Welcome to ‘Paddyville’: Is Torremolinos the most Irish spot in southern Europe?
The view from the Irish pub: A new summer series begins with a trip to Spain, where Costa living has lured Irish people in search of a new start
Dubliner Tara Tallon outside her Irish bar Pat Murphy’s in Torremolinos, where she has lived for the last 16 years. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
There are plenty of places along Spain’s Costa del Sol that are magnets for Irish tourists and expats. But the few blocks of pubs, bars, businesses and apartments that make up the Montemar neighbourhood of Torremolinos could confidently stake a claim to be the most Irish spot in southern Europe.
There are seven Irish-run pubs and bars here, all within a stone’s throw of each other, giving the area the nickname “Paddyville”. Among them is Pat Murphy’s, a sports bar run by Dubliners Tara and John Tallon for the last 16 years.
“Anywhere you go in the world there’s Irish bars, but probably 95 per cent of them aren’t actually Irish,” says Tara (49) sitting at a table inside the bar. “But here in Montemar they are Irish.”
She adds: “There’s such a huge influx of Irish people here you feel like you’re at home. I’m proud to be Irish, I’ll never change that.”
Behind her on the wall is a poster showing leaders of the Easter Rising next to a photograph of Dublin’s GAA players jubilantly lifting a trophy. Nearby, a certificate awarded by Irish Pubs Global declares Tara Tallon the “Best Bar Person in Europe” in 2017.
Spain receives about two million Irish visits each year and the country is also home to more Irish-born people than anywhere else in Europe, outside Britain and Ireland itself. Many Irish have come to this part of Spain for their holidays for years, knowing that they will see familiar faces among both the staff working in the local bars and restaurants, but also among fellow holidaymakers.
Tara points out that a nearby hotel is known as “the Irish Embassy” because it is host to so many of her compatriots.
“Once you come over here and once you’re willing to work hard you can make a good life for yourself,” she says. “When I was in Ireland I only worked to survive . . . I love Ireland, I’m very proud to be Irish, but Spain is home.”
That lack of regret at making the move is a sentiment that you often hear from Irish who live here. In the Tallons’ case, John was unsettled by the deregulation of the taxi industry he worked in back in Dublin while Tara was not enjoying work as a catering supervisor.
“My husband used to come here for lads’ weekends, so he knew the area, I didn’t,” Tara says. “And one day he said: ‘Let’s move to Spain’. I said okay. And that was it.”
Spain has many advantages for them: a laid-back way of life, a robust healthcare system and, of course, good weather. For some, the climate alone is what makes living here worthwhile.
“When I lived in Ireland I used to suffer from depression,” says Jeanne Ryan, known by friends here as “Molly”, who is a customer at Pat Murphy’s and a local resident. “Here you get up in the morning and it’s blue skies – they’re not grey like Ireland. We all have a bad day every so often, but now [I take] no medication, I love life here.”
Jeanne, from Co Wicklow, came to the Costa del Sol in 2000 with her chef husband. Together, they ran a restaurant in nearby Carihuela, but she says the routine did not suit his fondness for a drink.
“When we were in Ireland he worked in the daytime and drank at night,” she says. “When we came here it reversed: he drank in the day and tried to work at night.”
Jeanne eventually separated from her husband, who has since passed away. Now 56, she runs McGuiness’s, an Irish bar nearby.
“I love being single here,” she says. “Here, I can go for a drink in the local bars, but if you’re in Ireland they’ll say: ‘What’s she doing in here on her own, then?’ It’s a totally different life. Here I do my own thing. I’m not after anybody’s husband, I’m just a workaholic. I love my work.”
Like many of the Irish and British nationals who live on the Spanish coast, Jeanne speaks limited Spanish, because her colleagues and neighbours tend to be English-speaking (the majority of customers in Pat Murphy’s are Irish). This makes life on the Costa unlike that in Madrid, Barcelona or many other places in Spain where foreigners put down roots.
“Am I living in Spain?” Jeanne wonders aloud. “No, I’m living in the sunshine.”
Having embraced life on the Costa del Sol for the last two decades, she does not relish going back home and only does so to visit family. She also feels detached from Irish and Spanish politics – “I don’t watch the news out here, it’s all bad news so why get depressed about it?” she says.
Nonetheless, her opinion of the Taoiseach is mainly positive and she feels Leo Varadkar reflects how Ireland has changed since she was living there.
