Fionnuala Duffy on Life in Ireland and America

Up until last month, Fionnuala Duffy had spent her entire life in Northern Ireland. Growing up with hopes of pursuing law and studying in America, Duffy decided to apply for a semester program abroad. Exactly one year later, she boarded a plane to a place she had never been: America.

“There were loads of reasons I wanted to come here, I wanted a sense of adventure definitely, and I wanted to further my career and get a better education. Everybody back home either has family in America or wants to go to America. I just had to come. I had to apply, even though I didn’t think I was going to get in,” Duffy said.

Duffy grew up in Derry City and attends Queen’s University in Belfast.

“I spent about 18 years in Derry and three years in Belfast. It’s completely different than here; the people, the food, the education system, the humor, the nightlife, everything,” she said.

While being in an unfamiliar place can be difficult, Duffy deems it as “a good kind of different” and appears to fall more in love with living here every day.

“America has exceeded all my expectations – I mean that so much – everything about college is so much more relaxed here, even though you would think the complete opposite,” she said.

Duffy explains the stark contrast between America and Ireland when it comes to education and social life:  “Back at home, we might go out one night on the weekend, but one or two nights during the week. Education is a lot more serious too. We don’t have undergraduate college, we just do straight away grad school.”  

On a typical day in Belfast, Duffy spends most of her time studying and reading. She also notes that the atmosphere at Queen’s University is exceptionally more competitive than it is here.

“It’s not really as happy-go-lucky as you would expect, which is what I have experienced here. I think it’s just because the courses are very different,” she said.

When Duffy first had the idea of spending a semester in America, her loved ones were reluctant to believe she was really going to pursue it.

“My family was just like, ‘oh, whatever, Finn is up to something that she wouldn’t actually do anyway.’ And then when I got accepted into the program they were like, ‘oh god, are you actually going to do this?’ because nobody in my family had done anything like that before,” Duffy said.


Fionnuala Duffy is currently studying abroad at Manhattan College.

It was a big step, but one that she was willing to take despite being so accustomed to Ireland.

“Because I come from such a small town, everyone was like ‘there’s no way you’re going to go to America all by yourself, that’s crazy.’ Everybody doubted me but my sister, she was my main encourager and knew if I put my mind to it that I could do it,” Duffy said.

Duffy keeps in touch with her family everyday through text messaging, and talks with them on the phone at least every two weeks, and admits that her dad probably misses her the most.

“I’m the youngest, so he’s shocked that I’m still here. We are all so close – Irish families and communities are very tightly knit… Still, they’re so delighted that I love it this much. It’s come as a shock for everyone because of the different culture and being so far away,” she said.

As for Duffy herself, she didn’t even foresee that she would be as overjoyed as she is with living here.

“I’m so happy that I love it so much. I didn’t expect it. Everyday is just great, and I haven’t got any homesickness yet. There’s part of me that’s waiting for it,” she said.

At home, Duffy is currently in law school, but at Manhattan College she is enrolled in business classes because of her dream to go into business law.

“I love law. This sounds crazy and makes me out to be such a geek, but the whole structure and the way you study law is what I like to do. You read all these cases, you read all these laws, and then you can apply them to completely separate circumstances… It just fascinates me,” Duffy said.

Studying law, Duffy is especially interested in government and politics and admits that she has been paying close attention to the current election.

“Obviously with this election, literally everyone talks about it at home. Everyone seems to be talking more about American politics than their own politics. I don’t know why that is, I think it’s just because of the candidates. People think it’s very interesting,” she said.

While the political climate in the United States is divided, Duffy sees more harmony and progress here, which is something she hopes Ireland can achieve in the future.

“Politics now is somewhat stagnant in Ireland. There is some in comparison to what it was like – there is relative pace – which was the objective hundreds of years ago. But now, for social and liberal young people who are expecting more of their government, it’s a bit slower. When I was in Ireland and I thought of America, I was like ‘they’ve got such a good political system, they look after their young people, they uphold equality.’ I just thought America was the epitome of a progressive country,” she said.

Duffy also notes that like America, Ireland had the gay marriage referendum in 2015 as well, which she was delighted about and gave her hope for a better future for both countries. A clearer distinction that she notices, however, is that the environment in Ireland is much more competitive than it is here.

“People are completely different in a very good way, in a way that I didn’t expect, and a way that I am happy about. Back home, a law degree is very competitive, whereas here I haven’t witnessed too much intense competition that has debilitated me in any way. I feel encouraged. It’s so inspiring and I feel like they really want everyone to do well here, it’s refreshing,” she said.

Despite being more competitive, Duffy observes that life in Ireland is not as fast paced as it is in New York.

“Back home, life is so slow in comparison to here. Here it’s like, get up and go. You’re constantly buzzing here and I love that. The social scene is different though, on nights out we all go to nightclubs in fancy dresses and high heels, whereas here you can just go over to An Beal,” Duffy said.

