November 2006 Reflection

When my friend invited me out for a pint, I assumed it would be a quick jaunt to a close by pub. I had no idea this excursion required me to be equipped. Luckily my friend’s roommates came armed with their own flashlights. The journey began at the opening of a dirt path beside the “on-campus village” that lay so far away from campus it is in a different county. There were no lights on this path, nor were there any signs of life other than the mooing cows in the meadow hidden behind trees. This dirt path continued on for about half a mile until it met a country road. We walked down this road, taking care to walk single file over the narrow bridge as the infrequent car passed. Finally we saw a light in the distance; it hung over the door of the Lame Duck. Upon entering this pub, I was overwhelmed with the smell of Aqua Velvet and couldn’t help feeling that I had just stumbled into my grandpa’s basement. There were three other men in the pub watching a rugby match and all was silent except for the occasional expletive shout at the TV screen. We took our seats in the corner and ordered our pints, there were only two options, Guinness or Coors. We wisely chose the Irish creation and waited for the publican to slowly pour the perfect pint. After the thick, dark foam had settled I sipped what was the finest Guinness I have had in my life.

This was one of the only moments in my two months in Ireland, where I felt like I was experiencing the “Ireland” I had imagined before arriving. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time with my large Irish Catholic family in Chicago. We tried to preserve traditions like making soda bread, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and listening to traditional music like the Chieftains. To me these were things that made up my Irish heritage. I thought because of this heritage I knew what Ireland was like and what it means to be Irish. My romantic visions of a green land of devout, practicing Catholics, with old men in wool sweaters and hats sitting on pub stools singing away, living in small villages barely connected to the outside world formed the personal mythology I held about Ireland before I arrived in September. My experience living in Limerick for the past two months has challenged every preconceived notion I had.

From my first day in Ireland I was surprised by how developed the economy is and how expensive certain things are in comparison to the United States. My picturesque visions of rugged Irishmen and women struggling to get by were quickly replaced by images of families driving to the strip mall on a Saturday and business people in suits popping in and out of the many shops in Limerick on their lunch breaks. The rolling green hills I envisioned were still there, but they were dotted by suburban housing projects and large shopping centers.

My fantasy of University of Limerick was also revealed to be incorrect. As I began my courses in Peace and Development Studies and met my professors and fellow classmates, I quickly learned that school would be quite different from my previous experience in the States. The pace of life is much more relaxed and my program particularly seems to reflect this. It is generally less organized compared to what I am accustomed. I am slowly trying to build up a sense of humor about this, reminding myself it is a cultural difference to which it will take time for me to adapt. Otherwise, my many frustrations over this disorganization will turn me into an unpleasant student. Thus far, the mid-class tea breaks are helping. During every three hour class we are given a 15 minute tea break. This time is spent drinking tea in a campus cafeteria while commiserating with my classmates about lectures and assignments. I am also enjoying the subject matter that we are studying in my courses. Although I had hoped for more of a development and practical focus, the many peace keeping, peace building and conflict courses are new and interesting to me. I am learning an incredible amount about subjects I had not had the opportunity to study before like the United Nations, Africa, and smaller historical conflicts.

Another benefit of my course is that there is sufficient free time built into the schedule. That, in combination with the generous travel stipend provided by the Mitchell Scholarship, has made it easy for me to travel around Ireland and Europe. Although I have only been here two months, I have already been fortunate enough to visit Dublin, Galway, the Aran Islands, Bunratty, Rome, London and Oxford. Traveling has been the best way for me to develop a better understanding of what modern Ireland is. Even my trips outside of the country have helped me place Ireland in a European and global context. By viewing the similarities and differences between Ireland and other countries I am forming a view of Irish culture. I believe it is an exciting time to watch this culture unfold as Ireland is now a vibrant member of the European Union and the country is changing with time and economic convergence. I do not know what will happen in the remainder of my time here, but I am now wiser in knowing that generalizations about a place or people do not necessarily hold true and that deeper exploration is necessary to truly obtain an understanding.

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