Of all the places I lived in my 20’s, Ireland was the place that I learned the most lessons. Lessons about independence, about being alone, about my inner strength, about the kindness of strangers, about courage, and about how to live in a place that rains every single day without killing yourself! It was here that I stopped caring what it looked like to go to the movie theater or a pub by yourself. It was a time in my life that I wouldn’t want to go back and do over again because it was really difficult, but a time that I look back on with so much gratitude and respect.
Just to give you a little background on the state of mind I was in at that time here’s a summary of the events leading up to my decision to do BUNAC’s Work Ireland Program. In May 2003 I graduated from UNCW. In September I left for South Africa to volunteer for 3 months. While I was in South Africa I decided that I wanted to do BUNAC’s Work Britain Program. In order to be eligible for the program you had to be a student or a recent graduate and my “recent graduate” status would expire on December 31, 2003. I left South Africa in December and was home for Christmas for 10 days before I had to leave for London. The day before I was supposed to board the plane my Dad was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. I can still remember sitting in my car outside of a bagel place when my mom called and told me the news. I was shocked…my Dad had never been sick in his life. Honestly! I can’t remember him ever having a stomach bug, the flu, or even a cold. Later that day I went to the doctors appointment with my parents. The whole thing was surreal. My mom asked the doctor if I should still go to London and he said yes…they didn’t expect my Dad to die anytime soon and besides, he said, you can always come home if you need to. They would do surgery and a series of treatments and hopefully they would catch it before it spread and everything would be okay. We were all scared, but hopeful, and my parents encouraged me to still go to London.
So the next day, with a heavy heart, I boarded the plane to London and landed on New Year’s Eve – the last possible day I could get there and still get my work visa. I loved London just as much the second time around (I studied abroad there in 2001). However, my time in London was riddled with guilt. While I selfishly enjoyed being able to run away from my Dad’s illness, the guilt of not being there for him in those first months of his diagnosis weighed on me. I ended up coming home in April even though my visa was for 6 months. At the time I felt like I was handling things well, but now that I can look back with a wider lens I see I was slowly falling apart. I spent that summer at Wrightsville Beach being free and wild. My parents were dealing with their emotions in different ways and it all made for one big emotional mess. I wasn’t used to having to actually face the reality that was my Dad’s diagnosis and didn’t know how to deal with it. When I was in London it was easy to pretend like it wasn’t real, but that summer at home I had to actually look into my Dad’s eyes and see the fear and sadness. The three of us were a mess and this lead to us not being able to get along which put me into flight mode.
I was no longer eligible for the Work Ireland Program because you had to be a student or recent graduate, but there was a loop hole that I discovered while I was in London. Through BUNAC’s London office I could apply for the Work Ireland Program, but it had to be done directly after the Work Britain Program. So as soon as my visa in England ended my visa in Ireland would begin. This meant that my Ireland visa would begin in July. It was my last chance to live in Ireland with a work visa and I decided to go for it! I would leave the end of July and stay for around 3 months.
My Dad was doing okay. They did surgery and removed all of the lymph nodes around the area on his shoulder where the melanoma had been. He had been through his first round of treatments and responded well. It had not spread to any other area of his body and he was in remission. While we were all of course relieved that everything was going good so far, the stress of the whole ordeal had taken a toll on us. Right before I left for Ireland our emotions reached a boiling point and we were no longer speaking. When I boarded the plane to Dublin I have never felt so alone in all my life. Luckily my dear friend Des, who I volunteered with in South Africa, is from Dublin. The few days I spent with him when I first arrived helped to lighten my soul.
I decided that since I had lived in a big city (London) that I wanted to live in a rural area of Ireland. I pre-arranged a job out in the middle of nowhere in Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. I was excited to get out in the country and try something different. It is so hard for me to explain how strange and terrible this place was but I will try. It was a restaurant and bar, but they also offered horseback riding. I was to work at the bar and hardly get paid anything because they provided you with room and board. When I first got there I was so excited because the area was beautiful! It was right by the sea with rolling green hills and cows grazing. I immediately got a strange vibe from the owners, but hit it off with the German girl who was the chef at the restaurant. The first couple of nights I stayed at the owners house and then they moved me down to the house where some of the other workers stayed. The house would have been fine except for the fact that the plumbing/running water was not working and apparently the owners couldn’t be bothered to fix it. I literally had to go outside that night to go to the bathroom. When the German girl finally got me alone she said that I must leave this place. She was so emphatic that it was scary. I tried to tell her – oh it can’t be that bad. They will fix the plumbing….She said “No, you must leave!” She told me some crazy stories about the owners and said “tonight after work I will drive you in the middle of the night to Clifden. You can stay there until Wednesday when I have the day off and then I will come pick you up and take you to Galway.” I can’t explain it but I just trusted her. If she said I had to go and she was willing to help me then that’s what I was going to do.
