Blog and photos by UCC US Student Ambassador John Larson
When I first arrived in Cork, stepping off the bus at Saint Patrick’s Quay with only my backpack and the shoes on my feet, I was exhausted. It was the conclusion of three months of backpacking, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, during which the incomprehensibility of foreign tongues and living hostel to hostel had, in due course, lost its romantic sheen. In Cork, I sought not the cheap thrills or temporary friends so familiar to the solo traveler, but a home, and a home I have found.
There is an energy in Cork unlike anything I have ever seen, a charisma and curiosity so present within its denizens and its cultural undercurrent that it seems to permeate even the old concrete of its cathedrals and flow through the waters of the River Lee, upon whose quays the city has snugly fortified itself, in times of old with walls and castles and in the modern era with an armament of poets and pubs.
My first day in Cork was brief – I stopped into a local coffeeshop to inquire about good hostels to stay in and to ask about rental opportunities near the school. The barista, Sam, only a year older than myself, was quick to give me his contact information and take my own, saying he wasn’t aware of anything at the moment but would be in touch with me if he learned of anything. The coffeeshop, then quiet, allowed for us to continue chatting, and we became fast friends.
The friendliness and sincerely inquisitive nature of the Irish is often a surprise to foreigners, who may recoil in apprehension or suspect sycophancy, but such suspicions are far cries from the truth. Where I am from, exchanging contact information after a small chat is a mere formality, considered a perfunctory act without any obligation to follow-up – here, it is a different story entirely. Sam and I stayed in touch, introducing me to his friends and a talented group of students, musicians, and young people, all eager to share their culture and way of life with me.
After meeting this group of affable new friends, I decided I’d spend the last month before school began exploring Ireland. When one travels alone in Ireland, one quickly realizes that there is no such thing as “solo travel” – this land is not only full of chatty locals, but expats and immigrants drawn to the emerald isle with equally sociable habits. After a brief stop in Killarney, I was suddenly struck by challenging times: a long relationship I had been in had suddenly and without warning come to an end. As an American, and especially as a man, I instinctively sought privacy and isolation; I soon learned that this was not a possibility when staying in a hostel full of students from all over the world. But sooner still did I learn that this was, in fact, a blessing in disguise: a South African software developer and ‘digital nomad’ named Herman quickly befriended me, and after only a couple hours and a couple pints, we’d decided to backpack through Kerry and Cork together. The ensuing weeks were deeply introspective, full of self-discovery and an immersion in Irish culture. After nearly two weeks of backpacking together, hitchhiking between villages and enjoying legendary “ceol agus craic,” we decided it was time to head to Cork. On our way in, I told my friend that I’d better start looking for student accommodation soon, to which he replied, a moment which is hilarious in retrospect, “that we could stay with his friend for a night or two as I get sorted.”
We walked, with our heavy backpacks, through neighborhood after neighborhood by Cork city’s famous Lough, until we came upon a typically Irish home with a modest garden. A brief moment after knocking, the door swung open to reveal a familiar face, one which instantly burst into laughter: it was Sam, my first friend, the barista who’d been so considerate when Cork was still an unfamiliar place. Coming into their home was like visiting old friends or far-flung family – everywhere I looked was someone I’d met at some point before, each equally endearing in their demeanor, equally interesting. It was the kind of hilarious happenstance which sets Ireland apart from any other place in the world, and in the slowly unfurling tale of my life, I am pleased to say my arrival and time in Ireland has perhaps been the most influential and happiest chapter yet.
It’s this memory and many more why I suggest to all my sincere and kindhearted friends, and to all those with real passion and creativity: come to Ireland. You may, in the end, be coming home.