A Retrospective Glance at Inhabiting a “New Normal” in Dublin

By Michaela Dwyer

I get excited when I see Ireland in the news—even if Ireland’s presence in American media takes its time, materializes gradually between two poles, like the rolling-hilled Irish landscape as revealed by cross-country train. One pole is a Dublin dispatch bemoaning the country’s economic state, with requisite mentions of the Celtic Tiger, international tourism (this year’s push to draw non-Ireland Irish to the Emerald Isle is dubbed “The Gathering,” and includes a tab on its website: “What It Means to Be Irish”), and JFK to boot. Another is 1400 words on a travel destination like Skellig Michael, a “desolate rock pinnacle eight miles off Ireland’s southwest coast,” or a bike tour through the Burren. These are media efforts to check up on contemporary Ireland vis-à-vis universalizing an “Irish experience,” and I can’t necessarily criticize that urge. Worldwide happenings feel better to us when we can easily see ourselves, or someone or something we know, in the “news.” Of course, this presupposes an “us,” and specifically an “us” with connections to Ireland. Bill Clinton’s “half the world is Irish and the other half wants to be” quip is both problematic and untrue, but my heritage places me in his first category—and this heritage is what initially spurred me to apply for DukeEngage Dublin three years ago.

Irish flag at the execution wall, Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin.

When I was writing for Metro Éireann for two months during the summer of 2011, I rarely got excited seeing my name in print. I say this because my temporary position as a staff writer for the small newspaper became a function of habit: I awoke every day, caught a variation of the #38 bus, and traveled across town and north of the River Liffey to a tiny office above a computer repair store. I’d chat with Greta, the Lithuanian secretary, and work on proposals for a multicultural media awards event as European pop radio streamed in the background. Chinedu, my boss and editor, would rush in an hour or two later, fresh from meetings with various members of what I would later understand to be his infinite network in Dublin. He’d tell me to be at an Italian restaurant (or a community center, or an executive Integration office) on the other side of town in an hour, to interview a chef on the financial success of his business despite the country’s economic woes, and to probe his immigrant’s lens on life in Ireland. I’d clarify the assignment, ask for advice on bus routes, and go. Then I’d spend the rest of the day transcribing, writing, and submitting articles. I took the same bus back “home,” south of the Liffey, where I and seven other Duke students were living for the summer.

Not once in any of these articles did I reveal my identity outside of my byline. For that summer, when you boil it down, I was the following: Michaela Dwyer, American student from Duke University, living in Dublin through DukeEngage, writing for an Irish newspaper (run by a Nigerian immigrant) serving immigrant, migrant, and refugee communities in Dublin. I’d quickly gotten over how strange, and how complicated, this layered identity was to inhabit on a daily basis. I’d also gotten over the strangeness of emerging from a largely Lithuanian or Nigerian neighborhood to be greeted by a bust of James Joyce or signage directing me to the Dublin Writers Museum; the rub of “traditional Ireland” against “contemporary, diverse Ireland”  felt less abrasive as time went on. I’d take these walks often, and often alone, taking on (and in) the city that hosted me for two months. I ate lunch sometimes at the Hugh Lane Gallery, which became my favorite cultural spot in the city, despite Dublin’s more obviously famous literary history. I’d then walk the two blocks back to work, buying baklava sometimes at the Turkish grocery store a few doors down from Metro Éireann’s office.

Graffiti in Rathmines, Dublin.

These are the details I’d send in epistolary form (albeit online) to my mother every day. When I look back through my email archive from that summer, I’m startled by how eagerly, and how gratuitously, I shared the everyday details of my two-months’ existence in Dublin (the microwaveable brown rice I bought; how social worker and one-time interviewee Fergus McCabe’s devotion to young people, both Irish and non-Irish, reminded me of my school-psychologist grandfather). I’m startled now, two years out, that my experience in Ireland—my first trip outside of the United States—at the time felt normal enough to be termed “the everyday.” Our group’s preparation for the trip was intense and comprehensive, and geared toward understanding the nuances of the new social, cultural, and political space in which we’d be living and working—a space superficially understood (shamrocks, freckles, and all) as a typical developed European country. The mere existence of DukeEngage in Dublin demonstrates that this is not the case. Our group’s understanding of Ireland was, from the beginning, foregrounded in its current multicultural reality, and our forthcoming place within it. We frequently discussed the importance of being there, and being with* the community members we would get to know and partner with; when we arrived, enacting this approach—whether in our community placements, group projects, or individual amblings around the city—was the given.

As with any immersive-by-design experience, there is the eventual re-entry, the transition from a “new” normal to the previous or “old” normal. The nugget is what material and what knowledge we carry with us, and how committed we are to carrying that out in a different context. You can see from my academic transcript that when I returned from Dublin I took classes on Samuel Beckett and W.B. Yeats; my internet browsers all contain bookmark folders with Irish newspapers and cultural centers; I still get Facebook notifications when someone across the pond “likes” Metro Éireann’s Multicultural and Media Awards. And I still gravitate, albeit warily, toward articles recounting an easily digestible, “authentic” Ireland—one I was aware of even before touching down in Dublin, where the fields were indeed green despite the rain. In no way could these articles represent my particular habituation of Dublin—in the least, because they rarely engage concerns of the immigrant, migrant, and refugee communities with whom I worked, and wrote for and about, in the city. But they stand in for recollections of my experience that summer, and still compel me to return, to re-engage my relationship with the city and its denizens—a relationship, much like life itself, at once totally unique and completely normal.


Applications for DukeEngage Dublin are due next Tuesday, Nov. 5, at noon. Find more information about applying here

*Former Dean of the Duke Chapel Sam Wells lays out these principles in his Nazareth Manifesto, which I read and found particularly applicable to Project Change this year (and, retroactively, my DukeEngage, as well as other, civic engagement experiences).