Finding Inspiration in the Rich History of Ireland and Oxford

Matt Digirolamo in front of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford
Matt Digirolamo spent his Junior year at Oxford studying history and politics of Britain and Ireland.

Each morning at Oxford, I awoke in a building with a pink façade that overlooked one of Pembroke’s four small courtyards.

The University is composed of thirty-eight such colleges, each with their own distinct history and identity. Pembroke College, where I enrolled to study History and Politics, was founded in 1624 and is known for its secluded setting and success in Oxford’s university-wide rowing competitions.

On a typical day, I would then walk a quarter-mile to Vaults and Garden, a quaint and quintessentially British café located in the heart of Oxford. Vaults and Garden, like so many other buildings in Oxford, is steeped in history. It is located within the University’s Old Congregation House—which served as the first meeting house for the University in 1320—and underneath the University Church (from which the University of Oxford grew). Across the way from Vaults and Garden is the Radcliffe Camera (‘Rad Cam’), the first circular library in England where I spent much of my time in this library since it houses the University’s vast collection of history books.

In Oxford, I was always surrounded by history. I focused my studies on British and Irish history and politics, learning from some of the most accomplished and engaging professors I have ever encountered. And due to Oxford’s ‘tutorial’ style of teaching, my classes consisted of a one-on-one or two-on-one (myself and another student) discussion of the assigned readings with these professors. This very personal form of studying was one of the best parts of academic life at Oxford.

My favorite tutorial centered on the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which helped me immensely since I wrote my senior history thesis on this topic. I even traveled to Dublin and Belfast in order to experience Irish society first-hand and contextualize that which I was studying. Along with my tutorial, traveling throughout Ireland enabled me to refine my thesis topic. After speaking with Irish citizens who lived through this difficult period, I decided to focus my thesis on how the Troubles affected community relations in Northern Ireland.

The view onto one of Pembroke's courtyards

Perhaps my most rewarding academic experience abroad occurred not in Oxford but in London a few weeks before the June 2016 Brexit vote. A former professor generously gave me the opportunity to interview a former IRA member turned informer for the British and Irish security forces. Over an hour-and-a-half discussion at a small café near Trafalgar Square, my interviewee captivated me with insight into his extensive involvement with the IRA during the 1970s and 1980s. One of his accounts—which dealt with his experience staying in a Republican household in Northern Ireland in 1974—poignantly illustrated Irish Republican ideology and changed the direction of my thesis. Our entire conversation was invaluable and gave me a deeper understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland than I ever could have achieved in any other way.

This interview is emblematic of the unique opportunities that study abroad offers students. By studying at Oxford, I was able to live my study. I immersed myself in British and Irish history and politics by attending an institution whose own history is often synonymous with that of its home country.

More importantly, however, I was able to submerge myself in the culture of Oxford and the United Kingdom. I met so many amazing individuals during my time at Oxford; many of my best friends are people whom I met abroad. This is a testament to how much I enjoyed and valued my year in England.

Because I studied abroad, I have a singular experience upon which I can always draw and memories from a place that I will always treasure—and to which I know I will return. 

Matt Digirolamo visiting Ireland with English friend
Matt Digirolamo at Oxford's Matriculation