The first place that I ever visited outside of my home country was Ireland.
Since I was a child I had a calling towards the land of green. The first CD I ever bought was an album of Celtic Christmas music. I studied the mythology and history, read the works of their greatest poets, and spent hours looking at photos of vast landscapes online, feeling my heart reach out of my chest. Then when I was in university there was an opportunity for me to do a ten day study abroad program in Bundoran, Ireland. Being terrified of planes and having never left the country before, it was a huge step for me. But I got on the plane and made my way to the land of my dreams, and I was not disappointed.
From the moment I stepped off the plane, it felt like I was breathing for the first time. We walked down an airport hallway and I stared at the beautiful green signs written in English and Gaelic. We spent an evening in Dublin and I was close to tears at every street corner where something historic loomed above me, or at crosswalks where street art graced curbs and alley walls. As we drove north the next day, towards Bundoran, we passed miles and miles of green pastures, dotted with sheep, cows, and underbrush that I had never seen before.
When we arrived in Bundoran I was amazed by how similar it was to my small hometown by the sea back in Hawaii— surfer culture, but below 60 degrees (F). And yet, the streets were lined with pubs and gift shops, markets hosting unmistakably Irish goods, and there was a quietness that you would never find back home.
I spent the ten days and returned a couple of weeks later with a friend after a stint in London. We stayed in Dublin and visited the surrounding areas. By the time we left, I was madly in love with Ireland. You know that feeling when you get home after a long day of work, you take off your shoes, and you sit in your favorite couch or face plant onto your bed? That’s the feeling I got every second I was in Ireland.
I learned a lot about myself in Ireland— that I did in fact love it, that it felt like home, that I could travel abroad, that there was something magical about traveling, that people were innately kind, and that my soul did need adventure more than I had previously recognized. I left with a heavy heart.
I returned two years later and had the opportunity to spend more time in Dublin, as well as visit Galway, Belfast, and other beautiful areas such as Wicklow and Kells. Every day I fell more in love with Ireland. By the time I left for other adventures, my heart was already full to bursting. Ireland is the place I vow to visit again and again because there are a million reasons why it is such a magical place. Here I’ll share some of the things that I learned in Ireland and some of the things that make it such a special place.
Ireland is eerily similar to Hawaii
So this may not be something that would occur to many people, but when visiting Ireland for the first time it was nearly impossible for me not to notice the similarities between the beautiful land of the green and my home state, Hawaii.
Their political histories mirror one another— a larger political body arriving and trying to erase the language and culture, and religion playing a role in that destruction.
Both places are also soaked heavily in mythology, especially as it is tied to the land. The barren lava fields of Hawaii and the green hillsides of Ireland both hold mythical beings and warrant grand explanations of the workings of gods long ago.
Mainly, Hawaii and Ireland both have something engrained in their local people that comes from the heart. In Hawaii we call it the aloha spirit. I’ve heard it referred to as “Irish hospitality” in Ireland. No matter what it is called, it is my favorite thing about visiting Ireland.
Visas are complicated
Ever since I first stepped foot in Ireland I wanted to live there. Unfortunately, I learned that it is not an easy place to move to. I assume that this is largely due to the fact that Ireland is a country whose economy seems to run off of two primary things— tourism and their dairy industry (Irish butter is life!). Wide open green fields are wonderful for both happy tourists and happy cows, and if the country becomes more populated, well, people have to live somewhere. So as much as it breaks my heart that I cannot easily move there, I understand.
To move to Ireland you need a certain amount of money— so that you wont be taking from the local economy— or you need to be on track to becoming a citizen, the most common way of which is to have a grandparent or parent who was or is an Irish citizen. If you do, you can apply for citizenship! If you’re like me and you don’t, then you have to join me in dreaming from afar.
For those who would like to live in Ireland for a while (as an American citizen) you can apply for a one year visa, especially if you have recently graduated from university. So if you want to spend twelve months in literally the most beautiful place I have ever seen, then there are opportunities out there for you!
Every city has its own identity
Ireland has such a character to it, and so does each individual city. I think this may particularly have to do with the fact that most Irish families tend to live in the very same county for all of their lives, and their children’s lives, and so on. This is such an interesting concept to me as someone who wants to get as far away from home as possible, but it makes my heart warm to think about. Anyway, as far as the cities go…
Dublin is a fun loving city, the hub and capital of Ireland. Its pubs and clubs are open all night and tourists are always milling about. It is much more cosmopolitan than some may expect. It’s full to the brim with street art, museums, galleries, pubs, shops, and parks. I’ve spent more time in this little city than any other, and it is still my favorite.
Galway is also very artsy and lively, but in a more small town way. Street performers line the main streets, artists pin up their art for sale, and jewelers sell their famous Claddagh rings. Like Dublin, Galway rests along a water way, so a block or so from the heart of things you can watch gulls fly out over the water and daydream. Galway is not too far from the famous Cliffs of Moher, which is an absolute must if you find yourself in Ireland.
Belfast was the biggest surprise during my entire trip abroad. The capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast is a city that still struggles with identity. Irish or British? True to the green or the crown? The vibrance and friendliness that I encountered in the other Irish cities was absent here, in my experience. After a day of touring to Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Hedges— Belfast being the nearest large city to those famous and very worthy attractions!— I returned to the city only to discover that by 8 pm everything was closed— markets, most fast food places, everything! Thank goodness for that one open Burger King with that delicious veggie burger or I would have gone hungry that night! I didn’t dislike Belfast, but I wasn’t disappointed when it was time to leave. And on that note…
Northern Ireland and Ireland are DIFFERENT
Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, meaning it is ruled by the crown of England. Ireland has a long and painful history with the invasions of the British over several centuries. With many efforts to take their language, histories, and religion from them, the Irish persevered. Even now there is tension between the two nations, and visiting areas like Derry and Belfast make it obvious that there is still an undercurrent of unrest present.
Really though, there’s no one like the Irish
A large part of the Irish identity has come out of centuries of rebellion, hardship, and national pride. I am continuously amazed by the Irish people in a way that is difficult to put into words. They are proud without being pompous, they are enormously friendly and kind despite the turmoil of their collective past, they hold the arts in an enviably high respect, and they may be cold all the time but they have a roaring good time and love life. Of course, no nation can be summed up in such simple terms and nothing I could say would apply to everyone. But overall, the Irish are lovers of a good time, of creativity and culture, and are some of the kindest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting.
If you are looking for somewhere fun, safe, artsy, historical, full of nature and cityscapes, and alive, Ireland will always be my number one suggestion. Maybe I just have a soft spot in my heart for it, but even with my high hopes it has never let me down.
And I just want to say thank you to Ireland and everyone I met there— for keeping my belief in the innate kindness of people, magic, and adventure alive.
(Image is of me hanging out with Oscar Wilde in Galway. )