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I, for one, will be pulling for True Grit to win Best Picture tomorrow night – not because it’s the best film of the year (since I haven’t seen all the nominees and know very little about film anyway I wouldn’t be a very good judge), but because I think it most accurately captures a sense of the current moment we find ourselves in as a people.

This is ironic, since True Grit is a remake of a John Wayne Western originally shot in 1969 that depicts Arkansas in the 1870s, whereas two of its competitors – the Social Network and Inceptionare explicitly designed to tell the story of our present and future.

True Grit’s prescience lies not in its portrayal of modern technology or culture, however, but in its examination of morality and truth in a disorderly world.

From the film’s first moments, Maddie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfield, who steals the show) encounters a violent world, which violent men take by force. As Maddie herself observes, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” When she reaches town to find a U.S. Marshall that might aid her cause, she encounters a coffin salesman interested only in making a sale, relatives who provide little emotional comfort, and a banker that tries, and fails, to squeeze extra profit out of her dead father’s estate.

In spite of her surroundings, Maddie maintains a laser focus on capturing her father’s killer and bringing him to justice. This leads her to Rooster Cogburn and, ultimately, on an epic journey into Choctaw country to pursue Tom Chaney.

Our world bears increasing resemblence to Maddie’s wild west. Previous generations could outsource understanding to a variety of institutions and dogmas that stood ready to provide a sense of certainty and explanation. Science, politics, economics, and religion all thrived on the claim that they could tell the right story. In science the gospel of ‘rational choice’ asserted that humans existed simply to pursue a predictable self-interest. This gospel spread to politics, where theorists like Joseph Schumpeter argued that democracy was simply the aggregation of fixed individual interests that could be predicted; to economics, where Milton Friedman argued that a company’s sole responsibility was to increase its profits; and, to religion, where neat linear theologies presented simple steps for achieving salvation. The individual’s job in this world was simply to sign-on to a few of these stories and tell them with conviction.

But these foundations have come crumbling down. New discoveries about human beings are disturbing our complete faith in rational choice.  Democratic movements abroad and at home are reminding us of the limits of government institutions’ ability to provide order. A singular focus on profit and self-interest in the private sector is sowing the seeds of corruption, greed, and decay.

Slowly, people are again starting to see themselves, and the institutions they erect, as inherently fallible, an outlook more consistent with the 19th century than the 20th. In this modern wild west, like the old one, good must be done by people themselves, if it is to be done at all.

Well, our final Mitchell reflections have been posted – marking the official end of my year in Ireland.  As always, check out my fellow scholars’ reflections about the year and our time on the Emerald Isle.

*******

I’m famously terrible with goodbyes. I get teary in the days leading up to a big goodbye, and everything sets me off – the mere thought of a final farewell, the symbolism of a sunset, etc., etc. It’s a bit of an embarrassment when I find myself reduced to tears so easily. So I knew that my last month in Ireland would be rough: many opportunities to publicly humiliate myself with goodbyes to the Mitchells, my Irish friends, and #24 The Waterfront (our lovely home in Galway on the River Corrib).

The Mitchell goodbyes went better than expected. After a great week of activities – meeting Irish President Mary McAleese and receiving our class rings, becoming one with nature at Glenstal Abbey, participating in Listowel Writer’s Week, and enjoying time in the beautiful Glin Castle – we had one last big group hug in the parking lot of the Limerick train station. I held back my tears and laughed at the antics of the group as we said our goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Galway and my friends there was another story. Once, in the days leading up to our departure, my husband Jon just said the word cry and I burst into tears – apparently unable to stop myself. As we packed up our belongings (…miniature Eiffel Tower from Paris, leggings I purchased at Dunnes for only €3, books on gender and economic development…) I thought about the many things I’d miss about Galway. First and foremost, my friends Laura and Avril, who share my interests and now know my quirks enough to tease me mercilessly; not to mention the community of friends I’ve built over the past year. But also: the swans, the Saturday market, the guy on Shop Street that sculpts a sleeping dog out of sand, the habit of taking tea four times a day, the discussions of local politics and the recession on Galway Bay FM. After days of preparations, Jon and I gathered our things and boarded the train. I thought about the loss of our happy little Galway life as we pulled out of the station and began to miss Ireland even though I was still within its borders. Just as expected: at least one public show of tears.

