A dispatch from Galway Study Abroad

Author: Aubrey Breen '25

 Aubrey-Olivia Kylemore

As the Spring 2024 semester draws to a close, we asked Galway Study Abroad student Aubrey Breen to share her unique experience in the West of Ireland. Aubrey is the first Galway student to extend her stay for a second semester. In the email extracts below, she tells us what motivated her to make such an unusual decision.

Written on 14 September 2023 (edited)

The Chance Encounter (Thursday, 7 September)
Last week was the first week of classes at the University of Galway. One realization I made is that most Irish students spend the week (Monday-Friday) on campus, then return home on the weekends to live with their families and work. Many people drive or take a bus to their hometown 1-3 hours away. As a result, the weekday nights are the nights for going out to the pubs in the city. This is much different from Notre Dame student culture where the weekdays are for studying and Fridays and Saturdays are for going out.

Thursday is the biggest night out in Galway. The streets are packed with college students hopping from pub to club to pub. Last Thursday, I was getting over a cold and had decided to stay at my apartment, finish some homework, and go to sleep early.

I was in the common room reading when Olivia, my twin sister, bursts in and says, "Aubrey! There is a group of people outside playing music! Come listen!"

We moved to the window and saw seven guys sitting on a stone wall in the courtyard. We spotted a mandolin, a guitar, a bodhrán, a concertina and a banjo. After listening for a few minutes, they begin to play an Irish tune that we recognized.

"Quick, Olivia, grab your fiddle and I'll get my cello. Let's go out there and join them!" I said.

"Are you sure?" asked Olivia.

"We have to!" I responded.

So, we raced downstairs, giddy with excitement and nervousness. What if they aren't welcoming and don't want us to join them? We started walking up to the group in the courtyard. The guys saw our instruments and nodded and smiled at us as they finished the tune they were playing.

I leaned over to the banjo player with glasses on the end of the bench and said, "Hey, can we join you guys?"

"Yes, please do! I'm Liam, what's your name?"

"Aubrey. Nice to meet you."

The song ended, and one by one, each of the guys came up to me and Olivia, shook our hands, and asked us about ourselves.

"Where are ye from?"

"What are ye doing in Galway?"

"How do ye know Irish music?"

"Will ye keep playing with us?"

One of the guys looked over to Olivia and encouraged her to start a tune.

Now, the guys were all very welcoming, but this request was a challenge of sorts. What tune Olivia would choose, how fast she plays it, and how accurate the style is in some sense will determine our future relationship with this group.

"Well," Olivia says, "We heard you playing 'Mason's Apron' earlier. How about we play that one?"

"Ahh yes. That's mighty craic," says Tadhg. (A side note: "fun" in Irish is "craic")

"Okay," Olivia said conspiratorially, "Let's start the tune very slow, and then we'll speed up faster and faster,"

"YEAH! Yeeeeew!" all the guys cheer.

We spent two hours in the courtyard talking, laughing, and trading tunes. By 11:30 pm, the security guard came and told us to quiet down and leave.

One of the guys turned to us and said, "We're going out, and you guys are coming with."

Olivia and I looked at each other with the same question in our eyes, Do you want to go? Should we?

Tadhg didn't wait for an answer. He turned to the rest of the group and yelled, "We're going out, and the Americans are coming with us!!"

Olivia and I shrugged at each other. We weren't about to pass this opportunity up.

The rest of the night went well. We got a couple of pints in the city, learned about our new friends, and stayed out well past 3 am. We were doing things the Irish way!

I am over the moon right now about how great things are going in Galway. I can't even describe how much I've learned in the past week. Olivia and I got so lucky to meet this great group of guys who play Irish traditional music. Since that chance meeting Thursday, we've had many more jams, met many more trad players and their friends, and have had great conversations. I can sincerely say that we will stay friends with them.

Before coming to Galway, I had heard about the college student trad music session at the Crane Bar every Tuesday. I was nervous to join without knowing anyone and without knowing the unspoken customs and rules of the session. But the following Tuesday when Olivia and I walked upstairs at the Crane Bar for the very first time, we were welcomed with smiles, shouts of greeting, and genuine excitement. We were in.

