Blog by: UCC US Student Ambassador Kitty Grebe (Siena College)
As you may remember, my last tip about travelling during your semester in Ireland was not to forget about Ireland. Remember, you chose it, and you probably had a reason to do so (and it’s a good choice). In my case, it was actually a super last minute decision.
I don’t always feel like I belong at my college in the States. I chose it so I could commute and work nearly full-time to pay for school, which doesn’t leave me with a ton of time to socialize. These were my choices, but it gets lonely sometimes as a result. I’m in choir at my college, and I don’t feel that way there, but the rest of the time I usually feel out of place. It got to a point last February where I didn’t want to do another semester there. Obviously dropping out wasn’t a legitimate option (especially since I’m a Senior now), but I was upset and knew I needed to make a change. I saw a sign on my way to choir rehearsal for the Office for International Programs, which happens to be in the same building. I went straight to that office after rehearsal and set up an appointment for the next day. They were awesome and suddenly a thought on a day of extreme frustration became a real possibility.
My school does their best to make it possible for anyone who wants to study abroad to do so, so I pretty much just had to decide on where to go. I picked UCC, and it ended up being the best part of my college experience.
You might be asking, “Kitty, what’s the point of all this?”
Simply this: just as I had my reasons for picking my college in the States, I had my reasons for choosing Ireland, and I’m sure you have yours, but it is important to remember that it is your choice. UCC is an excellent choice, though, for a number of reasons.
Like I said in “International Pigeons (and Travel)”, you may do best to do some smaller trips while getting to know people. Day trips are a great way to do this because they give you the opportunity to see some truly incredible sights without making huge commitments. Ireland is pretty small compared to the US (about the size of Indiana), but there are more things to do than you’ll probably even have time for (I never got to see the Cliffs of Moher, unfortunately, but everyone I know who did get there said it was like nothing they had ever seen). Here are my personal recommendations, with some helpful tips so you can make the most of your (surprisingly short) time there.
I know I mentioned this in my first post, but it bears repeating (maybe even as a general rule): Get off your phone!
You have such an amazing opportunity ahead of you, don’t waste it. I’m not saying “don’t take pictures” (obviously, I took plenty), but don’t take so many that you only end up seeing Ireland through a five inch screen. You didn’t come all this way to obsess over what other people are posting on Facebook, or how many people liked your picture on Instagram. You came here to experience something different. I know that will be harder for some than it was for me, since I only have Facebook and Snapchat and don’t use either with much frequency, but there are a lot of studies out there which show that you’ll feel more relaxed and happy if you put your phone away and actually experience and enjoy the world around you instead of frantically checking for notifications every five minutes. There are tons of things to do, places to see, and people to meet while you’re in Ireland, but if you’re always on your phone, you’re going to miss out on all of it .
University College Cork
Get involved at UCC!
It’s a huge university, which means there is something for everyone. Check out the clubs and societies days and join something, even if you’ve never tried it before. I was going to try water polo, but they practiced at the same time as a class I was taking, so I wasn’t able to. Fortunately, however, I was able to join Choral Society, which was a ton of fun. At the end of the first semester, Choral Society does a “Candles by Candlelight” concert for three nights, which is always a sell-out show. They do it in the Honan Chapel on campus, which is really pretty and a great spot to sing in (or at least it’s fun to sing in because of how echo-y it is).
For the most part, the clubs and societies are there for the students to enjoy, so if there are times you can’t go because you’re travelling, busy with school, or just want a night off, that’s ok. There are a couple more competitive clubs, which require a bit more of a commitment, but if you join something that interests you, you’ll probably want to attend anyway. The clubs and societies are open to everyone, regardless of your ability, so this is the perfect chance to try something new. One of my friends tried kickboxing, something he hadn’t ever done before, but seemed to really enjoy (even when he came home with a black eye). Clubs and societies are also a great way to meet people from all over the world. Between Choral Society and International Students Society (which I only went to at the start of the term), I met people from Ireland (obviously), India, Egypt, Austria, France, and even South Africa, as well as some other Americans.
Attend your classes!
