At the end of a short trip to Ireland in 2014, I sat at the airport and knew: I needed to find a way to spend more time in this incredible country. Drawn to Ireland initially for its beauty and culture, upon further research I was impressed to find that it is also home to many prestigious universities.With the knowledge I had found the total package, I enrolled to study a Master of International Public Health at University College Dublin in 2016 and completed my degree the following year. Looking back, I can confidently say that studying abroad is easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
Ireland is a beautiful country with a rich and interesting history, lively cultural traditions, and friendly people waiting to welcome you to the Emerald Isle. Because of its small size and well-connected public transportation, getting to experience all the country has to offer is well within your reach. Studying abroad shouldn’t just be about studying! Here is a sampling of some of the great things you can see and do while studying abroad in Ireland.
Meet Your Match at the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival
Studying abroad in autumn in Ireland? You won’t want to miss the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival! Every September, people flock from around Ireland and across the globe to this matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna, a western Ireland spa town with a population just shy of 750 people.
Matchmaking has a long history in Ireland. In olden days when the country was far more rural, isolated farmers who didn’t have access to Tinder would come to Lisdoonvarna to meet with the local matchmaker with the hopes of finding a wife. Nowadays, the quest for love continues; the festival also features live music, dancing, and sessions at the pubs. Of course, if finding that special someone is indeed your goal, there is everything from speed dating to consultations with the third-generation matchmaker himself who has arranged more than 3,000 marriages over the years. It is said that if you touch his “ledger of love”, a book with profiles of love-seeking singles more than 150 years old, you will fall in love and be married within six months.
The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival lasts for the entire month of September so there is plenty of time to join in the fun and maybe even meet your one and only -- what a souvenir to come back with from your semester abroad!
- Best semester to experience it: Autumn
- Learn more: Unsurprisingly, the event has a hip, well-designed website, matchmakerireland.com
Experience St. Patrick's Day at the Source
While some country’s holidays go uncelebrated outside of their borders, St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish holiday celebrated worldwide. Generally regarded by outsiders as a day of wearing green, drinking Guinness, and leprechauns, March 17th in Ireland is a cultural and religious celebration. According to tradition, St. Patrick, a missionary, brought the Christian religion to Ireland, which was largely pagan up until sometime before the 5th century.
However, that’s not to say that St. Patrick’s is purely religious. All across Ireland, you can find events centering around more secular aspects of the day including music, parades, and of course a few pints at the pub. Dublin is certainly the hub of activity, with a huge parade featuring performers, musicians, and artistic floats from all over the world. If you’re studying abroad in the Irish capital, be prepared for crowds and revelry.
People come from far and wide to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so get ready for an epic amount of craic (Irish for “a good time”).
- Best semester to experience it: Spring
- Learn more: If you want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day anywhere in Ireland, the official website is the best resource
Listen to the Aran Celtic Music Festival
Ireland is famous for its traditional music and from the first notes of an Irish tune, you’ll understand why. Being in Ireland feels like you’re constantly surrounded by music, whether it’s from the buskers playing on Grafton Street in Dublin, or locals joining in on a music session at a pub in rural County Clare.
One of the best examples of the Irish musical tradition can be experienced at the Aran Celtic Music Festival on the largest of the three Aran Islands, Inis Mór (Inishmore in English), off the west coast of Galway. Mostly held in the small and intimate setting of Ti Joe Watty’s pub, this three-day festival boasts music from Irish and Celtic diaspora artists, ceili folk dances, storytelling, and literary readings. If you happen to play Irish traditional music yourself, grab your instrument and join in on one of the open sessions. After returning from this celebration of Irish history and culture, your Spotify will be filled with traditional tunes to guide you through late night study sessions.
- Best semester to experience it: Spring
- Learn more: The event takes place at The Connacht Hotel Galway, so you can learn more on their website
Make the Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage
Croagh Patrick, locally known as The Reek, is a mountain located 5 miles from Westport, a quaint town in beautiful County Mayo in Ireland’s west. Named after St. Patrick, who was believed to have fasted and prayed atop the mountain for 40 days in 441 AD, it is home to a yearly pilgrimage.
Each July, on the last Sunday of the month, called “Reek Sunday”, thousands climb to the summit of Croagh Patrick. This is not confined to Catholics, however: hikers, nature lovers, archaeologists, and tourists from across the world take part in the climb. It takes around two hours to reach the top but all along the way you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Clew Bay and villages stretching for miles. If there’s any proof that studying abroad opens you up to new experiences, it’ll be as you summit Croagh Patrick and look down on a palette of greens and blues painting the Irish countryside below.
