An interview with Joanna Sorensen, a student from the University of Northern Colorado who is studying abroad with ISA in Galway, Ireland.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Joanna Sorensen. This coming year, I’ll be a senior at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, studying English with an emphasis in secondary education. I’m also getting a certification in TESOL and a minor in Leadership Studies. After college, I want to teach 10th-12th grade English, and would love to help coach speech and debate. Before studying abroad, I had only been out of the country once: when I went to visit our Romanian sister school in 9th grade. Other than that, I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life, and love hiking, biking, going to concerts at Red Rocks, and hanging out with friends. I’m also in a sorority at my college, love going to plays, poetry slams, and hockey games, and have a pretty awesome bucket list that I keep on me at all times.
Why did you choose Ireland over other English-speaking countries like England or Australia? Why ISA?
I’ve always been interested in Ireland. I don’t really know where the fascination started; it might have been the years I spent going to my sister’s Irish dance competitions, always being infatuated with the lay of the land or traditional Irish music, or something else. Ireland has always seemed like such a magical place, and the pictures I saw of the country would always take my breath away. I knew I wanted to go; I wanted to really be a part of it, to see these places that are so candidly captured on calendars and posters, and truly experience the magic of the country for myself. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of beautiful English-speaking countries. But there is something special about Ireland. It’s so steeped in history, tradition, culture, and untouched beauty.
I chose ISA because they were listed on our university’s website and had a summer program in Ireland that was well-priced. I knew going into the whole process that I would never have enough time to study abroad for the whole semester. ISA’s website seemed organized, and the first person I emailed responded in a really timely, helpful manner.
So when you arrived for your summer program, what has surprised you the most about Galway?
I’m from Colorado, which is beautiful, but also really dry. Ireland is so green and wet. Grass grows everywhere, and maybe I just haven’t been around to see them, but sprinklers don’t seem to be used here very often (because they have no reason to water the grass when they get so much rain). Also, I have been surprised at the amount of open space here. In the States, there are so many buildings everywhere. If there’s open land, it becomes a great opportunity to build a subdivision. But taking a bus or a train through the countryside here is amazing because you don’t see buildings once you get out of the city. There’s an occasional restaurant or gas station, but other than that, the land is just that: green, rolling land as far as the eye can see. And every now and then, you’ll have to stop for a sheep crossing.
People walk everywhere here, and one of the things I’ll miss most when I go back to the states is seeing the cobblestone streets just flooded with people on a busy night. Most people say that walking everywhere generally happens throughout all of Europe, but never having been to Europe before, it still kind of surprised me. There are also a lot of street performers and crafts-people set up at all hours of the day on the busy streets. Walking through the streets with traditional music and dancing all around you is an amazing experience.
Another thing that I didn’t expect is that grocery stores only sell food in quantities that will get you through a day or a couple days. I’m used to going grocery shopping once every two weeks, but here, you go about ever 4-5 days. You spend less money more often, so it evens itself out, but it was surprising to find myself needed to stop by the store on my way back from school every couple of days.
Everyone says that it rains constantly in Ireland, but I would actually say that the weather is pretty inconsistent. Just walking to school this morning, we got caught in a 5-minute torrential downpour, and then the sun came out. I bring my umbrella everywhere, just to be safe, and I always expect that my shoes will get wet. But if you wear a coat or a hoodie, it’s a good idea to bring a T-shirt with you, because it might get really nice in a couple hours, or a few minutes.
Another surprising aspect has been seeing first-hand the Irish stereotypes that most Americans hold that aren’t true. Save for St. Patricks day, Irish people don’t drink as much as Americans think that the Irish drink. Irish people aren’t nearly as loud or boisterous as Americans think they are, and I have yet to see a rowdy pub brawl. While we’ve been able to see some amazing churches and monasteries, and while most religious people in Ireland would likely consider themselves Catholic in terms of church attendance, Americans think that the whole of Ireland is more Catholic than it actually is (in parts of the country, that is).
The Irish use the English language very differently. “Craic” (pronounced “crack”) is basically the universal word for “fun,” so you’ll always hear people telling you that they’re going to a pub for “a bit of craic” or that going to a hurling game “is great craic” or that they’re going to play one last song “for the craic.” It’s surprising how fast I’ve picked up some of the slang; I skyped my friend the other night and told her about the “great craic we had at the festival the other night” and she looked at me like I was crazy. Instead of saying “you all” of “y’all,” the Irish say “ye.” Here, a zebra crossing is a cross walk, and fairy liquid is dish soap. “Well” can be used in place of “hello,” and “tissue” is what the Irish say for “Kleenex.” Instead of things being “great,” things are “grand,” and people say “thanks a million” as opposed to just “thanks.” The Irish never say the word “vacation”: it’s always “holiday” (I was talking to an Irish friend at dinner one night and asking him what he usually does over summer vacation, and he was confused until I finally realized I needed to say summer holiday). “Easter Holiday” is the Irish term for Spring Break. The weather is a national obsession and common topic of conversation, and there are about a thousand different sayings in both English and Irish for the fact that it’s pouring rain. And, if you get caught in the rain, you’re referred to as a drowned rat.
