Switzerland is noted for its neutrality. The small alpine country was neutral territory too when Eoghan O’Sullivan and his British wife were deciding where to raise a family.
“It made sense to go to a neutral country in terms of somewhere we could build a life together,” says O’Sullivan, who grew up in Greystones, Co Wicklow. The pair now live outside Geneva where he works for himself as a communications consultant with a passion for music on the side. They first met in a pub in Paris where he was performing.
“In 2002 I decided to set out with my guitar and be a musician for a year which was fantastic,” says O’Sullivan. Prior to that he was part of the team that set up RTÉ’s Lyric FM in 1999. He spent a year in Switzerland then too, on a scholarship studying broadcasting management.
Finding it hard to settle back in RTÉ afterwards, he decided to give music a go, making a demo CD and hitting the road.
“In Paris I was playing in a different Irish pub every night of the week,” recalls O’Sullivan. From there he sang on cruise ships in the Baltic Sea and in bars in Copenhagen and Berlin before driving across the US.
“I learned a lot. I met the woman who is now my wife, and I learned that I liked Europe, I felt drawn to Europe.”
He also learned that music, as a full-time gig could be tough.
“You have to work so hard, and then you need luck or it becomes a real grind. If you love music then I think the best advice is to try and find something else you can do to make your living so that you can stay in love with music.”
Skiing and cycling
Returning to Switzerland in 2004 for a role in the media sector, O’Sullivan and his now wife spent five years living in Geneva. “We had a great time skiing and cycling around the vineyards.”
There followed a further stint for the couple in Amsterdam before deciding Switzerland might be home.
“The Netherlands wasn’t going to work because you can never learn the language. There is no way parents will speak Dutch to you at the school gate because their English is a million times better than your Dutch will ever be. I feel you can’t be fully integrated into a country if you can’t join in those casual conversations in the local language.”
Switzerland was a place where they had common friends and professional opportunities, and there was more of a chance to be locals. Shortly after returning, their son was born, and they bought a house between Geneva and Lausanne.
“We have friends that are part of the international Geneva community, but we have kids in the local school here and we have some Swiss friends and we are making an effort to get involved in local life. It really feels like home,” says O’Sullivan.
They don’t call themselves expats. “I would like my kids to grow up supporting the Swiss football team. The international schools educate a great group of kids with an international outlook, but that’s not what we wanted.”
“One of the things that attracts people to live here is the high life – expensive watches and fancy cars and fancy ski resorts, but that’s not me. What I love is the way democracy works and the way society is set up.”
He says taxes are paid partly to the local village, partly to the canton, which is the region, and partly federal. While things can happen slowly, they are done democratically with many decisions made locally. “Things work and people feel enfranchised, they feel invested in their own local community. I think you feel more power over your life here.”
Music and sport
Working for himself enables him to chose his clients and his hours. “I have freedom in normal times to get home to Ireland or to help with the kids, and I have time for other projects around music and sport.”
One such project was penning Moi Aussi, a song he was commissioned to write for a Swiss charity founded by an Irish woman living there to encourage the inclusion of people with Down syndrome in society. The title can mean “me also”, “I do too” or “just like you”, he says.
A video of families lip-syncing to the song released on World Down Syndrome Day in March went viral with tens of thousands of reshares. He has heard of schools in France and Canada using it to teach inclusion. “The dream is that for kids in first or second class, it will become a right of passage for them to learn this song.”
The message is resonating further too. “In normal times I’d be singing in bars and concerts, and invariably people come up to me afterwards and say, ‘that song really touched me – it’s about emigrants isn’t it?’, or ‘it’s about having anxiety, isn’t it?’. The message is saying, ‘I exist too, don’t exclude me from society’.”
Compared to Ireland’s pandemic response, he says the Swiss have probably favoured the economy a bit more than public health. The country borders five others, and many health workers cross into Switzerland to work every day.
“We’ve never had geographical restrictions; the schools only closed for seven weeks; everyone has been working from home. I’ve felt we’ve had it easier from a psychological point of view. Who’s to say who’s wrong and who’s right. I can’t say.”
He says Switzerland is not an EU member ,which has made Brexit interesting to watch.
“It’s strange to have ended up living outside the EU, but I don’t feel any less European here. We are probably more integrated into the EU than British people realise. There are trade agreements so most of the rules that apply in the EU apply in Switzerland.
“In terms of all the rules the pro-Brexit people were worried about, those rules apply in Switzerland as well. That is not without controversy here.”