Each new crop of ND students appear the same when they first arrive in Dublin airport. Beyond the consistently impressive variation of ND apparel and even more consistently impressive perfect smiles, there is always a tangible current of trepidation, excitement, and curiosity unique to the student abroad that marks them out from the hordes of tourists and travellers milling around the airport. Despite having travelled thousands of miles, for many the first time overseas, ND students are keen to take in all they can about Dublin and Ireland from the outset. Dubious jokes from certain staff members about being ‘born and bred and buttered’ in Dublin, or even more dubious claims from others that they have never missed a penalty in their lives, are not met with the (usual, correct) response of derision and mocking (‘slagging’), but rather with the earnest, well-meaning stares most commonly seen in anthropologists observing the social rituals of undiscovered tribes in the Amazon Basin. Irish culture, so heavily synthesised and embraced in American culture, is made suddenly at once more real and more alien when it is experienced in Ireland. Our guiding principle here at O’Connell House is to expose and exhibit real Ireland, all of Ireland, to our students, and to make them feel that they have truly lived here, and not just visited as a casual tourist. The only way to do this is through what the official course description calls ‘cultural enrichment’, what O’Connell House calls ‘learning through the soles of your feet’, and what students call ‘trespassing’.
There no better way of understanding Irish farming than leaping over fences in the Boyne Valley three at a time to escape a herd of ominously uniform approaching cows. There is no better way of understanding the ethos of the GAA than being given a personal training session by one of the most revered elite sportsmen in Irish memory. There is no better way of understanding of Irish hospitality than being welcomed by the Benedictine Sisters of Kylemore despite being two hours late due to the vagaries of Irish roads and weather. And there is no better way of understanding the nexus of technology and tradition in Ireland than seeing a post-it note with directions to Glendalough stuck over the bus driver’s GPS system.
Our ND students prove time and time again to be uniquely adept at maintaining their university identity and national pride while metabolising every Irish experience into their social, cultural, and linguistic attitudes and predilections. There is a special pride, and a sense that our work is done, when we hear cups of tea proclaimed as ‘grand’, threats of rain greeted with a shrug and a ‘sure look it’, and an evening out reported as being ‘great craic’. Without our extensive programme of cultural immersion, our students would leave as they came – Americans with a semester in Ireland on their resume. With cultural immersion, they become something new: they come from America, but they are of Ireland.