Throughout my semester abroad, I’m surprised to be learning more about myself and my culture than ever before. Over time, taking advantage of opportunities that I would’ve been too afraid to do back home has allowed my confidence and judgement to flourish with each new experience.

This weekend, I traveled to Ireland on my own to revisit County Kerry, where my paternal family is from. Before boarding my flight, I began to feel so anxious and apprehensive, as I realized that I’d be spending the weekend in a new country where I knew no one – had I officially gone mad? Probably, but I knew that this trip would teach me more about a different aspect of my identity and contribute to my personal growth.

​Ross Castle, built in the 15th Century in County Kerry, Ireland.

Before immigrating to the United States in the 1900s, my father’s family lived in County Kerry for generations. In addition, Kerry is also my middle name, which reemphasizes its significance in my family. I was beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to learn more about my Irish heritage and walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. Unfortunately, since it had been so long since my family had lived in Ireland, I was not aware of any long-lost relatives currently living in the region.

On my coach to Kerry, I happened to sit next to a man who worked as a Gaelic translator for forty years. Galeic is the minority language in Ireland, and many historical documents and records are now translated to English so that they can be preserved for future study. The man told me that he had translated a document a few years ago that listed every family living in the southwestern region of Ireland over two centuries, exactly where County Kerry is located! After telling him my family name, he informed me that my family had likely originated from the Blasket Islands, just off the coast of Kerry. I was surprised to learn that my ancestors may have also been islanders. What were the odds that I’d come across a complete stranger who knew more about my family history than I did!

Dingle Peninsula.

Over the next two days, I traveled throughout Kerry with a tour group that I had booked before my arrival. We were guided by a local resident of Kerry, who eagerly shared characteristics of the Irish culture and took us to areas that were less touristy. We visited the town of Killarney, the Derryveagh Mountains, Ross Castle, the Skellig Islands (as seen in Star Wars!), Inch Beach, the Dingle Peninsula, and drove along the perimeter of the Ring of Kerry. The region has some of the most iconic and breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. In fact, a lot of the sites that we visited reminded me so much of home. It was great to be able to have sand in between my toes and dip my feet in the ocean again after weeks of being landlocked in Madrid.

​The vibrant town of Killarney.

​By far one of the best feelings in the world!

Through this experience, I’ve come to learn the pros and cons of traveling alone. One of the most obvious pros is the freedom that comes along with it. Traveling solo means that the days of waiting for your friends to get ready in the morning and debating for twenty minutes on where to grab dinner are long gone. I had the flexibility to design my own schedule for the day, and make last minute changes if necessary without anyone’s approval but my own.

As we remain in our “comfort zone” throughout our lives, it’s easy take the little things we have for granted, such as having lunch with friends and coming home to a roommate rather than an empty room. On my tour of Kerry, there were a group of friends who were taking funny pictures of each other and having a great laugh about it. This reminded me of my prior trips to Budapest and London, where my friends and I bonded over our shared experiences over time. While it was nice to be able to have time alone and do things for myself, I felt that this trip would have been more memorable if I was with a group of friends to share these memories with.

​Who needs a car when you can travel by donkey!

Despite this however, I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to learn more about my Irish culture and revisit the county that has been a part of my family for generations. I was thrilled to be able to share my experiences and the beautiful photos with my family, and most especially with my father, who has wanted to visit County Kerry for years. As with most of my experiences thus far, I’ve come to take the lessons that I’ve learned from them to better understand myself, rather than be overly critical about them.

​Fun fact – the national color of Ireland is actually royal blue!

Hasta luego!

Stephanie Downing  

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