*****

When we arrived back in the United States, my dad welcomed us home with bottles of Guinness. He wanted us to have a little piece of Ireland when we returned. Over dinner with my grandpa and grandma, we cracked open the bottles and poured them the proper way. Grandpa took a couple of sips and asked, “Do any of you actually like this stuff?” He was right: Guinness from a bottle is not as good as it is from the tap. This was not a surprise, but Grandpa’s comment made us all laugh. The funny interaction between an American and something Irish reminded me of all the other interactions between the two cultures that I’ve seen over the past year.

There was the time, a couple weeks before we left Galway, that I checked my email and received a poem. Avril, who was sitting beside me, exclaimed, “I LOVE this poem!” The poem was one about summer by Carl Sandburg, a poet I have come to love from living in Chicago. Avril read it aloud, her Donegal accent filling the room, and I reflected on the beauty of finding an Irish friend who appreciates a Chicagoan’s poetry as much as I do.

I remember another time, months earlier, when my classmate Grainne happily informed me that her uncle was also from Chicago. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?” I laughed, reminded of the many times that Irish friends have asked me hopefully if I know their cousin who lives in Idaho, Pennsylvania, or Texas. “Chicago’s a big city, Grainne!” She defended herself by responding, “Well, he’s involved in politics. He’s worked really closely with Governor Quinn.” Oh, I thought, that’s different! It turns out that Grainne’s uncle is well known in Chicago, and Grainne was quite knowledgeable about Chicago politics. I would have never expected that one of my Irish classmates would have hosted the future Governor of Illinois at her home in County Mayo – but, she did!

I think back to an American Bluegrass festival held in Galway, conversations about American politics with the parents of Irish friends, and the time I explained the meaning of Thanksgiving to my classmates. In the US, I’m bombarded by Irish flags hanging over pubs in every city I visit and the ubiquitous Claddagh rings on women’s fingers. We spend our time reconnecting with friends and family, and talk to them not just about the ancient beauty of County Kerry, but also of the immigrant communities that we encountered in Galway, how the Irish educational system is different than the American one, and our peers’ viewpoints on social issues like gay marriage.

*****

As all of the thoughts of the connections between the US and Ireland flash through my mind, a truth emerges. Ireland has become a part of me more deeply and permanently than I expected. When I took the train out of Galway at the end of June, it didn’t represent the end of anything. My relationship with Ireland, as well as the other Mitchell Scholars, is far from over. It’s just beginning.

Last week the other Mitchells and I gathered for our last Irish adventure.

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First, we had an event at Farmleigh, once the home of the Guinness family in Dublin, where we received rings commemorating our year in Ireland.  The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was on hand to present them to us.  It was a lovely reception, and President McAleese was a wonderful speaker and very warm in person.

The next day, we headed to Glenstal Abbey, a monastery in County Limerick.  The Abbey is situated on some gorgeous grounds with glens, conifer forests, and gardens.  We were given a guided tour by one of the monks, who told us the history of certain trees, and wove in thoughtful reflections on humans, their environment, and life in general.  We also got a chance to visit a small chapel that holds a number of old Russian and Greek icons, complete with explanations of icons and the Orthodox church from a monk who has written books on the topic. Afterwards, we visited the Abbey’s library, which holds a number of rare and antique manuscripts, including texts from the 1400s and first edition Irish novels.  Oh, and how could I forget the tea and freshly baked cakes and pastries that awaited us when we needed a break!  All in all, the most perfect way I can imagine to spend an afternoon.

The remainder of our final retreat was spent in the town of Listowel and at the gorgeous Glin Castle.  We were in Listowel, in County Kerry, for the annual Writer’s Week festival, which brings in authors and poets and playwrights and artists for readings, discussions, and plays.  Two of the highlights for me were seeing The World’s Wife, a play based on the poetry of British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and hearing Irish author Roddy Doyle read some of his work and answer questions.  I also had a lot of time just hanging out around town with the Mitchells, which was nice.

I hadn’t thought too much about the goodbye at the end of the weekend.  So I was not prepared for the dread and sadness I felt as we pulled up to the Limerick train station at the end of the weekend, where I hopped out to take a train back to Galway.  Although I know that I’ll be seeing my Mitchell friends pretty frequently in the years to come – both at official Mitchell alumni events and wherever else we happen to be – suddenly I realized that this goodbye marked The End of our year in Ireland as a group.  This makes me acutely aware that it is almost time to say goodbye to everything else in Ireland – our gorgeous apartment, my wonderful Irish friends, and beautiful Galway.

Before the goodbyes, though, I have to finish a draft of my thesis. I’ll be trying to focus all of my energy on that rather than mourning my departure.  Hopefully I’ll be able to turn some sad emotions into positive outcomes… Wish me luck (I’ve got a week and a couple days to go for the thesis draft)!