It's crazy how much can be learned about a culture by just hanging out with people. You pick up on the ways people talk and what they talk about. I remember the first night we were having pints in town, we mostly talked about our families, our hometowns and customs, Irish sports, slang, and anything we could think of. It was true the first night, and for the rest of the year, our friends would go out of their way to share a piece of their lives with us.

1st session at the CraneThe Crane- first session (12 September 2023)

Written on 8 April 2024

Email to Cheng Wang (edited + mostly new starting January 2024)
My study abroad semester in Galway, Ireland, was supposed to be just that—a semester. But by October, I knew that my time in Ireland was far from over. On a whim, I asked the Notre Dame Galway program manager if any student had ever extended her stay for an entire year.

"Never," she said. "But you should."

I began contacting Notre Dame administrators, the music department and my advisor to determine if staying another semester was actually in the cards. After many Zoom meetings and emails, I figured out how to structure my class schedule so that I could stay at the University of Galway until May.

I may be jumping ahead, though. I will tell you about why I felt the urge to stay in Ireland longer.

September 2023

In my September email I told you the story about how Olivia and I heard the Irish lads playing traditional music outside of our apartment, and we decided to take a risk and join them. That chance encounter beget more friendships and memories and JOY than I could have ever imagined.

Last September was characterized by excitement and novelty. I figured out that school is not the priority of many students here. How should I balance my limited academic work, my music, socializing, and exploring this new country? Experimentation and reflection. I don't think I truly found my perfect balance until the end of the semester.

September (and October) was also all about learning customs. When someone buys you a pint at the pub, you return the favor. "Class" means "cool", and "grand" does not mean "great"— it means "fine". A good, dependable person is "sound", and, Cheng, let me tell you: I think often about how incredibly lucky Olivia and I are to have found a group of the most "sound" guys in Ireland.

The memory that stands out the most from September was the weekend of September 22. That Friday was "Culture Night" in Galway— big crowds and lots of music and art. Olivia and I, along with our Notre Dame friends, went to a few events and then to a bar where we planned to meet some Irish friends. While on the dance floor, Olivia was texting our friend Rónan about meeting up, put her phone in her back pocket, and the next time she reached for her phone, it wasn't there. In her phone case was also her ID and credit card. Needless to say, it was a stressful night. But something good came out of it too: it was the first time we realized how dependable and selfless our new Irish friends are, and how much they cared for us, too. The lads spent all night with us, going to the police station, talking to the bartenders and searching for the phone. We gave up at 4am and they treated us to a meal at McDonald's to close out the night and despite the unfortunate circumstances, we exchanged many laughs.

In addition to realizing how chivalrous these guys were, I think that there was another element to them being assertive and helping us figure out what to do the night Olivia’s phone was stolen. This is their country, their city, and something bad happened to Olivia while here. I think they felt some kind of responsibility to right the wrong that was done.

Friday was just the beginning of the weekend. We finally went to sleep at 5 am, only to wake again at 7 am and catch three buses to Dingle (in the south of Ireland). I won't belabor you with all of the details, but I will say that very few things went as planned. We missed one of the buses and couldn't do any of the hikes because of a lack of public transportation. It rained heavily all weekend, so all of our clothes were soaked through. A positive: on Sunday while taking shelter at a picnic bench under an awning, I struck up a conversation with Gaspar, a 19-year-old French guy who was backpacking around Ireland for three weeks. Amidst the pouring rain, the dark sky sharply contrasted with the bright buildings on the streets of Dingle. With Gaspar, we spent the day wandering amongst Dingle's shops, enjoyed a pint at the local pub, and shared lunch before returning to Galway. The following Tuesday, Gaspar visited us in Galway and we hosted him for dinner before bringing him to our weekly music session at the Crane Bar. I know I’ll likely never see Gaspar again, but I’ll always remember his easy company and the special connection we all shared in a place that was foreign to us. Moral of the story: there is always a way to make the most out of an unpleasant situation!

October 2023

If I had to capture October in a few phrases, I would say camaraderie and mutual desire.

