intelligence (AI) is challenging concepts of legal ownership across legal systems at all levels. These tools raise unique challenges with numerous elements of legal ownership. Some important emerging questions include: If open source software is used in the training of AI-generated outputs, does ownership need to be provided to the creators of the training materials? Who should receive ownership of AI-generated work? How can legal systems continue to evolve at speed comparable to AI? And, what regulations need to be imposed to ensure ethical and safe use of AI? 

Societal use of technological and scientific advancement depend on legal systems to ensure best use practices. As we continue to develop and use such advancements, I look forward to utilizing an international and interdisciplinary understanding to ensure the advantages of these advancements are appropriately contextualized along their practical concerns and limitations. 

Please enjoy some of my more creative work here from my time exploring Ireland. Note: all moral rights for these images belong to Max Wragan.

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Reflecting on Irish America From Abroad

“Well I found my Uncle Dan McCann,
Very good for a shantyman,
He has a seat in Congress, and he’s saviour of his clan
He helps to write America’s laws,
But his heart and soul is in Ireland’s cause,
God help the man who opens his jaws
To my Uncle Dan McCann!”
My Uncle Dan McCann by Mick Moloney

Dear Reader,

I’ve been thinking a lot about Irish American political influence and assimilation lately. The stanza I chose for this entry is from “Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Irish American Experience in Song” by Mick Moloney. The song the stanza is blends real and idealized aspects of mid-19th century Irish immigration to America. Dan McCann, the narrator’s fictional uncle, possesses the traits frequently attributed to Irish immigrants of the time: he is boastful, physically suited to hard labor, and inclined towards singing and dancing. The turning point of our protagonist comes with the outbreak of the Civil War, where he enlists with the Irish Brigade (“the Fighting 69th“) whose exploits are covered both positively and negatively in many other songs of the time.

The Civil War was a turning point for the Irish because their service, which occurred mostly on the Union with some degree of reluctance, enabled them to assert themselves more confidently in political and social life. This coincided with the emergence of machine politics in many urban centers where the Irish were concentrated. Among others, these factors helped the Irish win political struggles against the nativist coalitions that had long opposed their presence, sometimes violently. This sense of upward mobility and the willingness to defend it is where we last see Uncle Dan in the song. He is at once a loyal American and an Irish patriot, a sophisticated congressman and a hardened fighter.

While these extremes may seem like contradictions, they accurately depict the complicated path assimilation often takes. Over time, immigrant groups struggle for acceptance, often have to shed blood to earn it, and after several generations some of their descendants end up arguing for the same restrictionist policies that their forefathers struggled against. The Irish experience is relevant because more recent immigrant groups continue to follow this cycle despite greatly changed geography, conditions, and circumstances.

Today, Irish Americans play a part not only in U.S. politics but also on politics in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement coming up, American investment in the future of the island is demonstrated by the attendance of several prominent public figures in the celebrations.

In other news, I’ve continued to enjoy the conversations and exposures to new perspectives and activities by the friends I’ve made here. Whether it’s dialogues about the role of social media with Asha, insights on class dynamics from Sarah, lectures on Oscar Wilde delivered by Mál, or wide ranging and dubiously connected rants with Ellie, my time here has been greatly enriched by the people the Mitchell program has connected and re-connected me with.

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The Mitchell Year will never be what you expect it to be, so just find your people and live your life

The middle-section of Linen Hall. Such a cool space.

I am amused and in awe of how quickly our worlds can change and grow and look and feel unrecognizable. In my last blog I was characterizing the tension I’d felt after a difficult adjustment to life in Belfast and a necessary return home for six weeks. I’m actually writing this blog from the States again, as I’m finishing up a short visit to WashU in St. Louis, the place I will call home right after my Mitchell year, and where I’ll be getting my PhD!

The past month and a half since getting back to Belfast and getting into the swing of things has been a dramatic difference from my first semester. I started an internship at Linen Hall Library where I’m working with Lynda Walker’s personal archive, sorting through tons of documents from projects she organized as a women’s right’s activist in the 80’s and 90’s. It is tedious work, but it’s been so interesting to think about the politics of memory through such a tactile experience.

All that needs to be said about what Ellie and Gil thought of The 1975… I was living my best life!

