Ellen Flanagan

Different shades of the same color

Ellen is a final year Law and French student in University College Cork. She is a Quercus University Scholar for Academics. Ellen was elected second year representative of the UCC Law Society and has also held elected roles on UCC Philosophical Society and French Society. She is passionate about Irish and European politics and has interned with Fine Gael in the European Parliament, during her Erasmus in Strasbourg. Her study interests include human rights law, focusing on gender equality. She has been involved in Scouting Ireland for over a decade and volunteered as a youth leader for several years. She is a lover of both Irish and foreign cultures, speaks Irish and French fluently along with having conversational Italian and some Japanese.

Ellen Flanagan

University College Cork

Law and French

Work Placement
Irish Embassy

Host Family
Ann Dermody

Date Published
July 4, 2017

You read the Washington Post every morning, you listen to NPR. You fret about the humidity reports. Your mother tries to pack your bag, and then you pack it again. You leave the heaviest of your books behind; those stories will be waiting for you when you arrive home. She checks for your passport, then you check for it again. You forget it anyway and ask the taxi driver to turn back around.

Could you ever really have prepared yourself for these eight weeks? You might as well have left that suitcase behind; the baggage drags you down. You only ever really needed your curiosity – and, in this particular case a couple of bottles of sun cream.

You arrive at Dulles airport and think you will have time to change before meeting your host family. You are wrong. By the baggage carrousel there are 30 families hoisting welcome signs, flags and smiles. A woman taps you on the shoulder and asks if you are Ellen – she has zoomed in on a picture of your face that was posted online. You could not have imaged that a few days later you would feel at home in her house. That you would have to remind yourself not to refer to her house as home when you called your mother in Ireland. Never would you have expected your lives to intertwine so seamlessly. The first thing your new host family does is bring you to see the White House. You are still in yesterday’s clothes, tired and thirsty in this incredible heat but you take a picture to send home to the mammy. You hope she doesn’t frame it.

Week #1 you take the famous Bryan Patten tour of the National Monuments. The class makes their way past the Washington Monument and on towards the Lincoln Memorial under the unforgiving sun. You stop. From the heat, and the exhaustion, but also to ask whether it is all real. Are you really here? If you are here, then who are you?

It is ironic in some ways, that you have come to the US – not so much to learn about the US, but to learn about Ireland. And to learn about yourself. The class walks past the reflecting pool that day and you think about the importance of this trip. All your life you have seen yourself and your identity through the eyes of those who share that identity. Looking into that reflecting pool, none of you are shown the image you thought you would see, but rather the image that everyone can see. The experiences here, both individual and collective are shaping your shared identity in a way you never expected.

You remember as a child on family holidays, kids from other countries would ask whether there was still war in Ireland. You would look at them in disbelief. A war? In your country? The land of penny sweets, rain drops and gwan gwan gwan have a cup of tea? You thought it quite a funny notion, in this land of unarmed police officers and off-beat mass choirs. The word War seemed heavy in your mouth, bitter on your palate. Ireland, the safest place you knew. You would explain that Ireland had no tornadoes, no hurricanes, no tsunamis, no guns, no avalanches, no forest fires– and most importantly – no snakes. In your younger years, you thought it perfectly logical then, that this meant everyone was safe. We lived united, without fear. When you looked at the map you saw Ireland. No North and South. This was not in any Nationalist sense, but rather a sheer disbelief that it could be any other way. Your identity was shaped for you by dreams from Tír na nÓg and Cú Cullan, of mystical tales and Celtic legends. These tales and fables were with you long before any mention of The Troubles.

In later years, after reams of history lessons you learned the theory behind it all. You looked to the map on your wall and saw 26 counties draped in lush green, the remainder of the Island was left to wallow in grey. It was not ours. This part did not belong to us. You did not feel welcome to ask about it, this secret place, these counties hidden in grey. It felt so far from you, in Cork, and everything you knew. You left Ireland, travelled around Europe and Asia, lived in France and the US but your wanderlust never took you north of that border. You felt disconnected with that part of the country, with a history that seemed somewhat hidden from you. You reveled in the rebellious nature of your own county, without really knowing what you had rebelled against. It took WIP orientation for you to cross the border for the first time.

It is interesting, that in this moment when America is questioning itself and its values, when Europe is fretting over the commonality of its identity, that I am becoming surer of my own identity. I want to see my identity in terms of shared experience, rather than green and orange or any other shade. I listen to my classmates and their explanations of Northern Irish politics, tales of devolution, flags and manmade walls and I feel for the first time that I belong to the Island of Ireland, rather than just a part of it. From all the way across the Atlantic, I look back and I see the whole Island. That distinctive green spreads from North to South, East to West, the Irish nature knows no borders. We left Ireland, a class of 30 different colours. I hope that when we return, it will be as 30 shades of the one colour – with an understanding that we come from the same place, and however different we may see it, from here – all the way across the Atlantic – everyone looks back and sees the same view.