Forging a New Path, Revisiting an Old One

Ireland study abroad

One of the reasons I studied abroad was to explore what I was capable of doing on my own. I wanted to have a completely unknown adventure and to further myself from the comfort of my own home and family. Little did I know, I would encounter more family and be welcomed into a new home I didn’t even know I had.

My mother’s family descends from Ireland. Her grandfather immigrated over to the States because he was the youngest of 12 children and did not inherit his family’s farm. He came to the States in order to find work and start a new life. My mother has relatives that have remained in Ireland. My grandfather’s cousin still lives there, and my mother keeps in touch with him by exchanging Christmas cards each year.

I’ve always been interested in our familial connection to Ireland, and I think that this connection is one of the factors that drew me towards Galway, Ireland when I was making my decision of where to study abroad.

About a month into my time in Galway, my grandfather’s cousin’s son, Brian (who I didn’t even know existed!) reached out to me. He had read my mother’s Christmas card to his father that had mentioned that I was studying in Galway, and he wanted to invite me over to his home for a weekend. I was thrilled! I couldn’t wait to experience a weekend in an Irish home. I didn’t know at the time that it would be one of the most memorable and meaningful weekends of my time in Ireland.

I took the bus from Galway to Limerick, where Brian picked me up and drove me to his home in County Tipperary. He introduced me to his wife and three children, and he took me into the barn to meet his twenty horses, multiple sheep, dogs, and cats.

Farm field Ireland study abroad

I was absolutely blown away by how many animals they had, but it was so normal to them. Caring for their animals was simply part of their daily life; it was nothing out of the ordinary. They asked me how many animals I had, and when I replied that I had none, that was shocking to them. They couldn’t imagine a life without animals. Earlier in the week, one of their sheep had given birth, and I got to feed the baby sheep from a bottle.

I had never felt so at home in a place I had never been before. They were constantly offering me tea and biscuits (which I always agreed to), and the kids asked me many questions about American life. I felt like all of my answers seemed so unimpressive, but they were fascinated.

On the other hand, I was enthralled by their lives. On Saturday morning, I went to watch one of the girls’ hurling matches. Later that evening, they took me for a drive up one of the mountains behind their house where I got the most beautiful view of the entire county and the sun setting.

Sunset Ireland study abroad

One of the most special parts of the whole weekend was when Brian drove me around to see the area where my family used to live, including the house where my grandfather was raised. I could not believe that 12 kids grew up in this house.

He also took me to the cemetery where many of my family members were buried, and when we returned to his house we went through old photos and letters. I felt so connected to my ancestors in a way that my other immediate family members had never been, and I felt so strongly tied to Ireland.

Seeing exactly where my family came from and getting a sense for life there made me feel so closely linked to this part of my ancestry. As I was leaving and saying my final goodbyes and thank yous, Brian said that it was up to me and my generation to maintain the connection between our families on each side of the ocean. I told him I most certainly would.

Ireland study abroad

Coming abroad, I expected to create my own path and pursue my own unique journey. It just so happened that part of that journey involved visiting my ancestors’ path, and that made my experience all the more self-defining. I learned just as much about Irish culture during the one weekend that I spent in an Irish home as I did during the entire semester that I spent on an Irish campus.

I realized that being able to experience the daily life and customs of a family is an invaluable experience in the understanding of a country’s culture, and I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to do so.

Moira Harrison is a student at Providence College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler in Ireland at the National University of Ireland, Galway in Spring 2016.

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