Can you describe your average day?
I am taking two classes this summer term, so most mornings I’ll get up between 7:30 and 8:00 so I can be ready before the half-hour walk we take to get to campus. There’s a café on campus, and we’ll stop there before class to grab a scone and tea.
Classes last between an hour and an hour and half. I have a couple friends in both of my classes, so we plan our days together. We usually have a break between classes, so we’ll either go to the library and do our homework for the following day, or walk into town. The walk into town is beautiful, because we walk along the Coirrib River. We’ll usually grab something to eat: the gigantic pieces of pizza at Napoli’s, fish and chips at McDonagh’s, taco fries at La Salsa, or lunch pies at The Pie Maker are always great options. Then, we’ll go back for our remaining classes, and then head home. We usually pool our dinner supplies and all get together for a group dinner, and then go out to Taaffes, The Kings Head, or Murphy’s for traditional music, dancing, and maybe a pint.
How are your classes at The National University of Ireland, Galway? Which class is the most interesting to you?
I love the classes I’m taking here. I’m here for 4 weeks, so there’s only time to take 2 classes; I’m taking Irish Literature & Film and Gaelic Culture & Literature. The cool thing about the program at NUIG is that all of the classes within their Irish Studies Program are interdisciplinary, so teachers will always be referencing things we’re learning in other classes during their lectures. In addition to classes, they’ve held seminars about cultural issues that have been really fascinating. Again, these seminars were interdisciplinary, so a couple of our professors would lecture at each one, tying together everything we’ve been learning in our classes. We had a seminar on emigration, sex & gender, and Dingle, which is a city in southern Ireland where we all get to go on a weekend trip. They’ve also had some basic Irish Language classes that I’ve attended, which have been great craic.
Our Gaelic Culture & Literature class was divided into two parts, the first being about Irish mythology and Saga Literature. That was probably my favorite class (or, half a class, you could say). I’m studying to be an English teacher, and most high schoolers learn mythology in 9th or 10th grade. I think that it would be absolutely fascinating to teach Early Irish mythology along with the typical Greek and Roman mythology. Irish mythology is actually a lot different than Greek and Roman mythology, and the stories were not only captivating, but play a huge part in Irish culture today. Getting to explore those historical connections was truly fascinating.
What are some of the biggest differences you’ve seen between Irish culture and US culture?
It sounds weird, but Irish people are really… nice. I got to Ireland a day early to explore by myself, and I had to take a train from the station to my hostel. The lady at the train station asked if I had a student ID, because that decreased the train ticket price by about €10. It really surprised me that she would be so willing to help a random traveler. That trend has continued: people in the street are more than willing to help you if you need directions, people who ask you how you’re doing are genuinely interested in your wellbeing (from professors to baristas to taxi drivers), and people will spend an extra minute talking to you, even if it means running a little late to their next activity. People in the States seem to always have an agenda. In Ireland, being kind and courteous is the agenda, which translates to the pace of day-to-day life just being slower, which you can see with the time classes start, the service in restaurants, and the pace that people walk on the streets. I love this cultural difference. People here seem to be so much better at living in the moment, enjoying what is in front of them at that exact point in time, and taking time to appreciate the people around them. If there’s one aspect of Ireland that I want to bring home with me, it’s definitely that attitude.
In addition to people just being more kind and courteous here, one of the biggest differences I’ve seen is with the humor. Our professor commented on this the other day: he noted that Irish humor more or less mimics the weather, because it’s darker and more satirical. I’ve learned that this kind of humor plays a big part in Irish literature, and therefore Irish culture. In America, we’re so used to comedy and getting a laugh out of everything, but in Ireland, the emphasis is on wit, irony, and satire. It catches you a little bit off guard in the beginning, because you hear all these people who are so kind and courteous making jokes that have a bit of a bite to them. But it’s never malicious, it’s just cultural.
There are also some funny smaller differences. Like most of Europe, they drive on the left side of the road in Ireland. Instead of TJ Maxx, they have TK Maxx. Instead of Jif, they have Cif. Mac and cheese is a lot harder to come by. They eat a lot of potatoes–and this is one stereotype that the Irish don’t deny. In the same way that Americans are snobby about their coffee, the Irish are snobby about their tea: be prepared to pick Barry’s or Lyon’s and stick to your guns about your decision.
Instead of Irish people welcoming you to a place, they tell you that “You’re welcome to be there.” It’s a short phrase, but I think that it says so much about the culture and the people here: the Irish people are so proud of their history, culture, and past. They allude to the Irish language as being full of beautiful words, they speak of their history with intense delight, and they love sharing stories with people about anything from their own genealogy to the history of the country. Irish people love their country, and it makes everyone around them love it, too.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while in Ireland?
