There are three countries that hold a special place in my heart: Ireland, Spain and Uganda. A while ago I declared my love for Spain, now it is time to pay homage to Ireland. Cause boy do I like that country! And even more: its people. Sure, it rains a bit too often for my taste and the food is not necessarily refined, but other than that I could definitely see myself living there one day. Thought I would desperately need that apartment in Granada to make up for all those days without a ray of sunshine.
Let me just get it over with, the weather is not a reason why I like Ireland so much. Lots of rain, wind and a general lack of summer do not suit me. As you might know by now, I like warmth and sunshine and do not function well below 20˚C. But hey, it is like Iceland, if you expect it to be freezing cold and wet, any stretch of blue sky feels like a present. I spent a semester studying at University College Cork (UCC). When we were welcomed by the President of the International Students Society, he said: ‘If you are only here for the autumn semester you might never get to see the sun’. I was about to pack my bags and take the first flight home but in the end decided to give it a go. After all, I was in sub-tropical Cork so how bad could it be? Due to warm ocean currents hugging the south-western coast of Ireland, Cork has a mild oceanic climate with abundant rainfall (yikes). It is also changeable (promising) and lacking extreme temperatures (promising when it comes to the bottom half of the temperature chart). I could not have described it better myself. Yes, there was lots of rain. But one thing I learned is that when it is raining, you know for sure that the sun will come out at some point that day. On the other hand, when there is sun, I know that those clouds will show up and drown out my yellow friend.
Before I ever set foot in Ireland, I always heard people talking about how green it was. I thought: yeah sure, whatever. But it is very true. Pastures, hillsides, trees, I was amazed by the different shades of green Ireland has to offer (and imagine the different shades of red, brown and orange leave in autumn). There is a reason why everyone comes back from that country saying it is so green. The only other time I had a similar experience was in Uganda, which I guess has an even finer palette of green, but alternated with the typical red dust. Naturally, it is difficult to compare Ireland to Uganda but between the two of them they can show you all the shades of green this earth has to offer. When I look at old photographs from my various trips to Ireland, the colour green definitely stands out. I assume the relation between the colour green and the weather, and precipitation in particular, needs no explanation.
The first time
To be fair, my first encounter with Ireland took place in Spain when I was living there, studying Spanish. When living in Granada, my friend and I started frequenting an Irish pub. Of the three months I spent living in Granada, I spent at least 25% of the time in that particular Irish pub. We befriended the staff, including the Irish-Spanish son of the owner, and had a great time. One night we met a group of Irish guys that come to Granada every year to go skiing on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. We had intriguing conversations about drugs and horses and my friend and I ended up cooking dinner for 10 Irish guys. Rather random, the guys themselves were quite surprised that we lived up to a drunken promise made in the middle of the night in a pub. My friend had always been enthusiastic about accents (Irish and Scottish in particular) so she was having a ball speaking with these guys. We went out with the group a couple of times during their week of tapas & ski and coined the phrase ‘stepping hard’, a poor translation of the Dutch ‘hard stappen’ (which was basically the only thing we did in Granada anyway). I think meeting this group of lovely, super friendly guys was our, and my, first proper introduction to Ireland and its great people.
But I had still never set foot on the island. Until one week, Transavia had a promotion campaign for city trips. Every day, tickets to a different European city would come on sale. My friends (the one from Spain and our other friend) and I made a pact: if Dublin would become available as a destination we would go for a weekend. I believe it was the Wednesday, we called each other (this was a long time before smart phones and social media), hesitated for a brief moment and then got our tickets for I believe €25 each (crazy!). We finally went to that mythical country we had seen so many movies about and were looking forward to a weekend of cosy pubs and people speaking with sexy accents. We were still in touch with the guys we met in Spain (have been ever since) so we decided to boldly text our friend saying that we would be in Dublin for the weekend. Through coincidence, he was actually in Dublin the Saturday we arrived and he offered to take us to his hometown. No fun has ever been had by saying no and we decided that with the three of us we would surely be able to overpower him in case of any malicious intent. It turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life, and the best proper introduction to Ireland one could wish for! We went to see a game of hurling, the ‘fastest game in the world’ and discovered that eating Chinese in Ireland is definitely not the same as having Chinese in the Netherlands (or in China for that matter). We met pretty much everyone in their hometown, including parents, and went to a real Irish pub (you know, one with Irish people in it, drinking Guinness). It was the first, but certainly not the last, time I experienced the hospitality and friendliness of the Irish.