So that night I packed my bags and she drove me in the dark to the little town of Clifden where I checked into a hostel for 3 nights. I felt so alone and lost, but was determined to make the most of my time there. I hiked up to the top of Sky Road where the views of the sea are breathtaking. It was everything you imagine Ireland to be…green rolling hills, emerald green sea, tiny stone enclosures with grazing cows, goats, and sheep. It was amazing and I felt so strong and independent to be sitting there on the edge looking out at this beautiful landscape all by myself. The German girl stuck to her word and came to the hostel that Wednesday and drove me to Galway. She dropped me off at a hostel and I never saw her again.
By this time I was getting low on money because I hadn’t planned on being out of work for so long. That first day in Galway I hit the streets with my resume and I went into every restaurant on Shop Street looking for a serving or bartending job. I was offered a job washing dishes and since I was desperate I accepted. I washed dishes with a bunch of Polish girls who didn’t speak English for a week or two and then one of the restaurants I had gone to that first day called and hired me. Through my dish washing job I found my flat. One of the cooks was looking for a roommate and it was the perfect flat – right in the center of town, cheap, but nice. So I always look back on that and know that I was meant to wash dishes in order to find my flat. The restaurant that I ended up waiting tables at was a fine dining restaurant called Kirby’s. I made good money and everything just seemed to fall into place.
I did not know one single person in Galway. I liked the girls I worked with but I did not get close with any of them. I liked my roommates and I would hang out with them sometimes, but I never felt close to them either. Galway is a really cool place. It’s a university town and has this great pedestrian street full of shops, restaurants, bars, and street artists. It was so different from anywhere I had ever lived and I really loved it. On my days off (if it wasn’t raining) I would walk the promenade along the sea to Salt Hill listening to music and just being alone. One day when I was walking I noticed this cliff jetting out into the sea far up ahead. I wondered if it was possible to get to the top of this cliff, so I just kept walking until I was standing on the grassy edge looking out across the bay. The view was amazing and I loved being out there surrounded by water on three sides completely alone. I returned to this cliff often during my time in Galway. It was where I went to sort things out. To get away from the sadness I felt when I was alone in my flat.
My time in Galway was full of ups and downs, but one day at the restaurant where I worked I waited on this really nice American family from California who were traveling around England and Ireland with their daughter for a year. I ended up spending a lot of time with them and they really helped me sort out the feelings I was having about my parents, face my insecurities, and made me look at life in general from a different perspective. From this point on I had a lot more ups than downs and I am forever grateful to them for sharing their wisdom with me.
Towards the end of my time I decided to leave Galway and go to Northern Ireland. My friend, Ciaran, who I had volunteered in South Africa with, was doing a one-year volunteer placement in Ballycastle at a place called Corrymeela, which is a Christian center for peace and reconciliation. He worked it out that I could come up and volunteer for my last few weeks in Ireland. Corrymeela is a special place. I have never felt so completely surrounded by positive energy. It was exactly what I needed. The other volunteers were from all over the world and everyone that worked there was so incredibly kind. Corrymeela is a retreat destination where groups go to do team building and learn to love and respect each other regardless of their background. Corrymeela’s mission is: embracing difference, healing division and enabling reconciliation. Our vision is of a peaceful and sustainable society based on social justice, positive relationships and respect for diversity. The Corrymeela Community strives to embody these values in every aspect of our lives. While I was there I worked with adult groups, children, served food, cleaned, and participated in team building exercises with the other volunteers. It was a really great experience. I even considered coming back to do the full year of volunteering but never did.
At some point while I was at Corrymeela I called my parents and we started talking again. Ireland was my time to grow and learn some hard lessons. Being so alone in Galway made me dig deep. The foundation of my inner strength and belief system began in Ireland. Without that time and learning a new way of thinking I never would have been able to get through my Dad’s cancer coming back and his eventual passing in 2009. When I look back on my time in Ireland I am really proud of my 23 year old self. It took a lot of courage to get on a plane by myself and go live in a foreign country that I had never been to before. And while I felt so alone during that time, I really wasn’t, and if it weren’t for the support of the following people my experience would not have been the same! Thank you Ray & Talley, Tom, Jaclyn, Ali & Jay, Simone, Des, and Ciaran (and all the other volunteers at Corrymeela) for being there for me when I needed you the most.