Early in August the Kenan Institute for Ethics in partnership with Ireland’s largest multi-cultural newspaper, Metro Eireann and the Gallery of Photography Ireland hosted the Fourth Annual Intercultural Young Writers and Photographers Competition. The national competition is part of Kenan’s more than ten-year effort to work with the Irish government and a range of NGO’s to usher in a new Ireland that reflects the countries increasingly multicultural population and culture. Here, young people had the opportunity to depict the ethical challenges of this newly emerging Ireland through the art of fiction and photography. The submissions in this year’s competition came from across Ireland, from native born Irish as well as from recently arrived migrant and refugee youth.
One short story narrated by a teenager who is forced to decide whether to welcome the arrival of Syrian refugees in his small rural town or join his closest friends in violently opposing the newcomers was one of this year’s winning submissions. Another short story that was awarded a prize in this year’s competition explored the meaning of Blackness in Dublin. A set of poems depicted Starbucks as a crossroads of the many different cultures in Ireland.
The award ceremony was held at the Royal College of Physicians in downtown Dublin. The program featured remarks from Dublin’s Lord Mayor Ardmhera Nial Ring, Senator Aodhan O’Riordain and novelist and poet, Rebecca O’Connor. In speeches that looked both backward, to Ireland’s past as a country of senders, and forward, to the possibilities of an increasingly diverse nation, the audience was encouraged to play an active role in shaping this new Ireland. The ceremony concluded with a reflection from Duke Sophomore Andrew Carlins. Andrew spoke eloquently about his time this summer working in Dublin with the Irish Refugee Resettlement Program (IRRP) in the Department of Justice and Equality.
I’ve been meaning to update you all on the documentary project I’ve been working on since June. As I wrote back in the summer, I traveled to Dublin with the DukeEngage cohort to undertake my own investigation: the recent suspension, via the Dublin City Council, of The Exchange, a collective arts center in downtown Dublin. At present, I’m 34 pages deep in transcriptions from interviews I conducted with Exchange volunteers, activists, academics, arts administrators, and politicians. Once I’ve transcribed the last few interviews, I’ll begin to post updates on the blog from time to time as I put the pieces of the story together.
It’s still difficult to visualize, at this point, what exactly the story I write will look like. But I am certain, especially in the midst of ongoing press about the closure of The Exchange and similar arts venues in Dublin, that the story I write will attempt to interrogate both the closures themselves and the ways in which I came to know them, and their sphere of actors and participants. Why do I care? What experiences stateside, both personally felt and otherwise, contribute to my interest in the collapse of creative spaces anywhere? What kind of story can a relative ‘outsider’ tell about these stories generally, and The Exchange’s story specifically?
A few days ago, writer, artist, and radio documentarian Gareth Stack published a short audio documentary about the startling trend of creative spaces closing in the city, and what can be inferred from this trend about Dublin’s, and Ireland’s financial wherewithal. Put another way, in the prelude to his report: “Could the city’s economic status be gauged from the number of independent arts spaces that’ve closed down, suggesting a new competition for space?” In the piece, Gareth interviews representatives of several different arts spaces about gentrification, the relationship between art-making and place, and the ways in which arts organizations’ structures are changing as demand for real estate threatens to erase them.
Gareth actually contacted me over the summer, referred by an Exchange volunteer who I talked to several times during the two weeks I was in the city. He was just then beginning the radio piece and was looking for more contacts, more stories of spaces being threatened with closure (or in the process of closing). His piece is helpful as I continue to contextualize The Exchange’s story within other ones, as well as recreate my experience from the summer on the pages of a Word document.
But the thing I like most about Gareth’s piece—which stands alone as culture reportage—is the way it’s embedded, on his personal website, within a longer (written) narrative of his own connection to these creative spaces, especially The Exchange. You can read this piece, replete with photos from his time at The Exchange, here. He talks about how he found both The Exchange and another non-hierarchical collective space, Seomra Spraoi, after graduating from college. “I found myself footloose and penniless,” he writes. “Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate.” Volunteering at The Exchange offered him an alternative, and quickly became a vibrant community in which he played a key part. He calls his time there “three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life.” The language he uses to describe and to commemorate his time there is not dissimilar from that of other volunteers I interviewed over the summer. I have hours of audio recordings that are made up, simply, of different voices describing their favorite events, exhibitions, and moments spent at The Exchange. The details of their experience testify to the venue’s uniqueness. I wonder, still, what it would’ve been like to be there.
