Pockets of gratitude and people I share them with

Today was a classically foggy Wednesday morning in Dublin. As the sun creeped up behind the hazy gray veil, I tossed on a sweater and slid on my thickest socks. I’ve always loved the rain. I think rain is a great excuse to sit beside a big window reading a big book with a big coffee in hand. And on this classic Wednesday morning, while sitting at my favorite coffee shop with a few hundred pages left in The Emperor of All Maladies, I couldn’t hold back a growing smile as I processed how insanely lucky I am to be in that moment.

Since arriving in Ireland two months ago, I’ve had a number of these moments of random gratitude, moments where I’m so aware of the present that I wonder, how the heck am I so fortunate to be here? My degree program at UCD has been extremely accommodating of my research goals, and the US-Ireland Alliance has supported me with opportunities for personal exploration and cultural exposure that I didn’t dream possible. My classmates and neighbors in Dublin have shared their stories with me and introduced me to a new perspective on community and value-informed priorities. One day I’ll have no agenda and be drawing a few magpies flying around St. Stephen’s Green, and the next day I’ll be eating lunch with a keynote speaker—who happened to be the academic founder of my previous employer—at a systems biology conference on campus. I am so thankful for the diversity of experiences I’ve had and for the humanity in stories I’ve heard. I want to share some of these moments of extreme gratitude—gratitude for my reality in the present and for all the opportunities the Mitchell has provided me—with you all.

  • Sharing a meal with my roommates Anthony and Nancy who cooked me a traditional Chinese dinner, and hearing their stories of triumph in the face of adversity to arrive at UCD
  • Leaving dinner with the Mitchells, waiting for my bus, and listening to the song “Moon” while looking at a full moon in City Centre only to see a green shooting star blaze past me
  • Walking into a room of incredibly accomplished professionals at the Irish Royal Academy reception dinner, surrounded by fancy portraits adorning the walls
  • Listening to the story of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford at Kilmainham Gaol with the other Scholars, which was a story demonstrating the legacy of bravery and sacrifice
  • Bailing on a hike only to meet Josh and Sarah (a UCD alum), an Irish couple who lived in Portugal, and get breakfast with them as Josh shared fun Irish slang (“baltic” for cold was my favorite)
  • Eating PB & Honey sandwiches with the other Mitchells during our hike in Glendalough, where we met a group of Americans who, twenty years ago, had their son delivered in the same hospital I was born at
  • Getting a haircut and waiting for the bus outside Dundrum village centre, eating Indian snacks and thinking about how this was my “new normal”
  • Meeting Senator George Mitchell in the room where the Irish constitution was drafted, and drinking a cappuccino in that same room
  • Eating breakfast with a multinational director at Google’s EU HQ and saving a drowning fox with a group of strangers, all before 10am 
  • Sitting in the UCD radio studio to host the first episode of my show, watching a disco ball illuminate RGB flashes on the ceiling (BelfieldFM! 8-9pm, tune in :))
  • Taking the Irish ferry to Wales for an overnight hike in Snowdon, where I met Brett and Chris and solo climbed my first mountain (in a tote bag)

No matter how fancy or how commonplace it is, there are special moments each day which remind me how rare of an opportunity I have been gifted. One day, when the memories of cities and countrysides become blurry, I will remember these moments, and I will cherish the peace and warmth I felt during this special time in my life where I learned just how big I could dream.

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The first two months: Understanding what unifies us culturally, socially, and scientifically.

As I sit to write this reflection, it is like two months breezed by, and also like I have been on the island forever. So much has happened! I figured it would be best to break this blog post up into three categories that have broadly defined my interactions: (1) culturally, (2) socially, and (3) scientifically. I have already learned so much, and made so many connections I will carry with me forever.

Cultural Highlights, Scenes, and Visits!

During my first four weeks of being on the Island, I tried to get out and see the country as much as possible before the business of my academic coursework ramped up! I was fortunate to have had my Mom come over for a week to help move me into Trinity – and we made the most of the visit exploring Dublin (Grafton Street, Guinness Storehouse, the Old Stand Pub) and Kerry (Killarney, Waterville, Sneem). My favorite part was going out West, where we found a local Chris to drive us along the Wild Atlantic Way and tell us his stories of growing up in Kerry. While we were walking in Killarney National Park, my mom kept saying “this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been” and that constantly reminded me of how lucky we are to be here. Ireland has its own unique and special beauty – the land feels spiritual in a way. It is an honor and a joy to explore it. I can’t wait for our trip to Dingle in May!

I’ve also had another visitor recently! My boyfriend Ben flew over for his fall break from law school, and we took advantage of the time by exploring Galway, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Burren. We were very lucky with a stretch of clear weather – and when we went to the Cliffs – they said it was one of the clearest days they have had all year! I enjoyed showing Ben the scenery, my favorite pubs and coffee shops, and my favorite parts of life in Ireland. Ben is a knitter and enjoyed getting 14 spools of Aran wool for his various knitting projects – befriending a local shop owner whose family helped design the costumes for The Quiet Man along the way (https://www.omaille.com/). He is counting down the days to come back!

