Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. – W.B. Yeats
I first visited Ireland fresh out of college, and to this day, my memory remains a blur of Guinness and Jameson. Fortunately, this past fall, I was given a redo. The Institute of Study Abroad Ireland (ISAI) invited me back to the Gaelic-speaking country, as if they knew, I needed to learn beyond the contents of my glass.
And learn I did, along with 12 other college representatives scouting the program.
While Ireland is half the size of New Jersey and has fewer residents than New York City, it feels much larger. For one, its cultural history is so rich and extensive, it dwarfs Colonial America by several thousand years. It may be a tiny island, but I looked at mountains that would take a day to climb and saw enough sheep to make sweaters for the Big 10. It also looked larger from cliffs over the Atlantic, where I watched a lone surfer ride a single wave for nearly a mile.
There’s even another country within its limits, North Ireland.
ISAI has been running experiential-education programs for years, where students will visit for weeks or semesters to dive into Irish culture, meet warm-hearted natives, and learn how 6000 years of Irish history have shaped not only Ireland, but the rest of our world today.
The program is taught by the passionate historian, Dr. Niamh Hamill, an Irishwoman rich in her own history as a musician, writer, mother, and surfer. After seeing how she and the ISAI team would naturally make their acquaintances smile, it was instantly clear that everyone liked them, and automatically, liked us too.
Much like Hamill herself, the program is diverse and fun. Each morning we received lessons over breakfast, and by noon, we were outdoors, touching the tombs of early Neolithic settlers from 4500 BC. We listened to the ocean, hiked to a waterfall that inspired Yeats, peeked into the forest where persecuted Catholics once held mass in secrecy. While lectures and museums were part of our experience, the true classroom was outside among castles and cemeteries, churches and caves. I felt like I’d become a student once again, and this time, I would not forget my experience.
We only had a week to see a few thousand years, so Hamill covered it in big brush strokes, from the foolishness of the leprechaun to the rise of the IRA. We reflected at the tragic site of Bloody Sunday in Derry, North Ireland. We learned about St. Patrick before he was a saint, Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain, and understood why Chicago would dye their river green on St. Patrick’s Day.
We stayed in the seaside town of Bundoran, where the ocean seasoned the air and a sense of adventure permeated the neighborhood. It should have been no surprise then, that the curriculum also included surfing lessons. But more lessons continued into the night with live music, storytelling in the pub, and ahem, a few Guinness too.
I learned so much about Ireland’s past that I truly understood Irish pride, and I’m not even Irish. So this time around, the only thing blurry about my visit to Ireland was the line between education and fun.
For more information about The Institute of Study Abroad Ireland click here.