Before I left to study abroad in Galway, Ireland, in the winter of 2020, I’d stumbled upon a lively online discussion amongst first-generation, Black Irish immigrants. From the comfort of my bedroom, I came upon a comment that stuck with me for quite some time: I have never experienced outright racism here, an anonymous poster said. It’s because the racists here are cowards. They will never say anything to your face.
Having grown up in an exceptionally liberal yet majority-white city in Texas, I’ve experienced all the shades of racism, from the overt (white kids trying to get my attention by yelling the n-word at me from school bus windows) to the covert (I could count on my fingers and toes the amount of times I’ve been told something along the lines of, “I thought you’d be more ghetto”), to the it’s-okay-because-it’s-not-to-your-face variety (the high school girl rumor mill + me being one of a handful of Black girls in my entire school = me spending a lot of pitiful nights wondering why some of my peers hated and avoided me so much). And so while “silent” racism wasn’t at all new to me, the prospect of venturing into a new culture with hidden prejudices made me somewhat wary prior to my travels.
And yet, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t allow myself to believe that Ireland, or at least Galway, was some sort of inclusive safe-haven separate from the cultural racism that pervades every single aspect of daily life in the United States. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t racially aware of myself while abroad: when you’re Black, your knowledge of your own Blackness sticks with you no matter where you go. Someone on the street gives you an odd look and your heart churns. Rude but relatively harmless gestures can start to be misinterpreted, can make your palms sweat on the fly: I hope they’re not acting that way because I’m Black.
But Galway—exceedingly friendly, very extroverted—began to relieve my general paranoia. The Irish are masters of conversation. This was a nightmare for my introverted best friend, who briefly came to visit me, but freeing for me: I never worried about flubbing my words in an attempt to keep up with the fast-paced Irish accents. Galway is also a pretty global city. You hear French and German accents in restaurants; people of all nationalities are constantly coming and going for business and pleasure. The city seems to heartily welcome diversity: some of my most fond memories came from when I would enter a popular ice cream shop called Murphy’s, and the two young workers would emerge from their stations to greet me with warm smiles and stickily sweet ice cream scoops, wearing baby blue and white uniforms: “Hey, it’s the Texas girl!”
Finally, as a coastal town, the lingering scent of seawater reminded me of roaming the island of St. Croix—the tiny Caribbean island that my dad immigrated from. In fact, my internal schema for coastal towns, largely informed by childhood trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s on the island, ultimately had to be readjusted to account for just how different Galway was. Galway substituted the quiet, lush, mosquito-buzzing greenery of the Caribbean with cobblestone streets filled with boisterous Irish buskers, sometimes slightly intoxicated, playing their vintage instruments for the whole street to stop and marvel at; quaint little Caribbean houses were replaced with colorful, packed-together old buildings that, though charming, often looked one paint job away from falling apart. Gone were the crystal waters and white sands; in came the moody and grey Galway beaches that had jumped straight out of a page of melancholy poetry. Spending a day wandering down to Galway’s craggy coast always meant getting whipped red by the wind, sprayed by frigid sea water and hobbling back to campus with brown sand granules sticking to your arms and legs. The Galway waters were salty and ruthless. But, at the same time, the feeling that I was always close to the water led me to find a little bit of Caribbean calm within the brusque Irish sea.
Culturally, there were murmurs of racial antagonism bubbling beneath the city’s surface. In classes, I had learned about the inhumane conditions of government-mandated provisional housing that Black and brown immigrants were forced to stay in while awaiting their Irish citizenship. And at the beginning of my program, an older mentor had made sure to look me directly in the eye as she let me know that “The Gardaí are our friends here.” Such a seemingly innocuous yet loaded statement; it was a weird moment. And just as weirdly, that statement gripped ahold of me and would not let go for the entire duration of my time abroad. It floated in and out of my head whenever I spotted one of the guards in their fluorescent yellow jackets, shining like neon warning signs. The Gardaí are our friends, and my eyes would flit to a group of them in town, at a café, on break, chatting amongst themselves. My gaze would always dart to their waists. They never carried guns.
Then, there was a night.
Imagine a town teeming with an impressive diversity of people during daylight hours completely overrun by college students in varying states of intoxication during the night. Incessant, adolescent chatter echoing off the walls of buildings, until you can barely hear yourself. Lights were strung between rooftops, coating the stony streets in a hazy glow, like a dream; the alcohol burning down our throats certainly didn’t help. In the wavering brightness, groups of passing students morphed into malformed shadows on buildings; small pools of fluorescent-lit vomit were little errors on the pavement that we had to dodge around. There was an off-beat undercurrent pulsing just below the surface of the night, and it was a while before I recognized what was eerily absent: the acoustic busking sounds.
This was RAG Week, or “Raise and Give” Week. Once a college student-run event dedicated to hosting fun fundraising activities, the week has since devolved into a notorious occasion for partying, presumably because RAG Week “activities” have changed drastically in nature overtime. Friends informed me all about it: as the popularity of fundraising activities like student sponsored-pub crawls started to outshine non-alcoholic events—half-marathons, sporting games, etc.—the week began to adopt an entirely different meaning in the many decades since its inception.
At the peak of the night, we were on the dance floor at a particularly trendy joint, flailing ourselves to pulsating EDM beats. Dancing so far away from home made the energy of the room feel even more electric. More than once I caught the eyes of my friends, studying abroad from other countries, and I could tell they felt the same; the manic looks in our eyes mirrored our unhinged movements, and it seemed like something intangible was being exchanged between us. Something musky and thick hung in the air: a sensation of understanding, excitement. Pink, white, and orange strobes painted my friends’ faces in constantly changing colors, and the night was proceeding similarly—in pieces of color, in fragments filled with deep bass, heart-thrumming sensations, and the occasional press of one sweaty body against another.
