What Ireland Taught Me

Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to travel abroad. The idea of going to another country always intrigued me. I grew up in the west of the United States in Bozeman, Montana where life was small and digestible. In 2007, I moved to Baltimore where my world grew a little bigger. However, I always craved more. 

I can remember one of the first times I traveled by plane. My mom is from the East Coast, so we constantly flew back and forth to visit her family. One of our first times back, I was around five and remembered feeling the rush of adrenaline when we were on the plane and began to take off. 

My desire to go abroad never diminished as I progressed through middle and high school. I had friends who would regularly leave the country and come back to tell me about their adventures. They brought back gifts, treats, and stories that felt foreign and exciting. I had never left the U.S.  back then, so everything they told me was left to my imagination. 

I always wondered what it was like to be introduced to a new language. As well as what the museums and schools are like in other countries. I knew that I would never get answers to these questions until I began my own traveling journey. 

I first traveled abroad to Dublin, Ireland during my junior year at Temple University, right before the start of the pandemic. My family is Irish-American, so I did know some things about the country as I began my journey there. I am the type of person who likes to go into something without expectations, so I traveled with an open mind, eyes wide open, and ready to learn. 

One of the first things that I noticed is that the drivers in Ireland drive their cars on the opposite side of the road and shops like Target and Walmart don’t exist, so I had to make several stops at different shops when I ran errands. Cigarettes can be rolled and tobacco can be purchased in little pouches at convenience stores. Every sign was written in both Irish and English and every announcement made was recited first in English and then Irish.  

Some common sayings included “What’s the craic?” and “cheers” which was the Irish equivalent of asking “What’s happening?” or “thank you.” It was as if my world had been turned upside down in a wonderful, confusing, and enlightening way. 

I had one class a day, so I was l able to explore Dublin city most weekdays. I made friends with my housemates and other international students while I was there as well. I joined societies and designed for Dublin City University’s newspaper. I went on hiking trips with the International society on the weekends and went dancing at clubs at night. I learned how to play hurling, Irish football, and racquetball, which are Ireland's three major sports. There was even an opportunity for me to go on a surfing trip with the Surf and Sail where I learned how to surf in a hail storm. 

When people started to find out that I was American, they began asking me questions that ranged from what are twinkies like to if America is similar to how it is viewed in films. These questions proposed all sorts of topics of conversation which led to hours of discussion over Jack Slats ciders and cheese and onion potato chips. However, what I found to be my favorite conversations were the ones with my peers about our hopes, dreams, fears, and what our childhood was like apart from the obvious cultural differences.

But there’s more to what I learned than the slang and the 26 counties that make up the European Republic. What I carry with me are not the little traditions they have, but what it feels like to connect with different kinds of people.

Despite our cultural differences and language barriers, what I really learned was that we experienced life the same way. We laughed the same, cried the same, and we experienced the same joy and happiness. 

Unfortunately, my study abroad experience was cut short due to the pandemic. I was supposed to travel to London and Berlin for spring break but only made it to London because Germany’s COVID cases were rising by the hour.  After three days in London, I returned home to Dublin where the next 72 hours were filled with panic, anger, confusion, and sadness. I said goodbye to all my friends and my housemates before finally leaving the country on March 16th, the day the borders closed to all of Europe. 

I spent most of the lockdown mourning the two months I had lost, but also cherishing the time that I had gotten. The adventures that I went on, the friends I made, and the conversations I had. 

There is a joke that people often make when you’re studying abroad in college, that when you come back to the U.S. you talk about how the trip has changed your life. It does change your life, but not in the way you think it does. You will come back with stories to tell, photos, and perhaps even some Irish slang incorporated into your everyday vocabulary. However, what will really change is how you see yourself, others, and your country.

What my younger self didn’t fully understand was that traveling opens doors, expands your mind, and your heart. It makes you a better and more understanding person. It makes you feel heard and appreciated, but also makes others feel the same. And it makes you want to travel and learn more. It doesn’t diminish your curiosity but enables and drives it. But most importantly, it makes you feel lucky to be alive.

Article written by Leeannah McNew on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association