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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)!

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.

Apart from furious paper writing, the past week has been almost completely defined for me by the craziness of the Icelandic volcano. Now that the chaos has subsided a bit, I thought I’d reflect on all the ways we’ve experienced the volcano’s effects over the past week.

  • If it weren’t for that stupid volcano, Jon and I would be enjoying time with his mom and grandma, here in Galway, at this very moment. They were due to arrive on Wednesday this past week, but their flight was cancelled. We are just sick about not being able to see them, but there was nothing anyone could do about it! We are slightly consoled by the fact that we’ll be home in the US in just about two months. But we are missing both Cindy and Vanesse this week!
  • We had one unexpected guest for a night, which was a pleasant surprise! A friend of mine from Northwestern, Robert, got stuck in Ireland for almost a week. We hadn’t seen each other since graduation, so it was really great to catch up face to face. I got to show off my beautiful adopted hometown and hear more about Robert’s life in Los Angeles. Robert is a budding travel writer/movie maker, and is documenting his epic Europe adventure (and other travels) here. Check it out – he’s hilarious! – and I’m sure he will be a household name someday.
  • Michael (my fellow Mitchell scholar/dear friend in Galway) got to spend a whole extra week with his visiting friend, Ryan, while he was in travel purgatory here in Ireland. Poor Ryan was the best man in a wedding which took place yesterday, and worked so hard to get home in time for it. He ended up getting a flight that would bring him home to Chicago just in the nick of time… so we trust that he eventually made it!
  • One (of many) sad local stories we heard: An older gentleman in Ballybofey turned 80 last weekend. He was born in England but settled in Ireland. To celebrate his big day, he had all of his relatives flying in from England and elsewhere: kids, grandkids, brothers, sisters, cousins. Everyone. Of course, all flights were cancelled and no one could come. Apparently, he held the party anyway, but was devastated that his most dear friends and family were an island away. Breaks your heart just thinking about it!
  • The market for flights has been all messed up ever since the volcano. Jon still needs to buy his one-way flight home, and the prices have jumped pretty significantly – we’ll have to wait for them to drop a bit. And Ryanair has used this as an opportunity for a big promotion – over the weekend they advertised dozens of flights at only 3 euros each way!

All in all, it’s been a pretty crazy, surreal week. Full of stories about the strange ways that this volcano (and by extension, air travel) has affected our daily lives. It has brought people together in unexpected ways (seeing Robert again!) but also kept people apart (Cindy and Vanesse). And it has reminded us that, although we’ve been able to use technology to do some pretty amazing things, Mother Nature is still boss.

Spring is finally making its way to Galway!  This photo was taken over a month ago, on a randomly gorgeous day.  Since then, we’ve had a lot of rain, some snow, a couple rounds of hail, and generally chilly temperatures. But it’s getting better now – buds on trees, flowers blooming, temperatures rising…

To welcome spring in, we’ve planted a little herb garden in planter boxes on our back porch.  I’m terrible with gardens, so we’ll see if we can keep everything alive! Photos to come.

In days before my heart was sore
from wondering what if, what next, and what for.
But today that was swept away
by the sights on the prom at Galway Bay.
A boy’s carrying a sand pale, and old boy’s telling a tall tale
and a hooker’s preparing to set sail.
At the foot of the palm tree, a smiling white Westie
is unleashed and invited to run free.

Monroe's on a Tuesday night

Craic (pronounced crack) is an Irish word that basically translates to “fun,” “chatter,” and general enjoyment. A common greeting here is “What’s the craic?” and people often say that they are going out for a bit of craic. Galway is full of places to experience some good craic, and we have become fans of one place in particular: Monroe’s Tavern.

Every Tuesday at Monroe’s, a diverse group of people assemble, greet each other, and put on their dancing shoes. A band, consisting of different instrument combinations every week, warms up. Once enough people are present, the music starts and the dancing begins. The type of dancing is called set dancing, a traditional Irish folk dance, which reminds me somewhat of American square dancing. Pairs dance together, spinning, switching dance partners, and stomping feet. The songs are short, but the band plays one right after another, with little to no break. The dancers continue, and over the next two hours, the group grows larger and larger.

After a couple of weeks watching the dancing, we began to recognize faces and pick out some of the regulars. One older gentleman, who must be in his 70s, is the first to arrive and the last to leave every week. He comes prepared with a towel to wipe the sweat from his brow. It appears that he never needs a break – he is constantly in motion. You can tell that he lives for Tuesday night dancing. Another graying gentleman, tall and graceful, has impressed us with his skill. He knows all the correct footwork and his special dancing shoes click and clack along with his enthusiastic steps.

We were lucky to strike up a conversation with one of the regulars a couple of weeks back. Terri, a Galway local and avid dancer, was sitting for a break and a drink of water at the table next to us, when we started to chat. She told us about the step dancing festivals that happen all over the island, about the community of dancers in Galway, and explained to us the different dances as they were happening. Terri now greets us whenever we come through the doors of Monroe’s on Tuesday, and when she takes a break, she comes to chat. Last week, we inquired about some of the regulars on the dance floor, and learned that one was from France, and another from Germany. But on the dance floor, you’d never know it – everybody looks like they’ve been doing Irish step dancing their entire life.