- Best semester to experience it: Summer
- Learn more: While the official pilgrimage happens in July, you can hike up Croagh Patrick any time; the Teach na Miasa visitor center website has resources on how to plan your climb
Watch the Hooley Show at Johnnie Fox’s Pub
Do you fancy dinner and a show? What about a four-course dinner, including Irish-caught seafood, and traditional Irish music and dance? Well, look no further than The Hooley Show at Johnnie Fox’s Pub located in the Dublin Mountains.
"Hooley" is a word that means "wild or noisy party" and you’re sure to get exactly that at this pub famed as “the highest in Ireland.” While the pub is open seven days a week with live music and an a la carte menu, tickets must be purchased for the show which lasts all evening. After a leisurely dinner from an extensive menu, including vegetarian options, the band plays traditional music for an hour while you enjoy coffee, tea, or something a little more alcoholic. Next, you can expect to be wowed by professionally-trained Irish step dancers, giving you a glimpse into this unique art. At the end of their performance, the band once again takes the stage to close out the evening.
The room where you’ll enjoy the show is rustic and cozy and you are bound to meet new friends at the long wooden communal dining tables. Don’t have a car? Don’t fret. The pub offers a shuttle that picks up and drops off in Dublin city center. The Hooley Show is just what you need to unwind after a long week of hitting the books!
Related: Here are the foods and drinks you should also try while studying abroad in Ireland.
- Best semester to experience it: Year-round
- Learn more: Johnnie Fox's website has all the details and ticket prices
Walk in the Footsteps of Literary Giants
Ireland may be small, but its literary tradition is mighty. Ireland was, and continues to be, home to a host of writers and poets including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Brian O'Nolan (alias Flann O'Brien), WB Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw, many of whom feature Dublin and other parts of Ireland in their writing.
Even if you aren’t studying literature or journalism abroad, don’t let your semester pass without sampling this important chapter of Ireland’s cultural heritage. Dublin has several literary walking tours, including a pub crawl, and every year, the city hosts the Bloomsday Festival in honor of James Joyce's Ulysses.
There’s no question that Ireland is the place that emanates creative magic. Studying abroad among its people and landscapes will no doubt awaken and invigorate your inner writer -- even if it’s only to send a postcard home mid-way through your time abroad.
- Best semester to experience it: Year-round; the Bloomsday festival of James Joyce is in summer
- Learn more: The official Visit Dublin website has information on literary tours in the Irish capital
Have a Bit of Craic Speaking the Irish Language
Studying the Irish language is compulsory for all children attending school in Ireland; some even attend "Irish College" in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking community) during summer which is like a summer camp where speaking only Irish is mandatory.
Don’t think you need to know any Irish during your semester abroad? Across the country, signs are in both English and Irish, and Gaeltachts still exist in several counties including Galway, Kerry, Donegal, and Mayo. When trying to figure out which bathroom to use in the pub, knowing the difference between Mná (women) and Fir (men) can save you some serious embarrassment!
Be sure to check with your prospective university; many offer courses free to students while studying abroad. In Dublin alone, students at University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, and Dublin Institute of Technology can avail of free Irish classes.
- Best semester to experience it: Year-Round
- Learn more: The Irish Department for Justice and Equality has a great resource page about the Irish language and links to various learning opportunities
Watch & Play Gaelic Sports
Founded in the late 1800’s, the Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, was developed to promote Irish sports and culture during a time of British rule. GAA sports include hurling, camogie, Gaelic football, Gaelic handball, and rounders, which is similar to baseball. (Even if you aren’t familiar with any of these, you will be by the end of your study abroad experience!)
Every year, more than 80,000 people attend the All-Ireland Finals at Croke Park in Dublin for hurling and football, the two most popular GAA sports country-wide. There are GAA county boards in all 32 counties (this includes the six counties in Northern Ireland) and within each county, local club teams exist catering to both junior players and adults.
Many Irish universities also have competitive club teams to join which are a great way to meet new friends, get some exercise, and learn a new sport while studying abroad.
- Best semester to experience it: Autumn for the All-Ireland Finals in Dublin
- Learn more: The GAA website has loads of resources on teams and how to watch matches for different sports
Are you convinced yet? Ireland’s rolling hills, stunning coastlines, and a plethora of exciting activities await you on your study abroad journey. If, like me, you’ve dreamed studying abroad in Ireland, don’t wait. I made the leap and have no regrets. Neither will you.