All of the information from the classes is available on Blackboard, and the professors don’t require attendance, so it isn’t a big deal to skip a few, but this is another way to meet people. These are people with whom you (probably) share a common interest. I took three classes for my major, so the people who were in those classes with me became people to chat with on the way to class. I didn’t end up being close friends with any of them, but I knew them well enough that they would ask where I had been if I missed a class, which was nice because it was just further proof of how friendly everyone in Ireland is.
The last thing I will mention about UCC is the International Office. This is an amazing resource during your time abroad. The ladies I met with in this office could not have been nicer, and genuinely care about each student. I went a couple times early in my semester at UCC. The first two times were with little logistics questions (where I needed to go for my immigration card, what constitutes proof of health insurance, etc.), and they were incredibly helpful. The last time I went, though, was at the suggestion of my home university.
I’m kind of shy when it comes to actually getting to know people, so I pretty much don’t talk unless someone talks to me first. I did one of the early start programs, so for the first month I was there, there weren’t a lot of other people around yet, and those who were around felt that I came off as not wanting anything to do with them, so they wouldn’t chat with me or invite me out, which made me even quieter. I didn’t know what I had done to upset them, and it became a vicious cycle all because of a misunderstanding. It’s not that anyone was mean to me, but here again I was feeling incredibly alone, and that, frankly, is a terrifying way to feel when you’re thousands of miles from most of the people you know, and your nearest friend is a two and a half hour train ride away.
I had emailed my university asking where I could find any kind of help with this, and they directed me to the International Office. I met with two ladies who worked there who offered me tea (basically the first thing anyone does in Ireland), and chatted with me until I felt better. Ultimately they suggested calmly talking to the people about it, which I was able to sort of do with the help of one of my roommates who hadn’t done an early start program. He was a great one for tea and chats, so it didn’t matter that I didn’t say much because he was extraverted enough for both of us. We became friends pretty quickly and then I ended up talking more when other people were around. It took a while, but eventually everyone else realized that I’m just quiet, and that’s ok, but had it not been for the ladies in this office (and my roommate), I’m not sure how willing I’d be to tell people how amazing my experience at UCC was.
I don’t say this to scare you. I say it because (like me) some of you may not get off to the best start, and this office is here to help. Your home university wants to see you succeed, and so do the wonderful people at UCC, so there are plenty of people at both to help you, but things become a lot easier and way more enjoyable when you seek the help you need.
Shandon Bells & Church of St. Anne
This is a church in the Shandon area of Cork, about a 2 km walk from UCC. I realize recommending a church may sound a little weird, especially if you aren’t religious, but this is actually a fun place to visit. The church itself is fairly standard; it’s pretty, but not really anything to write home about. The bells, however, are awesome. For a small fee (if I remember correctly, €3), you can go up into the bell tower. The first floor has some information about the bells, but more importantly it has the ropes for the bells themselves. In the room of the first floor, you can actually play the bells, and they even have a couple pieces of music, which have the number for each rope (so even if you can’t read music, you can still play “Jingle Bells” for the neighborhood)! After that, you can continue up to the balcony.
The stairwell is EXTREMELY narrow (you almost have to go up the stairs sideways), and two-way, so this is probably not a great activity if you’re claustrophobic.
Once you’re on the second floor, where you have to wear hearing protection, you get to see the bells themselves. They give you hearing protection, so be sure to use it in this room (remember, people on the first floor are playing the bells)! Lastly, if you follow a little bit further, crawl under one of the bells, and go the rest of the way up, you reach the balcony. When my brother and I went, it was a little bit drizzly, but this was the best view of the city I found in five months. Shandon is on a hill, so it’s above the city to begin with, but then you go up three floors (one of the taller buildings in Cork), and you can see everything.
Check out Cork!