Gareth’s longer narrative is another voice, and another testimony, for this evolving archive. (Several of the volunteers I interviewed told me my piece would add to the archive, too). And I say “evolving” because in the wake of these closures there’s another trend forming: what these people will do with their memories, with their relationships, with their art, with their activism. There’s the question of what Dublin’s —or Durham’s, or any city’s—creative architecture will look like in 10 years, but there’s also the question of what it will look like in two months. And this archive is part of that doing.
Before the story and before the prose, the nitty-gritty.
(Note: the above is most certainly not an Irish proverb).
For the next few weeks on the Insider I’ll be sending you stories from Dublin, Ireland, where I’m stationed to assist with the DukeEngage Dublin program. You’ll also be hearing—through our Student Engagement Journals site—from the seven undergraduates participating in the program, with whom I’ll be working on their summer letters home as well as collaborating on documentary representations of the city and of their DukeEngage experiences.
Beyond the Insider, it’s a slightly different, though not disconnected, story. In reference to Ireland’s long history of emigration and new quandaries of immigration and multiculturalism, the DukeEngage Dublin program poses the question, What happens when a country of ‘senders’ becomes a country of ‘receivers’? I participated in DukeEngage during the summer of 2011, when the unemployment rate hovered around 14.7% and emigration of Irish nationals rose sharply to around 40,200, only slightly surpassed by the 42,300 immigrants entering Ireland that same year.
I return to Dublin this time around, three years later, with a documentary eye aimed at what has changed and what has sustained. Mostly, I’m interested in how life feels—for everyone living here, in tandem with the larger forces of migration, cultural integration, austerity, and national identity. Though “everyone” is hardly a feasible focus group, and “larger forces” can quickly become too abstract for the documentary medium. The medium, at least in my case, fuels itself from stories shared—which I’d, with great care, cluster and accumulate around general statements: I was here, it felt this way, it’s important to me because. And within the stories nestled within these statements, I’m interested in the unexpected, the digression, the spontaneous architecture of conversation and sharing. I seek ways to build this architecture into my documentary approach, to compose “a compass by which to get lost,” as Rebecca Solnit writes.
Three summers ago, my DukeEngage cohort devised a public survey project that set itself up, comfy chairs and all, in various spots throughout the city. We asked Dublin residents to tell us how they felt about cultural integration in the city, about race and ethnic relations. One of those spots was The Exchange, which describes itself on Twitter as the following: “Volunteer-run all-ages non-profit arts-cultural-social over-hyphenated open space in Dublin – currently in Limbo…” When I visited The Exchange in 2011, I noticed its demographic diversity; its volunteers eagerly chatting with one another; its literal and metaphorical openness: rooms cascaded into more rooms, large glass windows opened to the streets of Temple Bar. Galleries also served as performance spaces, hangout areas were spaces for discussion, workshopping, advocacy. Since its inception in 2009, the consensus-based, inclusive venue has been known as a vibrant community space in Dublin. It’s also committed to connection and learning through the arts, offering classes and exhibition space for the creatively inclined.
The Exchange made news recently when the Dublin City Council—also The Exchange’s funder and landlord—suspended the venue for a three-month “review” period due to claims of “anti-social behaviour” in The Exchange’s vicinity. Supporters of the venue argue back: isn’t closing a community arts center an act of anti-social behaviour? They point toward larger social issues: the perceived lack of safe and productive social spaces in Dublin for especially young people, the presence and direction of arts funding in times of austerity, the odd urban plan of Temple Bar, which joins at the hip progressive arts venues and tourist bars (and which I wrote about for Recess in 2011). If “anti-social behaviour” exists, the supporters say, it does elsewhere, and for other reasons that won’t be solved, let alone addressed, by closing The Exchange.
But still, the venue is closed for the time being, under “suspended inanimation,” The Exchange’s Change.org petition terms it. I’m hoping to unpack some of that inanimation and hear from members of the Exchange community about how that inanimation feels. What has changed? What has sustained? But also: What brought you to this space? What does it give you that other spaces do not? I want to hear from community members elsewhere: City Council members, neighbors, young people in the creative industries. What function do creative community spaces serve? How do we ensure our citizens’ access to productive, meaningful lives?What do changing demographics mean for urban organization? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posing these questions. Over the next few months, I’ll be producing a series of audio documentary portraits from these interviews, as well as writing a longform nonfiction piece about my time here—both over the years and in the present-tense. I continue to grapple with what it means to participate in and identify with a community; for me, this community typically intersects with the arts in some form, and thus I find myself here, with lots of questions.
I invite you to join me as I myself reflect, over the next few weeks, about what it feels like to be here.
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.
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.
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).