Experiencing all of these differences has been somewhat of a culture shock for Duffy, especially because she came here not knowing a lot about MC.

“I thought Manhattan College was hours away from the city. I was like, ‘I might be in the city once before Christmas’ and I’ve been there at least 20 times. I thought campus was literally in the suburbs, so it was amazing to know I was always going to be in Manhattan,” she said.

Duffy especially enjoys going into the city with her roommates, or going by herself to study at the New York Public Library. Reflecting on her life back in Ireland, Duffy realizes how much she is accomplishing by being here.

“New York was the dream. When I was fourteen, I remember saying what I wanted to do with my life was go to law school, study in America for a year, then come back and be a barrister. When I got into this program, I was like, ‘oh my god, it’s coming true’” she said.

Now that Duffy is here, she cheerfully confesses that she doesn’t want to go home, and hopes to come back and be a lawyer in New York someday.

“Doing business law, and learning about the American political system in comparison to Ireland, like how the laws go through the courts, it’s more interesting and integral which I like. There’s more to it. I just love life here, it couldn’t suit me more. I’ve never been so happy,” Duffy said.

However, she does admit that there was one thing she wasn’t ready for.

“The weather here is crazy. I had to have my parents send me out another suitcase of summer clothes because I didn’t expect it to be this warm. When people were like, ‘you get proper seasons in New York’ I just shrugged it off. I thought it was going to be just like Ireland. I don’t know why I was so foolish,” Duffy said.

Duffy describes herself as “one of those people that needs to be involved in everything” so she has joined multiple clubs, one of them being Gaelic Society. Being involved has given her the opportunity to meet a variety of new people, but she is most thankful for the people she met first: her roommates.

“My roommates make everyday just absolutely great, I’m blessed to have them. If I didn’t have them it wouldn’t be anywhere as near as amazing,” Duffy said.

Another aspect of life here that makes everything so much more exciting for Duffy is that New York City is home to Broadway.

“I love going into the city to see shows. I’m obsessed with the arts. You give me a play or a musical and I’m there,” she said.

Duffy took advantage of the broadway tickets that Office of Student Engagement was selling last month for Wicked and School of Rock, both of which she enjoyed. Her love of arts actually stems from her experience with acting. For fifteen years she was a member of Foyle School of Speech and Drama in Ireland, which is run by her aunt, Sandra Biddle.

“Drama has been huge in my life. I think that’s actually what made me acknowledge that I was able to do law, because public speaking is huge in drama and huge in law,” Duffy said.

If an American student were to visit her in Ireland, Duffy knows exactly where she would take them.

“Dublin is the best city because of the history. All the famous poets are from there, all the famous writers, musicians, everyone. The Guinness factory is there too. If you’re into history, Easter Rising happened there in 1916. You can see all Irish culture, music, heritage, art, poetry, and plays. I go atleast once a year,” she said.

“If I were to take someone to see how beautiful Ireland is, it would be Howth, which is also in Dublin, or Buncrana, which is in Donegal. Ned’s Point is there, that’s the place where me and my family would go all the time. I spent a lot of summers there, it’s very sentimental and beautiful to me,” she said. “County Clare and Galway are also stunning.”

When reminiscing on her favorite places from home, Duffy realizes what she misses most about Ireland: the tea.

“If I were to show anyone a good cup of tea it would be Barry’s Tea in my own house, made by me. They would be in heaven. Our tea is the best,” she said.

She does admit that America doesn’t measure up to Ireland when it comes to food.

“There’s no differentiation at home between foods that are organic or inorganic, because everything is organic. You don’t even have to ask. We don’t have fast foods either, I think I eat them maybe once a year. They’re not a big thing at all, bad or unhealthy food just isn’t in Ireland,” Duffy said.

America has a wider array of foods that Duffy was also taken aback by.

“Ice cream. I think I knew four flavors before I came here: vanilla, chocolate, mint and honeycomb. I came here and there’s all these different ice creams. Even your Starbucks have huge varieties, but back home people just drink tea or plain coffee,” she said.

Although she’s only been here for two months, Duffy feels like she has already learned so much about herself.

“I’m so much more independent than I thought, and I’m so much more liberated here. It’s amazing. I feel like my self awareness has skyrocketed. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

One thing that has comforted her while being so far from home is that people here are just as willing to engage in meaningful conversations as they are in Ireland.

“Because we have such great idols like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, we are all articulate and education is important, so you do have great conversations in Ireland. When I came here I thought no one was going to want to talk as much, but I’ve learned that you can have great conversations with people everywhere.”

Duffy states that studying in the United States has changed her perspective and plans for the future.

“I know now that I need this exciting, big city, at least in my younger years. I know I want to practice law here. My initial career goals back home were to finish my degree, maybe do a Phd in Trinity and then go straight to corporate in London. When I came here it completely altered all of that. It’s like, I need to stay in America,” she said.