Finally having returned home, I find myself able to reflect on my time in Ireland. I came to the island without any experience traveling by myself, and without any particular knowledge of the country’s rich past.

I always knew I would return to The States more knowledgable about Ireland, but had little concept of how much I would learn about myself and my own country’s culture. There are several things that occur as small-scale interactions within American culture that I always took for granted as part of the human experience. Now, having experienced things done in a variety of different ways to the American system, I appreciate to greater degree the variety of life.

Little things like having someone to pack your groceries, or not having to wait for a bus to travel allow me to return to my home with a new appreciation for the country I call home.

I will never forget the things I saw in Ireland, nor will I forget the people, nor the new-found skill which helped me talk to them. There’s a skill to meeting and talking to a strangers different from yourself, and an experience abroad is the perfect time to hone these skills.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the wonderful journey this has come to be. My sincerest wish is that everybody can get the chance to step outside of their comfort zone and learn to experience the world in full.

A most special thanks to my professors for providing this lovely opportunity, to my parents for helping me make this dream a reality, and to my classmates and new friends for the unforgettable memories.

The pride of the Dubliners

The final portion of our trip took us to Dublin, the spiritual heart of the Irish republic as well as the nations capital.

We came for the weekend of Pride, and found that the entire city had come to life. Dublin has the highest percentage of national attendance of any Pride event in the world, and the recent announcement of legalization for gay marriage in Ireland and the United States guaranteed this would be the most fabulous Pride festival of all time.

The city streets were at full capacity following the headlining parade, and the area remain flooded with rainbow flag-touring Irish of all ages. We saw people university-age through retirement-age, all celebrating the historical civil rights win. Every-third window seemed to have a flag in their window, and even the Capitol building was flying the rainbow banner proudly.

I was more than a little taken back to see such a prideful display in Ireland, of all places. There’s a connotation of Ireland as a very conservative and religious place, and LGBT issues have historically had a troubled relationship with that type of area. When I talked to some local university students, they told me that they didn’t see any reason to deny people the right to happiness, and that they considered it a victory even though they weren’t gay.

The celebration went on for the majority of the time we were in Dublin. It is my sincere hope that this type of acceptance may become adopted worldwide.

Ireland and its North

Ireland has a short-but-controversial history with it’s northern neighbor. Following a history of colonial oppression by the British, Ireland was finally able to break free, in part, following an agreement in which most of the nations counties would become part of the free Irish Republic. The north had a greater quantity of British loyalists, so a collection of six counties were made to remain part of the United Kingdom.

For some, this was a point of pride, but for others it became a source of distress. Decades of political conflict were brought to a head during The Troubles, when the conflict turned to terrorism from both sides.

Officially, The Troubles ended following peace treaties signed by organizations on either side of the conflict, but the sociopolitical tension remains strong within The North.

We visited Northern Ireland as a daytrip to Belfast, the city which suffered the greatest during the Troubles. Our tour guide told us the history of the nation as we approached the border, but failed to mention The Troubles themselves.

As we reached Belfast and began our tour of the city, we transferred ourselves to black taxis. When asked why this was necessary, we were told the Irish-green buses previously used fell victim to too many terrorist attacks. The guide then went on to explain how religious conflict was still incredibly-common within The North, and how all five of the tour guides had an immediate family member killed in a hate crime.

The city itself remains strongly divided between catholic and Protestant. One neighborhood had 50,000 members and zero Catholics, while another had 30,009 and only Catholics.

The most surprising part came upon touring the Peace Wall, a ten-meter tall concrete partition between the two halves of the city. Designed to prevent terrorism, it’s supported even contemporarily by 85% of the citizenry.

My impression of the Irish republic so far had convinced me of the nations charm, but led me to believe all of Ireland was a slightly-modified United States. It wasn’t until I came to Northern Ireland that I realized portions of the nation still exist in a state of conflict.

