Personal Statement: An American in Dublin

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 9:09pm

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Illustration by Emilie Farrugia

 

By way of introduction, I feel obligated to inform you, the reader, that I’m not really quite sure how to go about writing this — the knowledge of which might mean, conversely, that in some way you’ll be more sure of how to go about reading it. The first unforeseen (though obviously easily foreseeable) challenge is that I wasn’t exactly just sitting around looking for things to do. In fact, it took me about six weeks to find a few spare hours in which to work, which led to the production of this essay’s first draft in a spurt of frenetic, caffeine-fueled typing in a German cafe, where I vainly hoped that with my few days respite before I went on the road again I might be able to sputter out a few thousand words of genuine, semi-coherent writing that at least someone might deem worth reading. Not to mention that I feel as if this whole thing should probably be more than a catalogue or chronology, i.e., should have some sort of overarching thesis, raison d’être or “point,” the substance of which I’m really hoping I’ll discover as I go along. The second and only slightly less obvious difficulty is found in the necessity of presenting my trip as the intensely individual experience it was without simultaneously lapsing into excessive solipsism. Somehow, I need to be both authentic to my emotional memory and engage you in experiences which are not your own — all while scrupulously avoiding the irksome “look-at-all-the-cool-things-I’m-doing” tone which would drive you to rapidly abandon reading the remainder. A regular Scylla and Charybdis, as you can see.

For those of you still here, I promise I’ll get to the actual point of the piece relatively soon. But first, I think it would be fruitful to talk a bit about myself in a more specific way. After all, most narratives featuring a nameless or nondescript protagonist about whom we know nothing tend to lead to a state of indifference or sink us into a mental sopor, with the notable exception of nameless characters to whom horrible things happen, who — at least for me — tend to induce a general sense of extrapolated existential dread. And in this context, it’s probably best to think of me, the author, as a mostly-non-fictional character. Anyway, if you check the top of the page, you’ll notice that my name is Dayton Hare. I am a sophomore at the University of Michigan, where I’m a music composition major (and will soon add a second degree in English). With that in mind, more than anything else I am a composer, and I like (rather vainly, I suppose) to think of myself as young artist/intellectual. I love books (the type you can hold), history, poetry and modernist literature. I love the electric charge of the air before rain, and the smell of soil after. I like long walks on the beach as much as anyone, though I find the inevitable accumulation of sand on one’s feet to be incredibly irritating.

My flight was on 19 June, from Atlanta. My fellow traveler was my younger sister Fiona, who was traveling to Europe to study Shakespearean acting in London, just as I was going to study music and composition in Paris. During a layover in Washington D.C., we coincidentally ran into a mutual friend of ours from high school, who was travelling to Morocco to study Arabic. Small world, really. We boarded the plane in late evening, and somewhere over the North Atlantic I watched the warm heat of a parabolic dawn consume the thousands of stars burning coldly above us.

Our first sight of Europe was the deep green coast of Ireland as we descended toward Dublin (it turns out, after all, that the term “Emerald Isle” is not a misnomer). The first indication that we weren’t in America anymore came in the form of the airport signs, which were written first in Irish and second in English. The Irish capital itself was cool and grey, and people hurried about incessantly. My sister and I joined them, eager to see as much of the city as possible before we had to fly to Rome in a couple of days. Strolling through the city, we quickly fell into the local habit of jaywalking recklessly. I found myself casually wondering if dashing across the road involved the same sort of collective rebellion of spirit as led to the Irish War of Independence of 1919 (though I quickly dismissed this as a mind-boggling oversimplification and an idea that was frankly rather stupid). Later in the day, we visited the Garden of Remembrance, constructed as a memorial to “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom.”

To me Dublin has always been the city of Joyce, and this wasn’t changed by visiting it. We came across a statue of the author on the street, and I posed dramatically with him as my sister snapped a photo. I love Joyce, and I’ve always felt a certain empathetic connection to him, as if we were similar in some way (a bit conceited, I know). Perhaps it’s just the fact that we were both youths of artistic temperament growing up in places we felt to be culturally oppressive in some way (in his case, Ireland; in mine, the American South). I don’t really know why, but I’m ceaselessly fascinated with him. Part of the reason for these sorts of journeys always seems to be that of self-discovery, and I suppose that this Joycean encounter contributes to that as much as anything. It’s not as if I experienced some sort of dramatic artistic or personal revelation à la Beckett-in-mother’s-bedroom, but walking in the same place as an artist I’ve long admired walked, inhabiting the same space he inhabited, separated only by temporality, made that particular part of my identity feel more connected or “real.” Or perhaps that’s all nonsense. I’ve always considered the “self” to be relatively unknowable, but my compulsive need to acquire concrete knowledge always drives me to try to make sense out of these sorts of things, even when I can cognitively acknowledge that it’s probably a waste of time.

After seeing Joyce’s statue, we visited the Dublin Writers Museum, which was next door to a gallery of Irish art. Walking through the museum after a peek at the gallery, we saw first editions and manuscripts and letters — the lot. Before leaving the city, we strolled across the grounds of Trinity College, gazed at the illuminated pages of the Book of Kells, breathed in the paper-laden aroma of Trinity’s library, became lost no fewer than four times and unexpectedly consumed the spiciest Thai food either of us had ever encountered. By the evening of the second day, we were on a plane bound for a very different city, one that — like Dublin — was allegedly founded by a ship-borne people, but has a history nearly two millennia longer and a cultural footprint felt across continents.

Before we left for Rome, we took a final walk through the city. We strolled around St. Stephen’s Green, past St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the Irish are remarkably Catholic, aren’t they?), down through the Temple Bar district and across the river. As we passed over a bridge, I looked down at the waters of the River Liffey. The flowing mass was too active to form a mirror — I could see nothing of myself. I thought it a pity. What a great metaphor for self-reflection that would have made.