Leaving the Celtic Tiger behind to work the Irish angle in Croatia
WILDGEESE: EMIGRANT BUSINESS LEADERS ON OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD:Paul O’Grady, Founder of the Irish Maiden Irish dancing school, CroatiaThe Irish Times
O’Grady may have made more lucre if he had stuck with his job as a Dublin architect, but the roar of the Celtic Tiger sent him scurrying for the Balkans, and he swapped 12-hour workdays and soaring stress for a less financially secure but far sweeter life in Croatia.
Nine years after the UCD graduate arrived in Zagreb, he presides over a thriving Irish dance school, a fledgling events management outfit, he moonlights as an English teacher and business trainer, and has a book coming out in September.
And in his spare time he is finishing an album, does charity work and is using skills from his former professional life to help renovate an olive mill.
“I qualified in 2001 and was soon doing well with the architecture, but I was miserable. I was cycling from a dull, dark, dank apartment to do a 10- or 12-hour day on projects that I wasn’t really qualified for because the office was taking on too much work. And then I was expected to go to architects’ symposiums at the weekend,” O’Grady recalls.
“In 2002 it all just popped for me. The Celtic Tiger thing was getting going, there was lots of positivity around, a feeling we could do anything, but I was already feeling burned out.
“People were making crazy money but paying for it with massive stress and destructive drinking. I didn’t know what I wanted but it wasn’t that – so I said I was off to Europe.”
O’Grady made for Croatia, which held fond memories of a student summer exchange, and started teaching English at a major foreign language school in Zagreb. When his first Croatian Christmas arrived and the school hadn’t paid the staff for three months, he realised that the unpredictability that he found seductive in Balkan life could also be infuriating.
The teaching helped O’Grady make useful contacts in the Croatian business world. His address book expanded further when he found work as a radio reporter for the national broadcaster’s English-language service, interviewing everyone from Bosnian rappers to Bertie Ahern.
A former student and worker at the Irish Colleges, O’Grady was playing guitar with a band in a Zagreb pub one evening when inspiration struck. As the band took a break and put some traditional music on the pub stereo, a group of locals started “something approximating to Irish dancing”, he remembers.
“I showed them the Walls of Limerick or something and they really went for it. I saw the potential. That was around October 2005 and, after a few months, we had enough interest for a regular class. Now we have over 100 dancers in two cities.”
The Irish Maiden – rather than Iron Maiden – dancing school was born. It has helped fuel a surge in Croatian interest and participation in Irish culture. There are now four other Irish dance troupes performing in Croatia and 13 bands playing Irish music, according to O’Grady.
“It’s very, very good to be Irish here,” he says. “There is definitely an affinity for Irish people and Croats see many similarities in our histories. I am not fantastically talented at anything I do, but the Irish angle certainly makes my business concepts more marketable.”
It also helped O’Grady (35) get a publishing deal for his first book, which he calls a “tough, at times raw, but hopefully funny” memoir about the travails of a self-confessed party boy becoming a father in Croatia, a macho world where no self-respecting father goes near a nappy.
“Men here think they’re great because they can change a wheel. How much braver is it to change something that can pee in your face while you’re doing it? It would make Formula One much more exciting if the mechanics had wee fired in their faces while they were changing tyres.”
O’Grady is also finishing an album of his own songs – some of which he may sing in Croatian – which he hopes he will be ready around the same time as his book is published in September.
Now living with his wife and son in her home village on the idyllic Adriatic peninsula of Istria, O’Grady is organising his second wedding for a foreign couple and helping co-ordinate Ireland’s role as partner country for the Motovun Film Festival, one of the region’s finest.
“Croatia is very human and very alive. It can be frustrating, but there are so many opportunities here. In Ireland most markets have been cornered, but in Croatia things are still developing.”