Studying abroad in Ireland gives students a glimpse of the country’s Catholic history
When Michael Taylor visited Scotland 31 years ago, he took side trips to Northern Ireland, where in 1972, Bloody Sunday erupted in the country’s ethno-nationalist conflict.
“A car bomb exploded when we stepped off the boat. I didn’t know that The Troubles were still going on,” he said, referring to what the three-decadeslong conflict was called.
Taylor is associate professor of education and director of Catholic Studies for Graduate Education at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. Several years ago, he started leading students in study-abroad programs to Ireland. It’s an opportunity, he said, for them to experience the great history and culture that’s become a beacon for peace and reconciliation.
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“It’s not just getting a sense of Christian unity,” he added. “We want them to experience different traditions and different faith traditions.”
A different culture
The University of Mary’s program in Ireland and North Ireland will be held in May. The itinerary is filled with history, tours, faith, culture and education, including a theology course on the apologetics and fiction of C.S. Lewis.
In solidarity with the university’s Benedictine roots, staff and students will live in a monastic tradition of traveling together, praying and eating together, and reaching out in community service. There will be prayer and worship in both Catholic and Protestant churches, and a visit to a rock in the woods where Catholics under persecution in the 1700s secretly celebrated Mass.
Students stay at a Carmelite retreat facility, a historical home and at other universities. Day trips will take them to cemeteries, museums, prisons, restaurants, pubs, gardens and places that Pope John Paul II visited. One stop is at a monument to the Choctaw people who donated food during the Irish famine of the 1840s.
John MacLeod of Grand Forks, North Dakota, graduated in December with majors in history and Catholic studies. He now works in admissions at the university.
“I think the biggest thing for me when I went to Ireland last May was just seeing how faith is lived out in different ways,” he said. “It was good to see how both communities get along very well now, that age-old enemies from Britain and Ireland have grown to see each other as not much different than the other. That’s a lesson for a lot of us. This trip definitely opened up my mind.”
Lucy Bartholomew, who also went last May, grew up in a military family and has lived abroad.
“I have Irish heritage, and I’m really interested in Irish culture,” she said. “My greatest takeaway was that you can find community no matter where you go, even if you don’t have the same religion or political views. You can find something in common and a way to connect. I really liked seeing how different it was than when Dr. Taylor first went there, how much reconciliation has taken place.”
An elementary education major, she plans to incorporate some of that history into the classroom. “It will definitely influence my teaching career,” Bartholomew said.
Exploring beauty and faith
Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, will hold its ninth St. Columcille Institute from July 21 to August 13 at a Capuchin retreat center in Donegal, Ireland.
“This has been an Irish watermark in the history of the college’s founding president, Dr. Warren Carroll,” said Christendom president Timothy O’Donnell, who accompanies the students. “He always saw that Ireland had a unique role in Western civilization and the history of the Catholic faith.”
The institute seeks to strengthen the faith and deepen the understanding of young Catholic leaders. Three courses cover Irish history, literature, and theology that focuses on apologetics and evangelization.
“It covers: How do you give a reason for hope; how do you deal with the problem of evil; how do you talk about the existence of God; and what is the Church expecting us to do?” O’Donnell said. “It covers how to communicate effectively, practically and intellectually about the Gospel.”
There’s time to explore the beautiful forests and bay, become immersed in Irish culture and to make friends.
Thomas Ward went to Ireland in 2019, the same year he graduated. He’s now Christendom’s donor relations officer.
“It was a vacation, retreat and amazing classes all rolled into one,” he said. “It really impressed on me the beauty and authenticity of true Irish culture, of truly delightful Irish locals who genuinely wanted to know about you.”
The immersion in the stunning beauty of rolling hills and ocean cliffs gave him a greater appreciation of the Catholic faith’s spiritual beauty.
“Having daily adoration, Mass and the sacraments was truly an integrated experience,” Ward said. ” It was spiritually intense but, at the same time, refreshing because there was a great rhythm to each day.”
The institute is open to Irish students as well. Michelle Kelly, who lives near the Knock Shrine, attended in 2019.
“It was a powerful experience to be with people authentically Catholic and alive for the Faith,” she said. “It was also eye opening seeing my own country in a new light.”
The students, staff and institute had such an impact that she’s now a senior theology major at Christendom College and plans to pursue a master’s degree.
“I will take back my education to Ireland, where I will serve the Church,” Kelly said.
History and art
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, has a partnership with Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland.
“It’s a liberal arts college, and our students typically get classes that will be useful for their graduation,” said Daniel Musso, director for the study abroad program.
Nicole Hraban of Windsor, Colorado, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, attended last semester. One of her most meaningful experiences was in Dublin when she saw the Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript of the Gospels.
“It was so cool to see the history and artistry of the book up close, and to think about who might have read the book before I did and how these pages have survived generations,” she said. “It was also interesting to be in a place where Catholicism was purposely suppressed, and to think about how Catholics during that time must have felt.”
Alice Camp of Monett, Missouri, a junior English major, also went to Ireland last semester.
“Visiting a place with rich Catholic history was amazing,” she said. “It was very interesting to see the beautiful old churches, and how being Catholic was intertwined in daily society. I was blessed to be able to travel and see the Catholic history all over Europe.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.