Whack fall the daddy-o, there’s whiskey in the jar. When I am now considering my experiences during my Erasmus semester in Ireland it is not surprising that this is one of the most popular Irish folk songs. This second part of my article will deal more with the sociable manner of the Irish, it will clear up with some stereotypes you might have and of course also feature Irish folk music and some other folk elements that might come to your mind when you think of Ireland, such as fairies and leprechauns.
1. Hitch-hiking and acquaintances
If you’re ever going to Ireland, make sure that you have packed in your towel as nights in hostels might end with a spontaneous hitch-hiking trip! Although public transport works pretty well in Ireland, there are some places, especially beautiful national parks, which are not easy to reach without a car. Not knowing that, we went to Galway, thinking that we could make a trip to the Connemara national park the next day. Unfortunately, all trips to Connemara were daytrips, so it was not possible for us as we wanted to return to Limerick the same day for a concert. As we sat in the hostel, discussing this issue, a girl sitting at the same table spontaneously offered to give us a ride. We gratefully accepted her offer and had a great time in Connemara, and more importantly, we met some friendly and helpful people. And we learned that sharing makes life so much easier to handle! Sometimes you get and sometimes you can give, the opportunity for the latter we got some weeks later when we had rent a car and were staying one night in Kilkenny on our way to the Wicklow Mountains. The hostel there proved again to be the best place to meet people, in this case it was a lovely German girl who then joined us on our way to Wicklow.
2. Irish Stereotypes
After having spent four months in Ireland I think it is time to clear up with some stereotypes. First of all: The weather is not as bad as always pretended. In fact, we had perfect sunshine almost the whole September and October, and also in November the weather was not really worse than in Germany. One could almost believe that the Irish just make up this stereotype to have that beautiful country all for themselves!
A stereotype which was not proved wrong though was that of the drunken Irish. It is definitely no overstatement that the Irish love partying and drinking, they are a cheerful and lively folk that knows how to let their hair down. While on an average party or concert in Germany you often see people quietly waiting till midnight until they start cautiously to explore the dancefloor, the average party or pub night we experienced in Ireland started as cheerful and lively as it ended. Due to excessive drinking the Irish seem to be immediately in an outgoing mood, and dancing is just limited by drunken clumsiness and the danger to slip and fall because of the drinks that are spilled all over the floor. That the Irish are real party people was also apparent in their clothing: I have never seen that many girls in miniskirts and high heels going out without tights and jackets in the rainy weather of November before. I have to admit that this evoked my deepest respect, which was only exceeded by my admiration of the effort and time they seem to spend on make-up and styling every day. Generally, Irish girls seem to daily go on a styling competition the way they even dress up for university.
3. Between fairy lore and folk music
Speaking of stereotypes, there is one stereotype I would like to particularly stress: The stereotype of the superstitious Irish who believe in little goblins (like the leprechaun) and lovely winged fairies lurking behind every stone and inside of so-called fairy bushes. Although I obviously cannot fully confirm that stereotype, there is still some truth in it. First of all, the Irish fairies are not small, nice, and winged creatures as presented by Disney, but mischievous and human-like. They live in their own world that exists parallel to our world and sometimes interact with humans, especially at specific locations that mark the boundaries between our world and the fairy world or at particular time points, when our world comes close to the “other world”. This “other world” actually also represents another parallel world, the world of the dead, which is sometimes used as a synonym for the fairy world. Although fairy belief has certainly declined over the past decades, it is still alive not only in legends but also in some decisions. When for example a motorway was built from Limerick to Galway, work had to be stopped because the planned route would have interfered with a fairy tree. The issue was raised by Eddie Lenihan, a local folklorist and storyteller, who also came as a guest lecturer to my Irish folklore class in Limerick (yes, I took Irish Folklore, as well as traditional Irish music and dance and I can strongly recommend it to every ERASMUS student!). Eddie Lenihan warned that if the tree was cut, there might happen some accidents caused by the angry fairies. As nobody wanted to take that risk, the road was rerouted and eventually opened nearly ten years later than initially planned.
