I had a lot of things to take into consideration before deciding to move to Ireland to pursue my PhD at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
Among the most significant were the marketability of my degree on the U.S. job market, the cost of moving 3,000 miles away, the question of where to live, whether I really wanted to spend the rest of my life in academia.
And then of course, there was the fact that I hated to leave New York.
But the one thing that I didn’t think that much about was the fact that I was going to be living in on-campus accommodation in a small town. It was only when I first saw the small size and institutional nature of my room that it hit me: I was going back to “college” in a way I hadn’t experienced since my freshman year.
I was 18 when I started college the first time. So most of the things that seemed funny or scary or exciting then, I look at in an entirely different way now that I’m older. Some of my observations about Irish college life are tainted by my no longer being of college age I’m sure, but some of them also seem to stem from inherent differences in Irish and American culture.
The drinking age in Ireland is 18 so there is no need to hide alcohol consumption as there is in the U.S. Though this seems to do little to change student’s attitude towards drinking.
During the first week a bunch of the first-years slept in the bushes outside, not because they’d forgotten their key but simply couldn’t make it into the building.
And then there is the singing. I’ve known a good many American college students to sing along to songs in a bar or even dance on tabletops. However, Irish students are considerably more musical.
It seems that the popular thing is to sing your way home from the pubs, at the top of your lungs and as off-key as possible. Though I did hear a surprisingly good a cappella version of “Stand By Me” at 5am.
At a pub one night a friend and I encountered a group of 18-year-old guys. They wanted to buy us shots. When I politely declined their offer they stared at me incredulously. The conversation went something like this.
“You don’t want a shot?’
“No. But thanks.”
“Are you sure you don’t want one? You really don’t want a shot? Why not?”
“I just don’t want to get wasted. I have to be up early tomorrow.”
This was met with a chorus of laughter.
“Ha ha. Wasted! That’s so American!”
While the desire to sing seems mostly to come from large groups of young men, the young women seem unable to greet each other without some version of screaming. Perhaps this has something to do with the extravagant and uncomfortable nature of their evening attire.
The general fashion seems to involve very short, very fancy dresses that usually include a ton of sequins and very high heels in some version of shimmering gold or silver. This is not uncommon attire I would imagine, for U.S college students attending formal dances. However, most of these girls are going to very casual pubs. These women possess a miraculous ability to walk in 10-inch heels on cobblestone streets and pavements littered with broken glass bottles.
When it comes to partying, American college students tend to fall into one of two categories: those who party every night of the week and those who study hard all week and party hard Thursday through Saturday.
Irish college students seem to party Monday through Thursday and then go home for the weekend. One can only assume to recover from all the drinking and get in a few good home cooked meals and maybe some laundry.
I can only guess at what the Irish students think of me. When they hear my accent they look at me with a mix of awe and pity. This is generally followed by, “You’re from New York? What are you doing here?”
Often I go on about the brilliance of the English Department and the beauty of Ireland. But it’s also a question I often ask myself. The answer changes by the hour and much like my dissertation topic itself, evolves day by day.