‘When I came to America, I wasn’t aware of how systemic racism is’
Wild Geese: Fionnuala O’Sullivan
Fionnuala O’Sullivan: ‘Seattle is an absolutely beautiful city’
Wild Geese: Fionnuala O’Sullivan
It still surprises Fionnuala O’Sullivan that she lives in America.
“I am stunned to be living here and have American children,” she says. Born in Zambia to an Irish father and English mother with the family ultimately settling in Kildare, her career has had some surprises too.
After a two-year food science course at Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin, O’Sullivan wasn’t convinced she was on the right path. “I did work experience in the State abattoir and in a pizza factory and I just thought, why did I do this?”
A college summer spent backpacking in the south of France, where she met an American man, proved pivotal. Alongside some success following a passion for design to create a clothing line, there were regular trips to the US to see him. “Eventually Immigration said to me, this is it, we are not going to give you another six month visa, you are going back and forth too much.” The couple tied the knot.
O’Sullivan’s husband is from upstate New York and, having been hired by aircraft company Boeing straight out of college, the couple put down roots in Seattle. O’Sullivan started out working in restaurants waiting tables, moving into restaurant and bar management later at Seattle airport.
When thinking about returning to work after her second child, her husband suggested she get a realtor licence. “I said no, I would never want to do that.”
But she qualified and, pregnant with her third child, a contact from her children’s preschool suggested she approach an independent boutique-style real estate company called GBK.
“They were four owners, all women who had raised their kids as well as run the business. I started working for them around 2000 and became a partner there in 2012.” O’Sullivan progressed to become the designated broker at the firm which merged with large national agency Compass in 2020. Compass went public on the New York stock exchange in April this year.
Buying and selling property works differently in the US. “The buyer has a broker and the seller has a broker and it’s really the brokers on either side who drive things along.”
Lawyers don’t play as big a role either. “In Seattle, we don’t do lawyers. Realtors are held to the same standard as a lawyer and we are confined to using legally approved documents.”
While in Ireland it can take months to complete a sale, things there are more streamlined. “I think, at home, it’s just really clunky,” says O’Sullivan. “Here we can close a transaction in 10 days if it’s a cash offer.
She says there is greater transparency too. “You can look up online how much I paid for my house and if I own anything else. There are so many public records here. There is a whole transparency that I think is really missing in Ireland.”
She describes the property market in Seattle as “extremely competitive”. The city is home to a large tech industry, with Microsoft and Amazon headquartered in its metropolitan area. “It was definitely a sellers’ market pre-Covid and I remember saying to my buyers [when Covid hit], this could be good for you, we might find a house other buyers may not want to buy, but that didn’t happen. Seattle just continued to grow in strength.”
The market has been particularly strong for single-family residences, less so for apartments.
“Properties are getting 30 to 50 offers. Things can go $200,000 or $300,000 over. This type of craziness. I have cash buyers who are willing to go $200,000 over and they still haven’t got something.”
Low stock levels and an influx of Californians for whom Seattle is less expensive have raised prices. “Seattle and Phoenix are the two markets that have grown the most this year. People want to live here. There are good jobs, it’s well paid and it’s a beautiful city.”
Meeting other Irish people in Seattle wasn’t initially a priority. “If I ran into them great. But when the girls were older, I thought I’d kind of like to meet more Irish people.” She now volunteers with the Irish Network Seattle which she says is “pretty network-y, but not in a super-network-y way”.
Her three daughters hold dual Irish-American citizenship, the middle one is studying at DCU. Washington State is offering vaccinations to those aged 16 and over and O’Sullivan is looking forward to her daughter returning and being vaccinated. Pre-pandemic, her parents visited regularly.
“I remember my mother saying, ‘Fionnuala, why didn’t you just go to Hawaii and be done with it, how far did you have to go?’ I also remember her saying ‘it’s going to break your heart living that far away from home’, and yes it did, but it is what it is, and Seattle has been very good to me.
“Seattle is an absolutely beautiful city. We live right by Lake Washington. Mount Rainier is huge, you think it’s a postcard.
“Seattle leans towards an outdoor lifestyle for sure and a lot of people like the remote aspect.”
She notes the problems in her adopted country too, including homelessness in Seattle. “All the businesses that pulled their workers out of downtown with everybody working remotely, you have seen a level of homelessness fill that void. People camping on streets and in parks, which is shocking to see.”
Seattle has shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement too, with thousands of protestors taking to the streets.
“When I first came to America, I wasn’t aware of how systemic racism is. It’s like the house foundation has cracked,” says O’Sullivan. Her experience of being Irish in America has been ‘only positive’. “My Mum is English and I would say her experience of Ireland (she came during the Troubles), that was not as positive an experience as an emigrant. But for me, being Irish has been a very positive thing and it’s part of my identity.”
“I’m white, I have European ancestry and I definitely recognise that they are all lucky things for me in this country.”