On my own, I often find myself wandering into St. Stephen’s green and soaking in the moments of quiet, and watching the ferocious Dublin seagulls. I also love walking past the buskers on Grafton Street – Keywest is my favorite busking group! If you see them in Dublin, you should stop and take a listen, they are amazing.

Social Highlights!

One of my favorite parts of this experience so far has been the lifelong friendships that have been forged. Within the Mitchell group, I feel like I have gained such wonderful, supportive, kind, and brilliant friends. After all of our formal Mitchell events, we would always hang out, whether it was going to dinner or hanging out in the Graduates Memorial Building kitchen. It is a home away from home. We have each other’s backs (literally and figuratively). I am constantly amazed at house easy it is to laugh and talk and hang out with the Mitchell’s and I am constantly amazed at who they are as people. Just yesterday Rabhya came over and cooked dinner! Theresa is always leaving sweet treats with notes. We have played the most fun card games, taught to us by the board game master Zach. We (the whole group) have bonded over dinners, in hospital waiting rooms playing crossword, on hikes, playing games, and learning about each other’s lives, hopes, dreams, fears, interests, and stories.

I have also been blessed with the nicest housemates in the Graduates Memorial Building – we have become like a little family! Aside from the Mitchells – living with us we have Tom and Leon (two Irish physics students on Schols who are incredibly smart and kind), Nancy (a physics PhD student), and Jim (a 72 year old former Wall Street trader, former oyster farmer from Cape Cod doing a Master’s in history)! If there is one person in the kitchen, you can always count on another one of them popping in to say hello or hang out. We cook together and bake together, and we always find ourselves getting into philosophical discussions ranging from “what is the meaning of life and happiness” to “what store truly makes the best chicken fillet roll” (the answer is the Spar on Dame Street). I have especially enjoyed learning more about Irish culture through the eyes of Tom and Leon. For example, a few weeks ago Theresa and I went to Trad Soc’s jam session at Doyle’s (the student pub) where we learned Tom heads the entire group. He’s always in the kitchen singing and playing trad. They have welcomed us into their stories, and past, and culture, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

Scientific Highlights!

As a student cancer scientist/hopeful oncologist one day – being in Ireland and my master’s program has been transformative. I have learned more in the two months of my master’s in Translational Oncology program than any other course in my life. While it is intense (7 hours of lectures 4-5 times a week) – I know what I am learning is going to make me a better scientist and oncologist. I am currently in the process of publishing a literature review on a novel oncogene that started as a class assignment, learning how to do clinical workups of cancer patients, and am connecting with patient advocates to learn how we can dually strengthen the translational care pipeline in both the U.S. and Ireland.

Ireland is looking to centralize their cancer care program, and looking at the U.S. as a model for this. I am starting to get into some health policy work – bridging the International Inflammatory Breast Cancer Consortium to Ireland.

Starting in February I will be back working in a lab, likely focusing on breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer (two highly linked cancer burdens in Irish women). My professors and advisors are excited to become professional colleagues post-Mitchell – and I have a very good feeling that I will be collaborating with them over the course of my career. I was also informed that my previous research from undergrad was accepted for an Oral Presentation at the Irish Association for Cancer Research Annual hosted in collaboration with the European Association for Cancer Researchers and the American Association of Cancer Researchers in February! My mentors and collaborators from Duke will be flying over for it, and I am so excited for everyone to connect in person. We are making plans to start sharing biobanked tissue and work on joint preclinical drug trials – opening up so much research possibilities for the next few months.

The experience of cancer is universal, and the cancer burden is a highly heterogeneous and complicated problem that requires our collaboration and friendship to design even better diagnostics and personalized therapies. That is the way of the future. Whether I am in the clinic, in the lab, in class, or talking to patients, knowing that I can make at least a small difference in working on this problem drives me every day.

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“Irish weather is supposed to be rainy year-round,” I told my family, trying to convey a certainty I didn’t feel. Truth be told, I had no concept of Ireland. I could only picture my destination as a haze of permanent stormclouds, and my suitcase, weighted with winter wear, was to be my sole companion across the ocean to this unknown world. I wondered whether I would be able to handle the cold.

But Ireland, as I’ve found over the past eight weeks, is so much more than I could have imagined — the gleaming pearl of cobblestones in Dublin, the blurry blue of sky-meets-sea in Howth, the deep emerald of mountains in Wicklow, the quiet wisps of rainbow in Derry. The climate is also friendlier than I’d assumed: it does rain regularly, but the sun shines almost as often. And even the chilliest forecasts are dotted with winks of warmth.

