‘In Ireland everyone greets you. Ireland has taught me kindness’

Monisa Mahandran arrived in 2016 from Malaysia via Romania and the US

The first time Monisa Mahandran saw a person swimming in the sea off the coast of Malahide in north county Dublin she could not believe her eyes. Why would a human being jump into freezing cold water for pleasure, the Malaysian doctor asked herself. She had spent the previous two years slowly acclimatising to the wet and windy Irish climate. Volunteering to step into the icy waters of the Irish Sea seemed a step too far.

However, Mahandran worked long hours and was keen to take up some new hobbies to clear her mind outside her job so one day in May 2018, she packed a swimming bag, drove out to Malahide and put on her togs.

“I thought if that person can do it, so can I. It felt crazy and I thought I would go hypothermic. Somebody is going to have to rescue me, I kept thinking. But then I got into the water and forgot everything. Ever since then, I swim almost every day in spring and summer, and this year I started going during the winter.

'The plan was to spend one year here to get a break from studying, then reapply for the US and go back. But then I loved it'

“I usually do it after a stressful day’s work and feel calm, peace and serenity. You can’t really hear anything around you when you’re swimming, you’re just focusing on paddling and keeping warm. It’s such a wonderful feeling, and I wish more people did it.”


Born and brought up in a Malaysian-Indian family in the state of Selangor, not far from Kuala Lumpur, Mahandran always knew she would become a doctor. From an early age, her grandfather spoke of the importance of a career in medicine and, as a result, many of the grandchildren went on to follow that path.

When she was 19, Mahandran left her sheltered life in Malaysia and moved to the city of Iasi in eastern Romania to study medicine. "That first year abroad was extremely tough," she remembers. "I'm not a particularly social person, and it took me a long time to get adjusted to the cold. Iasi was a lovely town but when I first arrived it didn't really have a mall so my mum used to send me boxes of food from home. By the time I left in 2012, we had a big mall with lots of Asian stores and food. It transformed during the six years I was there."

She studied hard alongside her international classmates, who had travelled from countries such as India, Israel, Pakistan and Sudan to study medicine in a European country, where fees were more affordable. Mahandran's younger sister also followed her to Romania to pursue a medical degree.

After graduation, Mahandran set her sights on the United States. "I'm a very loyal daughter, and my mother always dreamed of studying medicine in the US. She had kids so couldn't go; she always said we should try and sit the exams in America."

Mahandran went on to spend two years working in New Jersey, with her sister joining her halfway through. However, she struggled to settle and found work in the US very challenging. "I had some friends who had come to Ireland and my uncle, he's a doctor too, he'd suggested I try Ireland because they were very accepting of EU medicine graduates. The plan was to spend one year here to get a break from studying, then reapply for the US and go back. But then I loved it."

That said, Mahandran did not love Ireland the day she arrived. It was February 2016 and the young doctor arrived into a city drenched with incessant rainfall. Having grown up in a tropical climate, Mahandran hated wet weather but needed to head outdoors to buy a sim card for her new Irish phone. She eventually found a shop that sold umbrellas and, on the recommendation of a shop assistant, spent €50 on a large brolly.

'Malaysia isn't my home anymore, this is where I am and I wouldn't trade it in for anything else'

“The second I stepped outside it broke in the wind. I was like ‘oh my god, where have I landed?’ I walked straight back into the shop and the man who sold it saw I was drenched and said ‘I’ll give you your money back’. He was very kind, he knew it was my first day in Ireland.”

Before arriving in Ireland, Mahandran had secured a job with the Mater Private Hospital. After two years, her boss and mentor, Prof Peter O’Gorman, took her on as a registrar in the hospital’s haematology department.

“I met some of the kindest people in that hospital: some of the best nurses but most importantly, the best boss. He was extremely kind as were his wife and kids. They always invited me over for Christmas, and they’re part of my life in Ireland now. His kids are almost like my nieces and nephews; I’m very fond of them.”

Mahandran also learned a lot from the way the nurses interacted with patients. “Everybody took their time with people, nobody was rushing. Just simple gestures like asking, how are you doing today or holding a door open, it means a lot. I came from New Jersey and New York where people don’t have the time to stop and help. But in Ireland everyone greets you. Ireland has taught me that kindness.”

While she was born outside the EU, Mahandran’s medical training in a European country means she does not face many of the barriers other non-EU doctors must deal with when building a career in Ireland. “Because I’m an EU graduate it changes the ball game. But my heart goes out to all of them who are struggling. I hope they know they’re in a very nice country and should keep persisting.”

Mahandran now works as a registrar in Blackrock Clinic in south Dublin. Before the pandemic, she travelled to Malaysia to visit family every six months. She has not been back since 2019 and, like many others, has relied on FaceTime and WhatsApp to keep up with loved ones.

However, after nearly six years in Ireland, she says she feels more attached to this country. “Malaysia isn’t my home anymore, this is where I am and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything else. I feel accepted and welcomed, I’m content with my life here.”