Once you’ve finalized all the details for studying abroad in Ireland, it’s time to focus on the important stuff. Aside from classes, I’m referring to the essential Irish food and drinks you’ll enjoy during your semester abroad!
By its nature, studying abroad is an incredible time of exploration, but I would argue that for a country like Ireland, you can only do the country justice by understanding what it is you need to consume to get the full Irish cultural experience.
During my own time studying abroad in Ireland, I spent a lot of time doing my homework on this subject… perhaps too much in the case of my pub visits! Nevertheless, I can speak with complete confidence about this list of must-try foods and drinks to enjoy while studying abroad in Ireland.
Before jumping in, let's cover one last thing: is it possible to study abroad in Ireland right now? The answer is yes, it's totally possible to study in Ireland in 2021 and 2022. Once you go through the necessary requirements imposed by the Irish government, you can enjoy a semester or summer in Ireland, taking advantage of its budget-friendliness and everything else that makes Ireland a great place to study abroad.
You’re not surprised this is at the top of the list, right? In fact, it’d be downright blasphemous if it wasn’t. When it comes to food and drink in Ireland, Guinness is ubiquitous, and it should be because it’s delectable.
Guinness is famous for its deep black color and rich, smooth texture. Its unique flavor comes from malted barley and roasted unmalted barley, with some of the barley being intentionally burnt. You may not like your first sip, but you probably won’t be able to imagine your life without it by your time of departure. The rumors are true, Guinness is better in Ireland, so soak up the experience.
Pro-tip: If beer isn’t your style, note that you can order tasters or half-pint sizes at most pubs in Ireland.
Let’s not forget that Ireland is an island, and its shellfish and seafood are well worth the airfare and tuition you’ll spend while studying abroad.
Most oyster experts ascertain that the ‘west is best’ as far as finding quality shellfish in the country. This is highlighted by the world-famous Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival, located on Ireland’s west coast. Even if you don’t study in Galway, it’s only a few hours drive from other cities in Ireland.
That being said, delicious oysters, shellfish, and seafood can be found almost anywhere. In fact, Howth, a town a short distance from Dublin, has some stellar seafood restaurants near the pier. Seafood also doesn’t have to be that expensive, so checking out markets and heading down to local wharfs and piers will help you stay within your budget.
3. Soda Bread
There are few things on this planet I’d rather have on a blustery gray day than a piece of thickly cut, heavily buttered Irish soda bread. It’s the perfect snack after a day of classes, or between exams when you need a boost of energy.
Soda bread comes both in the brown and white varieties (I’m partial to brown), and its beauty comes from its simplicity. Traditional Irish Soda bread discards the yeast for baking soda then welcomes in some buttermilk, salt, flour, and occasionally a little sugar.
In a world of increasingly processed food, homemade Irish soda bread is worth cherishing. It’s popular across the whole nation and a staple of food and drink in Ireland. It easily fits into my threshold for must-try food and drinks while studying in Ireland.
4. Irish Stew
I can’t tell you exactly what Irish stew consists of because the Irish can’t decide on it either; if you have the chance to try a locally-made stew, rest assured it will be different at the next restaurant or pub you try it.
Most Irish cooks agree it includes lamb or mutton with a variety of simple root vegetables such as parsnips, potatoes, onions, and carrots. In modern times, Irish stew featuring beef has become significantly more popular, especially with a touch of Guinness in the broth.
Speaking of broth, it can really vary. In one place you’ll find a thick, brown gravy-like broth and in another, a broth that’s considerably thinner. My advice would be to try as many as humanly possible while on the Emerald Isle; a semester is just enough time to get a sense for whether this dish will be one of those you crave after returning home from study abroad.
5. Irish Whiskey
Did you know the word “whiskey” is actually an anglicization of the Gaelic words for “water of life?” You know the Irish aren’t messing around when it comes to the production of this delightful liquid!
Sadly, many of the famed breweries (Jameson included) are not actually Irish-owned anymore, but that hasn’t seemed to slow down the national pride for this drink. Many of the recipes have been carefully crafted over time, with a focus on that famous smoothness. Personally, I’ve always adored how easy drinking Irish whiskey is, and that’s largely due to the fact that Irish whiskeys don’t traditionally include much peat (which has a tendency to add a harsher, smoky aftertaste). Different parts of the country have their whiskey of choice but don’t hesitate to try them all based on where you are.
Cooley Distillery, who produces Connemara, Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan, and 2Gingers is still very much Irish owned if you’re looking to support the local economy.
Pro-tip: For an extracurricular lesson, you can typically book a whiskey tasting at any distillery to learn more about whiskey-making and different types. This will allow you to try a few whiskeys to see which (if any) are to your taste.
When there are traditional Irish songs about a dish, chances are it’s a cultural staple, and quite worth trying. I certainly found that to be the case with colcannon. Unfortunately, it’s not a dish that I found was ever marketed very much to tourists, but when I tried it towards the end of my time studying abroad in Ireland, it was love at ‘first bite.’
Colcannon is quite simple really -- it’s more or less just mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage and a healthy serving of butter. I first studied abroad in Ireland in 2007, and most recently in late 2017, and I can say that this dish seems to be making a revival of sorts, perhaps coinciding with the popularity of kale. Either way, it’s perfect to warm you up if you’re studying abroad in autumn, and found pretty much all over the Irish island.
7. Smoked Salmon
I could have lumped this in with #2 (oysters), but Irish smoked salmon deserves its own shout-out. Like Oysters, I’d say the best of the best can be found on the west coast, and towns such as Connemara on the edge of the Atlantic tend to boast about their salmon’s fresh, natural flavor.
Believe it or not, when studying there, I ended up spending the night at the pub with a few gentlemen who ran a smokehouse. The passion with which they talked about the process of smoking the salmon made me a lifetime convert. It tastes like someone carefully labored over it, but not in a way that takes away from its freshness. All this to say, be open-minded to new experiences while studying abroad -- you might just discover a new food you love!
8. Full Irish Breakfast
The first meal of the day is the last of the must-try dishes -- but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not important! The Irish take the first meal of the day seriously and I, for one, respect them for it. Traditionally, Irish breakfast was a meal concocted to tide one over on a full day’s work, and it seems portion sizes haven’t changed much in the interim.
What’s served depends on the cook, but it typically includes black and white pudding, beans, bacon rashers, sausages, hash browns, toast, eggs, and mushrooms. All this is washed down with a strong cup of tea (don't forget the milk!). Nothing beats a hearty breakfast before a day of classes!
It's Time to Imbibe!
Long after returning home from my study abroad experience, I think back fondly on many of these dishes -- and lament that, like most unique cultural cuisine, they're just not the same back home. If you give them a try, you'll probably feel the same way about one or two of the foods and drinks on this list.
While Ireland has a reputation for its famous beverages, it’s fair to say that the world has yet to awaken to just how fantastic Irish cuisine can be. If you’re studying there now or heading there soon, start with these delights, and then dive into one of the world’s most underrated cuisines, while enjoying a Guinness or two along the way.
This post was originally published in January 2018, and it was updated in November 2020.