'I went to Belgium for six months; 24 years later, I’m still here'

Q&A: Sinead Tiernan from Co Mayo on working for the European trade union movement in Brussels

Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Sinead Tiernan from Castlebar, Co Mayo on working for the European trade union movement in Brussels

When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?
I finished college in 1992 and had a couple of jobs - teaching for a year, which was interesting, but I realised wasn't for me, and working in Dublin Airport, which was a lot of fun especially in the busy summer months. It was slightly less fun in dreary January and February, so when an opportunity to do a traineeship in Brussels came my way, I packed my bags. In February 1994 I went to Belgium for six months; 24 years later, I'm still here.

Did you study in Ireland? Where?
I had an amazing three years in UCG where I studied economics and Italian, and then one further year in UCD where I completed a post-grad in Business Admin. I also did a two-year MBA programme in the VUB (Free University of Brussels) .

Tell us about your career there?
My career in Brussels began with a five-month traineeship in the European Commission, which was one of the best things I ever did. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in EU affairs to consider this. The various EU institutions run traineeship programmes every year, the duration depends on the institution but can be from one to five months at a time and are open to all EU member states.


The work and social experience is second to none and once I got here, I got sucked into the Brussels bubble and have yet to emerge.

I was very lucky to find a job easily after the traineeship and over the past 24 years I have worked in the field of EU employment and social affairs. For the past 20 years, I have worked for the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) where I have been an advisor on gender equality, social dialogue and migration and am also responsible for human resources within the organisation.

What does your day-to-day work involve? 
My day-to-day work is a mixture of policy and practical. Policy in the sense that the ETUC's role is to influence the EU decision-making process in areas which affect workers - this can be on anything from economic and employment policies to climate change, globalisation, digitalisation, pensions, rights etc.

In order to do this together with our members across Europe, we work closely with the EU institutions, MEPs as well as national governments.

The work is extremely interesting, often challenging and never boring. It requires a great deal of belief and passion in the EU project, particularly now with the challenges of Brexit and the rise of the extreme right across Europe. That is why I, with so many others, am driven to work for a better and fairer Europe, one that will provide the type of future I want for my three daughters.

Do the Irish fit in well there?
Like almost anywhere in the world, here in Brussels the Irish fit in, are well known and generally very well liked, both socially and professionally.

There is a great Irish community here, active in a huge range of areas. We have a strong GAA club in Brussels, a very active Seachtain na Gaeilge committee, a lively and dynamic English-speaking church - St Anthony’s, run by two Irish Franciscans, an Irish dancing school and a strong social network across the city.

Just last month a group of Irish-based residents organised the first Brussels Darkness into Light event, which saw more than 600 of us walk through the Cinquantenaire Park (the main park in the heart of the EU district) at 4 am on a Saturday morning. It will now become another annual event on the Irish - Brussels calendar.

The work requires a great deal of belief and passion in the EU project, particularly now with the challenges of Brexit and the rise of the extreme right across Europe

The Irish are also very well represented here in EU institutions, the EU lobby and consultancy world and of course in the many Irish pubs dotted across Brussels.

What is it like living in Brussels?
Brussels is a very easy place to live. By its nature, it's a very transient place, with people constantly coming and going. In the early years, it was difficult to say goodbye to friends, but the longer I have been here, the less that is happening as I have a big circle of 'lifers'' - people like myself who are here for the long haul.

I met my husband here - an Irishman, well, a Kerryman to be precise. As a Mayo woman, you can imagine how heated things get in our house around All-Irelands.

We have three gorgeous girls, all of whom have a Mayo jersey and only one of whom opted to also have a Kerry one. Result!

As an expat, friends take on an extra dimension as most of us don’t have families living close by. Close friends tend to fill those gaps and we pull together in times of need. We are extremely lucky to have the friends we have, but also lucky that we are only a short flight away from Ireland, so we do get to see family and friends at home regularly too.

