Rónán Riordan is 28 years old and grew up in west Kerry. He currently lives in Berlin researching the EU’s courts as part of his PhD at the Jacques Delors Centre
From my rooftop apartment in west Berlin I can hear sound of rain falling against the skylight, transporting me back to west Kerry and my childhood attic bedroom.
I grew up in a remote part of Ireland; a wild and mountainous landscape surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic and GAA. Today I find myself in Berlin, a flat and landlocked city with a unique history etched into its streets. Kerry, while beautiful and holding a special place in my mind, always left me feeling suffocated and watched.
Dublin had few people my age from home migrating to its universities, and offered me both the space to breathe and the anonymity I so desired. My girlfriend, Nina, who is Irish-German, grew up 10 minutes from my family home and went to Trinity, while I studied in UCD; despite this fatal character flaw I’m still with her.
I finished my Master’s in 2018 and worked for UCD researching EU law. This convinced me of what I already knew; I wanted to pursue my PhD.
I flourished during my time in Dublin. Living in Dún Laoghaire town, having been lucky to find a relatively - for Dublin - affordable flat with friends, and living beside the sea again, brought me a deep feeling of serenity. Nina lived in Phibsborough and we met in the middle on weekends. Dublin gave us the space to grow, both as individuals, and together. It was an idyllic period.
However in many ways idealism is the varnish of time. Dublin also broke my heart, and after seven years there I felt suffocated again. You see, Dublin never really loved me back, it was a toxic relationship where she took everything, leaving me constantly struggling to maintain the relationship.
I'm proud of where I'm from and of what we've achieved as a small, young, state (despite our many mistakes). But the odds really are stacked against young people in Ireland
I wanted to pursue my PhD, but with low numbers of PhD scholarships available in Ireland (which often have unpaid teaching duties attached), the wage wouldn’t have been liveable. For Nina, tuition fees and the cost of living in Dublin meant staying to do a Master’s wasn’t an option for her either.
So we decided to leave and I arrived in Berlin in August 2020. I'd never been here before, I knew nobody. Nina's cousins lived on the opposite side of Germany, it was the middle of a global pandemic and I didn't speak German. How do you make friends, find somewhere to live, navigate your way around, and settle into a new pace of life in the middle of Covid?
It took time, we moved three times in the space of a year, and while rent is more affordable here, finding a flat was hard. Ultimately it was the right choice for us though. Eating out is cheap, there’s a good universal healthcare system, transport is efficient and affordable and going to a wine bar with friends once a week won’t break the bank.
There’s a great vibe in the city, it’s relaxed and unpretentious. Germany in general feels less commercialised than Ireland, it is not all about profit maximisation. My current institution offered better working and living conditions than Ireland. Earning comparable money I have a better quality of life, and if I teach or participate in a research project, I’m paid well for my work.
Here, staff are routinely involved in the running of companies, and universities are no different. At my institution I sit on the Academic Senate - our parliament - getting a voice in how the university is governed and developing the working conditions for PhD researchers. It is a far call the situation in many Irish universities.
I don’t want to come across as the guy who went abroad and realised everything is wrong with home. I love Ireland, and I’m grateful for the opportunities provided to me. Everyone in Berlin knows me as “the Irish guy” and I’m proud of where I’m from and of what we’ve achieved as a small, young, state (despite our many mistakes). But the odds really are stacked against young people in Ireland; you’re constantly swimming against the tide.
Are there things I miss about home? Of course. My friends, the sea, the mountains, the lack of excessive bureaucracy, shops being open on Sunday, Lyon’s tea. Sure Berlin has lakes, but they can’t compare with the feeling of enjoying a Teddy’s on the East Pier during a warm summers evening.
Dublin’s streets are etched into the palms of my hands, but being in Berlin feels like being in a healthy relationship again; where my existence is respected, I have the space to breathe and I’m not struggling against moving tides.
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