Living a semester in Cork, Ireland, was a lifetime of adventures all rolled up into a few short months. While the main intent of studying abroad is to study, abroad, living in a foreign country provides hundreds of life lessons that you do not get in a classroom.
I loved Cork not just for the courses at University College Cork, but for the feeling I had when I was living there. Just living. In a world that is constantly desensitized and where the true feel of a place is lost in the shadow of technology, internet, and our own vanities, Cork served not just as a haven from the numbness I have grown accustomed to but also as a hidden sanctuary where time was different.
Sure, the city was modernized and to be honest much of the culture was Americanized, but in certain parts around the city or even within the densest of populated areas there was a lingering feeling that an older spirit of the city remained. One that was older than memory. One that had been haunting the area since it was marshland, following the split of the River Lee and running with the waters until they met the sea. It was as if an Otherworldly presence kept the city shrouded in the clouds for safety from the threats of artificiality, and brought the constant rain to rejuvenate the people as well as the land.
Maybe it was the fairies. After all, even if you don’t believe in them, they exist all the same, as my professor said.
About the City
Cork is at the southern tip of the island, in the province of Munster. Mizen Head, the southernmost tip of the island, is an hour and a half-or-so drive away. Cobh, a port town, is perhaps an hour by train, and was the last stop of the Titanic. Cork is considered by locals to be the “real” capital of Ireland, not Dublin (on the eastern coast). It used to be a medieval city, which is why the cobblestone streets remain as they are—confusing for anyone who isn’t used to walking it. They are not aligned in neat rows, not marked by a name (for many streets) because they all blend into each other. Many are one-way, but without signs indicating so. It makes getting lost an adventure. Cobblestones bring back the memory of another more romantic time, but they also are slippery when wet—I slipped more than once, even when wearing boots with a good tread. I would run across the street, hop onto the pavement, and then, whoops! I was on my bottom, laughing, and trying not to look as embarrassed as I felt. Quickly I would scurry away, trying not to slip again as I tried to lose myself in the background.
The brightly colored housing lines either side of the streets, making for a picture-perfect scene on “sunny” days when the yellows and greens and pinks are popping in the uncommon light. On most days they exist subtly, adding color to the city without offending the tranquil sophistication of neat Irish neighborhoods. From the high window or rooftop of the houses, you can see the green hills that serve as a suggestion of what the countryside holds. After all, much of Ireland is soft-looking green hills and fields, dotted with sheep. They have colors painted on their backs to mark who they belong to. Through the clouds, you can also see the parts of the city on the opposite side of the Lee. That half of Cork is also a hill, and you can look from one building to another with the valley of the city in between. You see, Cork is uphill on either side of the river. It makes for good exercise when hiking back from the city center with a backpack full of groceries, which for me typically cost only 20 to 30 Euro––a Euro is about 1.19 dollars, depending on the day. The first time I went shopping I startled the lady at the till when I saw the price. I didn’t mean to shriek, really. I was just shocked. I had a backpack and two small bags full, yet it was less than 30 Euro. She asked if that was a bad thing, and I explained how I would have been charged $40-60 back in the states. She was baffled, to say the least, but I was overjoyed…until I realized that inexpensive food meant I was unlikely to starve some unnecessary weight off.
Oh well. New Year’s resolutions.
When walking to and from the city center, you pass by the same locals. Some say hello, some don’t. The Irish are shy, and many are unlikely to start up a conversation without prompting. Sometimes that prompting comes in the form of a Guinness, but that’s more of a going-out situation, not a walking-to-the-market situation. Still, when you do get talking to someone, the conversation lasts a while. Local vendors may get to know you, so you can have a good chat when you grab a bundle of carrots from a close-by vegetable market. I found the experience more personable when I went to those sellers rather than the grocery stores in the city center. However, there is a place called the English Market in the city center, famous enough for the Queen of England herself to have visited. There, you can buy fruits and vegetables, meats and buttered eggs, soaps and perfumes, sweeties and chocolates, or anything really. There’s a spot upstairs for some authentic Irish cuisine if you’re looking for lunch! The stew and brown bread is fabulous, if dramatically less salty than American cuisine.
There are plenty of other stores for other shopping needs. The streets of the city center are teeming with restaurants, clothing stores, and if you’re just out for enjoyment, plenty of musicians to add music to your day. Some play violins, some guitars. The ups and downs of the music is not unlike the local accent. Those native to Cork have a sing-songy way of speaking. Their voices are songs and stories not unlike those of traditional oral storytellers. You’ll encounter around four performers on the way to the bus station if you’re looking to travel. One short ride away is the famous Blarney Castle. Line 215. I took it three times, once with parents, once with a visiting sister, and once to return a Claddagh ring that just wasn’t quite right for me. But it’s ok—I had another one made for me.
Celebrating the Holidays
At holidays, Cork’s community comes together as one right there, in the heart of the city. During Halloween (the Celtic Samhain, pronounced sow-in), volunteers build floats, make costumes, and dance in a parade. No trick-or-treating, but that’s American anyways. Samhain is the original festival. Children and adults alike were clad in costumes ranging from skeleton to witch to queen and everything in between. Music, loud and upbeat, followed the procession as the individuals danced and marched to the rhythm. You’d get lost in the movements and hardly notice the man with a skull crawling beneath your feet. Then, Boo! He was up in your face and you jumped into the person behind you, disrupting the crowd at your back. But no one would mind—they were frightened by the masked man holding a teddy bear, peering silently over their shoulders to see what scared you.