I’ve also been happily surprised to befriend my fellow Scholars. My adventures thus far range from making shakshouka with Zoha and bonding on buses with Zach to navigating out of the wilderness with Rabhya and hobbling to the emergency department with Allie. The best shelter from the Irish cold, I’ve realized, is not waterproof outerwear but the company of friends.

Frequently, I reflect on how grateful I am for this Mitchell year in Ireland, for the freedom to accumulate experiences that I never could have dreamed of otherwise. The weather here might be gray, but I delight in discovering new colors every day.

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Mountaineering, Polar Plunge, Tattoos, and Liberian Hip Hop

“There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,

    A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

    And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood,

    And they climb the mountain’s crest;

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,    

And they don’t know how to rest.”

The Men That Don’t Fit In

– Robert W. Service

Perhaps my airplane reading of Life Lived Wild, an autobiographical account of the journeys of world-renowned mountaineer and friend, Rick Ridgeway, inspired me to seek adventure during my Mitchell year. Though instead of being the first American to summit the tallest mountain in the world, I scaled an E3 via top rope at The Burren in County Clare, which is of comparable rigor.


  1. The Yank

Like many Galway Mitchell’s before me, I decided to join the Mountaineering club at the University of Galway. After two weeks of training, I became an assessed climber and was let loose on the campus indoor rock wall. It wasn’t long before I was set to embark on my first outdoor climbing experience. The encouragement of my new Irish friends motivated me to join an outdoor climbing excursion in The Burren, a beautiful area of County Clare along the west coast of Ireland. After the top rope was set, our climbing leader asked if I wanted to go first.

Perhaps this was due to my excitement, or my expendability as the only America (the Yank) of the group. Regardless, I obliged. You see, in the wild, nobody went around drilling brightly colored plastic holds on the wall, so the climber is left to their intuition developed over years (in my case weeks) of climbing experience. But through the encouragement and guidance of my fellow climbers, I eventually reached the top.

Left: My first ascent

Right: Moments before my first fall.

2. Mitchell Scholars The Youngers & The Elders

I got really lucky. Housing accommodation in Galway is challenging to find, especially for international students. However, Elder Mitchells Ali and Sam already had an accommodation on the water with two available rooms. Throughout the duration of my first few months in Ireland, the Mitchell community truly brought me out of my comfort zone. My first encounter with Sam was not “let’s have a drink,” or “let’s grab lunch,” instead it was “let’s jump off the tower into the ocean.” Sam is the definition of a visionary, and his creativity and ideation is truly boundless. If we don’t start a business by the end of the Mitchell, it would be time wasted. Ali is also a wealth of knowledge, especially when it comes to travel. If you’re looking for travel recommendations, nobody does it better than Ali. I also live with Alexa, a current Mitchell colleague who accompanied me on a Galway 5 km running race. It was to raise money for the Heart & Stroke foundation, on Friday the 13th, and was my first time running in nearly a year since my heart attack.

What could go wrong?

Left: I survived

Right: Sam and I’s first conversation

3. Travel Tattoos

Usually when people travel to new places, they might purchase a souvenir like a shot glass, an ornament, or something to symbolize the experience. In my case, I permanently memorialize the experience on my body in ink. I mentioned this tradition to former Mitchell scholar Sasha, who replied that having visited over 20 countries during the scholarship, he would be covered in tattoos.

What have I gotten myself into?

Nonetheless, I have acquired two new pieces of art since my arrival in Ireland. For Galway, I commissioned a Celtic tree of life from a local award-winning artist, symbolizing strength, endurance, and the beginning of my life in Ireland. Galway motifs such as the Galway hooker ship and Dunguaire castle are present in the backdrop, opening up the opportunity for an abundance of “Alex has a hooker tattoo” jokes for undoubtably the rest of my life. The second tattoo was an interpretation of the Tarot card “The Fool.” Traditional symbolism of this image is new beginnings, inexperience, and improvisation. Completed by an Irish apprentice artist in Derry, my fool is a reminder to maintain an intentional naivety about the future.

Left: Northern Ireland

Right: Ireland (Galway)

4. JZyNO is my new favorite artist

The most transformational part of my program thus far has been my classmates. Not only am I the only student from America, but many of my classmates are from various African countries and other nations in the global south. Every day in class, I’m enlightened by the different perspectives on climate change issues faced by my classmates and their communities. Going into this program as a business undergrad, I knew I was in store for brand new subjects, but I could’ve never anticipated the brand-new perspectives I’d also learn. A tight-knit group of 15, we take the time at least once a week to explore the nightlife in Galway.

Before we head to the pubs, we often meet at a house for a home cooked meal. My classmate from Maharashtra, the tiger capital of India, prepared a feast of homemade biryani and panipuri for myself and the program. The feast is usually followed by dancing and the exchange of music taste from around the world. Webb, my classmate from Liberia, introduced me to the Liberian hip hop artist JZyNO, who is now a regular in my Spotify rotation. As fan of American hip hop, I returned the favor and introduced Webb to the likes of King Von and YungManny, as he was already familiar with prominent artists like Tupac and Kendrick Lamar.

