I would say to anyone thinking of returning to Ireland: look beyond Dublin
Colm Ryan left market-trading in the City of London to set up a wine bar in Kinsale
Colm Ryan outside his back-in-business winebar, Cru, in Kinsale, Co Cork
I left Dublin in the summer of 1990 after graduating from Trinity with a degree in economics. I was 22 years old, a fluent Irish speaker and very much in love with my city and country, but realistic about the opportunities it could offer me and resigned to moving abroad to find work and develop a career. That’s how it was back in those days.
As Ireland celebrated the triumphs of Big Jack’s soccer team in Italia 90, tens of thousands of its young people were leaving every year. The harsh reality was that Ireland could not provide for the children of its baby boomers.
Four of us, all close college friends, found a flat in a grim part of north London, jobs in the City of London and, to be honest, we just got on with it. The UK was in the grip of a nasty recession too, but London still offered opportunity. Although the atmosphere was tense in those days with the IRA mainland terror campaign in full swing, we all found the English to be welcoming and hospitable, if a little surprised sometimes that Irish people had brains and ability. We moved next door to a house rented by six English nurses working in London’s University College Hospital.
Trips home to Dublin were frequent back then. There was undoubtedly a pull towards coming home in the early years abroad, particularly as Ireland started to experience a surge in economic activity and growth. But for many of us working in corporate finance or trading, Dublin was still too small. London, New York or Asia was where the action was, and returning would have been a professional diaster.
There were marriages, house purchases, kids, career progression. Our original group dispersed over time although we were great at staying in touch. We had an annual poker night, golf trips abroad and curry nights in London whenever everyone was in town. I remember we would chat a lot about Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years. To be frank, we thought the country had lost its marbles.
For me, trips home to Dublin became far less frequent. I remember meeting a Dublin couple abroad in Spain before the crash and being appalled at how utterly obsessed they seemed to be with money and property. After 18 years living in the UK, I could never have seen myself returning to Ireland to live.
Newly divorced, emotionally raw and confused, fast approaching 50 and living mostly in London with kids busy with their own lives... I knew instantly that home was Cork
A couple of things happened around that time from 2007 to 2008. My mother, a Cork City woman living in Dublin, bought a little cottage in Schull after my father died, and one of my younger brothers settled in Kinsale and got married in the town. My own two kids were still pre-teens and we began holidaying regularly in Kinsale and West Cork. We all fell in love with Cork.
We lived just outside a small village in West Sussex, not far from the sea, although my business was in London so I spent much of my working week there. I had grown fond of the English countryside, but it is a very different part of the world to West Cork. The countryside in the south-east of England is very manicured and pristine. Villages are pretty. The National Trust manages much of the land. West Cork is rugged, wild, unspeakably beautiful, and largely unpopulated. Its people , whether native or from further afield, are warm and hospitable. We returned year after year in summer and winter.
Irish people are resourceful and resilient. It was very interesting coming home in the the post boom years and watching how people here dealt with the crisis and its aftermath. Forced emigration returned for another generation of Ireland’s youth. People had to dig deep, and it was a tough time for the country.
Just as Ireland started to emerge from the worst of its malaise, I found myself going through a personal crisis of sorts, newly divorced, emotionally raw and confused, fast approaching 50 and living mostly in London with kids off to university in Britain and busy with their own lives. I had always known I did not want to be trading professionally past the age of 50, and I also knew single life in London at that age had no appeal. West Sussex was my ex-wife’s domain and I needed to find my own space.
One day, during a period of intense naval gazing and self-indulgence, my brother Patrick just said to me “come home”, and I knew instantly that home was Cork. By late spring 2017 I was here.
Kinsale, where I had got to know many people through my brother and our regular trips, is a special place. There is a fabulous sense of community in the town, which is exactly what I was looking for after years in London. People look after each other here. They shop local and support local businesses. They raise money for good causes. It can get a little hectic in summer, but in winter the town shrinks in on itself and breathes in a more rhythmic fashion. You give up any semblance of anonymity in a small town and that can take some getting used to, but at times like Christmas or during our recent lockdown, which can be lonely and difficult for some people, that seems like a worthwhile trade.
I had planned to buy a property in the town and develop a boutique B&B but it didn’t quite work out as planned. I opened a small restaurant and winebar, CRU, in 2018, which involves way more hours and workload than I had anticipated, but has anchored me in the town and afforded me the chance to meet so many great people.
I have had ups and downs of course. But when I’m feeling a bit low I take myself off for a walk or run, or head out on my kayak when it’s calm.
One of the most fantastic aspects of living in this part of the world is the low population density. You can drive five minutes out of town and be by yourself with amazing views and wildlife to watch. You cannot escape people that easily in the southeast of England.
I was thankful to go through the lockdown experience here in Kinsale. It seemed to bring out the best in our community
I would say to anyone thinking of returning to Ireland to look beyond Dublin, at the opportunities in other parts of the country. This is not meant to be an anti-Dublin message. I just think it’s potentially easier to find better quality of life outside of the more densely populated parts of the country.
Be patient with Ireland when you return after a long time spent living abroad. You should expect it to have changed and evolved, just as you will have also. Rid yourself of any pre-conceived notions based on your previous experience of living here and treat it as a new chapter of your life in a new country.
There will be frustrations. It’s an expensive country in many ways. Professional services, medicines, insurance, utilities, cars are all more costly here. Buying property is a mind-numbingly painful and laborious experience compared to Britain. Running a business involves dealing with a lot of bureaucracy and a quite invasive Revenue.
But there are significant upsides too. Ireland has a lot of beautiful countryside and coast that is largely empty. We have a great education system far better resourced than in Britain or the US. We have fantastic broadcast and print journalism, vibrant arts and culture and a great sporting tradition. Above all else we are a very safe, family and community-orientated nation and we seem to understand our place in the world a lot better than our nearest neighbour.
Coming home has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and if either of my adult children ever decided to settle here I would be a very proud and delighted parent.
Lockdown in Kinsale has been very positive. I was relieved I was not in London on my own. As a restaurant owner there was the additional worry about the future of the business. We always take a break in the winter months and come back before St Patrick’s Day, so we had an extended layoff and had to deal with all of the uncertainty that Covid-19 has brought to everyone in the hospitality business.
We had all worked so hard to establish ourselves in the first two seasons. I had a lot of optimism for 2020 before the virus, but there were dark days when I worried about whether we could survive. We cooked 35 meals every Thursday for eight weeks for elderly locals cocooning in the town. That gave us some focus and the chance to keep the kitchen ticking over. The spirit in Kinsale during the lockdown has been inspiring. So many businesses and individuals have helped the community.
We re-opened in mid-June doing takeaway and the sit-down service restarted in early July. We’ve been so busy. The support from locals has been incredible and it’s been quite emotional for me really. Town has a very different vibe this season as it’s full of staycationers, but that’s lovely and everyone seems very eager to eat out after four months cooking at home. We’re starting to feel more positive about the year now.