Mutual desire in the sense that Olivia and I really desired to meet people, understand Ireland, learn the music, and belong. Similarly, it felt like our Irish friends had a similar desire— they wanted us to understand their lives and their home and were eager to show us.

Cliffs of MoherLiam, Olivia, Aubrey, Cillian and Rónan at the Cliffs of Moher

Cillian, a bodhrán player from Limerick with an awesome mullet, asked us if we would accompany him to a music store in Ennis. He called it the best traditional music store in all of Ireland. Olivia, Liam, Rónan, and I piled in his car and he drove for an hour to what had to have been the smallest music shop in all of Ireland! He was so excited to show us, and we spent some time there before grabbing lunch. None of us were ready to go back to Galway yet, so Cillian suggested we drive to the Cliffs of Moher. We explored the Cliffs, took some pictures, and goofed around. Again, no one wanted to leave, so we drove to a small town called Doolin and walked along the water.

October marked the beginning of my favorite new tradition: every Tuesday before the music session at The Crane Bar, Olivia and I would cook a big dinner for all of our friends and host everyone. We made fajitas, pasta, “breakfast for dinner”, soup and sandwiches, and much more. Around 6:30 pm, we’d turn on the music, pull out the food, and people would start arriving. Our apartment was alive with chatter, and laughter, and sometimes people would even pull out their instruments to start playing tunes. There were Irish musicians, fellow Notre Dame students, our flatmates from other American colleges, and new friends from class all meeting each other and having a good time. Olivia would make her signature cocktails for everyone and by 8 pm, we’d head for the Crane. Then, at the Crane, we play music and drink pints of Guinness until midnight!

It’s hard to capture the session at the Crane in words. There’s a specific smell—Guinness, mustiness, stale air and the way a crowd begins to smell in a warm, small space; a specific dim lighting–yellows and oranges and greens light up the peeling “The Crane Bar” mural on the wall lined with musicians, but mostly shadows cover the space; a specific sound—fiddles and accordions, the beating of the bodhrán and the strumming of guitars, Rónan plucking the banjo, Seán blowing on the flute, and, of course, the shushing that starts with one person, spreads through the pub, and ends in a silence broken only by clinking glasses and then by Tadhg’s lonesome sean-nós singing.

October was when Olivia and I started our weekly visits at St. Mary’s Nursing Home in Galway, and when we started going to Liam’s for dinner and crafts every Friday. It was when Cillian had his 20th birthday party and when I gave him the painting I made for him, told me that Olivia and I were some of his closest friends.

November 2023

Everything great about Ireland continued–the friends, the music sessions, the good food, and the good memories. At this point, Olivia and I knew for sure that we were staying in Galway for another semester, so nothing felt like the end—it still felt like the beginning. I think if I left for good at the end of the first semester, I would have left with a once-in-a-lifetime experience and friends that I’d stay in contact with. But now, I don’t think this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s just my life experience. Some of my best friends live in Ireland, of course, I will be back. 

Ireland feels like my musical home. Everything that I’ve learned and experienced will be present in the music I create beyond this point. It’s a part of my history now.

For Thanksgiving, Notre Dame brought us to the stunning Kylemore Abbey for a dinner celebration. I asked our director if I could bring along five of the lads– Liam, Cillian, Seán, Rónan, and Tadhg. This was my chance to thank them for welcoming me and Olivia into their lives and culture—by giving them a little taste of one of our traditions. They were beyond excited to experience American Thanksgiving. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner, then played tunes for everyone during dessert and into the night!

Thanksgiving hike 1Thanksgiving Hike
Coldvember student Polar PlungeColdvember student Polar Plunge

December 2023

December was busy! School and final exams wrapped up and Olivia and I went home to Arizona. We spent time with family. Lots of our time was spent practicing and preparing to record our debut album!! We celebrated our 21st birthday on December 17. Christmas came and went quickly, and on December 31, we were off to Boston. We spent two 10-hour days in the studio recording Irish and Swedish tunes, jazz, folk songs, and original compositions! The album will be released this Fall 2024! After Boston, I went to South Bend to tour the midwest with the ND Folk Choir before hopping on a plane back to Ireland.