I would cite Belgian healthcare as being particularly good with a relatively quick access so specialists. My last pregnancy was particularly difficult with a number of very serious complications. The medical care we received here was second to none and the fact that one of my twins survived and is today in perfect health despite all the odds, is solely due to the expertise and care we experienced in Belgium.

The recent repeal vote in Ireland and particularly the “In her shoes” stories, which were heart-breaking, searingly raw and honest and gripped me with their deep unspoken pain and sorrow. They moved me beyond words.

Some of them hit hard and were very close to my heart. During the last pregnancy, we were faced with some dreadfully difficult choices (my twin girls had TTTS - twin to twin transfusion syndrome - which was potentially fatal, particularly because it happened early in the pregnancy).

We were asked to choose between doing nothing and letting both girls die, choosing to save one and terminating the other, or opting for a very risky surgery. We chose the third option, but when my husband asked if my life would be in danger during the op, and was told that it was a possibility, he was also told by the medical team that should that happen, they would terminate both pregnancies to save me. The decision was made for us.

I was so scared that I wasn’t capable of thinking straight at that moment, but my husband felt a huge sense of relief that in the very worst instance, he would not lose me as well as the babies.

I can’t underline enough the importance of choice, respecting the woman (the couple's) right to choose what is best for their particular situation.

Having been out of Ireland for so many years meant that we were not able to physically vote, but our sense of relief that the right decision has been made is enormous. A termination is never something that is entered into lightly but giving women the right to chose is a basic right and one that I am happy my three daughters are now guaranteed.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?
When I left Ireland in the early 1990s, we had very high levels of youth unemployment, and the country was in a state of depression.

As an Anglophone in Brussels, I found it easy to get very interesting and stable jobs and felt as if I had landed on my feet. I love working in a multicultural and multilingual environment; it has become second nature to me. I probably have a better understanding and perhaps a greater tolerance for differences - difference in culture, in opinion and in language - than had I remained in Ireland.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?
Go for it. Open yourself up to the possibilities. Be prepared to not understand, to get frustrated with small (and big) things that make no sense, to deal with mountains of bureaucracy that seems absurd. But stick it out and it could be the best thing you do.

Are there any other Irish people in your business/social circles?
There are lots of Irish people in my professional and particularly my social circles which is great. Sometimes you just don't want to have to explain a joke or a reference, which despite the best will in the world often gets lost in translation. When a fellow Irish person gets your humour straight off, it's easy.

What is it like living there in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on? What are the costs like?
Housing costs are far more accessible than they are in Ireland, even though they have increased somewhat in recent years. Public transport is great. I am a daily user of the metro and nine times of out 10 it runs without fault. Healthcare, as I mentioned, s great. However, taxes here are very high. I guess they have to fund their public services from somewhere.

Where do you see your future?
I think after 20 plus years in Brussels, I can safely say that I am settled (although my husband would disagree and regularly taunts me about moving to Ballyferriter). Our three daughters are happily established in school here and until that changes and they either pursue third-level education and /or jobs elsewhere, I don't see us moving anytime soon.

That said, we go back home at least three times a year and regularly have family here to visit, so the links and connections remain very strong. We feel it’s particularly important that our daughters spend as much time as they can with their cousins, grandparents etc and that they feel as Irish as possible.

We’ve instilled in them a love of Ireland and the GAA (which resulted in four trips to Croke Park last summer - and Mayo still didn’t win!!!).

Given that their dad speaks to them in Irish (even though half the time they pretend not to understand him) and that we are Irish through and through, we hope they wont ever experience an identity crisis.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I miss the natural warmth and easy understanding of Irish people as well as our sense of humour. It can take a while to get to know certain nationalities and I think maybe that's why so many of the Irish living abroad tend to seek each other out. There is a sense of knowing and belonging that happens automatically.

Oh and I desperately miss my mum’s scones with a cup of Lyons tea. That’s why I put on at least half a stone every time I go back home.