Newfoundland students experience of Ireland

[This dates back to a time, in the late 1990s, when I wrote a monthly column for the Newfoundland Telegram about connections between Ireland and Newfoundland, where I had been brought up for a while and visited a number of times since.]

Heather Dalton and Bob Tetford are business students at MUN and they’re over here in Dublin for a semester on an exchange programme. I met up with them this week to find out how they were getting on so far away from home ... or not so very far from home, as it turned out.

We met up in a pub called ‘The Ass & Cart’, owned by Jim O’Rourke, brother of Terry who owns the ‘Duke of Duckworth’, and Heather and Bob seemed very much at home, on first-name terms with the staff, indeed.

Although both Heather and Bob felt they should probably have been in their rooms studying, it was obviously not their first Monday night to be out drinking in Ireland. One thing they both feel strongly about Irish life is that it centres much more around the pub than back home. In Ireland, Bob explains, there is no holding off for five days of hard work and then really getting on the go Friday night as a reward kind of thing, like there is in Newfoundland. Here, Heather adds, everyone seems to gravitate to the pubs whatever the time of day, or day of the week, and for any excuse. And, as Bob says, when in Rome....!

And anyway, they see going to the pub and going out in general as an important part of the exchange experience, offering them a unique chance to learn more about Irish life and Irish people. It’s not just about studying the same stuff in a different environment and from new perspectives, they suggest, nor, as the programme brochures tend to put it, just “an opportunity to conduct research in international business and trade” and “develop potential business contacts.” It’s also about broadening one’s horizons. “If you stay at home,” says Bob, “you just don’t realize what’s out there.”

They are struck by the apparent boom in the Irish economy which they glean especially from all the ‘Help-Wanted’ signs around the city. Heather could not get over her room mate one day deciding that she needed a part-time job and just going out for a while only to return saying she had one. Living in Ireland helps them realise that not all the world is on an economic downturn and experiencing a brain-drain. “There are so many opportunities here,” observes Bob, amazed at how young his Dublin exchange programme co-ordinator is.

They find the atmosphere in Dublin much livelier than St. Johns, pointing to the number of young people around town, and all the stores and bars and restaurants of so many different kinds. “Newfoundland is more homogenous,” Bob comments, and Heather elaborates on how they had to buy special ‘clubbing clothes’ in order to match the less conservative tastes of Dublin’s nightclubbers.

So, is it very different from what they expected? Well, apparently not. They both feel very much at home and get on very well with the Irish people they’ve met. And they are conscious of the similarities between home and here, in the traditional music and the accents. “It’s just that Ireland is that much bigger,” explains Bob, “there’s more to do and the population is younger.”

Heather tells me that at first it surprised her how little Irish people knew about Newfoundland and even Canada. She recalls one bar-man at the university being astounded that she had not been to the ‘88 Olympics in Calgary. They have both gone from telling people they are from St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada to explaining step-by-step that they’re from Canada, then Newfoundland, and if satisfactory progress is being made, then St. Johns. One girl that Bob encountered at a party insisted on Canada and America being one and the same, until Bob forced her to confront his retort that Ireland was in England.

Although since coming here they would consider this part of the world as a possible place to work after graduating, they would both prefer to stay in Newfoundland. Says Bob: “just to prove to myself that it can be done.” Heather thinks that Newfoundland is ultimately a friendlier culture and a preferable place to work.

One area where they see a big difference from home is in the service industry in general. Everything is less efficient here and less focused on the customer, they explain. “You just have to wait until the salesperson or whoever is ready for you,” explains Heather, “and that can take a long time.” “McDonald’s takes 10 times longer,” Bob adds a for instance. It’s not that they would criticise Ireland for that, it’s just running on a different time - “Guinness Time”, Heather describes it, after the commercial that impressed her marketing sensibilities.

On a serious note, they both agree that coming to Ireland has been very beneficial to them academically: although the work is much less intense, they have learned more here about Newfoundland’s international trading position by comparing it themselves with Ireland’s need to look abroad for markets - something they could never appreciate fully at home from the textbooks which, they complain, are all mainland-centred.

Any stories for the folks back home, I ask, and they tell about the time on the Aran Islands that seven of them paid the equivalent of $200 for fish and chips (and awful white wine!) in a restaurant which Bob describes as “flashy on the outside but like a sit-down Chess’s on the inside,” adding, “and Chess’s would win hands-down!” Heather says it was the worst fish she’d eaten in her life and, as I head to the bar for another round of drinks, the two of them joke about setting up a Chess’s in Dublin.

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