Friends from home used to call to see if I’d pop down for a drink – 600km away

I moved to the Basque Country when I was 22. I’ve just turned 60. Is that too old to rock’n’roll?

Basque in the spotlight: Barry Manley performs stand-up in San Sebastián

Basque in the spotlight: Barry Manley performs stand-up in San Sebastián

 

Barry Manley, from Bandon, Co Cork, lives in the Basque Country, where he is a freelance English teacher. For the past decade he has performed stand-up comedy in Basque, one of the oldest languages in Europe. He is the author of a novel, New Europeans, published by Emperor Publishing (Cork) in 1993

I have just read the story of Anne-Marie Mullen, a Dubliner who has spent the past 35 years in France. She waxed lyrical about life in her 50s, which is something I can readily identify with – although it’s followed by the sobering thought that I have just moved into my 60s, saying goodbye to my happiest decade.

When I left my home and family I was no more than a boy. I moved to San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, when I was 22. Everything here was new to me: the language, the food, the climate, the people, the beach – three beaches actually, and in the middle of the city – and the political turbulence prevalent at the time.

I never once went to Spanish or Basque classes and believe  motivation is the key to any language acquisition. There are no short cuts, no special apps: it is all about putting in the hard work and giving it a go

I was no longer Mano, to use my nickname from Bandon, a friend to his friends (I hope), a regular for the local GAA and soccer teams, a brother, a son, a polite neighbour (I hope). Suddenly I was “el joven profesor Inglés” – the young English teacher – wandering around the old part of the city in the company of other emigres mainly of English extraction and then, more often than not, on my own.

I kept in touch by phone – I can recall my father warning me against drinking tap water. I also remember friends from my home town, in Co Cork, calling me from a holiday resort in Girona, wondering if I might pop down to a bar later that evening for a drink. Girona is 600km from San Sebastián, but I was touched none the less.

West Corkonian: Barry Manley as a child in Bandon
West Corkonian: Barry Manley as a child in Bandon

I realised I had a flair for languages in Tom Flynn’s French classes at Hamilton High School, my Catholic boys’ secondary in Bandon, and would regularly try out my French on the students who would visit in the summer months to learn west Cork English. I never once went to Spanish (or Basque) classes and believe that motivation is the key to any language acquisition. There are no short cuts, no special apps: it is all about putting in the hard work and giving it a go.

After a year abroad I went home for the summer, unsure if I would return. It would be more or less like this for the next decade. There never was a long-term plan, no linear career path, no stable relationship that tied me down to a particular place, but in my mid-30s I spent nine months back in Ireland, then headed back to San Sebastián, this time convinced that I would probably spend the rest of my life in this neck of the woods.

There were no regrets. I am still as Irish as the day I left. I love meeting Irish people and having the craic, the easy conversations you can start up, the shared references, the devilment. The Irish people I have met abroad have been wonderful: funny, caring and great company.

The political situation in this part of the world is now more relaxed. I no longer follow mainstream media, as their news bores me to death. I regard the Basque Country as an independent nation and pay no heed to Madrid. I have never been involved with a political party, and I cannot vote here or in Ireland, so I am totally disenfranchised. I worked as a freelance English teacher for more than 20 years; when I went to a social-security office during the pandemic I was told I was not entitled to a single euro, so I have had to rely mainly on savings over the past 18 months.

I begin a new decade with sobering challenges ahead. The best way to face up to these is by invoking the words of the great Lemmy, of Motörhead: ‘If you think you are too old to rock’n’roll, then you are’

My son is 17 now. I am not sure how I will be able to afford his college education, but I see it as another challenge I will have to overcome – and, health permitting, it will be done.

Eight years ago was the nearest I ever came to falling into a depression, an illness that, thankfully, society is paying more attention to and identifying earlier.

One September afternoon in the barrio during this turbulent period, while our children were playing in the park, I sat down on a bench and struck up a conversation with a woman who, on hearing that I am a west Corkonian, told me that her sister had been living in Clonakilty for a few years and that she was in love with it.

Sometimes I think we have been sitting on that bench since that moment, and not a day goes by when I do not count my blessings for having met her.

We seem to be coming out of the pandemic; the clouds have been slowly lifting, and as the new normal beckons I begin a new decade with sobering challenges ahead. The best way to face up to these is by invoking the words of the great Lemmy, of Motörhead: “If you think you are too old to rock’n’roll, then you are.”

So thanks, Lemmy, and sorry I never went to see you that time you played in Cork. I stuck my ear out in Bishopstown and thought I might be able to hear you from there, but I couldn’t. I hear you well and truly now, man, 40 years later.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.