For some Irish students, a summer of partying, surfing, and occasionally working, in California is considered a rite of passage. With all of the liberties and none of the responsibilities associated with adulthood, fun is guaranteed – but at what price to Californians?
In recent years, the reputation of young Irish people has been smeared by trouble and vandalism has been tarnished in popular American west-coast resorts such as Santa Barbara and San Diego. US beach resorts and cities experience a summer influx of Irish students year after year, but the reputation of some areas has been damaged because of behaviour linked to socialising and partying.
In 2005 the resort of Isla Vista in Santa Barbara, California, was the scene of an investigation by police after a group of Irish students caused $15,000 (€11,400) worth of damage in three apartments at an accommodation complex.
The problems are ongoing. This summer alone, Irish students are believed have caused $20,000 (€15,100) worth of damage, says William Sanchez, property manager of the Breakpointe apartment complex in Isla Vista. Sanchez describes housing Irish students as “the worst experience ever. Last Tuesday night there was a couple of grand worth of damage done. Some Irish students were throwing microwaves into a swimming pool. It’s been going on for years.
“There’s a fine line between partying and destroying, and these guys just show up and destroy things. It’s causing a bad name across Isla Vista. Nobody wants them here – a few Irish visitors are ruining it for everyone.”
A spokesman for Santa Barbara’s sheriff department says this year a large number of complaints in Isla Vista again centre on the behaviour of some young visitors from Ireland who are travelling to the resort for “one big party”. He described the problems caused by Irish students as a “drain on the department” for about the last five years, which has resulted in the creation of a new arrest category for Irish students, in order to document the severity of the problem.
“Many of the arrests of young Irish people relate to vandalism, fighting and public drunkenness,” says the spokesman. “For example, we had a situation last week where three young Irish males were arrested after kicking in the door of an apartment. One of those men was caught wearing only a pair of briefs, and all of them were drunk. This is a common occurance.”
Brian Cassidy (23) from Co Kildare went on a J1 visa to Santa Barbara in the summer of 2009. He says most Irish visitors to the beachside town live among the students of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He adds that the residents of Isla Vista, the university campus area known locally as “IV”, are not well-disposed towards Irish students.
“Irish people in Santa Barbara have a very bad reputation,” he says. “A lot of the American students, especially the guys, are very hostile towards the Irish. They will not let Irish people into their parties. Landlords don’t want to have Irish people in their apartments.”
This reputation has resulted in discrimination towards Irish visitors who are genuinely seeking employment in local businesses, according to UCD student Jenni Skelly (20). Skelly travelled with five friends to the Isla Vista resort this summer, but since arriving on America’s west coast neither she nor any of her friends has been able to find employment.
When applying for jobs in the resort’s K-Mart supermarket, Skelly and her friends were asked their nationality and were told the management of the shop would not hire Irish people because of the behaviour of past student employees. “The Americans have the opinion of us Irish that we’re crazy and drink a lot, but they also think that we damage property and disturb the peace, when in fact it is a slight few that give us this bad reputation,” she says.
In an article last summer, the Daily Nexus , UCSB’s student newspaper, reported: “Isla Vista residents worry that the Irish visitors are both disrespectful and destructive . . . and associate the Irish people with loud partying and damaged apartments.”
According to the article, the aftermath of a contingent of J1 students taking up residence in one particular apartment complex included “kitchen garbage in the swimming pool, tomato sauce and vomit on the stairs, couches on the bike racks, cigarettes and beer cans in the pool area and even pasta in the washing machine”.
In contrast to other students in Isla Vista, Ben Geoghegan (22), from Co Kildare, found little evidence of anti-Irish discrimination. He worked with a landscaping company in the area and found his co-workers and employers to be courteous and helpful.
“To be fair, I think the US students who did not like the Irish were justified,” he says. “A minority of the Irish over there had no work and basically went around wrecking the place and making enemies, through total disrespect and petty vandalism.
“This small minority basically made all the Irish over there get tarred with the one brush, which I can see as fair enough, as many US students just see the ‘Irish’ as a singular person.”
Geoghegan also spent a summer in Chicago, and noticed a marked difference in the attitude of the locals there towards Irish students. “In Chicago, people were very warm, very open, very welcoming,” he says. “It is also very easy to integrate with the community there, whereas in Santa Barbara many Irish stuck to themselves.”
Commenting on reports of bad behaviour from Irish students on J1 visas, Dearbhla O’Brien, commercial director of student travel company Usit, says the company has never received any negative reports from job agency affiliates in the US.
“Irish students are generally very well received, especially in the resorts where Americans spend their holidays,” she says. “Irish students are well liked in many areas of America and large numbers have been going to the same resorts each year because of the friendly atmosphe