A staple of a MScCCAFS night out includes a prominent Kenyan drinking song and accompanying dance, intended to accelerate the consumption of my Heineken 0.0%. Ange, a Nairobi native and mountaineer, taught us this dance and many others to deploy during out nights out. No matter how long the night goes, you’ll still catch Garjay, a “Bassa man” from Liberia, and I in the gym lifting together the next morning. Developing a strong global competency involves more than gaining knowledge, it also means gaining friends.

Pictured Above: Our first meal

Pictured Above: The best Indian food I’ve ever had

Pictured Above: Our group together after a study session at my house

Pictured Above: A night on the town

Pictured Above: Post arm day led by Garjay

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Peatland, Samhain, and other Irish Autumn delights

This post comes to you live from a homey bed & breakfast in Donegal County, owned by a sweet Irish family with a young granddaughter and two loud but friendly puppies. My fingers are still thawing from my hike in Glenveagh National Park earlier, where I discovered more shades of orange in the uplands than I had ever seen before and took maybe close to fifty thousand photos of foggy lakes, peatland, and a European Robin (I sent a video of the bird to my college advisor, an ornithologist, who immediately shot back a response, identifying it for me). It’s 3:30 pm on Halloween, trick-or-treaters have started knocking on the B&B door, and the sun is already low behind gauzy clouds. I’m peering over my teacup and out the window at a tiny white cottage with a red door. The red pops against the verdant pastures, grassy boxes divided by dark green hedges, sprinkled with white lambs and the occasional cow… and it’s giving cottage core.

This past weekend was spent with other Mitchell Scholars in Derry for its famous Halloween festival. We did it all: haunted houses, walking tours of Bogside murals, the Free Derry Museum, and loads of pictures under the Derry Girls mural. I also discovered my new favorite brunch spot, Synge & Byrne. I feel so much appreciation to be here with the other scholars, who I’ve discovered are even funnier, kinder, and smarter than I knew when we arrived.

My days lately have been filled with my internship for the Committee on the Administration of Justice. I am editing a report for them, on the UK Legacy Bill and its contradictions with Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The report has come with me on trains, to plenty of coffeeshops, and to my favorite study spots across campus.

Some of my days in Belfast start with a pre-class coffee with Mhairi Claire, Órlaith, and Sivahn at Blue Train just off Botanic Avenue. We giggle (read: howl and guffaw too loudly for the space) over our chais and lattes and then walk over to our lectures, stepping over pools of rainwater and piles of soaked leaves. My favorite module is Religion & Peacebuilding; I never expected to learn so much in so few weeks.

Many of my nights end with a trip to a local pub, where everyone gathers for a laugh and maybe to watch a game of rugby, if not for a beer in classic Irish tradition.

All of my days involve something new: something new I’ve learned in class, or something I’ve tried for the first time (caving), maybe something I will never do again (caving), a new coffee shop, a new favorite song, a new place to see, a new friend… they all add up to this new life and home I’m creating for myself here in Ireland. The days, weeks, and months are already passing me by, but when the hours slow down and I’m able to sit and reflect, I feel so grateful for this new chapter of life.

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Shall We Play a Game?

Through impeccable foresight on my part, I arrive in Ireland at 5am on the day of my program’s orientation. Air travel and I have an on-again off-again relationship, and after that flight we were not on speaking terms. For the rest of the morning I’m feeling my way around with the lights off. I find the bus! I quickly get off the bus (it’s going to Belfast). I find the correct bus. I arrive at UCD. How do I turn off the heater in my room? Never mind, I need to shower. I flood the shower. I take a nap. Oh, there’s a knob on the side of the heater. I take another nap, this time during the orientation. Afterwards, I get to chatting with my future classmates. We investigate a social event hosted by the International Student Society, and that’s when the drowsy fragments converge back into cogent thoughts: they have board games.

Backstabbing is the best form of bonding. Not to mention, it’s much easier to remember someone’s name when you’re accusing them of secretly betraying the group’s quest in Avalon. We demolish three hours like this, interleaving talk of hobbies and home with strategy and swindling. It hasn’t stopped in the two months since. These days, when we’re finished comparing notes on Boltzmann machines and the thoughts on optimizations for backpropagation subside, the conversation transitions to the whereabouts of our next game night. The UCD population at large seems to share the enthusiasm as well; nearly every society invites prospective members to game nights during Freshers Week. I wind up playing Cards Against Humanity with several Russian students, one of whom intensely enjoys reading Bond villain quotes in the thickest accent he can muster. Turns out this was an Irish version of the game, brimming with references to Irish politics and popular culture – I don’t think I’ve learned more about Ireland in one sitting since. At another event I get outplayed in Exploding Kittens, yet another teaches me Sushi Go. Each time I’m making friends, planting my roots, and making my home away from home a little warmer. 

