Ireland is famed for the breadth of its diaspora. Always ready to start a new life in a new land, the Irish have spread to all corners, but in particular, England, America, Australia and Canada. Wherever they have gone they have changed these places forever. What’s not so well known though is the indefinable pull Ireland has for people from other lands. While Irish emigration is driven by survival and economic advancement, immigrants arrive for a host of other reasons. Generally it’s not the weather, but it may be the extraordinary beauty, or the music or the rich culture, or the prehistory and archaeology, or finding ones roots, or the people, or just romantic notions of a world left behind.
For me it was music. I am an Australian and I have been in Ireland now for 20 months. After a lifetime studying or practicing geology, in mid-2013 I lost both my job and my marriage. It was a devastating blow; I wasn’t ready to retire but the reality was I couldn’t get another job. So I made a decision to stop looking, take early retirement, pack my life into a container and put it into storage and pursue my passion. With nothing now holding me in Australia I headed to Ireland with just a suitcase, my fiddle on my back, and my camera.
It had always been a dream to live in Ireland and learn to play the fiddle properly. But beyond that I had no plans. From previous visits as a tourist I had a vague notion I wanted to spend time in County Clare but that was it. Perhaps a bit naïve but, as I was to discover, things just sort of happen in Ireland. You just go with the flow.
I arrived in Dublin and headed to Ennis timing my arrival to coincide with the Fleadh Nua, an annual traditional music festival. I had booked a B&B for one week. As a fiddler I was desperate to join in Irish sessions and in that first five-day weekend I attended 23 of them. Baptism by fire! But I well and truly had the bug and for the next 18 months I played or listened to traditional music every night missing just one or two. But I’m jumping ahead. At one of these sessions, on that first weekend, I met a musician who had a spare room in his 100-year old cottage at Kilnamona, a few kilometers out of Ennis; I shared with him for the next four months. The house was riddled with damp, it was cold, the paint was peeling and bubbling but I absolutely loved it.
Arriving in summer meant the Festival season, so in quick succession I visited festivals and Schools all across Ireland. I have written about and photographed many of these in my blog (singersongblog.wordpress.com). I would have been to over forty festivals and have had workshops and lessons from around 30 fiddlers. This has been a special time. I have met and played with hundreds of musicians some of them household names (well, in trad music circles anyway) and while initially awed and intimidated by this I now count many of them as my friends.
I initially only had approval to stay for three months so I was hell bent on cramming as much in as I could. But I wanted to stay longer. I was advised to seek residency under a Stamp 0. This is relatively new and is intended for temporary stays and for people who are self-sufficient. The main features of it are that you cannot work and you cannot be a ‘burden on the State’. In the end it was quite a simple process after providing proof of my income and bank balance and showing I had private health insurance and after waiting five weeks I was approved.
So now I could plan. Among other things buy a car and take a lease on a house. None of this was easy by the way and I have to say Irish bureaucracy is a real challenge, especially for those of us unlucky enough to be non-EU citizens. I had to deal with getting a resident’s card and a PPS number, opening an Irish bank account, getting broadband, insuring and taxing the car, getting an NTC, obtaining health insurance, a TV licence and an Irish Driver’s Licence. Most seemed unnecessarily complicated but if you are patient it happens. If there is any interest from fellow Aussies or others I can talk about these in another article.
With a view to living somewhere more permanently I found the most incredible cottage in a place near Spanish Point on the shore of the Atlantic about half an hour from Ennis and close to the famous Miltown Malbay, home of the Willie Clancy Summer School. The cottage is located on the edge of the land where it meets the rocky shore. The house looks directly south across a shallow bay and to the treeless plains and hills beyond that are so characteristic of this part of West Clare.
From my front door I can see the sun (when it shines) rise over Mt Callan to my left and watch it all the way to where it disappears behind the uninhabited Mutton Island. And when it does shine it streams invitingly into the house filling it with light. But when it doesn’t the wind howls and the waves pound the sea wall around my house, its only defense. I can watch seaweed gathered in the bay, as it has been for centuries, or locals collecting winkles, or any variety of birds including gannets, gulls and ducks. From the end of the Point I can see the Cliffs of Moher. A world away from the bustling streets of the Perth and Sydney I left behind. It’s not the Ireland I expected to live in with my romantic visions of rolling green hills but it is an Ireland I have come to love.
I have slipped into the community now. At first all the friends I had made were musicians. Once I put down roots I found myself being included in all sorts of things. I played music at the Christmas Market at Miltown, I joined the Wren Boys on St Stephens day going from house to house in Quilty, I’ve slept in a castle, I visited Spancil Hill Horse Fair with a farmer from Mullagh, I had a traditional Christmas dinner with a local family (25 people), I’ve given a talk on the geology of the Burren to local school children and, of course, being located in West Clare, I can still play music every night with sessions in Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Doolin or Ennis all within easy reach.
Despite this I am well aware that I can never be a true ‘local’ but I don’t mind one bit. I love the ritual that takes place when you meet someone new here. “Where are you from?”; “Do you know so-and-so?” - Part of a process of determining where you fit in in a country where there are so few degrees of separation. And of course everyone has cousins, brothers or aunts in Perth or Melbourne and many harbour a Home and Away- fueled vision of an Australia that they would love to live in.
Perhaps not entirely apposite in Ireland’s case but the ‘grass is always greener’ somewhere else.
There was universal disbelief that I could give up the beaches and sun to come and live in rural Ireland. Especially when people see where I live. There is even greater incredulity when I say I have no problem with the miserable weather that the Irish just love to complain about. Truth is though there has been a lot to complain about this winter with devastating floods and storms that relentlessly follow one after the other. The residents however remain philosophical. I went into the local Quilty shop the other day and was greeted with a “lovely day, isn’t it?” It was 5˚C and overcast; I wore a heavy coat and was wrapped in a thick woolen scarf to keep the wind out. But you see it wasn’t raining!
As I look forward now to another year (my visa has been renewed for 12 months) I reflect on what has been a most wonderful time. Of course I will continue to go to sessions and festivals but perhaps I will achieve a little more balance with more time spent visiting remote parts of Ireland and indulging my other interests, photography and writing. Ireland has changed me. I am certainly less stressed. I take things as they come. I plan less. The infectious gregariousness of the people has I hope rubbed off on me. Oh and I think I have become a better fiddler.
If you are considering settling in Ireland for an extended stay, my advice, go for it.