I participated in the Human-Animal Interactions study abroad trip, which was a 10-day trip to Ireland focusing on the role of animals in our society and how history, government, geography and infrastructure can impact cultural development and the use of land and animals in different societies. While in Ireland, we visited Dublin Falconry, Dog’s Trust and Rehoming Centre, Shelbourne Greyhound Racetrack, Dublin Zoo, John Renehan’s family sheep farm, Moorepark Pig Facility, Fota Wildlife Park, Donkey Sanctuary, Sean Hayes’ beef farm, and Teagasc-Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre. Visiting these places enabled us to understand the broad scope of differences in the human-animal interactions between Ireland and the United States in a variety of aspects.
My understanding of myself was affected greatly on this trip. My mother’s whole family is Irish; her father was born in Ireland and lived there for a brief time until his family moved to America, and much of our extended family still lives in County Cork and County Kerry. My grandfather and I were very close when I was young, and he would tell me story after story about Ireland—stories about the people, the history, the folklore, the traditions, and the beauty of his family’s home. I had dreamed of visiting Ireland since I was only five years old, because I wanted to see and experience the things my grandfather told me about for myself. Fifteen years later, I was able to fulfill my childhood dream through my STEP project, and it was everything I had ever hoped it would be.
This project allowed me to experience firsthand the homeland of my family. Growing up in Texas is about as different from Ireland as one could get, so even though I knew much about Ireland, it was hard for me to fully wrap my head around our family history. Being able to see and experience Ireland for myself gave me a much better understanding and appreciation for my heritage. It also reinforced my sense of identity by immersing myself in the culture of my ancestral home.
There were a few specific experiences during my signature project that catalyzed my personal transformation. The first was visiting the Brazen Head, which is Ireland’s oldest pub. There we were regaled with stories from Irish folklore and traditional Irish music while we ate. Listening to these stories reminded me immensely of all the times that my grandfather told me the same kind of stories, but this time it had a much more profound effect, because I had experienced enough of the culture at that point to give me more context to the story and, therefore, better appreciation for it. This appreciation gained also helped to develop a better sense of connection to my family’s history.
Visiting the cities of Cork and Galway also had a hand in my personal transformation. During our afternoon of free time in Cork, I had the chance to explore the city that my grandfather’s family came from. Recognizing pubs and restaurants that my grandfather had told me about—places that to me had always been in a faraway land—was an amazing yet surreal experience. In Galway, we had an entire free day to see the city, which was astounding. I had the chance to experience more personal interactions with the people and culture of Ireland. Being able to visit the original shop that sold Claddagh rings was also eye opening, since I got to purchase one of these rings from the same store that my great-great grandfather had purchased my great-great grandmother’s Claddagh ring when they were newly married.
Being able to see Blarney Castle was another profound experience for me. I have always been a fan of old architecture and castles, but being able to tour Blarney Castle was one of the most impactful opportunities of this trip. I was able to personally see the structure and architecture and imagine the castle restored to its former brilliance. I was able to connect with a very famous piece of Irish history by kissing the Blarney Stone, and I gained a much more palpable mental image of my family’s history.
This personal transformation is valuable to me because it has fulfilled a piece of my identity and sense of self that I have always felt was missing. Being the only member of my extended family who had not visited Ireland and who was raised far from my family, I had always felt disconnected and separated from this part of myself. This was especially difficult because I heard all about our family and Ireland from my mother and felt that I should be more connected to this part of my family, but I wasn’t. Visiting Ireland has filled this missing piece of myself, and has given me more confidence and more connection with an important piece of my family history and heritage. It has also allowed me to accomplish my lifelong goal of visiting the Emerald Isle for myself. I am now making plans to visit again someday to reconnect with my family that lives in County Cork, further solidifying my connection with my family.