Other than St. Anne’s (and all the other pretty churches), there is still a lot to do in Cork itself. There is the Crawford Gallery, a free art gallery. Some exhibits change, and some are permanent (when I was there, the main exhibit was all nude art, so I don’t have pictures to share). There are also a lot of weekend events, no matter your interests. There’s a lot of live music, a rugby stadium, occasional festivals (the jazz one is huge, but there’s also a food one), the English Market (like Reading Terminal Market, but not as big, for those of you who are familiar with Philadelphia), and few beautiful parks. One of the parks is a public wildlife refuge, surrounding Cork Lough. I only went once because it was pretty far from where I lived, but it was a sunny day, so I figured a long walk would be nice. The other park is Fitzgerald Park. This is right behind the Mardyke Arena, which was basically across the street from where I lived, so I was here a lot. It runs along the River Lee and has a pedestrian suspension bridge, which is oddly fun for a bridge (it’s bouncy to walk across and I’m easily amused).
Sign up for the Coke Zero bike share program!
This was one of my favorite things about Cork. For €10 for the year, you can get a card to use at any of the bike share stations in the city. You can get a bike, use it to get where you need to go, and then drop it off at whatever station you happen to be near. The first half hour of each ride is free, but if you’re getting close to 30 minutes, just drop that bike off and get a new one, and your half hour starts again. I loved this for when I would go to the shops because there is a basket on the front, which was the perfect size for my reusable shopping bag (since plastic shopping bags are so terrible for the environment, they try to discourage their use by charging for them, and they’re not cheap, so get a tote). Additionally, on nice days, sometimes it was nice to be able to just ride a bike for a bit. There are bike paths all over the city, and even where there aren’t, people are good about sharing the road.
So touristy, but so fun. It’s in Co. Cork, but out of the city, so you will need transportation. My brother rented a car when he was in town, but there are buses available, so if you’re worried about driving on the other side of the road, just take the bus (my brother turned and ended up on the wrong side at one point, but people were good about it and let us back over, so it was ok, just a little embarrassing). This is better to do during the warmer months of your time in Ireland. I went twice: once with my brother in August, and once when my parents came in November, and it was fun both times, but definitely prettier when the flowers were in bloom.
You may hear rumors that locals do fairly disgusting things to the stone, so you shouldn’t kiss it. Don’t listen to people who say that. They clean the stone all the time because people get lipstick on it, and it’s all the way at the top of the tower house. The gates get locked when the place closes, so it really can’t get messed with. Plus, it’s fun to look down when you’re bent back to kiss the stone (provided you aren’t afraid of heights).
The last thing I’ll say about Blarney doesn’t actually have to do with the castle itself. Directly across the street is Blarney Woolen Mills. It’s three floors of (mostly) sweaters. Even if you don’t want one (but Irish cable knit sweaters are wonderful), this is an interesting place to wander through. There are other little gifts and a place to eat here, too, so it’s a good spot for lunch after you kiss the stone, and nice if you’re looking for souvenirs for family and friends.
I got to go on a class trip here, with a bunch of stops along the way. Mostly the stops were at holy wells, but the final one was the source of the River Lee. It was cold and rainy (and I was prepared for neither) when we went, but this was truly awe inspiring. It’s a small, but gorgeous lake.
Other fun spots to visit in Co. Cork are the Jameson Distillery in Midleton, Cobh (the last port of call for the Titanic), and Kinsale (where there is a meadery). All of these are about 20 minutes away by bus, or if you trust someone to drive a car on the other side of the road, that’s an option, too (but, honestly, that weirded me out even on buses).
Ireland is more than just Cork, though!
Buses and trains
From Cork there are buses and trains (don’t forget about trains!) to pretty much anywhere else in the country. You can get a bus to Blarney Castle, the Jameson Distillery, Cobh, and Kinsale for nice day trips (or an afternoon if you have class in the morning), and you should! When available, the train was always my preferred method of transport, but even if you don’t love the train, it definitely is better for places like Killarney (home to a BEAUTIFUL national park) or Dublin for a few reasons:
- These are a few hours away from Cork by bus, but you can get to them a lot faster by train. This means you get to spend more time enjoying yourself once you reach your destination.
- With the student discount on Irish Rail, combined with the online discount, it’s often cheaper than the bus, or at least not drastically more expensive (for Dublin, it’s about €6 more round-trip than the bus, but it takes literally half the time of the bus for only a little more than the cost of a pint).