Naturally, I try to rope the other Mitchell Scholars into the gaming bonanza too. Teresa, Michael, Allie, and I play Ghost as we explore the Museum of Literature. Vivek joins the UCD group and double-crosses with the best of us. Vikram is happy to crush me in chess. Allie and Rabhya make the hours in a hospital waiting room fly by with crosswords, and on our return bus from Derry Teresa, Rabhya and I shatter my record for the Sunday puzzle with a time of forty-seven minutes. When we play games as a group, personalities emerge in full. Alexa isn’t falling for anyone’s crap, and Alex is standing his ground even though four people are each desperately lobbying for him to take the action that will help them. Michael’s keen logic is the consistent demise of my plans, and Zoha is just horrible at lying. Rabhya loves a good debate so much that she will gladly dispute me (her teammate) just because she thinks I’m full of it (I am, but we were absolutely going to win because of it). 

The GMB game nights, cafe card games, hostel showdowns, bus trip crosswords, and city street wordsmithings are among my fondest memories of my first two months in Ireland. They have become stories to reminisce on and the foundations of numerous inside jokes that I can share with all the wonderful people I have met since arriving. I feel overwhelmingly lucky to have met everyone who sat around the table and spent time beating me at my favorite hobby.

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Making My Way Through Galway

Last month, I bought a €6 pack of oil pastels on my way back home from class. I was itching to start drawing again after abandoning it at the start of college. With my newfound free time and proximity to stunning scenery, I decided that there was no better place than my new home in Galway to start making art again. 

What started out as a mindless hobby in the first couple of weeks has quickly morphed into an obsessive pastime. I take pictures of anything and everything with the intent of drawing it later. My iPhone camera can’t capture the full beauty of Galway, but for what my camera lacks, my drawings (almost) compensate. At the very least, they’re a representation of how I see the city and a way for me to capture the novelty of my life in Ireland without feeling the pressure to frame my thoughts eloquently in writing. I only have 8 colors in my pack of pastels, but I’ve learned that I can do a lot with so little. 

This was the first drawing I did, when Galway was sunnier and the trees were lush. As is readily apparent, the oil pastels don’t grant me a lot of leeway to include the details. They’re impressionist pieces, okay? I haven’t seen that black cat since I took that picture, but I have seen many other cats and kittens in the neighborhood (my favorite part about being here). I now have a bag of treats in all of my jacket pockets so that I’m always prepared for an encounter with my feline neighbors. 

On the left is a drawing of a sweet couple that was sitting next to my mom and I at Kai, my favorite restaurant in Galway. Their outfits were perfectly coordinated and I couldn’t help but capture their aesthetic harmony. My mom and I copied everything they ordered. It was abundantly clear that they knew what they were doing, and they did not miss. I thought of my own grandparents and shed some very real tears while my mom and I ate a delicious berry pavlova in silence (I told you they didn’t miss).

On the right is a sketch from one of my visits to Dublin in early October. I find it heartwarming when I see people sharing umbrellas. It’s a small act of love that shines through the gloom and always makes my day just a little bit better.

As I slowly refine my oil pastel skills, I’m also taking a pottery class. Galway has quickly become a home of hobbies. I am now 6 weeks into the course and I have 3 bowls/huge mugs/goblets that will be added to our house’s collection of deformed dishware. The same week that I started my pottery class, I hosted a collaging party with my classmates. In Atlanta, my friends and I used to host a collage party every month, so this was my way of bringing a little piece of home to Ireland. By the end of the party, I had a new collaging family.

Fast forward to last week, on my birthday, when I drew this man and his dog playing fetch. I spent an hour on a bench overlooking Grattan Beach, struggling to delineate between the sky and the sand using two chunky navy and black pastels. Later that night, I went to a Halloween Drag Ball at the Róisín with some wonderful friends whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet. I had the best time, and I am so grateful to have such lovely people to celebrate with after only being here for a short time. Tens all around.

P.S. Happy Scorpio Season to me and Ali and Alex, because 75% of our house is full of broody Scorpios (sorry Sam). Enter at your own risk.

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on the first two months

Ireland has been different than I expected. The first day I arrived, I was shocked by how American it felt, from the legging-and-jumper outfits to the ever-present mullets to the Taylor Swift playing in the background at Tesco. Over the past two months, however, I’ve come to appreciate that while the two countries may appear visually similar, their histories – and resulting cultures – are quite different.

