Costa living: ‘Move home to Ireland? I’d hate it’
Thousands of Irish people live on the Costa del Sol – and they're ‘more Irish than anyone at home’
Gerry McGovern, bar manager, The Claddagh Bar, Marbella. Photograph: Solarpix.com
Returning to Ireland would be “like moving to a foreign country. I’d hate it,” says Kilkenny-born Amy Duggan. In Ireland she and her family have “no credit history, no banking history. I’d be terrified to sell up and move home.”
Duggan lives in San Pedro, near Marbella on Spain’s Costa del Sol, with her husband, Ross, and children Katie (6) and Cian (4). The couple own The Bodega and Beacon bars, in partnership with fellow-Irish Joe and Mary Hogan.
“I came by accident, in 2004. I left Ireland with a friend, and we ended up in Spain. My first job was in a small bar in the old town.”
Over time, Duggan has discovered a supportive Irish community in Marbella. “You’re drawn together because you’re Irish. When you’re single and away from home, they become family.”
Now, as an Irish mother with a family of her own in Spain, she finds the local school and healthcare systems “excellent” and says Spanish people’s child-friendly reputation is well deserved.
At just 16 weeks, maternity leave in Spain is shorter than in Ireland, but the maternal healthcare is first rate. “It never crossed my mind to go home to have [the babies],” says Duggan.
Though some Irish people living in Spain do go “home” to access healthcare in Ireland, they tend to do it for the support systems of family and friends, rather than because they’re expecting better care.
Now her two children speak Spanish like locals. “I often wonder when the kids are older, will they look back and say they were so lucky to grow up there?”
More Irish-born people live in Spain than anywhere else in Europe, outside Britain and Ireland itself
It’s late October in Marbella, and the seemingly endless beach is lined with charming restaurants, and dotted with sun umbrellas. The weather is gently warm. Children are playing, as older people sun themselves on loungers.
Come for a day or two and you see why so many Irish people have made this part of Europe their home. Spend a week and you may find yourself laying plans to join them.
More Irish-born people live in Spain than anywhere else in Europe, outside Britain and Ireland itself.
This year’s HSBC Expat Explorer Survey ranks Spain as second in the world for expat lifestyle and fourth for families. The majority of Irish “expats” find their way to the southern region of Andalucía, and within that to the Costa del Sol. There are five branches of Dunnes Stores in Spain, and all of them are within the Costa del Sol.
Estimates of numbers vary. Officially the figure is just over 17,500, but when you factor in those who choose not to register with the authorities, it is more likely to be closer to 30,000.
How much of their home culture do they bring with them? What are the biggest changes and challenges? And would anything tempt them home again?
With a population of 47 million, Spain has seen extraordinary change over the past 50 years. It has been a democracy for just over a generation: the period known as the Transition (Transición Española) began with the death of General Franco in 1975 and ended with the first peaceful elections in 1982. In those four decades, the Basque Country and Catalonia in the north have laid claims to independence – political tension is constant in Spain.
“I was in the civil service in Ireland but I met my husband here. I came out on holidays with three friends, after my first husband died. In 1979, I moved here for good. It was very different. Spain was just coming out of Franco. The country was getting ‘a bit democratic’ as they say.”
In 1979, I moved here for good. It was very different. Spain was just coming out of Franco
Nora Lees remembers the first elections in 1977. “Things were changing for the good. But you had a big rift between the Right and the Left.”
Lees set up a souvenir shop. “In the beginning, there weren’t that many Irish coming. There were very few flights, and they were expensive. It was brave, people were saying: ‘You’re going abroad, you’re marrying a foreigner, you don’t know anything about him.’
“I took classes in Spanish. A lot of the family came out, and you get to know a lot of people. The Spanish are very like ourselves, their ways and customs, they’re very family-orientated. I wouldn’t move back for anything. This is my home. My husband is buried here, and I will be too. My daughter is Spanish; she was born here. She’s now a doctor.”
Lees mentions the climate, healthcare and public transport as positive aspects of living here. There were adjustments, though, says Lees. “I did miss a lot in the beginning: Irish television and the culture. When I first came, we didn’t have a telephone; we had to go down to the kiosk.
“But you get involved in things. Spain is very interesting, especially Andalucía. I like history and politics. What’s happening in Catalonia is a big problem. A lot of the English are very worried about Brexit. The government here say it’s not going to affect them, that they’ll still be treated the same, but it’s going to make a big change.”
Incidences of petty crime are low and the region is considered particularly safe. This is despite the area’s other moniker: the Costa del Crime. Difficulties with extradition (a functional extradition treaty did not exist between Spain and the UK until 1985) meant that many criminals enjoyed high-profile lives in the Marbella sunshine.
Proximity to drugs routes into Europe via North Africa and across the Straits of Gibraltar (easily achievable by jet ski, I’m told) also brought criminals, including the Dublin Kinahan gang, to the area. In 2010, the joint Irish-Spanish police Operation Shovel did a great deal to interrupt the Kinahans’ activities and, more recently, Russian crime gangs are reported to have moved in.