It took nine months, but I’ve finally learned my lesson. When you run on the promenade in Galway, you have to kick the wall.

Our friend Avril, who gets up early every morning and walks the prom, has told me several times that ‘its just what you do’. The directive didn’t quite sink in for me until today, however, when I saw a girl who couldn’t have been older than five give it a big strong boot as she walked aimlessly by.

The ‘wall’ marks the two mile point from where the River Corrib lets out into Galway Bay. Standing about five feet and made of the gray stones that permeate the Connemara countryside, it divides the bayside promenade from a local golf course.

‘Kicking the wall’ is one of those small things that you can only learn by getting to know a place. Its not in the travel book or on the city council website. It’s a piece of local knowledge – the kind that’s only privy to folks that make this place home.

As transients for the better part of three years, Lauren and I have learned through experience how hard it can be to tap into the local knowledge of a place when you’re ‘not from around here’. But, I think, we’ve also learned a bit about its beauty. There is something special and worthwhile about having some things that are shared locally – amongst ‘us’. Its what bonds neighborhoods and cultures and sustains traditions. Its what makes places communities and not just amalgamations of atomized individuals.

When you float with the wind, perhaps you ought to lose a little sway.

Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General, once allegedly ignored advice that he should wear a warm hat while on a trip to Minnesota in winter. “Never think you know more than the natives”, he apparently lamented.

In two weeks Lauren and I leave Ireland to return, first, to Minnesota. I can’t help but wonder what local knowledge about my home – from the U.S. as a whole down to my old neighborhoods – will now be invisible to me. What have people learned while I’ve been gone? Or, rather, what have I forgotten?

I guess, as my anonymous little kicking friend reminded me today, the only way to find out is to listen and to watch…to assume that everyone around you has something to teach.

(And, maybe its about time for me to stick around somewhere too…)

Something special happens from time to time in a Galway pub. It begins with a few taps of a pint glass; then a chorus of “shhhhhhhhh” builds; then an eerie silence; then, from the corner of the bar someone – usually an older gentleman or lady, but often a young person as well – begins to sing.

The choice of songs range – I’ve heard everything from Danny Boy to Proud Mary. The quality ranges as well. But each time nearly everyone chooses to listen in silent reflection.

The most interesting thing about this phenomenon for me is not the particular songs that are sung or their entertainment value, but the informal rules that govern the process.

It seems quite difficult to compel people to do just about anything in a pub. Drinking, by nature, releases inhibitions and makes people particularly unruly – and loud. So, to compel complete strangers, most of whom are inebriated, to sit in silence for several minutes would seem to require a great deal of force. Clearly, it would seem, we would need to declare a rule to this effect and back it up with the requisite enforcement capability.

But, exactly the opposite is true. There is no posted rule telling us to be quiet when someone sings. And there is no one threatening to compel us to follow the rule if we choose to be deviant. Instead, time after time, it just works.

Granted, the explanation for this could just be that people are conformers. If we see most people do something, then we’ll just follow along. Another explanation could just be our desire to be respectful. If someone asks for our attention, whatever the reason, we feel compelled to give it. But I think there is more at play than a mere desire to conform or be respectful. If people tried to quiet the room to express something of less meaning – to make a fart sound or tell a tasteless joke – I think people would be far less compelled to remain silent…our need to conform or pay respect would not be as strong. In these cases, we would need a rule and perhaps some enforcement to remain silent.

I think what keeps everyone quiet is the recognition that something authentically and deeply felt is being expressed. We see that the person has something of meaning to share, and as a result, we feel compelled to pay homage. In this way it becomes wrong to prevent someone from expressing this deeply valued feeling. This explains why it feels wrong when someone in the bar continues to talk during a solo. You can see it in people’s eyes…they sense injustice.

Thus, there seems to be something right about expressing ourselves deeply, honestly…vulnerably. It seems to be something we need to, and should, do as humans. And, when we see someone else make the choice to do so, it seems right to pay our respects, if only because witnessing such an act  stirs something deep within us as well.

Or maybe that’s just the Guinness talking.

Bill and I getting ready for a rollercoaster ride in Bremen, Germany. October 2009.

The Mitchell Scholars’ third set of reflections about our time in Ireland has been posted.  I’m re-posting mine here, but you should definitely check out the other scholars’ writing too!