The tour made me feel for the people on both sides of the conflict, and brought me a new appreciation of the tranquility of my life in America.

The culture of pubs

Ireland and alcohol are famously intertwined, and for good reason. Home to world-class stouts and whiskeys, Ireland has a proud heritage with regards to the pub.

Developed as a simple location to drink and consume food, the pub became entrenched in the Irish psyche following the use of pubs as political meeting areas. Unsurprisingly, the Irish pub is an establishment as full of culture as it is of hearty ales.

During my time in Ireland I learned about rounds, the practice of buying and having drinks bought as part of a small group. It’s an amazing system for bringing people together and feeling as if you’ve been given a gift without anyone necessarily losing money. As I met Irish university students, I found myself part of many rounds, and always enjoyed the bonding experience they provided.

Rounds weren’t the only thing to be enjoyed in Ireland’s many, many pubs. From dance clubs to old-timey pubs filled with the sound of guitars and bagpipes, I never failed to enjoy the musical experience of Ireland. On a specialized musical tour, me and my classmates were even given a history of Ireland’s musical instruments and the role they played in pubs. Music helped bring people together, and has been a source of pub entertainment for generations.

A nation born from conflict

I’ll be the first to admit that I knew very little about the island nation when I initially signed up for this trip. Everyone knows the stereotypes- leprechauns, fields of clover, sheep, and dark Irish stouts- but my knowledge of the real country was shockingly-hollow.

It wasn’t until the end of the first week of classes that I began to understand the forces and events which shaped the Irish socially and politically. Ireland was an is a nation shaped by conflicting ideals. Collected from the disunified remnants of several city states and perpetually torn between the Protestant and Catholics faiths, Ireland exists as a product of these ideas.

While this conflict still exists in some ways throughout the nation, I found my trip to Ireland excessively peaceful and welcoming. Never in Ireland was I met with a frowning face, nor did I encounter anything to convince me of any present danger.

A question of scale

I arrived in Ireland a day before my classmates, and got my first views of the country as I made my way out of Dublin Airport. The airport, it turns out, was impossible to differentiate from a “normal,” American airport until you saw the half-English, half-Irish signs.

I took a bus through the Irish countryside, down the length of the state-sized nation, to the second largest city, Cork, where I would spend the bulk of my time this trip.  When people look at a map of Europe, many fail to appreciate just how compact the continent really is. For the British and Irish isles, I imagine, this applies doubly. The reality is that Ireland exists as a cultural megalith trapped on a piece of land the size of Indiana. As we drove to Cork, I shouldn’t have been amazed to hear “local” traffic reports about car crashes and traffic delays in cities on the opposite side of the country, but it was hard not to be.

Before I Even Began

My summer begins before I ever step foot in the deep green grass of an Irish meadow, or enter my first authentic Irish pub, or even before I step off the plane for the very first time in Dublin.

You see, my summer began just over a week ago, in beautiful, chilly, charmingly-Nordic Sweden. I spent four days wandering the city, meeting Swedes from all walks of life and getting my first exploratory taste of a European cityscape.  From there, I caught a train to the ultimate relaxation city, København. Another two or three days here and I’ll be on my knee-cramping RyanAir flight to Dublin.

If you had asked me before; however, I would’ve told you my summer started months ago, as I began the earliest stages of planning. What started first  as a hope of studying abroad soon blossomed into an seemingly-unobtainable fantasy of a European backpackers trip. Before I knew, this fantasy was churning in the back of my mind throughout each day– in class, at the gym, and anywhere else, I found myself constantly planning the logistics of this impossible plan.

And now the unobtainable is uncontainable. My trip is underway and I feel like nothing can stop my quest to experience the world and it’s many offerings.

Yeah, maybe I don’t know how to read any street signs in Swedish, and maybe I won’t know any famous bar songs in Ireland, but those gaps in my knowledge represent tantalizing opportunity, and I cannot wait to experience what those challenges have to offer.