- You can get these discounts even once you’re at the train station. I have a friend who lives in Dublin, so I went to visit him a couple times, and I always took the train. One time I ended up staying later than I had planned and missed the last train back to Cork. I went to buy a new ticket the following day and realized that it was €10 more to buy from the ticket kiosk than it was to buy on my phone. I pretty abruptly switched from the kiosk to my phone for that transaction.
- The trains are really nice and relaxing. The seats are bigger, there’s more leg room, the restrooms on board are cleaner, and it’s a smoother ride than the bus. My favorite thing about the train, though, was that there’s a person with a trolley selling tea and sweets for the longer rides- not quite as glamorous or imaginary, but reminiscent of the Hogwarts Express (except in Ireland, so it’s better).
- Lastly, for those who still aren’t quite sold on the train, it is a more environmentally friendly form of travel than a cab, Uber, or bus.
But I digress.
Trains are definitely great, but bus tours are worth doing too. They’re super touristy, so you’ll basically being seeing places with a bunch of middle-aged Americans (which if you start to miss your family may prove kind of nice), but the guides know their stuff, and keep things interesting. I did a bus tour of Dingle, and a three day tour of the North (which you should read about in my previous post, and also definitely do- especially because of the rope-bridge and Giant’s Causeway).
As I mentioned, Killarney (Co. Kerry) is amazing. There is a Lord of the Rings themed bar (which I had to go to because I’m obsessed with all things Tolkien, but wasn’t that great). More importantly, however, Killarney is home to a massive national park.
Killarney is super easy to reach by train (and with your discount, it’s actually cheaper than the bus), and is a pretty small town, so the park is only about a two minute walk from the train station. The park is way bigger than the town, though. I was there for four hours and saw maybe ⅕ of it. Make sure you have comfortable shoes because a lot of it is dirt trails. Also, keep your eyes peeled for deer. I live just south of the Adirondacks in NY, so I see deer pretty frequently, but I was still really excited when I saw one.
If parks aren’t really your thing, Killarney is still worth visiting, if only for the sweater shops. These shops are easy to find in any of the towns I’ve mentioned, but Killarney has some nice ones. The Dingle and Ring of Kerry bus tours come through Killarney, so if you do either of those you’ll get to see it.
Dingle (Co. Kerry)
When I went to Dingle it was on a bus tour of the peninsula, with a bit of time in the town itself. Like I said, bus tours are fun, but be prepared for a long day with a lot of five or ten minute stops. They’re worth doing, though, because you get to see a lot of interesting sights (and you can always sleep on the ride back to Cork). This tour goes to Killarney first, so the bus goes along the Cork and Kerry mountains, an especially nice drive in autumn, and something the driver will probably use as a way to get “Whisky in the Jar” stuck in your head.
Additionally, there is a distillery here. I didn’t go to it, but an Irish friend introduced me to the gin they make there, and it’s one of the nicer ones I’ve ever tried.
I’ll be honest, Dublin wasn’t my favorite. It’s nice; there’s a lot to see and do, but a lot of locals told me I’d like Cork more because, “It’s a smaller, cleaner Dublin.” And I have to say that they were right. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go, but plan on a crowded version of Cork. The Book of Kells at Trinity College, Guinness, and Kilmainham Gaol are all worth seeing (especially the Gaol if you’re interested in Irish independence), as well as the National Gallery. There are churches and parks worth seeing, too. Definitely go see Dublin while you’re in Ireland. It might not have been my favorite place, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be yours.
If you get the chance you can take a train from Dublin to Howth. This is a little sea town like Cobh, Kinsale, or Dingle, but those are all fun spots and this is too. Howth has a little outdoor market where you can get souvenirs, fish and chips, and delicious baked goods. There’s also a cozy tea shop in town, if you’re tired from your travels. The best thing about Howth, though, is Ireland’s Eye. This is a little island off the coast, which you can reach by ferry. I got to see a dolphin on the way out to the island, which was a highlight for me. This is another spot where you want to be sure you have comfortable shoes, or at least ones that are easy to take off/put on. I opted for bare feet on the sand, so that last bit was important for me.
Now go make the most of your time in this incredible place (because you made an excellent choice)!