Strangers in a Strange Dorm

How Tir na nOg's Move Changed its Culture

Since its inception, Tir na nOg has beckoned to a certain type of Reedie. For many science-fiction fans at Reed, this setting—where role-playing games (RPGs) and immense, hand-sewn squids sprawl across the common rooms, showings of classic SF/F films and anime fill the evenings, and friendly-but-pitched discussions over the nuances of Tolkien’s Legendarium, the allegorical politics of Star Trek, or the continuity of H.P Lovecraft’s short stories can last well into the night—represents a community of like-minded peers that’s hard to find elsewhere. Kieran Sheldon, a current sophomore and two-year nOg resident, says of his first visit to the dorm as a prospie that, “looking in at all the Magic cards and role playing games was one of the things that made me decide to come [to Reed.]” A former Tir na nOg alum had this to say about his experience in McKinley and Griffin, “...The colloquialisms used [by Tir na nOg residents] tend to divide people into the high fantasy Tolkien nerds, the low fantasy Doctor Who nerds, the common Pokémon nerds, and the errant outsiders who don't belong.”

Currently, Tir na nOg boasts a community of thirty-something denizens (full disclosure: the author of this piece is among them) as well as a significant group of “satellites,” composed of past residents, alumni, and other fellow travelers. At the start of this year, however, the dorm moved from its traditional location in McKinley and Griffin to Sullivan. When asked about the change, Piper Summers, a current senior and nOg resident since 2014, reflected, “I’m still not convinced that this was the right change, but it seems to have worked out relatively well.”

In particular, they were frustrated by the relative inaccessibility of the nOg, which is now on Sullivan’s third floor: concerns over disability access were one of the main factors behind the move, but as it turns out, Sullivan’s elevators aren’t fire-safe, meaning that the building is difficult or impossible for many disabled Reedies to safely access. Additionally, the elevated location, brick walls (as opposed to the glass of McKinley-Griffin), and even self-shutting doors of Sullivan conspire to make it hard for satellites and other visitors to get to Tir na nOg; Piper recalled a much larger satellite community before the change, while Kieran commented that though the dorm has retained most of its previous satellites, it hasn’t gained as many as usual from the past year.

But the biggest change, as noted by both Piper and Kieran, is the shift from a single common room as the dorm’s center to two separate common rooms at either side. The Danger Room, as the common room shared between Mckinley and Griffin was affectionately known, used to be a space for all nOg residents to congregate. This unified focal point allowed for more spontaneous social interactions; rather than posting event notifications on Facebook a couple days in advance; students could simply walk into the Danger Room and join whatever was happening there, or start something entirely new. Now, however, the two separate common rooms make collective gatherings less likely. Perhaps inevitably, a social stratification has occurred; one common room is now mostly occupied by the nOg “old guard” and primarily used for socializing or watching TV, while the other is predominately used by freshman for studying or games of Magic: The Gathering (though there’s considerable overlap between the two; these are not firm divisions by any means).

Still, in spite of these challenges, Tir na nOg has persevered. Although the lack of glass walls makes the old nOg tradition of window-painting impractical, residents have continued to decorate inside and outside the dorm, including with a series of impressively-carved Jack-o-lanterns on the balcony outside the common room. The tradition of movie night continues every Tuesday, usually with large numbers of nOg inhabitants and others in attendance, and writer’s guilds, gaming clubs, boards full of fan drawings and art, and similar groups can be found across the nOg, both on- and off-line. Most importantly, enthusiasm remains high among the community: Kieran commented that although Sullivan as a space presents many challenges, he’s been heartened by a lot of the new residents. “It bodes well for the future of the theme dorm,” he added.