***

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that you are asked a thousand times as a child, and with less frequency as an adult. At various points in my life, I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to be (in no particular order): an archaeologist, journalist, Broadway actress, Vanna White, neonatologist, gymnast, explorer, or rainforest researcher. I’ve been asking the question to myself lately, trying to decide what my next step should be in my quest to become someone who does international development work for a living. But as I ponder what I hope to become, I can’t help but think about who I want to become. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The what is about profession and the who is about character.

My time in Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar has introduced me to a number of people that give me insight and inspiration into what and who I want to be. I’ve encountered them at Mitchell events, in my program here at NUI Galway, and in my daily life in and around this beautiful country.

Let’s start with someone pretty easy, and fairly obvious: George Mitchell. Although I haven’t met him, this year has given me a lot of exposure to his life and work. The sheer number of roles that Senator Mitchell has taken on is inspiring – judge, Senator, peace broker, Chancellor of Queens University Belfast… the list goes on. Although I could probably write a dissertation-length essay about how Senator Mitchell inspires me professionally, I’ll just highlight one point here. After a life filled to the brim with public service, Senator Mitchell has certainly earned a relaxing retirement on the golf course in Arizona. Instead, he said yes when he was asked to take on arguably today’s most challenging issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His life-long commitment to service is something I will always strive to emulate in my own career.

Another person that I have taken career inspiration from is Naila Kabeer. Dr. Kabeer is one of the preeminent scholars on women’s employment and empowerment in the Global South. My department hosted her for a public lecture last week, and she also facilitated a private session with my classmates and me earlier in the day. Dr. Kabeer has spent her career trying to understand how women are able to make decisions in their lives, and her research directly impacts what development agencies do on the ground. Dr. Kabeer’s explicit link between academia and the lived experience of marginalized people is something I hope to be able to bring to my career as well, no matter what role I am in.

While Senator Mitchell and Dr. Kabeer have taught me a lot about what I want to be professionally, others I have met in Ireland have reminded me of how I want to live my life. Of course, it goes without saying that I am constantly learning from the other Mitchell Scholars and taking inspiration from them. I still cannot get over how energetic and ready to learn the group is – constantly open to new experiences and new ideas. And I could extol their virtues for another dissertation-length essay. I will spare you the mushy stuff, this time, but please know that the Mitchells are a well of perpetual inspiration for me.

My Irish friend Bill has been a model for me in terms of the kind of person I want to be, as he is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Hospitality may seem a minor thing – that is, until you are lost and alone in a new place and don’t know who to turn to for help. Michael met Bill right at the start of the year and introduced Jon and me to him several days after we arrived in Galway. From the start, Bill has been warm, welcoming, and helpful. Anytime we have had a stupid question about Irish life, we’ve known that Bill is the person to ask. He always gives great advice and doesn’t make you feel like a fool for asking about the tipping protocol at a café or where to find reasonably priced office supplies. Bill’s ability to take in total strangers and treat them as equals and friends is something I would like to practice in my own life. Although I think that Irish people generally do welcoming and hospitality quite well as a culture, I still think that Bill wins an award for the best!

If you’ve been reading the other Mitchell scholar’s entries already, I have a feeling you’ve stumbled across a character known to us fondly as Sir John. Sir John is a 94-year-old aristocrat from Monaghan and a man who has lived a very full life. Growing up in Castle Leslie, a glorious estate on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Sir John led an exceptional life from the beginning. He went on to fight in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war. Sir John later traveled the globe, and settled for 40 years in Rome, rehabilitating old buildings to their former splendor. When he returned to Ireland 15 years ago, Sir John decided to focus his energy on something new: dancing. Not just old time Irish step dancing, but clubbing. Weekly, Sir John gets dressed in his Saturday best and hits up his two favorite Monaghan spots, the Squealing Pig pub and the Forum club. We were invited for a night out with Sir John during our midyear retreat at Castle Leslie and danced alongside him while he jumped enthusiastically to Lady Gaga. It really was a sight to behold. After meeting Sir John, I have taken a new approach to thinking about aging. Now, I don’t want to age gracefully, but I want to age the way that he has: with reckless abandon and complete joy.

These examples represent just a handful of those I’ve taken inspiration from this year. I know that I will always look back to my year as a Mitchell Scholar as hugely formative – not just professionally, but personally as well.

For some reason, I have a hard time admitting to people that I’m currently studying philosophy. When people ask what I’m doing in Ireland while Lauren completes her Mitchell scholarship, I usually mention my work for an Evanston-based law firm, my pathetic attempts to learn some French and grow some herbs and vegetables, and then, with eyes down and voice trailing off, add that I’m also doing a course in philosophy.

