The Making of a Lifelong Working Holiday


This big crazy adventure of mine started in Ireland back in 2003.

I landed in Dublin with an absolutely enormous suitcase and a copy of the Lonely Planet Ireland, completely unprepared for my working holiday visa experience. I hoped that I’d feel an instant sense of home when I arrived in Ireland. Or, as I like to call it, the motherland (as we Americans with Irish surnames like to do).

Fitzpatrick's SuperValu
My name + Irish shop = proof of Irishness

To give you an idea of how green a traveler I was, I had actually considered packing my rollerblades on the trip.

My rollerblades.

I did not see a single person on rollerblades during my three months in Ireland. Not one. It’s a wild guess, but I’d say the cobbled streets put them off. Among other things.

As you can see, I was slightly out of my depth.

I barely understood what a visa was, let alone a working holiday visa. Here were the facts as I understood them:

1. Secure visa.

2. Find apartment.

3. Find job.

It sounded really simple. Too simple.

I felt strongly that I was missing some vital piece of information.

There had to be more to it – I was uprooting my life. I was moving to a foreign country where I didn’t know a single soul. I was leaving my rollerblades behind.

Surely these sacrifices warranted more of a challenge.

What I failed to take into account were the day-to-day hurdles of life in a foreign country. It was lucky that my tasks were clear and simple; completing them proved to be more difficult than I’d anticipated.

For example, I didn’t expect to encounter a thief in my first hostel (a story for another time) or a flasher on my first day in Galway. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t brought nearly enough money or appropriate work clothes.

The Visa

Getting a visa was the easy part, thanks to the BUNAC program. I filled out a simple application, provided a reference, and bought some travel insurance. They did the rest, setting me up with a Blue Card that allowed me to work in Ireland for four months, followed by six months in Britain. I was eligible on the basis of my student status, having graduated from Indiana University four months previously.

The laws have since changed. Students or recent graduates from the USA can now work in Ireland for up to 12 months, but the Britain program is only open for internships or work placements. Check the BUNAC website for further details.

Ten years ago, however, things were different. My passport came back quickly, along with a blue card that I was to present to customs on arrival. It was like something you’d make in kindergarten out of construction paper and glue.

But it worked. They let me in.

Kinlay House, Dublin
My very first hostel, the Kinlay House in Dublin.

The Apartment

This was slightly more challenging. I initially looked at an apartment with Kirsten, a Californian I’d met in Dublin. I wasn’t sure about her, mainly because she’d swooped in on a cute Australian I’d been talking to in Temple Bar, so I was wary of her loyalties.

The apartment had one other occupant, an elderly man. Kirsten and I would be sharing an attic bedroom with each other and a crocheted blanket explosion of a living room with him. He smelled of cheese and looked like he was fighting the urge to attack us with his cane.

When I first met Gina from Minnesota, she was sitting on the bottom bunk of our shared hostel room, circling ads in the classified section of the Galway Advertiser. She asked if I wanted to apartment hunt together. Relieved, I told Kirsten I’d found somewhere else to live.

We put in a bid for a room in a shared flat on Merchants Road, near the city center. It was occupied by two Irish students: a tall, lanky bald guy who was into cage fighting or something unusual, and a short, frizzy-haired girl who looked like a kewpie doll. Gina and I would have to share a room, but we went for it anyway.

When they called back to say that they’d chosen us as their new roommates, we were thrilled.

Merchants Road flat
Good old #8 Rendu Court.

The Job

The biggest piece of advice I can give to any working holiday maker is this:

Get a phone.

For god’s sake, do yourself a favor and get a phone. I paced the streets of Galway for three weeks, handing out resumes left and right with only an email address as a contact.

This was before the days when the internet made in-person applications unnecessary, back when you had to ask for the manager and inquire about job vacancies, then watch as they threw your phone number-less resume in the trash when you walked out.

Don’t tell me what an idiot I was. I am well aware.

I applied at restaurants, bookshops, hotels, and pubs. The heels on my only pair of black shoes started to wear down and my pinstriped ‘work’ pants were shrinking from over-washing (also from being cheap).

At my lowest point, I hovered in the doorway of Supermac’s (think McDonald’s), debating whether or not to drop in my resume.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. The thought of serving up boxes of fried chicken to drunk university students was too much. It wasn’t how I’d pictured my carefree Irish existence.

Finally, I had the good sense to ask Gina if I could put her phone number on my applications.

Two days later, I had a job.

“I don’t know if you’re just in the right place at the right time, but I really needed a waitress,” Ronan, the manager of Mocha Beans, told me.

I took that to mean, “I normally wouldn’t hire someone like you but I’m desperate.”

Mocha Beans Edward Square
Now hiring desperate Americans.

Either way, I was employed. I didn’t have to slink home with my tail between my legs, a complete and utter failure.

Instead, I waited tables at a crowded coffee shop for three months. I brought people butter when they asked for water, told them we didn’t have biscuits when what they really wanted were cookies, and made abysmal espressos while tripping over more baby buggies and pregnant women than I’ve ever seen in my life.

I worked long hours for 6.35 euro an hour and never got my tax back as promised.

But it was enough.

It was enough to get me hooked on this working abroad business. Traveling on a working holiday visa only gets easier with experience, but it never stops being rewarding.

And that’s with or without your rollerblades.

Mocha Beans inside
You can imagine how invigorating it was to look at this every day.



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  1. What a great post, about what it’s like to start out, and the lessons learnt! I was nodding with you all the way through, ha!
    The first Working Holiday certainly sets the scene for you to launch into anything from there!

    1. Thank you! I look back and am amazed at how much I’ve learned since then. It seemed so overwhelming at the time, but now I can’t seem to figure out why!

  2. Fantastic post- thanks for sharing! I’m on the edge of jumping back into working holiday mode, so a look back at your first one is really helpful:)

    1. Thank you! I just read your latest post and wanted to wish you luck on your next venture. Hope you get the theatre internship, but it sounds like you have an amazing plan in the works if not. I know how frustrating it can be when you’re just waiting to hear on the next step.

  3. This is so true. I’m on my second work holiday visa (wish there were more options for Americans) and I’m loving the lifestyle. It’s also given me a lot of confidence. Being able to move country, twice, and to see everything work out brilliantly-just makes you feels like you can do anything.

    1. That is exactly what I always try to explain to people – that feeling of self-confidence when you realize that you turned up in a foreign country and, starting from scratch, made a life. It’s addicting but so empowering. I agree, I wish there were more working holidays available!

  4. I love the way you write, very dry humour. A good post as well…many people think working holidays are more about holidaying, but unfortuately not…the looking for work bit can be the hardest part.

  5. ah, the memories. i totally forgot about that photo on the wall of mocha beans! i still think about you whenever i hear “croissant” – remember that woman who pronounced it weirdly and only wanted it “slightly heated”?

    1. Ugh I so remember her. And the woman who sent a muffin back about four times because it wasn’t “fresh. I want one of today’s muffins.” If she wanted one of today’s muffins, she should have gotten there the day before. And the lady who let her kid wander freely into the kitchen. What fun jobs we had in Galway!

      1. yes.. so fun. my favorite memories of each of my jobs were (1) getting asked for songs i’d never heard of by mumbling heavily-accented irish (“pardon me… i’m sorry, what??”), and (2) helping a woman find clothing for “a boy and a girl.” um.. i’m going to need more info than that, lady.

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