Ireland: the year that changed my life


Hannah Kennedy

Assistant editor, Hannah Kennedy, reflects on her year abroad in Ireland and the transition back.

It was May of 2018. After school, I was eating a snack in the kitchen, scrolling on my phone. “Who wants to move to Europe?” texted my dad in a family group chat. I smirked. My dad, who works for Rockwell Automation, receives a slew of relocation opportunities.

My family is originally from Philadelphia, and we moved to Mequon about seven years ago for my dad’s job. We would always hear of possibilities to move to Singapore, Belgium, or Hong Kong, but we never took them seriously. The thought of uprooting our day to day life in this comfortable, Milwaukee suburb was daunting.

I can never pinpoint exactly why I responded “YES!” in all capital letters to his text, but I did. If I am being completely honest, my monotonous, sheltered life in Mequon had grown frustratingly boring. My repetitive day to day schedule left me feeling unsatisfied and wanting a new adventure.

It would be an understatement to say that the rest of my family was not on the same page as my dad and me. The idea of moving 3,500 miles away was not easy to digest for all of us. My sister had a strong friend group and a dance school she did not want to give up. My 10-year-old brother could not fathom the thought of leaving his neighborhood best friends. My mom was not comfortable being so far from family, especially my grandfather who was in bad health.

After many discussions, and planning, we decided to take the opportunity to relocate for one year to Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland. I’ll spare you all the boring details, but let’s just say visas, international bank accounts, and house hunting overseas is not a walk in the park. Even working with a relocation company or multiple HR employees, our moving boxes of clothes did not arrive until October…we moved in August.

Adjusting to life abroad was different for each member of my family. I can guarantee my version of the story is a complete 180 from my mother or my sister. That being said, I was absolutely enthralled with this new lifestyle I had been exposed to.

The laid back European way of thinking was not something I was used to, especially compared to the go go go of my American life. My best friends were from Germany and Italy (never something I thought I would say), and they had come to Ireland to learn English. We immediately clicked, as we were all new kids, and would share the occasional laugh at something that was just “so Irish.” I also befriended many kids who were born and raised in Kinsale. To say these people were some of the nicest, kindest and most welcoming people would be an understatement.

I was thrown into numerous group chats, invited to the market on half day Wednesdays, and welcomed into various friend groups. The one thing that stood out to me the most was the accepting nature of these kids. It did not matter what you looked like or how you acted; all the kids were accepting of the differences among us. Insignificant drama was nowhere to be found, and it was so refreshing. Everyone was friends with everyone, and the small town, close-knit community was strong.

One specific memory I have is when I was at a party with a big group of my friends. The house that the party was at was nice, and we were partying in the guest house. Out of curiosity I asked one girl, “what do her parents do?”, insinuating that there had to be money here.

She looked at me dumbfounded. “I don’t really know,” she said, “We don’t really talk or ask about that stuff.”

I was shocked, but also humbled. They did not even consider money or wealth. Everyone was friends, and that was all that mattered.

Aside from my social life, I also had to transition academically. This was by far the most difficult transition. The Irish and American education systems are like night and day. In Ireland, there is no such thing as GPA or cumulative assessment. In their six years of “secondary school” (equivalent to middle/high school) they have two major exams. One at the end of third year (freshman year), and one at the end of sixth year (senior year).

At the end of senior year students take a two week long exam on all the information they have learned over the past two years of school. These exams are taken in essay style and based on memorization.

Coming from an American school, I had to adjust to this new system, and the fact that everything was rote memorization. Regurgitating facts and phrases back into essays was something I was not used to. Our nightly homework was “learning off” what we had been taught in class. This essentially meant going over our notes until we had everything memorized.

The actual content I was learning might not have been challenging, but remembering every detail and note was more difficult than expected.

That being said, my teachers were extremely understanding of my situation and helped me with adjusting to this new system. They also understood the experience I had was once in a lifetime and would not mind when my family took a long weekend to travel.

From friends, to school, and finally to travel. The third major part of my year was travel. Being so close to Europe gave my family and I an amazing opportunity to visit numerous countries. I am so blessed to have been able to see so many places and experience various cultures.

Being a journalist, I was determined to document these travels in a way that I could look back on them. I began taking videos and editing them, and eventually uploading them onto YouTube so family back home could see. I ended up becoming very passionate about videography, and was excited with each trip as it was a new opportunity to create another video.

As the year flew by, I knew it would be so difficult to leave this life behind. I had made strong relationships with so many people, and saying goodbye to them until next summer would be heartbreaking.

The day before I moved back to America I sat on a park bench with my Irish boyfriend. We began reminiscing on the past year, and crazy circumstances of my life. I had friends in multiple countries, experienced more in one year than I had in the 16 previous years and learned countless life lessons. While everything may not have been a walk in the park all the time, the good definitely outweighed the bad, and if you ask any of my family members they would easily tell you it was the best decision we could have made.

Little did I know, moving back would be the most difficult time for me. I had my whole life set up and perfect (in my eyes) in Ireland. But I also had a life in Mequon. I had school, friends, sports, and a job here. I had been on a high in Ireland, and as I moved back, I came crashing down.

Transitioning back to America was honestly one of the loneliest times. Nobody understands the past year of my life. I could not be mad at them for not understanding. How could I expect anyone to know what I had been through? I had gained a whole new perspective on life, and life went on in Mequon while I was gone. The expectation that I would just swing right back into things, and it would all be the same, was extremely unrealistic.

Months passed and I was still longing to go back to Ireland; still not completely immersing myself back into my life here. I was so scared of losing that part of me and I tried so hard to keep from falling back into my life in Mequon.

It was not until after Thanksgiving when I had to come to terms with myself. My life was in Mequon now. There was nothing that could change that. I had an amazing time in Ireland, and I would never forget those memories. But just as I had in Ireland, I needed to experience life here too. This was easier said than done, and every day is still a transition back.

In February, it will be six months since I have left Ireland. As I sit down to reflect on the past year there, and my transition back, I realize how blessed I am to have had these opportunities. Yes, the move there was not always smooth sailing, and many hiccups in the road were difficult. Yes, moving back was one of the hardest times in my life, and left me missing my best friends. However, when I look back on the past 18 months, I have learned more lessons, gained more experiences and opened my eyes to more new things than I could have ever imagined.

As for the future, I will continue to travel and explore. The past year has sparked an excitement for adventure in me that I have never experienced before (my mother would probably say I’m filled with wanderlust). While my eyes have been opened to such a big world, this is only the beginning. As a journalist, I want to push myself to capture these stories around the world, and bring them closer to home.

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