Suddenly we were outside: fresh air and rehydration were needed. We stumbled out onto the streets, clamoring about in a cluster, our shadows all amorphous on the cobblestones. We swayed together, shared laughter that I’m sure was obnoxious, arms strewn haphazardly over each other’s shoulders. At one point we all dipped together in our unsteady balance, and then my eye caught red pooling onto the pavement. Like there was no end to it. There was a halt: the warmth of my friends’ arms behind me were gone.
I had to uncover the scene in parts, in about half-a-second: a limp hand on the ground, just up ahead, splayed out, fingers maybe twitching. The fingers belonged to a body, Black, on the ground. Another person heaved above him. And then we all saw it: the arm swinging down, cutting through the air like a knife, and then the impact—I couldn’t watch—I tried to turn my head away but saw a fist colliding with a face anyway, brutal and unrelenting. There were noises like gurgling that I couldn’t unhear.
Without my consent, I was yanked out of my youth to another time, place—to images, videos of Black bodies being maimed, of Black bodies suffering at the hands of police in the United States. Backs littered with gaping red bullet wounds; the crushing and mangling of Black necks in tightly-armed vices; the straining screams so hoarse, so futile. Viral, gruesome images that you’ve surely seen plastered across phone screens and news networks—images of unlawful, violent deaths that my mind instinctively suppresses for its own protection. I knew nothing of the context of what was unfolding in front of my eyes, but the aesthetic of Black brutalization was obvious.
I’d never seen this before in person. I did not grow up in a violent area; I’d only heard whispers about fights in high school, in the hallways long after they’d occurred.
My feet were rooted in-place, my body stuck in its own time. I couldn’t look away after all. A hand gripped my wrist firmly, and I became aware of other details: a crowd was forming, surrounding them, phones poised out and recording like strange, alien weapons. The fingers on my wrist dug in deeper and I was forced to find one of my friends’ faces. Her lipstick and mascara were sweat-smudged, her eyes small, pupils dwarfed by the whites. On the ground in front of her: the broken pieces of a wine bottle we’d been jokingly passing around, purple drink seeping into the cracks of the stones below us. Distantly, I heard sirens. Her mouth was moving to say something:
“Whitney, we have to go.” The sirens were getting louder. I couldn’t stop thinking about the body on the ground, about the videos online. People around us were starting to disperse, whipping past us, starting to run. The Gardaí are our friends. I was suddenly aware of how drunk, stupid, and alarmingly young we all were; something in my chest felt like it was about to burst. “We have to go, Whitney.”
And so I went.
It was difficult to navigate the streets with the same ease after that. I didn’t become more outwardly anxious, per se, but after being exposed to the violence—the altercation had been a bar fight that quickly turned sour, I’d later learned—paranoia crept back up within me. There were triggers everywhere: I turned down offers to participate in drinking games with the friends I’d made because the idea of becoming intoxicated gave me nausea. I couldn’t look directly at the building the fight had been in front of; instead I hurried along the opposite side of the street. And before I could even learn to become comfortable in my own skin again in Galway, we were sent packing: the threat of COVID grew to be incomprehensibly overwhelming both at home and abroad.
Like with most things that deeply disturb me, I shoved what happened that night during RAG Week deep, deep down within me. I blocked it from my memory while I threw myself into finishing my school work for the semester. For months, I reeled from the whiplash of my ejection from the damp, dreary Irish atmosphere into the swelteringly bright Texas heat with just 24 hour’s notice. Ireland had been so close, and now I was so far away, and we were all in danger. I woke up in cold sweats in the middle of the night, trembling with fear over the well-being of my high-risk family members.
Then came June.
I remember how my shoulders shook as I watched the video of George Floyd’s death. I remember the numbness; the despair that washed over me in drowning, torrential waves that left me paralyzed for days.
Over the course of weeks of protest, the haze of grief that hung over me eased up like a pale fog. It began to lift as I watched coverage of young activists sacrificing themselves at the feet of government buildings around the world—the global Black Lives Matter efforts still fill me with wordless awe.
During one of these weeks, a friend sent me an article. Still drained, mentally fatigued from having to watch—every day—the value of Black bodies debated on TV, on social media, I came upon an image of hundreds of people huddled beneath the grey Galway sky, right in the middle of Eyre square. There were videos, too: I can’t breathe, the people chanted in a swelling of desperate voices; Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
I felt myself grow jittery with nerves. From another angle in a different video, I could see protestors standing directly in front of the building where the RAG Week fight had happened, so many months ago. Right where there had been bloody cobblestones, gurgling noises, and people filming with their cell phones in the dark night. I saw defiant crowds shouting in the streets.
I’m still unsure how to process this dissonant convergence of images. As I watched the massive, Galway protests from my tiny phone screen in Texas, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. My head spun, flooding with an emotion I cannot articulate. But as I turned off my phone and looked out my bedroom window for some clarity of mind, the beginnings of the realization that something monumental was occurring—something shifting across societies—passed through me.
Outside, faded leaves on thin tree branches shook with the force of a dry, arid wind.
Whitney Bruno is a writer from Austin, Texas. She received her bachelor’s degree in English and psychology from Amherst College, where she served as an editor for Circus, Amherst’s student literary magazine. She also worked as an editorial assistant at The Common. Her essays and fiction been featured in Make Muse and Cerealization.
Photo by author.