The Irish people I meet say their lives are untouched by gang crime. “You know it happens, but you don’t see it,” says Kevin Cunningham in The Claddagh Bar. “You might see them in their big cars in Puerto Banus,” adds someone else. “But it doesn’t come here.”
Because it is the most permeable of industries, many Irish find their way into employment, and into the community, through the hospitality sector. At Jimmy Foran’s Claddagh Bar, they host their own St Patrick’s Day Festival, and a music festival in September. I’m sitting in the bar with Cunningham, originally from Killybegs, Co Donegal, who works here. We are soon joined by a group of Irish local residents.
Talk turns to what people miss about home, and soon we’re discussing food. Tayto, Club Orange, black pudding, Barry’s Tea and pink Snack Bars. I start to feel homesick myself even though I arrived only the day before.
Memories of Ireland exert a particularly powerful, romantic pull. People also describe the transience of friendships, of having their hearts broken by friends who then move on, or move home. Many end up with a wide circle of acquaintances, but few very close friends.
You meet an Irish person, find a connection, and then you have a connection with everybody else
Originally from Co Leitrim, Gerry McGovern is manager at The Claddagh. He moved to Spain in 2006, giving up a job at Irish Life a year before the crash, to pursue his dream of setting up a bar.
“Irish people know everyone,” says McGovern. “It’s not just that we’re good at asking questions, we ask the right questions. We don’t just dive in, we get our way around to it. It’s brought up in us, isn’t it? You go to Marbella,” he continues. “You meet an Irish person, find a connection, and then you have a connection with everybody else.”
Giving it a year, McGovern fell in love, and fell in love with the place too. Still, he demonstrates a paradox felt by many expats: “The work was always there and the weather is stunning. I met Rosie, an English girl, we got married, had two kids. Ireland will always be home, but there’s no going back.”
He first found work in a bar, and went on to manage another, before he and Rosie set up on their own. Having two children changed things, and so the couple sold up and McGovern went to work at The Claddagh.
“Marbella is one of the safest towns I’ve ever been in, I wouldn’t move my family from here. We have three different levels of police, and it’s one of the cleanest towns. We have a great little apartment, three bedrooms, ground floor, a garden, a communal pool. Our rent is €1,100 a month. You wouldn’t get that in Dublin. We’re really content.
“A lot of Spanish people come to The Claddagh,” says McGovern. “They compare themselves to the Irish; they’ll come in and say ‘we’re brothers’.” As we speak, a roar comes up from a group, laughing, as Irish people do when they get together.
What do the Spanish make of the Irish? I wonder. “They love us,” says McGovern emphatically. “You know, we love a party, to have fun, we sing with our eyes closed. Even the town hall here, when we asked them if we could do the festival, they said, ‘Yes, of course you can’.”
The Spanish love of paperwork is a headache for many getting to know the system, whether it’s registering for the NIE (personal tax identification number), necessary for anyone intending to stay longer than three months, or going further and setting up your own business.
Irene Maher owns and runs the Orange Tree and La Muralla restaurants in Marbella’s Old Town with her husband, Frank Ammar.
“I do believe in fate,” says Maher. “I had been working in London, in HR for Citibank. Then Mum died, and I decided to go back home. But first we went travelling. We had been in Marbella, and then a ski chalet in Switzerland.”
A phone call came: “A couple from Kerry had had this place, but were moving on. We had 24 hours to decide. In the morning, we handed in our notice.
“We had to do everything in a language we barely spoke. There is a lot of paperwork here. But we were fearless then.”
Apart from one neighbour, who later came around, the Spanish were very welcoming. “I think they thought we were less likely to succeed. They used to joke with us – we’ll give you guys six months. But we’ve been here 15 years.
“People might have a romantic ideal of what life is going to be like in the sun. But do your research, and be prepared to work hard. Building relationships is very important, with customers, suppliers, staff, with neighbours. It’s also vital to learn the language.”
Comparing their costs with those of a friend who runs a café in Kilkenny, Maher says that social security is higher in Spain, while general overheads are lower, including insurance and produce. They buy everything in the local market, except their Irish beef.
Alcohol is also much cheaper. “There are unwritten rules. You don’t use measures, but pour: counting to five if you don’t know someone, and ten if you do.” A high percentage of the restaurant customers are Irish. “We have a very loyal customer base. Irish people are very loyal anyway. Spanish people come too, on holidays from Madrid.”
Ammar joins us, offering me a tasty selection of fish dishes from the menu. “We get lots of golf groups in,” he says. Golf is huge in this part of Spain. There are more than 100 courses in Andalucía. “The Irish ones sing. Spanish people don’t sing in restaurants.”
Maher adds: “It’s very family oriented here. Kids aren’t seen as a nuisance. They all eat out together, I love that.”
The cost of living and of eating out is considerably lower than it is in Ireland
Some 68 per cent of expats in Spain are over 55, endorsing the cliché of the country as a haven for retirees. But more than a third have come to work in a better climate, and to improve their quality of life.