One day maybe we will get up the nerve to join the group and learn a couple moves.  Terri would be thrilled.  If the French and German members can learn, why not a couple of Americans?

Saturdays in Galway are a special thing – when its dry.

The three ducks (2 males and a female) are usually waiting outside to be fed. I’ve learned you have to be quick and discrete or else word spreads to the gulls, and mayhem ensues.

Along the prom dogs of all shapes and colors are running towards the ocean. Kids bundled up like marshmallows stumble just behind. And still further back, parents stroll with one eye on child, and the other out to sea.

In town the market is bustling. All the usual suspects are manning their stations. The falafel man with the dreadlocks has the longest line, with good reason. The crepe lady with short dark curly hair comes in a close second. Dozens of people squeeze around each other in the 800 year old market square located in the shadow of the 800 year old St. Nicholas Church. My consumer senses are stimulated by the paintings, pottery, knit clothing, fresh vegetables, pastries, and fish caught in the sea just down the road. But, my citizen senses also come alive at the sight of civil pleasantries exchanged between old friends and new strangers.

Across from the market, the pub patios lining Shop Street are filled with folks sipping pints and exchanging chat. In the background a motley mix of musical instruments provide a fitting soundtrack – the boys on the bongos in front of Eason’s bookstore, fiddlers warming up at Tig Coili, and the smiling man near the Meteor cell phone shop with his bellowing accordion.

My favorite part about Saturdays in Galway, though, is the balloon animal man. He stands right in the heart of town – across from Evergreen’s Health Food Store. A steady stream of children guide their parents to him for a custom made crown, dog, or sword. He’s quick, and good. I’ve never seen one break. As he works, the kids watch his hands intently, with clear looks of anticipation. The parents watch too – perhaps thinking more like their children in that moment than they’d like to admit.

And along Shop Street, for the rest of the day, bright colored balloon objects dot the landscape, giving people something small and different to smile at.

Maybe every town should have a balloon animal man. Surely it couldn’t hurt.

We, like many others around the world, spent last evening with our gazes fixed to a big-screen tv, beers in hand, while rowdy men around us chanted, “GO SAINTS!” Apparently, word had spread that this pub was the place to go to watch the Super Bowl in Galway.  Hundreds of Americans descended upon the small pub, many of them wearing football jerseys supporting their home teams.  American accents abounded.  Everyone was ready for a good game, and the Saints looked to be the crowd favorite.

While the sheer number of people at the pub to cheer on the Colts and/or Saints was surprising, there was one group present that was particularly unexpected: young Irish guys.  We were standing next to a very loud, rambunctious group of them, who were friendly enough, but didn’t seem to know a lot about football.  They asked me, Jon, and our American friend Jada, who we were cheering for.  They seemed to be weighing the options between the two teams very carefully, hoping to choose the winner as their favorite.  Although they reacted appropriately at a couple of big plays, it was clear that they didn’t know American football very well.  Why were they here? I wondered.  All I had to do was look around… large groups of cute, new-to-Ireland, American study abroad girls.  Ah ha.  Question answered.

No Super Bowl is complete without a whole bunch of outrageously expensive, hit-or-miss commercials that make the whole shebang worth watching – true or false?  From my experience last night, I would say that it’s true.  While you all back in the US of A were being treated to Dave, Jay, and Oprah, and controversial (well, maybe) Focus on the Family ads, we were stuck with the same 3 low-budget ads over and over again.  Not having anything interesting to watch during the commercial breaks made me realize just how many commercials there are!  And it definitely made the experience of watching the game a lot less fun.

One last perk to our late night football watching was a chance at a true Irish experience – the lock-in.  Lock-ins, according to my Irish friends, began back in the day when pubs were obligated to close for two hours on Sunday afternoon (I am not sure why they were supposed to be closed at the time – Irish friends, help me out?).  Instead of closing the pub down and forcing customers out, the pub owners would simply shut the windows, lock the doors, and pretend like they were closed, while allowing those inside to keep drinking.  Nobody was allowed in or out until the pub was officially “open” again.  Apparently, lock-ins still happen from time to time, when a pub wants to stay open past its required closing time of midnight.  That was the situation we found ourselves in last night – locked in to the pub!  Luckily, we found someone who was willing to let us out before the game ended.  But from the outside of the pub, you’d have no idea that a couple hundred American kids (and a couple dozen hopeful Irish lads) were inside, cheering the Saints on to victory.

charming adolescent swan

I love birds, but I’ve never been much of a bird photographer – they’re pretty hard to capture. I had a bit of luck the other day, and managed to get these two photos of some of my winged friends.

a flurry of wings as seagulls, ducks, and swans are fed by a local Galway resident.


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