Irish culture shock: from fake tan to city planning

Shannon McGreevy recounts the cultural shifts that struck her most as an international student

Between somewhat familiar colloquialisms that are commonly known to be Irish, such as “craic” and “grand”, and the stereotypical pubs and pints, I thought coming to Ireland for college as an American high school graduate would be a breeze. However, I was in store for quite the readjustment, stretching all the way from fashion trends and handling the weather, to learning how to survive on a diet consisting mainly of chicken sandwiches and different forms of the humble potato.

Culture shock can be a very off-putting experience and is not to be underestimated, but once the initial wave passes you can start to feel yourself getting your feet under you in your new home away from home. Originally hailing from Chicago, coming to Dublin felt more like a transition to a smaller town to me – even though that may sound bizarre – with norms that I had no idea about. I have plenty of stories to tell about my initial reactions and encounters with Irish culture from my first years in college and hopefully they can help a few international students prepare for what they’re in for, and give the native Irish a laugh or two!

Maybe this goes without saying, but the obsession with fake tan was one of the first things I noticed. Endless trips to Penneys, the lingering smell of coconut, stained orange sheets, and needing to constantly reapply it before nights out makes the tanning process nearly a full time job. The only time I had ever previously encountered fake tans were for large-scale or once-off events like homecoming and prom in high school, and even then the fear of looking like an Oompa Loompa was enough to dissuade me from trying it myself. However, the consistency many Irish girls have with maintaining their tans is very impressive, especially with the unpredictability of the weather and the fact that sunny days are far from frequent. Making it look like a year-round tan demands a certain amount of respect. 

This might be more of a town fashion trend, but tracksuits with sneakers was a sight I had never encountered. Prior to coming to Ireland, I had never seen a boy wear an all Nike or Adidas “trackie” and it did take me aback at first. It is very far from the Midwest dress that I was accustomed to, especially paired with the classic Peaky Blinders haircut and a Canada Goose jacket. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to go down O’Connell street without seeing at least a handful of guys wearing this unspoken uniform. While not as common on the Trinity campus, it definitely contributed to the fish out of water feeling that comes with living in a new country.

Although it was definitely part of those initial growing pains, it’s not a negative thing by any means as now it has forced me to step out of my comfort zone, something I knew was inevitable when coming to college in a new country.”

Something that hit a bit closer to home was the realization that Trinity students are extremely well-dressed, at least in my experience. This struck me in comparison to how every high schooler rocked up to their classes in sweatpants, pyjamas (yes, the full flannels), and perhaps leggings if you were in the mood to be a bit more fancy that day. Seeing what felt like a full-fledged fashion show on an average Wednesday morning was a foreign concept to me before starting at Trinity. While it may seem trivial, the looks I was thrown during my second week of first year after coming to a lecture donning a hoodie with leggings were enough to convince me to purge my closet. Although it was definitely part of those initial growing pains, it’s not a negative thing by any means as now it has forced me to step out of my comfort zone, something I knew was inevitable when coming to college in a new country.

In my experience, most other cities, especially major American cities like Chicago, are typically organised by either a grid system or some sort of predictable arrangement of streets and addresses that make it fairly easy to navigate. From looking at a map of Dublin it is very clear that this is not the case. I’ll never forget trying to ask for directions from a local during my first semester and being simply told “there’s no numbers down that road so just take two lefts and keep going”. However, I can reassure you that with a little patience it eventually does start to make sense, although navigating Ireland’s capital may not be as intuitive to us non-natives.

Possibly the most obvious culture shock was regularly experiencing weather conditions from all four seasons in one day”

Possibly the most obvious culture shock was regularly experiencing weather conditions from all four seasons in one day, something which is hard to wrap your head around as an international student until you live through it yourself. Always bringing an umbrella (just in case!) and having access to a jacket with a hood is definitely a good idea for those moments when it is completely sunny and then out of nowhere it starts “lashing”. I’ve found it charming how many Irish people I have met who can predict the weather just from looking at the clouds, and it’s a skill I hope to learn myself one day too. 

Between the seemingly overwhelming different flavours of mayonnaise and my Irish room-mates drinking tea like it’s water, the food and drink scene is another aspect of the culture that definitely took a bit of getting used to. There are so many restaurants to choose from in Dublin and eating some of the foods available in the variety of ethnically diverse restaurants in town helped in my adjustment to Ireland as it reminded me of home. However, having my first roast dinner was an unforgettable experience and definitely something worth trying if you are an international student and haven’t tried it already. 

Ireland’s nightlife and drinking culture is its own part of the country’s customs, and whilst it is not necessary to partake in, it is something that many do. Even having a bar on campus is something I could never have pictured until seeing it first-hand, let alone Trinity students bragging about the cheap pints at The Pavilion Bar (the Pav) and clubs and societies holding events there. Calling pre-drinks “prinks” is still something I am teased about by friends back home, but have fully embraced.

One of my favourite parts of the Irish culture is the mindset. The “it’ll be grand” mentality and taking it slow is not anything I had ever experienced before and truly something I am trying to incorporate into my own life. Greeting strangers as they pass by or asking how they’re doing may appear so small and so second nature to native Irish people, but it’s so alien to others. While these experiences have been personal, there are many aspects of spending time in Ireland during my college years that I will never forget and hope to adopt in my future and even share with family and friends at home. Culture shock is an undeniable reality and can be a serious struggle for international students, but it is so worth experiencing how other cultures live day-to-day and noticing these little differences truly opens your mind.

Shannon McGreevy

Shannon McGreevy is the Online Editor of Trinity News and a Senior Sophister student of Biochemistry.