Part of that realization has come from my course. I’m studying Political Communications at DCU, and my classmates are almost all Irish. I’m grateful for their perspectives: when my classmates debate, they provide a wealth of context and range to events I can only perceive on the surface. A right-wing protest a few weeks ago, for example, was held on the anniversary of an assassination – a detail that flew over my head. One of my modules is on Irish media, which inherently carries history lessons. I just take rapid fire notes to google every reference afterwards. I’m learning about Irish politics by exposure, too: two weeks ago, I got to visit the Dail Eireann for their Wednesday evening vote. I also sat in on the last session of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs as a researcher, which was incredible. 

the citizens’ assembly

My Irish friends have taught me a lot, too. I was shocked, for example, when Freya picked up a poster in Irish and read it out. “We all have to learn it in school,” she shrugged. My favorite Irish phrase so far is “scarlet for you,” or shorthand for “scarlet for you ma for having you.” This one comes up fairly often – mostly when Freya and I are laughing at the antics people get up to in public. Hilary, who grew up in Dublin, takes me to her favorite pubs, cafes, and clubs.

I’ve joined a writing group at the Irish Writers’s Centre. Every Saturday at 1:30 PM, we meet to write for thirty minutes based on a prompt and share our work. Afterwards, we have coffee at Castle Tearoom. The group is mostly older Irish people, and they’re hilarious. When recounting my visit to the Dail Eireann, I nervously pronounced the name. “Did I say it right?” I asked. Shea, who’s a fixture of the group, gravely looked at me. “That’s a porno star.”

Dublin has been a lot of fun to explore! DCU is located in Glasnevin, north of the city center. There’s a beautiful park across my apartment, so I see fall leaves and hear shouts of children playing each morning. I spend study days in the Tram cafe at said park, or the National Library when I really want to focus. The Dublin Mitchells have been wonderful travel companions. We’ve gone to Howth and Glendalough, where we promptly got lost on our hike. We’ve tried new restaurants, including one which is only open two hours for three days a week during lunchtime. Packed in a room with seating for eight, the daily menu is written on a paper napkin. Despite – or perhaps because of – the hilarious getup, the food was delicious.

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Why Study a Dead Language?

Meeting new people here, the inevitable question always arises: “So,” they ask, “what do you study?” I tell them, “I study Old Irish and Middle Welsh language and literature.” “Oh!” They exclaim excitedly, “Do you have any Irish then?”

Studying in the southwest of Ireland, many of my classmates speak modern Irish and are excited thinking that a foreigner like me might be learning it. Whenever I’m asked, though, I must confess that I can’t speak Irish; I only study Old Irish, the medieval predecessor to the modern language. Compared to my friends who speak modern Irish, I am stuck—literally—in the dark ages, learning a language whose only application is in poorly lit library halls, staring at fragile manuscripts.

So what’s the point? The follow-up question that haunts students like me (and one that’s been on my mind as I spent the weekend preparing for an exam). Why study Old Irish and Middle Welsh, languages no one alive today speaks? Why not learn a useful language?

Because it’s not about usefulness.

There is a macabre beauty to studying a dead language, as it is the language of the dead. The people who spoke Old Irish and Middle Welsh have long ago passed away, but they wrote their stories and recorded their lives in these languages. To study their texts in some way brings these authors back to life. Or at least it gives a voice to those who lost theirs centuries ago. Moreover, they were using their voices to tell the most incredible stories: fantastical tales about humans transforming into birds or kingdoms disappearing into mist. (Check out the Mabinogi and the Chidren of Lir if you want to read a couple of them yourself.)

I must admit, I’ve always felt a little embarrassed by these esoteric interests, as I’ve faced the external pressure to find a useful (or—I shudder—employable) skill. But there’s something special about studying such topics in Ireland. On this island, renowned for its literary legacy and long history, there is a reverence for story and a deep respect for the past. While the people I meet might be disappointed that I can’t converse with them in modern Irish, they are just as excited to discuss features of Old Irish or the medieval tales they grew up reading.

The people I’ve met recognize the value of researching something like Old Irish, in deep contrast with the emphasis on professional pursuits that I often experienced in the US. I hope this regard for so-called useless subjects is something that we can start to encourage and emulate. Let us admire the pursuit of knowledge, not for its usefulness or applicability, but simply for its own sake. Perhaps this will lead to a more interesting and curious world.

All of that being said, I think there’s a simpler and more succinct way to answer the titular question. Why do I study a dead language? I study a dead language because it’s really fun. It may be esoteric—useless even—but who cares about that!

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Reading Joyce in Dublin

Before I arrived in Ireland, a friend of mine gave me a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In some impatience, I immediately flipped to the last few pages, to the famous “Molly Bloom” monologue. The last few words have always captivated me. “Yes I said yes I will yes.” The kind of breathless cry to the interlocutor, it reminded me of my first big philosophical project, the ethics of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

It feels really charming to read Ulysses while living in Dublin because the book takes place over a single day in Dublin; on Bloomsday people across the city trace the novel’s plot throughout the town. My day is usually comprised of the following: I wake up, go to class, eat lunch on the lawn with friends, go to the gym, and spend my evenings in clubs, like orchestra or debate, and the occasional pub. More than anything, I have been grateful for the quiet time to reflect and grow. My first observation is that Americans love a fast, ruthless pace of life, yet in Ireland that is definitely not the case.

