Mirror, mirror: Study abroad preconceptions and realities

A common theme throughout my articles this semester has been the difference between study abroad expectations and the actualities that arise. For my final article I want to specifically focus on misconceptions and assumptions about Ireland that I had in my brain before coming here and how my eyes have been opened.

It has been my experience in the U.S. that, after leprechauns and drinking, the first preconception that people have of Ireland is that it possesses a strongly conservative, Catholic identity. On one memorable occasion, a friend and I discussed whether I would be bringing illegal substances into the country because we had no idea if birth control was legal in Ireland or not. A simple internet search told us that you can get the pill here just as you can in the United States. However, the incident really got me thinking about what else I had assumed about my destination.

Even with this more critical attitude, I was surprised when I arrived about how different it really was. One of the first things I noticed was that Ireland is a lot less blatantly Catholic than expected. Sure individuals I have met here, including extended family members, still cling strongly to their religion, but the past few decades have seen increased secularisation in Ireland. A history instructor of mine attributed this to both a rise in global capitalism and disillusionment regarding the Catholic Church following papal scandals.

Another difference I noted is that Ireland is nowhere near as ‘backward’ as Americans think it is. Ireland is moving forward in many ways. This progress is exemplified in the fact that on May 22, the people of Ireland will vote on a marriage equality referendum. To me, it is incredibly important to point out that this little island, which Americans see as stuck in the religious dark ages, is voting to make universal love legal before the United States.

Even regarding reproductive rights, the situation is different than what I expected. It was pointed out to me before coming here that Ireland is notorious when it comes to reproductive legislation. In an effort to prepare me for the conservative world I was entering, multiple people alerted me to harsh stories about this topic. This is not to say that everything is rosy and women have the same rights as back in the States. But where I expected to see docile acceptance, I see evidence of people willing to fight for their rights.

In thinking critically about the assumptions I make on a daily basis about places all around the world, I have come to the conclusion that it is a lot easier to point fingers elsewhere than to face the mirror head on. This goes for passing judgments on Ireland, condemning practices in the Middle East, anything. I think this is especially the case in the United States where every day the position of power our country has in the global community assures us of our own supremacy. Given this high standing, it is hard for Americans to look critically at our country and actually face all the issues plaguing our nation. Instead, the tendency is to point at others’ faults and say that, in comparison, the United States is not really that bad. While there are certainly issues in the world that need global attention, it is important that America takes a step back and looks critically at our own reflection in the mirror before calling out others.

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