When I learned last year that I would be spending a semester in Galway, the reaction from American friends who had been to Ireland was almost universal. “Galway was my favorite place in all of Ireland,” they would typically say.
After living here for four months, I understand why. The city’s vibrancy, openness and compact size give it a liveliness that may be unparalleled in Ireland, or anywhere. Yet at heart, it is a small town with a decency and friendliness that also make it a special place. (Of course, substitute “country” for “town” in that sentence, and you have a pretty good description of Ireland as a whole.)
There’s a definite difference to living someplace vs. visiting it, and I feel privileged to have spent enough time here to incorporate the town into the fabric of my life. The following are some observations about living in Galway specifically and Ireland in general, in no particular order.
For more than 30 years, I have enjoyed listening to Irish traditional music. I doubt that any other place offers more opportunities for this than Galway. From buskers in the streets to open sessions (still my favorite) to top-shelf performing groups, it is always possible to find music here. And I have spent many a night doing just that.
I should mention I don’t play, just listen. But because he grew up listening to this music, my son — a music teacher by profession — does play traditional fiddle. When he was here on a weeklong visit it was especially fun to attend sessions where he was playing.
I am a bit of a “politics geek,” so seeing the Irish election up close was another fascinating thing about living in Ireland for the past few months.
The parliamentary system in Ireland is vastly different from the US government. There, the executive branch (the president and his cabinet) is completely separate from the legislature. This is unlike Ireland where the taoiseach, who is head of government, and the ministers who run the various areas of government (health services, justice, etc.) also serve in the legislature.
In the US system this division of responsibilities means government is in place as soon as the election is finished; there is no need to get majority agreement within the legislature on a program for government, which has been long and contentious here. Just three weeks elapsed from the time the general election was called to the time it took place back in February. But it has been 10 weeks since the voting concluded, and the parties that were elected have been unable to agree on a governing coalition. (As of this writing, they are getting close.) Following the news coverage about that process has given me a much better understanding of the parliamentary system.
But an even bigger difference, and a more fascinating one, was the election itself, with its multi-candidate constituencies and proportional representation enacted through vote transfers. Attending the vote counting for Galway West district at NUI Galway on the last weekend in February to see the sorting-and-transfer process in action stands out as one of my favorite experiences here.
And then of course there is that other election. Only a tiny fraction of Americans could tell you anything about Irish politics or government; few would even know that the process of forming a government has dragged on for more than two months. But it seems as if everyone in Ireland is paying attention to, and has an opinion about, the US presidential race.
The nearly universal opinion seems to be utter shock that Donald Trump has lasted so long as the Republican front runner. Many Irish people have asked me “What are all of those people in America who support him thinking?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. People who ask that question often follow it by saying that they believe a Trump presidency would be disastrous for US standing in the world. If I had €10 for every conversation I have had since January that included these elements, it would pay for my trip home.
Like many Americans with an interest in Ireland, I had a passing familiarity with important people and events in the island’s history. But it has been a real privilege living here through the 1916 centenary celebration, and witnessing all of the commemorations surrounding it. This has been through the media mostly, though I also attended several excellent lectures sponsored by the NUI Galway Centre for Irish Studies about aspects of 1916.
I had heard of the Easter Monday rebellion, of course. But “heard of” just about describes the extent of my knowledge until now. Four months ago names like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Ceannt and the other martyrs of The Rising had no meaning to me. Now, of course, that has changed. I leave Ireland with a much deeper appreciation for the significance of 1916 and the impact it had on Ireland becoming the modern nation that it is today.
I have met a literally uncountable number of people during four months in Ireland, ranging from chance encounters in a pub or at an event, to more deliberate meetings that I have sought out as professional contacts, to ongoing professional relationships I’ve developed with people at the university.
This includes people from around the globe, such as the Dutch students I met during a session in Cork, the Australian-German couple on a holiday in Galway, and the French couple thinking of relocating here after several years in China. It includes Americans working here in Ireland, such as the product manager at Google who invited me to tour the company’s Dublin office. It includes Irish people who have traveled and sometimes lived in distant locations. I am nowhere nearly as well-traveled as so many of the people I have met, which inspires me to literally expand my horizons and travel more.
One thing I wanted to accomplish during the semester was to meet as many people from Irish media as possible to expand my professional network. I have managed to do that successfully, having met with more than a dozen people from local and national newspapers, local radio, and national TV (RTE both in Galway and Dublin), as well as TG4 and Raidio na Gaeltachta, the national Irish language TV network and radio station, respectively. In line with my interest in politics, I even managed to secure a meeting with a member of the Dáil, who was kind enough to invite me to lunch at Leinster House.
All of the people described here have been incredibly friendly and generous of their time. The adage that “strangers are just friends whom we have not met yet” seems especially true of people in Ireland.
The rest of the country, and beyond
As wonderful as Galway is, using it as a springboard to see other parts of Ireland and beyond has been another real advantage to living here. As part of the program we have taken students on weekend excursions around Ireland, which has helped me to see Dublin, Cork, Kerry/Dingle and Northern Ireland. I have been to Dublin a few other times on my own as well. I also was able to attend annual journalism conferences in Dublin and in London that I have always wanted to attend but could not because of the distance. Being in Ireland provided opportunities for that.
My four months in Ireland have been, to use a favorite Irish expression that has become a part of my own vocabulary, absolutely BRILLIANT. I doubt I will have another opportunity to spend four months here. But I certainly hope to return sometime when an opportunity presents itself.