Irish people tend to speak more softly than Americans, so remembering to speak quietly has been a challenge. No one is rude to you if you speak loudly, but you definitely stand out. Another challenge and difference I’ve faced is not constantly being on my phone. Not many people walk around with their phones out in Ireland, and other than the occasional picture, no one texts while they are walking around, at a restaurant or pub, or hanging out with friends. Learning to put my phone in my purse and not have it attached to my hand was definitely a challenge.
What advice do you have for students who want to go to Galway?
Studying abroad in Galway has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. Studying abroad anywhere will teach you so much about yourself and the rest of the world; it really opens your eyes. And studying abroad in Galway has given me the opportunity to spend time in a city that is large enough to offer constant surprises, but also come to feel like home.
First, for the technical stuff: Bring a good rain coat and rain boots. Know that, when you’re not wearing rain boots, your shoes will get wet. Bring warm clothes, even in the summer (I was here throughout June and July and wore jackets and long sleeves about 80% of the time). Know that anything that does get wet will take a while to dry, and expect to eat food you might not quite be used to eating. Don’t feel like you have to enjoy Guinness (I started out the trip totally hating it).
Now, for the fun advice: Find a group of friends and go out with them as often as you can. Go out to Taafess or The Kings Head and listen to traditional music whenever you can. Experience the sheer joy of being at the Latin Quarter on a busy night. Go to the market on Sunday and get a crepe–it will, without a doubt, be the best crepe you have ever eaten. Make your inner 5-year-old self happy and stop by The Wooden Heart Toyshop. Go to Blackrock and jump off the 40-foot dock (but don’t brace yourself with your arms as you hit the water unless you want purple and black bruised forearms like I got). Get fries from La Salsa and (nightly) gelato from Gino’s. Spend an hour or two at the Spanish Arch and the Claddagh whenever your schedule allows. Go to the Silent Disco and be prepared for some of the best craic you’ve ever had in your life. Explore the city and find a special place to call your own. Stop and listen to the language, the music, and the people. Give your time abroad 200% of your heart. Whatever energy and love you put into Galway, it will give back to you 10-fold. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Is Ireland really as magical as everyone says it is?
Oh, without a doubt! I know that my words won’t do it justice, but I feel like these two stories can paint a good picture of my experience:
We had the amazing opportunity to go to the Aran Islands the other weekend. The Islands are only accessible by ferry, so we took the hour-long boat ride, docked, and the hopped on bikes so that we could explore the area via the one road that goes around the entire island. At one point, we biked to the edge of the island, laid on our stomachs, and stared down at the 80 meter (260-ish foot) drop to the water. It was the most terrifying, incredible, amazing thing I have ever done. Then, group by group, we biked back around the island to our ferry. As I biked back with 3 of my friends, it started to rain in true Irish fashion. None of us said anything because we were so entranced and captivated by everything around us. To traverse the emerald-green coast by bike, with the rain and wind hitting your face, and the sounds of the waves lapping the shore, the click of the bike chains, and the occasional clip-clop of horse hooves passing us on the road, is an experience I will never be able to forget. It felt like a dream.
The Annual Galway Arts Festival took place while we were in Galway. People from every country of the world cram into the streets, pubs, and hostels in Galway, and the city becomes a cultural melting pot live I’ve never seen. In addition to the Irish singers and dancers preforming on the street, Latin music is easy to find, hanboks (traditional Korean dresses) are sold at market, and painters and sculptors create art in the middle of the streets. One evening, my friend Meg and I went and sat at the Spanish Arch. I’ve never seen so many people at the Arch in my whole time of being in Galway. I heard more languages than I can count, and saw people dancing to music I’ve never heard. Meg and I laid on our backs by the river and just watched and listened to people go by. There was something so special about seeing the place that we have both so come to love being loved by people from around the world.
Ireland entrances you and captivates you. There is literally nothing like it in the whole world, and it’s so hard to explain. But this whole experience has been more than I could have ever imagined.
Maybe it’s just Irish-Americans that earn the stereotypes? ;) Thank you for telling your story, I loved reading it! Also, I’m curious: what is the most important Irish Gaelic word to learn when traveling to Ireland?
Thank you so much for your comment! I completely agree with you; I was reading an article the other day entitled “Things Irish People Desperately Need Americans to Know,” and a lot of the points had to do with stereotypes that Americans have just accepted without truly knowing the Irish people or their culture.
As far as important Irish words, I found “craic” to be the word that most caught me off guard. Other than that, I would just encourage travelers to be aware of Irish/English cognates, because, like some other languages, not all cognates mean what you think they mean. Be especially careful of this when you’re reading maps/taking buses, etc. The English translation of a place or destination will almost always follow the Irish version, so just watch for that if you’re unsure of the word/s in Irish.
I hope this helps, and thank you again for reading my story!
I have just moved to Galway where I am starting a business and found your blog post on Galway very informative. I especially like the part about the food!