An American Abroad: Volunteering & Vacationing in Ireland

14 January 2019

Volunteer Coordinator Anika Massman looks back on her summer with Galway International Arts Festival 2018.

My name is Anika, and I am a former Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) Volunteer Coordinator and current GIAF super-fan. Born and raised in Seattle, I always had an interest in Ireland (particularly Irish theatre) and longed to take the trip about which many Americans dream.

I had the incredible opportunity to spend the summer of 2018 in Galway, where I met some of the greatest artists and thinkers in the world.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Dublin from the United States, I was eager to experience as much of the country as possible during my time volunteering at GIAF and committed to being open to new travel experiences.

Below are five of my favorite places that I had the chance to visit during my time with the Festival, including the breath-taking Wild Atlantic Way.

Galway, County Galway

Volunteer coordinator Anika Massman (front row, second from left) and the rest of the GIAF18 team in the Festival Garden in Eyre Square.

Galway is as beautiful as it is friendly and lively.

In one day in Galway, you may experience the talent of street musicians like Galway Street Club (one of my newly most streamed Spotify bands), a handful of murals and sculptures, art made by incredible local artists at Kenny Gallery or 126 Gallery, and an award-winning production at Druid Theatre.

GIAF ties together a year-round tradition of street performance, art, comedy, theatre, and music, and I was honored to get to call this beautiful place home for three wonderful months. GIAF is a true festival for today: the work is pressing and urgent, and festival-goers are sure to walk away with a major shift in perspective. The festival manages to be at once local and international, and puts forward work that is at once deeply delightful and necessarily disruptive. A piece of my heart still lives in Galway, and I suspect always will.

Ballyshannon, County Donegal

GIAF18 Volunteer Coordinator Anika Massman paid a visit to the Rory Gallagher statue in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal.

At the recommendation of a couple of new Galwegian friends, I visited Ballyshannon for the annual Rory Gallagher festival with trusted travel buddy and GIAF co-worker Kathryn Perry. We arrived with only a tent and a couple of pub recommendations and were delighted to find a city alive with music and celebration. The Rory Gallagher Festival is held yearly to celebrate the famed Ballyshannon-born guitarist and includes performances both around the town and in their freshly-constructed big top. At the center of Ballyshannon sits a monument to Gallagher which seems to come alive during the festival to honor his memory and celebrate his music. In a small pub hidden on a backstreet of Ballyshannon, I witnessed one of the best performers of my life, strumming a guitar and singing blues into a small microphone. This became a recurring truth in my time in Ireland: you never know when you’re going to experience something life-changing.

Westport, County Mayo

Volunteer Coordinator Anika Massman visited Westport, Co. Mayo before Galway International Arts Festival 2018.

First-time visitors to Ireland are warned not to miss a visit along the Wild Atlantic Way. One of the most iconic stretches of Irish land and sea, the Wild Atlantic Way is renowned for its cliffs, ocean views, and traditional Irish towns. During my summer in Ireland I only got to experience a small piece of the Wild Atlantic Way beyond Galway, but the landscape is certainly etched in my memory. Before the festival, Kathryn and I hopped onto Bus Eireann for a weekend in Westport, County Mayo. Westport is dotted with bustling restaurants and pubs, mountain views, and sandy beaches. A walkable town at its finest, we meandered around shops and parks before visiting Westport House, a Georgian-era estate and former home of the descendants of Irish pirate Gráinne O'Malley. Later in the day, we decided to take a crack at Croagh Patrick, the pilgrimage where Saint Patrick fasted in 441AD. We, thinking it would be a good idea to start with a pint, only made it about a quarter of the way up before laying in the grass and watching more prepared hikers ascend the peak.

Inishmaan, Aran Islands

Volunteer Coordinator Anika Massman visited Inishmaan before Galway International Arts Festival 2018.

I embarked on a solo weekend trip to Inishmaan eager for some much needed meditation and soul-searching. I was surprised to discover one of my favorite places in the world, one that I am committed to returning to again. When you step off the ferry in Inishmaan, you enter a peaceful landscape lined with cows and stone fences; signs written in Irish point you towards where you’re going. The island itself is a hiker’s dream, virtually the whole of Inishmaan is walkable and each individual path leads you to uniquely stunning views of the water and of the other islands. In wandering, I discovered the remnants of a beautiful, hundred-year old stone church and more than a few new animal friends. Beyond the striking natural beauty lies a pronounced history of writers and artists finding artistic inspiration and refuge, with both JM Synge and WB Yeats dedicating time to writing and thinking on the islands. It’s easy to understand why; during my visit I found myself thinking more than once that the Aran Islands have to be one of the most serene places in the world.

Borris, County Carlow

Volunteer Coordinator Anika Massman visited Borris, Co. Carlow before Galway International Arts Festival 2018.

As demonstrated by the Rory Gallagher Festival, one of the beauties of a summer in Ireland is the active festival culture across the country. On any given weekend, you are bound to find a wonderful new festival with art at the forefront. I had the opportunity to travel to County Carlow one weekend to volunteer at the Festival of Writing and Ideas where Enda Walsh, Cillian Murphy, and Max Porter discussed the GIAF co-production of Grief is the Thing with Feathers. The annual festival highlights Irish and international thinkers, writers, artists, and activists, and was one of the most special weekends of my life. There, I had a particularly memorable exchange with Margaret Atwood about kale, experienced one of my favorite photographers, Giles Duley, discuss the importance of breaking bread in the artistic process, and listened to Marina Carr speak on the limitations of being a woman in the theatre. Beyond the content of the weekend, I was struck by the beauty of County Carlow with its rolling hills and sprawling greenery. My travel partner remarked that, along with the Galway International Arts Festival, the Festival of Writing and Ideas is an unforgettable experience.

Dublin, County Dublin

Volunteer Coordinator Anika Massman visited Borris, Co. Carlow before Galway International Arts Festival 2018.

A culturally rich city with an active arts scene, Dublin lives up to the hype. A day walking along the River Liffey will put you in touch with important historic sites, museums and art installations. This summer, I traveled to Dublin for the day to see Marina Carr’s On Rafferty’s Hill at The Abbey Theatre, and had my perspective on theatre challenge and shifted. One of the best theatres in the world, The Abbey consistently produces high-quality, moving pieces, as demonstrated by several co-productions with GIAF. Nearly hourly buses between Dublin and Galway make the city easily accessible. One of the most active cities in the world, Dublin is a pleasure to have close-by, and on any given night travelers are sure to find an important event.