Along with the fairy lore another feature of Irish culture took me by surprise: The astonishing frequent use of the Gaelic language, Irelands first official language. Not only are all children taught this language at school, but there are also some specific regions within Ireland, called Gaeltachts, where Irish (Gaelic) is still spoken as a mother tongue. One Gaelic word I already used in the introduction of the first article – “Sláinte” – which signifies “health” and is also used for saying “cheers” in Irish. There were also some students in Limerick who were born and raised in a Gaeltacht and one of them gave lessons in Gaelic singing. Curious and eager as I was I participated in some courses, and it was one of the most interesting things I learned in Ireland. Who wants to listen to some really original Gaelic music might look for the song “Fear a’ Bhàta” („Men of Boats“) by Capercaillie which can easily be found on youtube.
Speaking of music, Irish folk music, well known and appreciated as it is by now within Germany, is one central aspect of living in Ireland. You basically cannot go out on any day of the week without having live music in any pub of the town. Usually you find a band playing or at least an Irish folk session, where musicians come together to play and everybody is welcome to join in. Traditional songs and tunes are well known among the Irish, and it seems as if they have soaked in the music up from the point of their birth. Almost everybody is able to play at least one folk instrument, and among regular session attenders there is so much talent and joy visible that really deeply impressed me. Even on campus there is a folk session every week in one of the student clubs and I tried to go there as often as possible although I gave up trying to join in after the first two weeks.
4. Expensive Ireland
Before going abroad I never appreciated how low the living costs are in Germany, especially concerning food. I do that now. The only supermarkets in Ireland where food was affordable (for my taste) were the discounters Aldi and Lidl, where the prices were just slightly above the German standard. Also, eating in a restaurant or on campus was far more expensive, which at least had the positive effect to make me cook every day, so I definitely owe some new recipes to the Irish prices.
But if you consider food as expensive, you should never try to do your laundry in Ireland, the prices for that were ridiculous. Just using the washing machine in our student dorm cost 6,50 Euros per turn, a good reason for me to buy new clothes instead of washing the old. Due to the cheap charity shops one can find all over Ireland and also Great Britain this plan almost worked out. The concept of a charity shop is that someone who wants to get rid of old clothes, because they don’t fit any more or just to make some space in the wardrobe, can bring it there. The staff of the charity shop then sells the clothes for really, really cheap, and all the benefits go to charity organizations like the red cross. I definitely fell in love with these shops, a bit too much though, so I had to send a package home with all the clothes that did not fit into my suitcase anymore. That was definitely the point when my expenses exceeded the savings I achieved through not using the laundry too often… Therefore a tip for future shopping-loving ERASMUS students: Invite friends who carry part of your stuff home for you or who bring you a second suitcase. If this is not possible: Buy a second suitcase in Ireland, it’ll certainly be cheaper than paying for a heavy package or an overweight suitcase!
5. A Limerick from Limerick
If you have already read my first article you might recognize this point on the list, but it is just simply one of my favorites. For those who haven’t, you might have thought about “Limerick” just as a poem not as a city before starting to read. With both of you I want to share a new Limerick I wrote for this article. Of course it also deals with the Irish’s love for alcohol!
“From Kerry to Dublin you hear,
The Irish have nothing to fear.
Not even bad weather,
Cause this doesn’t matter,
As long as they have enough beer.”
6. Making friends
Some of you might say the Limerick would have been a good conclusion to this article, but I deliberately made this the last point on my list. I hope you are still reading as this is probably also the most important. Apart from an overweight suitcase full of clothes, I took home from this ERASMUS semester a lot of great experiences. I have learned some lessons that I probably would hardly have learned in any class at university. I got a deep insight into different cultures and habits, learned some words and phrases of new languages and hopefully also improved my English skills (I can let you guys judge now ;)). More importantly I learned how to ask and how to share and it filled me with confidence in communities and humanity in general. And last but not least, most importantly, I met some amazing people and formed friendships that are – obviously – not easy to maintain, but I have the deep trust and hope that there will always be something that connects us, some shared experience and that – whenever we will happen to meet again – we will enjoy each other’s company just like it was in Ireland.
Thank you Ireland for teaching me that lesson. I hope I can return some day.