I love the green spaces around Dublin, particularly St. Stephen’s Green. Other highlights include seeing a wonderful play at a local theater, meeting Senator Mitchell, who at 90 years old, is incredibly charming, and visiting other Mitchell’s in Galway and Derry.

My time in Ireland has also been hard too. In the interest of being honest to the reader, myself, and my heart, I wish to share two realizations I have had.

The first concerns academics, particularly philosophy. Philosophy, as I study more of the analytical tradition and metaphysics, seems to be really different from what I thought it was. The 20th century move away from “transcendental” metaphysical questions to a type of metaphysics that is similar to science made philosophy less of an art form, in my opinion. At first, I felt disillusioned by this; I thought, is philosophy really just these little linguistic games? But recently, I have been able to appreciate the great art of metaphysics. Our metaphysical presuppositions scale up to mathematics and science; for example, it can change what axioms relating to Cantor’s infinite we can use in physics. I think I need to feel that the work I am doing matters in some way, and after some haze, I can see that path.

The second concern in Ireland is more social. Moving is hard. Being a young adult in a new place is really hard. At times, I am overwhelmed by the thought that I really know few people here and am away from my family and friends, yet I am reveling in the opportunity to make more friends and meet new people. At other times I feel really culture shocked by Ireland, in small ways, ways that I can’t properly remember to write here. To overcome this, I try to ground gratitude in my thinking and really appreciate the beauty of this island.

In Ireland, I truly feel that I constantly experience the kindness of strangers. Recently, on my trip to Londonderry, I planned to take a 6:00 a.m. bus back to Dublin. I was at a remote bus stand by the river in the blue-dark and no one was around. I asked a stranger who just parked his car and was going on a run. In a second, after understanding my situation, he told me I was on the wrong side of the river and offered to drive me, so I’d make it in time. This story is just one small example of the kindnesses I have experienced here.

I sometimes find myself staying in my room avoiding the cold. But I try to put forward my full force of character and presence to make the most of this amazing opportunity to study here. In my own way, yes I said yes I will yes.

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Day 55 – 28 Oct 2023

“A person from Northern Ireland is naturally cautious.” -Seamus Heaney (2008), Irish poet.

For years, I wondered what it would be like to live in Northern Ireland (or the “North of Ireland,” depending on who you ask). My undergraduate program gave me many opportunities to explore the region through an academic lens, which gripped me from the start. Some of my assumptions were validated, but I discovered recently that many more were half-baked at best. I failed to grasp the unwritten, day-to-day nuances that make Northern Ireland so unique before I arrived. I also lacked a meaningful understanding of what ethnic conflicts look like elsewhere in the world, and how efforts to resolve them by the international community often create or perpetuate as many issues as they address.

My Course: World Peace. No Big Deal, Right?

This year, I’m studying Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation through Trinity College Dublin, which has a satellite campus in South Belfast. It always feels confusing to explain that, but I get a little better at it each time! I’m joined here by seven wonderful classmates from all over the world, representing China, Colombia, France, India, New Zealand, and the States.

Two parts of my course stick out as especially illuminating. First, it has shed light on unique dimensions of the Troubles that I would have never discovered if I studied elsewhere. For example, one of my professor’s areas of expertise is conflict-related forced displacement. In Northern Ireland, his research shows, tens of thousands of families were “burnt out” of their homes through the Troubles, forcing them to relocate elsewhere within Northern Ireland or internationally. Some later returned and/or rebuilt, but many never came back to their original homes. The impact of this forced displacement is alarmingly understudied in the literature concerning Northern Ireland, even though in practice, it continues to be a major source of psychological trauma and economic weight for survivors of the Troubles. Second, more generally, learning about the exclusion of input from conflict-struck communities in peacebuilding strongly resonates with me. When practitioners attempt to resolve conflict, they often employ the testimony of community stakeholders instrumentally, as a means to some prescriptive end they wish to impose. This usually has the effect of leaving deep-rooted conflict unaddressed, increasing the odds that conflict re-emerges later.

Regent House, Trinity College Dublin (main campus).

A Neat Little Town They Call Belfast

Belfast is the largest city I’ve ever lived in. While my love for this city grows every day, it has also been difficult at times to navigate, both literally and metaphorically. Taking the wrong bus route, getting off at the wrong stop, or wandering into the wrong business has become a near-daily habit for me at this point. Fortunately, I still see it as a positive because it gives me an opportunity to explore parts of the city that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. Many things stick out to me as beautiful in Belfast, especially its lively art scene, architectural diversity, and well-kept green spaces. Public art—especially murals—are an important vehicle for locals to express their memories of the Troubles and interpretations of ongoing social issues. The tone, figures, and political messaging behind these murals evolves as you move from one neighborhood to the next. They are also incredibly responsive, often changing within weeks in response to domestic political debates or major global events. Art and memorials serve to mark community territory, grieve loss, and intimidate outsiders all at once. Even if a given mural depicts armed paramilitary volunteers donning balaclavas, they radiate powerful emotions and beauty that often leave me feeling introspective. It’s difficult to describe, and I hope to find the proper words for this phenomenon in the coming months.