My friends have shown up for me in so many tender ways. We got to visit Corrymeela, a bucket list item for me as so many of my friends from undergrad have been. I’ve been running lots of random road races in nearby counties (and even in Scotland!) with my friends, and we’ve even started a wee run club between the few of us to do a chatty run around the city on Saturdays. Sarah, Gil, our favorite American friend (who is basically an adopted Belfast Mitchell at this point), Ellie, and I went to Edinburgh early in February where we spent the weekend mostly drinking tea and sucking lozenges in our airbnb because we’d all come down with massive colds. (Except Gil who somehow never gets sick.) Somehow I even convinced Ellie and Gil (my least Gen-Z friends) to go to a The 1975 concert when they came to Belfast. (Long story short: see photo. Ha!) My friends from Sarah’s program even hosted a sweet Galentine’s day brunch where we ate Sarah’s homemade frittata and french toast and held space for each other. And Ellie, Gil, Sarah and I started a book club (which is more of an excuse to go to a restaurant every week) where we’re reading the Great Gatsby (as per Sarah’s request.)

Our wee run club

And in between these sweet moments with friends, I’ve begun to build relationships with faculty as well who have shown up for me in unexpected ways. I recently got to co-chair an event with a friend where we got to be in conversation with Mary Phillips, a cool scholar from New York who is writing a book on women in the Black Panther Party, and Ericka Huggins, a former leader in the Black Panther Party who was imprisoned with Bobby Seale. To be in touch with Black women, especially such admirable and inspiring women who reflect very important values and aspirations in my life as a scholar and an activist, and to get to know them in a place where I have felt largely isolated from people who look like and experience the world in similar ways to me was such a gift. 

In conversation with Mary Phillips and Ericka Huggins at QUB

So, I am doing well. And my orientation to Belfast and my understanding of my time here has shifted significantly from my last blog not only because of my wealth of good experiences lately, but also because I know my next steps. I catch myself getting ahead of myself, looking too far into the future, wishing I could fast-forward to August when I will begin this next huge adventure of my life. But then I remember: I’ve got less than 150 days here (even less by the time you’re reading this.) There’s still so much to do and explore here. So much to appreciate and to wonder at. And many, many more jokes to laugh at between me, Sarah, Gil, and Ellie. That is what I think about most when I realize how quickly the time is getting away from me, and how soon my life will be changing again. I’ll miss them the most.

Ellie, Sarah, Gil, and I in Edinburgh <3
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Garth-esque Anticipation for an Irish 2023

As I start this blog I’m in the Nashville airport headed back to Dublin by way of Toronto. It was an enjoyable time with family during winter break to recharge, and return once again to this terminal. It seems that each time I am here around 1 in 7 people on this flight are wearing cowboy hats. It was around that ratio, if not more, in Dublin when Garth Brooks appeared for his tour last semester. I’m not a major Garth Brooks fan and prefer Alan Jackson – but in this moment as I return to Ireland, I feel something similar to Garth when he finally set foot on stage in Dublin. His tour was cancelled in 2014 due to a Dublin city code violation, and when he arrived in 2022 he was supposedly weeping as he told the Irish crowd he had finally arrived “to raise hell”.

I don’t expect any similarity to that moment whatsoever when I step off my plane – no weeping, hell will stay asunder, and I will probably take a nap as soon as I can which I fear might delay this blog. But in the same spirit of Garth’s return, cowboy hat aside I have a Garth-esque anticipation for the new missions I hope to accomplish in Ireland this semester and in the New Year. I’ve also learned it’s important to keep an open mind and value the journey regardless of where it goes and what is accomplished. Regardless of the destination I reach in research and academics, I am looking forward to growing connections with friends and new experiences. Now that I have camping gear loaded to the motorbike, that will include some multi-day backpacking in Wicklow and Ring of Kerry. I also hope to grow my skills enough to play fiddle in the Cobblestone, which I think I may attempt first through the Christian Student Union at UCD. It is good to start some things in an atmosphere of forgiveness.

The last semester was about getting my bearings for the Mitchell journey (in one case actually checking bearings with Swati), growing deeper in new friendships out of the shared experience of finding a new Ireland, and making new connections – from Bray to Buncranna.

A candid shot in Buncranna of Ali & Dolapo.

New connections have brought new opportunities for the New Year. That has included growing closer with those in the Public Policy program at UCD, all of whom embody good craic. Their craic collectively built up to a new pinnacle at the MPP Christmas Party.

The Craic of Christmas at UCD.

As for the nobility in this photograph – I was not familiar with the Christmas cracker tradition. They are like two-sided party poppers where one person is left with a prize, in this case a paper crown. It’s like a vegan alternative to a turkey wishbone, but with a better prize. Once crowned the Irish nobility declared an unofficial afterparty elsewhere in city center. It lasted past 5am – I simply could not keep up and went home early. That said, there are opportunities in the New Year where Ireland and America would benefit from keeping up with each other.