I suppose this is true for a few reasons.  For one, I’m not very sure myself what philosophy actually is. Thus, if/when pressed to elaborate, I get nervous and ramble off incoherent platitudes and unassertive evasions. Also, I struggle internally about the wisdom of taking on debt to do a graduate degree in a subject that doesn’t have direct career implications while staring down a forthcoming job search in the worst economy in a generation. (I guess philosophy teaches you to think about wisdom, but not to practice it…)

But, I suppose the key reason for my hesitance is that I know how philosophers are often perceived by people (including myself). They are those peculiar folks that have an air of arrogance and aloofness. They can write hundreds of pages about single words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, and ‘happiness’ but they can’t give you a straight answer about anything. They lack any applied skills that can actually make a measurable difference to people’s lives here and now like engineers or teachers or doctors do. At best, they can give someone a few different ways to think about a particular question. At worst, they can only ask a question in a needlessly confusing way.

I suppose this is why I took such joy in a recent article by Simon Critchley posted in a new New York Times blog on philosophy called The Stone. In it Critchley asks the question, What is a Philosopher?

He starts by recalling the story that Socrates tells in his dialogue Theaetetus about Thales. Thales – perhaps the world’s first philosopher – falls into a well while concentrating on the stars with curious awe. A servant girl then passes by and comments that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky, Thales forgot what was going on right in front of his face.

This story reminded me of the time during my freshmen year at Northwestern that I crashed my bike into a car stopped at a stoplight while riding to a political theory class where we were reading Rosseau’s Social Contract. In class I wanted to ask the professor whether Rosseau intended the social contract to be a literal activity that societies undertake, or if it is more of a hypothetical device to explain how states derive their legitimacy. If we are literally supposed to come together at some time and place and form a contract, what happens when new members enter the community later – like immigrants. Are they part of the social contract? Are they outside it? Does the contract evolve? Or do the newcomers have to change to assimilate into pre-existing contractual agreements? Steeped in thought, I veered right and, in the middle of Sheridan Road just outside of the Kellogg School of Management and in front of at least a few hundred students rushing to class, I crashed. Quietly, I later paid the car’s owner a few hundred dollars I didn’t have for door panel damage and rode my bike with crooked handle bars for the rest of the year.

But, could there be value behind the philosopher’s seeming absent-mindedness and lack of acute skill? Critchley thinks so, and so does Socrates. Critchley writes,

“Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ”bent and stunted” and they are compelled “to do crooked things. The pettifogger is undoubtedly successful, wealthy and extraordinarily honey-tongued, but, Socrates adds, “small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster.” The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.”

And,

“Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.”

Thus, at his or her best, the philosopher pursues questions that go unasked in contexts where the next news cycle, election, or quarterly profit report are the only outcomes that matter (even if this means falling into a well or crashing a bike from time to time). And, the philosopher engages others in this pursuit, approaching anyone, no matter the size of their bank account, the color of their skin, or the number of SAT vocab words they can rattle off, with the same genuine desire to listen, to learn, and to dialogue.

I’m still pretty sure I don’t want to be a full-time philosopher when I grow up. Too much of a desire to be in-the-world working on practical problems. But, at least now  I might be able to look someone in the eye when they ask me what I’m doing this year.

I awoke this morning to an email from the people at Andrew Sullivan – a photo I took in Donegal and submitted was the View from Your Window yesterday! Check it out. 🙂

We visited the gorgeous Ross Strand beach while driving the Ring of Kerry with my dad and uncle.  I love the red in the sand and mountains and the blue sea and sky!  It was a gorgeous day.

Two weeks ago, Jon and I were in Bray, just south of Dublin, for our friend Laura’s birthday celebration.  It rained like crazy while we took the commuter train down to Bray, and we waited out the last couple minutes of the storm in the train station.  As soon as the rain let up, the sun started shining through the clouds, and Jon and I knew we were in rainbow territory. It only took a minute to find one forming in the sky, in the direction of the beach.  We rushed towards it, hoping to enjoy it before it disappeared.

This was the biggest, brightest rainbow I’ve ever had the chance to see.  We spent the next 15 minutes admiring, snapping photos, and walking along the beach.

The reflection in the puddles was pretty cool.

A stunning look at the Irish sea looking north towards Dublin, and then south towards Bray Head.

More cool reflections.

And shot of us together before the rainbow vanished.

No pot of gold – the rainbow was treasure enough!

welcome…

Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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