“I just think brilliant: a gay man in Ireland,” she says. “I’ve a nephew who’s gay – they’re brilliant, the same as any of us. That stigma of years ago has gone.”
Customers in Pat Murphy’s tend not to discuss politics much. With football, rugby, golf and GAA broadcast live on the bar’s TV screens, sport is a more common talking point.
For Gemma Gribbon, a 40-year-old expat from Belfast, the absence of politics from life on the Costa is welcome, especially with two children, aged 12 and 10.
“I grew up in the '90s – when you meet people from Belfast the first thing you try to do is find out where they’re from, how can I take the conversation, what can we talk about,” she says. “It’s instilled in us.”
She adds: “Not having to bring my children up in the sectarianism of Northern Ireland, that’s a big thing. They don’t even know the difference between Catholics and Protestants. It’s never come up.”
Gemma moved out here 19 years ago, having completed a sports degree in Leeds. She started working for an Irish travel company before entering the golf industry where she is now a reservations manager. With a Spanish husband and fluency in the language she is more integrated into the culture of her host nation than most expats on the coast.
“My family life is very Spanish, so we have the siesta, the big lunch, late dinners, all of that,” she says.
And yet, Gemma, who has an Irish passport, says she still feels as attached to her roots as she did when she arrived.
“In a way I like to show my Irishness even more out here,” she says. “If there’s football matches on, I’ll put the shirt on and there’s a St Patrick’s Day parade in Arroyo de la Miel, which is a town near here, so I’ll get involved in that, bring the children along.”
Having bought into the Spanish way of life, she says her kids are a cultural mix (or “Spirish”, as Tara Tallon puts it). They watch RTÉ at home and support the Irish football team but speak to Gemma in Spanish.
She sees strong similarities between Ireland and Spain, particularly given the economic trauma both countries have experienced in recent years. Spain was one of the hardest-hit members of the European Union during the euro-zone crisis and some of its problems, such as a banking collapse that followed a property bubble, echoed those of Ireland.
She also sees another, happier, parallel.
“In a way, Spanish people are very similar to us, very family oriented,” she says. “But the sense of humour is totally different. I miss the craic.”
Describing herself as “quite liberal”, Gemma has a broadly favourable view of the Taoiseach and although she was not eligible to vote, she was pleased at the result of the referendum on abortion.
One political issue that does play on the minds of some Irish expats here is Brexit. Although the many British residents in Spain have much more at stake, given the uncertainty over their pensions and healthcare coverage, many Irish with business interests here are also concerned.
For Peter Couch, a 39-year-old barman from Ballymun who lives across the road from Pat Murphy’s, Brexit is more of a worry than for most Irish as his partner is from London. They met in Torremolinos and have a son.
The pace of life and cost of living here have convinced him that moving to Spain in 2013 was the right decision.
“I had no way of buying my own place [in Ireland]. I was a single guy, I had some savings but barely enough to even get a one-bedroom apartment – and to be tied to that for the next 40 years, that’s just an avenue I didn’t want to go down,” he says.
“For what I pay [in rent now] you wouldn’t get a dog box back home.”
When he does go back to visit family, Peter is impressed by the development and regeneration he sees in Dublin. But he also finds the pace of life there overwhelming.
“In Dublin the Halloween decorations come down one day and the next day the Christmas decorations go up and it’s in your face everywhere you go. But I like it here; the consumerism hasn’t grasped them so much.”
Although bar work can be exhausting, Peter points out that his job is made easier by the fact that Irish holidaymakers usually behave.
“Irish people in general will police themselves,” he says. “You know if there’s a group of lads and there’s one arsehole, his mates will tell him he’s being an arsehole. I’ve been here five years and haven’t had much trouble at all.”
Memories of rainy days back home also remind Peter that this is the right place for him. “Summer in Dublin is the best day of the year,” he laughs.
But as well as offering him sunshine and financial stability, Torremolinos has given Peter an injection of creativity. A keen artist, inspired by abstract masters like Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró, he has been inspired by the Costa del Sol.
“People say Irish people are friendly, but you can go around all day at home without speaking to somebody, if you’re walking around town,” he says. “But here you can sit down and someone will start talking to you.”
He adds: “I’ve got a lot more colour in my paintings since I moved here. I’ve got a lot more colour in my life here.”