I have felt that being a Mitchell Scholar can bring an opportunity to serve as a miniature ambassador of sorts for exchanging ideas that would foster mutual benefit to the US and Ireland. A chance for that presented itself when I was able to reach an agreement with a sustainable bio/agri-tech startup in Kentucky to find potential candidates for their technology in Ireland, which I am excited to continue attempting through the New Year. Instead of feeding spent grain wastes from the whiskey and brewing industry to Ireland’s dairy industry which results in methane emission, this technology originally developed for similar bourbon industry wastes can upcycle spent grain into marketable sugar and activated carbon products along with a higher protein source for livestock. The key application is this would add revenue to the front end of renewable biogas production which is now being invested in due to the energy crisis, and would also have promise of being a feasible way to “reduce the herd” in Ireland by allowing new market benefits and managing the spent grain waste that would be left from herd reduction. Implementing this solution in Ireland would require collaboration from multiple industries willing to have a mindset of cooperative and intersecting sustainability, which is worth promoting. In 2022 the potential of this tech led to my first “whiskey mission” and will hopefully lead to more in 2023. Thanks to a mutual connection, Chris Armstrong, Aadi joined the trip and we met the President of the Craft Irish Whiskey Association, Stuart McNamara, at Sean’s bar of Athlone- the oldest pub in Ireland. Stuart is an Irish peacekeeping forces veteran from the signal corps, and was a sailor. His Captain first introduced him to the craft of whiskey. Ironically, our train was an hour late due to signal failure – so our focus gradually became more about making the connection instead of soliciting interests and ironing out details to transfer the startup tech to Ireland.

Sean’s bar in Athlone – built circa 900 AD. Lights circa 2023 AD. (Photo cred to Aadi).

Through the door of Sean’s bar, we made a valuable connection with the door to the craft whiskey industry. We soaked in stories ranging from the best whiskies to try, good and bad methods to start and finance a distillery in Ireland, and the interesting legal battle involving the USPTO that created the craft association separate from global brands. Eventually we learned about Stuart’s own Portmagee whiskey brand, named after a sailor who used Skellig island for smuggling. Skellig was once a sight for dumping cargo on the beach, paying only a portion of British taxes in port near Dingle, then retrieving the rest of the haul later on the way to Portmagee. I wonder if the monks had still been there if they would have said anything – if it were whiskey cargo that may have been unlikely. At the end of our meeting the manager, Timmy, joined us and provided great historical oratory which will soon be available in a Netflix documentary on the story of whiskey in the world. The documentary will include the story of how Athlone and Sean’s bar is at the birthplace of whiskey on the Shannon which goes back to the monks of Lough Ree. After discovering fast drunkedness from high-proof alcohol, the monks thought whiskey was holy water which they called “uisce beatha” in Galeige. It is said others gradually shortened and misinterpreted this to “whiskey”. Perhaps there will be a new chapter of sustainability in the story of uisce beatha that could be said to have started at the same place on the Shannon.

Ireland could not be a land of whiskey if not first a land of water. It is a land of wetlands, which leads to my other mission for the New Year that I will end with. Towards the end of the semester as a Mitchell Scholar I was granted affiliation as an environmental policy researcher with a group known as WaterLANDS – a major EU Commission funded group leading peatland restoration efforts across Europe and serving as one member of a larger advisory group under the Green Deal to Brussels. Their affiliated researchers in Germany have commercially developed a method of moss farming (Sphagnum paludiculture) which would have promise in Ireland to accomplish rewetting goals while allowing a portion of Ireland’s lost labor and market from peatlands to return in a new sustainable ways. Ireland has not yet built the capacity to lead and innovate in this area despite major potential benefit for the midlands, inclusion of paludiculture in the next Common Agriculture Policy, and budgetary capacity to afford expandable pilot projects. I’m now in charge of trying to find a policy solution that would create those projects and a strategy to expand the practice in Ireland. To do it, I’ve partnered with former mayor of Galway and Seanad member Niall O’Brolchain which may become a journey of its own. For length and peat’s sake, I’ll save more on that for the next post. With a Garth-esque anxt I now begin a sprint down new paths for sustainability, just transition, and personal growth from Ireland to German moss farms. With an open mind I look forward to these new paths, new connections, and new craic 2023 will hold.

Sheep in the Special Conservation Area near Mullaghcleevun, Wicklow waiting for me to return on a moto-camping adventure.
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