In November, there was a night where we all gathered in the middle of St. Patrick’s Street to watch the Christmas lights turn on. It was crowded and cold. I could see my breath, I could feel the tip of my nose turning numb. I wrapped my oversized scarf around my neck and face, and pulled my hat down over my forehead. It was scratchy, but the scarf was soft, almost like a blanket you’d cuddle up with when reading a good book. I was surrounded by people of all ages just waiting in anticipation for the start of the holiday season. Standing next to me was a small family, the little boy on his daddy’s shoulders. As the numbers counted down, I quickly decided that I wouldn’t watch in awe as the city lit up. Instead, I turned my gaze to the little boy, himself the excited observer. When the shadows around us turned bright, his face lit up tenfold. The way the shining lights reflected in his eyes made him the real glow of the city. He was just a toddler, but the wonder in his eyes reminded me not just of why I love Christmas, but why I wanted to come to Cork. I wanted that same wonder in my heart that he had at that moment.
I found it.
Some of it I found in the community, some I found as I walked the city. Some I actually learned in a classroom.
University College Cork
University College Cork is a well-respected university. When I first stepped onto the campus, I was taken aback by the beauty of it. More than one of the entrances resemble gothic-style archways and doors—pointed on top. The stone is grey and black, but there are plenty of trees and even the President’s garden to add some natural beauty. The chapel on one side of the amphitheater has wedding ceremonies almost daily, so it’s not odd to see a bridal party ducking into the Student Center to escape the sudden rain.
Rain of course, was unpredictable. I always had rain gear with me, even on those select days where the sun attempted a somewhat dignified appearance. There was always a feel of rain in the air, always clouds in sight, and typically morning mist. The moisture in the air made it feel colder on days that were already cold for a girl raised in California, but I had proper gear to keep me warm and dry—courtesy of my parents, who insist that there is no such thing as being cold, only underdressed (a quote from someone, though I can’t remember who). I did not mind the rain, or the humidity. I was not overly fond of the way everything smelt damp all of the time, especially my flat. I didn’t like how I had to scrub the green fungus away, or how my towel never dried, or how no amount of four euro vanilla body spray took away the indisputable scent of mildew. The classrooms at UCC not only felt damp, but the musky odor of mould was forever present, eating away at the rickety wood benches that served as seats, or crawling up the high ceilings to the not-fully-shut windows. Still, the smell created a feeling that was a part of the place.
The most famous area of campus is the Quadrangle, featuring the most photographed building. It looks like a castle, with a clock tower and three wings that include the President’s office, the Aula Maxima, a handful of classrooms, the visitor center, and a hallway with the world’s largest collection of Ogham Stones. Ogham is an ancient Irish language and writing style. Lines are carved on the corners of upright stones, going up the left side, across, and down the right. No one is sure what they were used for, but the stones feature names. You’re not allowed to touch them, but just looking at the lines, the letters, of names of people we’ll never know makes you realize just how old Ireland is. These stones are just another unsolved mystery, another ancient feeling touching you on the shoulder as you go through the many theories of who they were carved for, and who did the carving. What was their life like? Are they watching as you struggle with the analyzing the nonexistent evidence? Did they know how long their names would last? Will yours last even half as long? Will anything in this false world last that long?
I wonder how long our stories will last. Stories the Irish have told for centuries remain alive today, though many have disappeared along with the language. Only some of it remains, compared to a century or two ago––though the language may be making a comeback. I can see Celtic influence in the still-popular Arthurian legends. Other Christianized tales have origins from this country and these people too. Modern Irish students may not pay as much attention to these stories, or perhaps they are so ingrained into their lives that nothing seems surprising. But I do. I care about the stories forgotten when English took over the Gaeltacht (regions where the Irish grow up speaking the native language), when professional storytellers with their own hierarchy and their own oral traditions were shoved aside as illiterate and uneducated. I care about the family histories locals tell me when you go in for tea. I care about day to day conversations with vendors, and I care about the stories I see in front of my eyes, like when the little boy on his daddy’s shoulders clapped his tiny hands when the Christmas lights switched on to turn the beloved city center into a winter wonderland.
I care about stories of getting lost in a new city with medieval streets and no internet data, hours after a trans-Atlantic flight with lousy sleep and limited patience. I care about the story of two girls making a cake, keeping their humor when everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, coming out of the baking experiment with an unexpected masterpiece and an openness to “winging it.” I care about the story of two adult students casually throwing couch cushions around an apartment, pretending that the floor is lava, just because their remaining flatmates are finally away and not taking over the kitchen with loud parties until 11pm on a school night.
I care about the stories that most people will never know, but some people treasure forever, because even if our names are never carved in stone that lasts long enough for society to forget why, even if our adventures never become the basis of legends, and even if our homes never haunt visitors with an otherworldly presence, they will have existed. Right now, we remember. Right now, they can be shared. My stories probably won’t ever become literature, oral or written. My adventures won’t be told in future classrooms, or be questioned by future scholars. No one will question the meaning behind symbols in my life, no one will analyze the tales, no one will lament the loss of the stories because some new power took over the culture I existed in. But my stories, however long they last, were real.
And I lived them.
Averie Basch attends California State University, Fresno and is studied abroad in Cork, Ireland in Fall 2017. Averie also submitted the following article, First Travels and Settling Into Cork