Back for more
During my studies I had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester. As I had already lived in Spain there was only one place I could think of: Ireland (ok, to be fair, for a split second I considered London as well). The good thing about Ireland is that it is kind of a blind spot for us in the Netherlands. Sure, Ireland is part of Europe, but you hardly hear or read anything about it in the news. So, as would have been different had I chosen London, there was not a lot of competition for that Erasmus exchange spot at UCC. I decided to start looking for a house once I had arrived and made a rather random selection of courses (amongst which: Irish history, English/Spanish translation and International Trade). Cork is the second-largest city in Ireland, located in the south-western province of Munster. The city centre lies on a bit of an island between two branches of the river Lee and its population is a little over 200,000 people. The city is not particularly pretty, though there are some nice spots, the UCC campus being one of them. Lots of great bars though, including the Hi-B up the stairs somewhere on Oliver Plunkett Street.
Off to a great start
I spent my first days in a hostel while looking for a place to live. On my second day in the country I already knew Spain had a serious competitor for my affection. It was the day of the All Ireland Hurling Championship Final and Cork was competing. I wandered into a pub and soon made lots of new friends, cheering for the home team. They lost quite brutally, but I had a great afternoon. Over the next few days, in the hostel I befriended a number of marine biologists that were attending a conference at the university. I never had any ambitions to pursue a career in academia, but I got a glimpse of what life would look like. Flying around the world making new friends at conferences, lavish dinners and most of all: lots of partying. It was the only time in my life I have and will ever pass for a marine biologist I think… In the meantime I had found a great place to live, smack in the middle of city centre. The campus was a 20-minute walk, which made me miss my bike, even more so when I made some friends that were staying in a campus accommodation 45 minutes walking from city centre.
Hanging with all the internationals
To be fair, the semester I spent in Ireland, most of my time I spent with other international students. I shared my apartment with a Polish and a Canadian girl. Together with two German guys and two Dutch girls we formed a nice little group and had a great time. We went on a road trip, had tough discussions in the middle of the night on the number of minutes required to boil an egg to perfection, tried to simultaneously play the same song on our phones and went to the international students’ party every Friday. Our Sinterklaas celebration was hilarious. I mean: try explaining the Sinterklaas tradition to foreigners (it is always hardest with Americans). Anyway, we drew lots and agreed that we would write a poem that contained sentences in German, Dutch and English. There were pepernoten, even a Sinterklaas doll and lots of misunderstandings (I wrote the poem for you so I should read it to you right?). Outside of this group, I went on some very cool trips with the International Student Society and hung out with people from Italy, Slovenia, France and Portugal. It was a wonderful experience, though slightly further removed from living the Irish life than I had hoped.
A little bit of Ireland
Fortunately, my Irish friends took great care of me (they are Irish, what did you expect?). I spent quite a few weekends visiting local hurling and gaelic football matches, passing time in pubs with mainly locals and enjoying their unlimited hospitality. Having salt and vinegar chips after the pub closed due to the crazy strict curfew. With people staring at me because I wanted mayonnaise with my chips… One weekend, we stayed at my friend’s parents’ house after going out. It was the perfect ‘authentical Irish experience’. Other members of the family were dropping by, there were chats by the fire, a hot lunch with mashed potatoes and stew and overall a lot of friendliness and pleasantness. I am still very grateful for how they welcomed me into their home. For all the great moments I have had in Ireland, this moment will remain with me as it is a perfect reminder of why I love this country and its people so much.
Getting there and back again
After my semester in Cork, I returned to Ireland only twice more. Once to visit all the parts we had not yet seen with one of the German guys I met in Cork. We drove (I should say: he drove, as having a second driver under 25 was way too expensive) around the Northern counties and crossed into Northern Ireland. I had already been to Belfast with my friends from Spain who came to visit twice during my stay at UCC. Naturally, they could not let the fact that I was living in one of our favourite countries go unnoticed let alone unvisited… Drifting off a bit, my brother also came to visit twice, which was great fun. The first time he came we went hitchhiking from Dublin to, as it turned out, Kilkenny. I had never hitchhiked before but we had nothing but good experiences. We started off with our first ride on the driving lane of some fancy estate, got picked up by a farmer in a van full of mushrooms and hitched a ride in 5 minutes early in the morning in a super remote location while we were afraid to have to wait for hours. Getting back to what I started with, the second time I returned was for a short trip for work. I think I spent about 24 hours in the country, but one of my friends managed to find the time to drive down to Cork to have a drink.
As I said, unlike Spain, Ireland does not have great weather or a great cuisine. Cities are not astonishingly beautiful, though the countryside definitely is. The main reason I love Ireland is because of its people and their hospitality, warmth and affection. And that is why I have considered living in Ireland, while that thought never crossed my mind while I was living in Spain (not to say that Spanish people are not lovely either!). I somehow felt that life in Ireland would suit me and I could make myself feel at home there. Having lived in Uganda since and being quite satisfied with my life in the Netherlands as it is I am not sure it will ever happen. But I am most definitely looking forward to return, if only for a weekend of ‘stepping hard’.