Watercolor paintingThe group at Kylemore, in watercolor

January/Spring Semester 2024

I attended one week of classes in Galway, then joined the Irish Traditional Music Society at the University of Galway on their annual trip to Glasgow, Scotland for the Celtic Connections music festival. Fifty of us loaded up on the bus Friday morning and flew to Glasgow, then spent the weekend attending concerts, exploring the city and, of course, playing sessions.

In many ways, this semester has felt normal and regular. In January, my things were already moved into my apartment, I had my established weekly routine, and I knew what to expect academically. There are points where it almost seemed boring. And how wonderful it is to feel “bored” in a place that was once so unfamiliar!! (But also, there are not many slow moments, so not really much boredom).

The spring semester was for digging even deeper into Irish music (so many sessions!), spending time with friends (like randomly going to daily Mass with Liam or grabbing a cup of coffee and listening to music with Shane), and for spontaneous adventures (like attending a Scandinavian folk music program in Denmark, recording on a friend’s album Sweden, and filming music videos at Kylemore Abbey!).

30 April 2024

(written on 5 May)
It was very fitting that my last day in Galway was a Tuesday, the day that had become the center of my week—the Crane session. On Tuesday, April 30, I said my goodbyes.

In the morning, I walked into the city. It was lightly drizzling (also fitting for my last day in Galway). My first stop was Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, where I have spent many afternoons looking through the shelves and discovering new Irish authors.

Olivia and Liam met me at Little Lane Coffee Company where Olivia and I had become regulars. We walked in and Michelle behind the counter said, “Two oat lattes and two porridge scones?” I told Michelle that we were leaving for Arizona the next morning and before we left the coffee shop, she gave us two Little Lane postcards where she had written “Don’t forget us! We’ll always have an oat latte waiting for yous <3 Your friends at LL x”.

The next stop was St. Mary’s Nursing Home, where Olivia and I play music a couple times each month. We did our usual hour-long concert of favorite Irish tunes and traditional songs. As usual, when we first started the energy was low, but by the end, people were tapping their feet and even singing along. When we said our farewell, the nurses and the activities director generously gave us a little gift— a painting of birds which said “To where will you fly?”

On the way back to the apartment from St. Marys, we stopped at Matt’s Sandwiches. Our weekly Matt’s Sandwiches trip was always a highlight after a long stretch of classes in the morning. While Matt’s sandwiches are tasty, it was the experience of going in the shop that made it worthwhile. Matt and Angela made the sandwiches, and Alice made the coffee. Each week we’d be welcomed with lively conversation and would exchange updates. Angela would always tease Olivia about Rónan. On Tuesday, we said goodbye and promised that it’s not the last time we’ll see them.

Finally, it was time for the Crane. Despite final exams being over, everyone came back to Galway for one last session. It should be noted that this was the SIXTH—and final—“last” Crane session. The sessions were supposed to finish when classes ended, so each following week was dubbed “the last Crane session”. The night couldn’t have gone any better. All of my favorite Galway people were in the Crane, everyone was celebrating the end of the semester, and everyone knew this was goodbye. Tune after tune was played. For the last time, Seán turned to me and requested a song. I skipped the usual “Eh, I don’t know”, “Ahh, go on”, “Maybe later”, “Ahh, Aubrey, go on now.” When he asked me to sing a song, to his surprise I just said, “Okay, I will.” So the pub was shushed and I sang the Galway Shawl with everyone joining for the chorus.

Something that has never happened before, happened. Around 10:30, we were told to wrap up the session early because the downstairs bathroom was flooded. Instead of calling it a night, we walked down the road to Cookes Thatch Bar where we sometimes played sessions. Because no one wanted the night to end, we kept playing tunes well past midnight. Instead of kicking us out, Cookes pulled down the shades, locked the doors, and kept the drinks flowing as we kept the tunes going.

Eventually, the night came to its inevitable end. Olivia and I were on an 8 am bus to the airport the next morning so we needed at least a couple hours of sleep! I was surprised that the final hugs and goodbyes, while heartfelt, didn’t feel too hard and didn’t feel too final. I know I’ll be back.

Last Crane PicLiam and Aubrey at the Crane
Olivia and Rónan at the CraneOlivia and Rónan at the Crane