Because of the polarizing messaging and unresolved conflict issues in Northern Ireland, I sometimes feel uncomfortable. But I also sense a distinct resilience in these streets. The Northern Irish people have been traumatized in more ways than I could fully understand, but no matter their background, most of them want the same basic things: peace and progress. To move forward without forgetting the past. Debates about the most ethical, inclusive, or effective way to do that vary widely, but difficult issues like this are the very reason my course exists.

This Island’s Natural Beauty

Peace and justice studies, ironically, take a heavy toll on me. It’s easy to feel distraught when I spend every day reading about the worst sins people can commit, and how much of that wrongdoing goes unpunished. I’ve long struggled to look out for my own well-being, which I chose to make a priority for myself when I embarked for Ireland. Indeed, I’ve found some reprieve from my disturbance in nature, where the only dissenting voices I hear are birds’ songs over the cool, misty air. I’ve spent many hours already in the Botanic Gardens of Belfast, along with Phoenix Park and St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, but I’ve felt the greatest comfort outside city limits, in places like Killarney National Park.

Luckily for me, Ireland is filled with natural wonder. I felt inspired by the words of Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a Derry native who survived the Troubles, to find comfort in the wilderness. As she explains in her book, Thin Places (2021), “[When] I had managed to drag myself out into the natural world – to beaches and rivers, loughs and canals, fields and islands – everything felt different. I don’t know if I could honestly say that things felt better but I think that maybe I felt a little more at ease with the sorrow and anxiety that I was struggling to throw off” (original emphasis included, p. 22). Nature has a special way of putting things into perspective: I felt this at various points in my life, but I never knew exactly how to rationalize it. Billions of lives and events came before us, and countless more will follow our own time in this world, but the common thread through it all is our planet’s land. Land upon which our homes and temples stand; land that we explore; land that we trample, march upon, and exploit. But also land that we need, no matter what. Letting myself be swallowed up by nature helps me and my problems feel small in the best way possible. I hope to seek out more “thin places” as my Mitchell year goes on, because I crave feeling peace in our tumultuous social world.

My Path Ahead

Nearly two months have gone by since I first arrived in Ireland. In that short time, many things in my life have changed for better or worse. Adjusting to life in a new country, with different academic practices and social customs from America, has felt daunting at many points. I have also experienced isolation and homesickness to a new degree, even more than when I left my hometown for Michigan. I receive daily reminders of the opportunities, relationships, and socialization that I sacrificed over the years, and in all honestly, that can feel deflating. But to feel intense emotions instead of numbness, and to question myself instead of shamble ahead aimlessly, is also empowering. I believe it ultimately moves me forward. I also feel more reassured in my direction as I continue to read my literature and explore Belfast, where I see that conflict pierces all dimensions of human society. I regularly question what my ultimate career path will be and what tools I will use to address conflict, but I feel comfort in knowing that bridging divides fills me with wonder.

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Gratitude & Goodbyes & Galway

It’s very difficult to believe that my time in Ireland is almost over. In September, I am moving halfway across the world to Juneau, Alaska, where I’ll be working at a nonprofit focused on helping local governments across the state develop affordable housing and take on other infrastructure projects. Though I am immensely excited for this new adventure, Galway very much feels like my home. The gratitude and love I have for the Island and everything I’ve experienced and everyone I’ve met is beyond words. This has been one of the greatest years of learning and living of my life, and I have so many people to thank for that:

  • My cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, and sister, who flew from all over the U.S. to share in this special year with me.
  • The incredible faculty at the University of Galway, who’s intellectual generosity, genuine brilliance, and kind guidance have shown me the transformative promise of law when it is practiced and studied with care, purpose, expertise, creativity, and, above all, hope.
  • All my new friends! The great and good ladies of the Law School, who have held my hand and cheered me on and reminded me that community is at the core of all meaningful work. (And to be brave and have notions!)
  • The bartenders + regulars at the pubs approximately 100 meters and 250 meters from me and Ali’s front door, who quickly learned our drink orders, eventually learned our names, and always looked out for us on rainy nights.
  • The Mitchells and all the adventures they inspired around Galway and beyond.
  • My Mitchell: Alison Marie Watkins. My partner in all of this. Of all the amazing things that have happened to me this year, I am most grateful for (and a little in awe of) our friendship. Call it (as you lovingly have) the lack of perspective inherent to being 23, but I’m pretty sure you’re just about as cool and brilliant and badass as they come. You are as courageous as you are generous, and I am so lucky to have you in my life.

It has been the privilege of a lifetime to spend a year in Galway, Ireland. A little corner of my heart will always be dedicated to this place–this city of joy! I am already counting the days until I get to come back.

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