“Céad míle fáilte”, “a hundred thousand welcomes” in Irish, is a way of greeting newcomers to a home. Furthermore it is a concept that seems to be ingrained in the Irish identity, resulting in a willingness to open hearts and homes to new people. I was able to experience this wonderful hospitality during a weekend stay with an Irish family in the small village of Ballintober, about an hour north of Galway in Ireland.
The goal of the homestay aspect of my program is to allow the students to not only experience typical Irish home life, but to expose them to a different environment than the one they have settled into at college. In this case, we were taken from the urban centre of Galway City to the rural Castlebar area of nearby County Mayo. As much as I loved Galway, it was a like a breath of fresh air entering the gorgeous Irish countryside.
I was initially concerned about staying with strangers for even a short period to time because I am generally a shy person. Immediately upon arrival though, the O’Toole family made me feel welcomed and comfortable in their home. I and another student from my program, Mary Haley ‘16, were lucky enough to be paired with a family that has been hosting students for 15 years, so they were naturals at putting shy people like me at ease. They were curious of our lives back in the US and about what we were studying in Ireland, but I never felt overwhelmed which, in turn, helped me to engage with them more and have a much richer experience.
Perhaps the clearest way that my host mom expressed her hospitality was through her insistence on constantly providing refreshment. During our orientation for the weekend we were warned that Irish families would continue to feed you and offer you tea until you virtually exploded, but I do not think any of the students in the program took this seriously. However, during my two day stay with the O’Tooles, we were continuously plied with tea and offered multiple helpings at meals.
A perfect example of this attitude occurred on the day of my arrival. Late in the evening my host parents went out to the local pub for a drink while Mary and I stayed in and watched TV with their daughter. They returned around 2 a.m., at which point we still had our eyes glued to the screen. My host mom walked in and asked both of us if we wanted some tea and toast, repeating the offer multiple times before I convinced her that I was fine. It amazed me that even at 2 o’clock in the morning, after having returned from a night out, her first concern was still whether or not I was sated.
The home I was staying in was not the only place I experienced the famous Irish hospitality. On my second day in Ballintober my host mom drove us around to see the sights. Mary had expressed a wish to see a traditional thatched cottage if such buildings still existed in Ireland. Our host mom said that she knew someone who owned one, and so we made it our first stop.
Our only expectation when we arrived at the cottage was to take a few pictures in front of it and be on our way; I did not even expect to see the owner. However, she came out and chatted with us, even offering to take a picture of Mary and me with our host mom. She then invited us, two American strangers, in for a chat and to see a bit of the inside.
After leaving the cottage, we directed our course toward the O’Tooles’ farm to see some lambs that had been born the previous day. When we got to the farm, run by Mr. O’Toole but owned by his elderly parents, we stopped by the farmhouse before going to the barns. Once again we were welcomed with open arms and friendly curiosity. Although we were only there less than ten minutes, Mary and I both received a hug in welcome and one in farewell from the senior Mrs. O’Toole and were asked all about ourselves.
In both cases the openness astounded me. My experience in the United States has shown that there is a guardedness that accompanies letting a stranger into one’s home even in situations of utmost friendliness. Perhaps it is more an air of formality that is completely dissolved in the Irish context of warmth.