The differences are stark: the HSBC survey shows expats from Spain achieving an average income of €82,244; while expats in Spain earn just half that, with an average of €41,032.
Some of the disparity is due to the cohort of retirees. The majority (70 per cent) own their own property in Spain. That said, the cost of living and of eating out is considerably lower than it is in Ireland. At La Española on Av. de la Fontanilla, a full breakfast of café con leche, tostada con tomate (toast with fresh tomatoes) and orange juice, costs just €2.90.
Terry McKinley is president of the Costa del Sol Irish Association, and owns a property business. Following a career in the navy, the Antrim native moved to Spain for five years – 27 years ago. He lives in Benalmádena.
“There’s always something to be dealt with. Maybe a member having a problem with the administration in Spain, the town hall or the tax office. Or we have issues when someone has died and we have to get them home to the family. It can be extremely hard and emotional,” says McKinley.
Spanish undertakers can and do work with their Irish counterparts to bring coffins home for burial, but that is expensive. “Sometimes it involves getting people to donate to fund the process. Transport costs around €700, and there are huge issues with paperwork and documentation. We run the Irish association on a voluntary basis, and this takes a lot of time. I’m lucky that I’m self-employed. And yes, sometimes I ask myself why I’m doing this, but there are people who rely on you.”
We have adopted Spain as our home, and we’re foreigners here. We’ll never be Spanish, so we have to make the best lives we can
The association helps people who have chosen Spain as their holiday home or permanent residence. They also hold two St Patrick’s Day functions, in Torremolinos and Benalmádena. McKinley cites the loneliness of the expat life as a problem for some.
“If you are social here, there are lots of people to meet and be friendly with. But back home, you’ll probably have people round to your house. People don’t do that so much here. It’s really hard to explain without sounding as if you’re being rude.”
Spain took a big hit in the recession, and McKinley noticed a number of Irish association members moving home. He also recalls, back in the heyday of the boom, a couple coming to him to buy a house clutching two Spar bags full of cash. “They don’t do that any more.”
But things are improving again, and property prices are on the up. “It depends on where you want to live,” says McKinley. “For €695,000, you will find a four-bed, four-bath. Or a two-bed apartment, right on the waterfront. Or you can get a three-bed in town for about €340,000, but it won’t have the modern feel to it.”
A look at the property pages also shows me that a one-bedroom apartment in Casares is on the market at €49,500, or further inland, a two-bed in Jaen for €34,000.
“We have to remember,” says McKinley, “We have adopted Spain as our home, and we’re foreigners here. We’ll never be Spanish, so we have to make the best lives we can.”
Music and sport bring people together, and they are also the things many people miss most from home. Having studied Spanish, Aileen Lavin from Killarney moved to Spain in 2016, where she now works as a teacher.
Lavin got in touch with Cork man Liam Riordan, who had founded Celta Malaga GAA club. “There was no woman’s team at the time,” says Lavin, who set about recruiting. “We have had players from England, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Columbia, Scotland, America, Canada, Brazil and Wales.”
Last year the Celta Malaga ladies won the first ever Andalucían league against Seville, and there are GAA clubs in Marbella, Seville, Gibraltar and Jaen. “We’ve also hosted teams that have come over from Ireland for a football holiday and played in blitzes against them.” Anyone can join, and everyone is welcome, adds Lavin.
Cork-born musician Colm Fitzpatrick moved to Spain two years ago, he now teaches and plays music in the evenings in bars. He is also music director of the Marbella Irish International Music Festival.
“I met a Spanish girl in Cork five years ago. I swore blind I’d never leave Cork, but it got to a point where it was now or never.”
Still, the move was a wrench. “I found it particularly tough to leave home. I really liked my situation, my original songs were doing well, they were getting played on local and national radio. I was happy with the way everything was going.
“It came to the point I was here about six weeks, and I was really down. I had been speaking with my mum. She was upset, and I was upset, and I realised I can’t continue like this, so I pushed the sadness down, and decided to make this my home, and it just got better from there.”
I teach ukulele on the beach at the weekend, I mean, come on, how fun is that?
Now Fitzpatrick teaches guitar and ukulele, as well as playing in the evenings. “I teach in a Montessori school, and I teach privately. And I teach ukulele on the beach at the weekend, I mean, come on,” he says, laughing at the turn his life has taken. “How fun is that?”
While some say that Gaelic music originated in Galicia (there are strong connections), traditional music sessions are less a feature of Marbella Irish expat life.
“Back home, when I was working more as a singer songwriter, people wanted to hear original songs. Here, they are die hard, they want to hear this Irish song, that Irish song. They want to hear The Fields of Athenry, She Moved Through the Fair.
“I had to drop 99 per cent of my own songs, and learn a lot of covers, but it’s been a great experience. When the Irish come to the Irish bars, I find them more Irish than I’ve ever seen them at home.
“Being here has changed my music. Back home my songs were really expressive. Here, the songs I’m writing are fast and up-tempo. The rhythms here are different. When we moved here, my dad said, ‘you’ve made the choice, make it the right one’. And I think I have.”