The Roman Irish
Andy Devane asks five long-term Irish residents about life in the Italian capital and the realities behind la dolce vita
Rome has proved a consistent draw to people from the island of Ireland ever since St Patrick arrived in the fifth century. When the Earls took Flight, Italy welcomed them. Daniel O’Connell quite literally gave his heart to Rome but James Joyce despised the city where he lived briefly. Then Italia ’90 had a renaissance effect on us, and now the Italian capital’s most famous Irish resident is Mary McAleese.
The latest official figures reveal that 800 Irish nationals are registered as residents of Rome, and recent arrivals are being welcomed by a well-organised support network, which includes the Embassy of Ireland, several Irish churches and the Irish Club of Rome whose annual Celtic Ball takes place on 23rd March.
When Laura Ellard (30) came to Rome in 2002 to work as an au-pair, she knew nobody in the city and planned to stay for just three months. “I was terrified when I first arrived,” she says. “I was 19 and it was my first time leaving home! If I learned one thing in those first few weeks, it was that there’s no room for shyness in Italy – speak up and make yourself heard.”
Ten years later, the Co Carlow woman is very much in sync with life in Rome: she has an Italian boyfriend, Luca, and a “dream job” in the training division of the World Food Program.
Ellard finds Romans to be friendly, but life in Italy is chaotic compared to Ireland, she says. “It’s very much an every-man-for-himself attitude when it comes to queuing, parking or stopping at red lights.” Ellard has also dealt with her fair share of Rome’s infamous red tape, and is disappointed that, for such a beautiful city, “people tend to throw litter on the streets without a second thought”.
However she is adamant that life in Rome is good, listing the city’s “sunshine, coffee, art, food, wine, history and pace of life” as reasons for living there.
As for advice for Irish people thinking of moving to Rome: “If I were to do it all again, I’d definitely have a few Italian lessons first, and keep an eye on the classifieds for jobs and apartments in the city’s English language magazine and website Wanted in Rome. The last essential to pack in your suitcase is lots and lots of patience – it will take forever to get all your papers and contracts in order.”
One person directly responsible for increasing the city’s Irish community is Co Wexford man Declan Crean (36) who first came to Rome ten years ago. As the owner of Scholars Lounge in central Rome, Crean currently employs 15 Irish members of staff and returns regularly to Ireland to recruit more.
“Italians ask me why I never employ Italian people and I tell them that if I were to open an Italian restaurant in Ireland tomorrow I wouldn’t employ Irish, just Italians,” he says. “At Scholars we believe in keeping the atmosphere as authentic and as Irish as possible.”
Together with Italian business partner Celeste Cucchiarelli, Crean bought the city centre premises in 2005 and transformed it into an Irish pub. Located next to the Rome residence of Silvio Berlusconi, the business was doubled in size in 2010 and is now one of the capital’s most successful bars.
A driven and hard-working individual, Crean loses patience with the often slow pace involved in getting things done in Italy. “I hear “domani, domani” a lot (and it never turns out to be tomorrow either). I still find it hard to come to terms with that. In Ireland I find that things usually get done faster.”
Last September he was the driving force behind establishing the Rome Gaelic Football Club which recently attracted the attention of a curious Italian media when it beat Padova in the inaugural Coppa Italia Gaelica.
One thing that Crean misses about his homeland is “the relative ease at meeting new people” but he is enthusiastic about Italian food as well as “the healthier lifestyle that goes hand in hand with it”.
Arriving in Italy in 1995, Dubliner Dave Tinsley (40) lived in Venice for three years before being lured by the bright lights and recording studios of Rome.
He began recording international artists and soundtracks for films before branching into sound design and post-production for movies and television, and his career in showbiz has seen him work with the likes of Beyoncé, John Travolta and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Tinsley identifies “getting paid” as the main problem with his industry in Italy. “The policy of paying as little as possible is routine behaviour. With every movie I’ve worked on outside of Italy – you finish your work, hand over the finished project and get paid. Here you hand over the project and hope to God they’ll pay you before the year is out.”
And although he says he never dreams of moving back to Ireland, Tinsley claims that Italian life is far removed from Under the Tuscan Sun. “When dealing with the Romans for work, I’ve found that the more you stand up for yourself and the more astute you are the easier it will be to do business. They have a knack of trying to pull a fast one on you.”
Despite this Tinsley has embraced many aspects of the Italian lifestyle and after living in Italy for so long he says he is far from pining for Irish cuisine. He and his Italian wife live in the hills north of Rome with their 10-year-old son.
After teaching for many years in the Middle East, Dermot O’Connell (61) was presented with a unique opportunity in 2001 – the chance to take over an English-language bookshop in Rome.
The city he found was not the moribund Rome of his Latin school books: it was a living, vibrant city whose floodlit monuments and crowded cobbled streets sang to him. After much deliberation O’Connell took a leap into the unknown and became owner and manager of the Almost Corner Bookshop in the heart of the bohemian Trastevere quarter.
He says it was not easy at first opening a shop in Rome as a foreign trader. “The fact that I was taking over an existing business rather than muscling in helped a little,” he explains, “but what helped me most was the fact that I was Irish. Once my Italian shopkeeper neighbours elicited this magic information they welcomed me to the street.”
Originally from Co Carlow, O’Connell has an infectious enthusiasm for his books which include Italian-related novels and an abundant range on Rome’s art, architecture and history.
Apart from Italian bureaucracy (“don’t get me started”), and the inexplicable Roman habit of standing in shop doorways, O’Connell is happy living in a city he describes as “splendid”.
Translator and interpreter Alice Chambers (37) from Dublin has lived in Rome since 2000 and works in the translation department at the Bank of Italy. Previously her career in the Italian capital saw her teach English to Italian politicians, translate articles for Italian newspapers, and publish her first novel We are Gold.
Like most other foreign arrivals, Chambers discovered that Rome was quite different to the place seen through the eyes of tourists who never fail to gush “you’re so lucky to live here”. She spent her first few years “trying not to be a foreigner” but eventually learnt to embrace the best traits from both countries. In July 2011 she became truly integrated with Italian life when she and her partner Giandomenico became the proud parents of baby Enrico Raphael.
Chambers is quick to recognise a darker side to life in Italy, and rails against the portrayal of women in Italian media. She believes that in recent years certain bad attitudes have crept in to the mainstream and become accepted, even endorsed, by the establishment. She describes Italy as a paradox, where children are worshipped but the education budget continues to be slashed.
Chambers advises people to “think again” before considering moving to Rome and, if still determined “then come armed with impressive educational credentials and be prepared to network.”
Criticisms aside, she enthuses about the city’s theatrical quality; she loves the contrast of chaos and calm, and the way the lightning of the spectacular storms illuminates the centuries-old gentleness of the fountains. “In Rome you can’t help but notice you are alive” she says.
Irish artist Andy Devane has lived in Rome for most of the last 12 years. For more about him and his work, see andydevane.com.