Isolation on the Wild Atlantic Way: ‘I stopped here for the day – and never left’

Jobs are scarce on Arranmore off the Donegal coast, but for one Polish man it’s the perfect place to live right now

Sebastian Sebo and his partner Malgorzata Stelmach

Sebastian Sebo and his partner Malgorzata Stelmach

 

Moving from the city to a rural location is a lifetime goal for many people. And while living at a slower pace of life may take some getting used to, relocating from a different country to a remote island is an even bigger step. Yet this is what Sebastian Sebo and his partner Malgorzata Stelmach have done.

Originally from Krakow in Poland, Sebastian moved to Ireland 16 years ago, and after spending a decade in Dublin, fell in love with the scenery, lifestyle and beauty of the tiny island of Arranmore off the coast of Donegal – so he decided to move lock, stock and barrel to this offshore idyll.

“During the 10 years I lived in Dublin I was in many different locations, both north and south of the city,” he says. “Firstly I lived in Clondalkin as my first job was as waiter in a local hotel. Then when my English got better, I was lucky to get a better job as an event manager in the theatre, which led to me setting up my own event agency, and for a few years I organised many gigs, festivals and cabarets in and around Dublin, mainly for fellow Polish people.

“I was constantly busy and, being in a city, I felt like I was surrounded by concrete blocks all the time, and didn’t have any chance to enjoy the beauty of life and nature.

“Like everyone who lives in a big urban place, I spent much of my time in traffic jams, queues and noisy places – far away from the beautiful scenery I was actually craving. So when I first visited Arranmore I knew this is where I wanted to stay.”

Seeking the peace and tranquillity of the countryside, Sebastian would regularly go on cycling trips around Ireland, and it was during one of these jaunts that he came across the island he would eventually call home.

“I believe that things happen for a reason, and this is why I am here – it was my destiny. I loved my job in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, and everyone there will always be in my heart. But with the housing crisis I was spending the biggest part of my salary on rent which was actually costing me €2,000 per month in the end.

“I couldn’t get a mortgage as I couldn’ t. I was trapped in a situation where for the rest of my life I would just be working for rent and food. It wasn’t a great situation.

Jump on my bike

“Every year I used to jump on my bike for a tour around Ireland to clear my head, and cycled around the country nearly three times. Then on my last spin I was doing the Wild Atlantic Way, and stopped in Arranmore for the day – and basically never left.”

Sebastian stayed in Arranmore Hostel, and after chatting to the owner he got offered a job. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“The hostel has the perfect location on the beach, with great access to the shop, post office and bars. I met the owner, Jerry, and we got on very well from the start. Then because of my previous experience, he offered me a job as a general manager, and I decided to stay.

“He and his family have become so important to me, and the life I am living now is so different to what it was like before. In the city you never know your neighbours, but here in Arranmore we all know and help each other, as every small community does. We are one big family.

“It is such a beautiful place – you can breathe here and fill your lungs with fresh air. The scenery is breathtaking, and when you take a walk around the island your problems get smaller immediately. People don’t need designer clothes or fancy cars as you are liked for who you are and not for what you have.”

Having had a troubled childhood, Sebastian, who has a 21-year-old daughter called Nikol, says the island may have less than 430 inhabitants, but he is happier here than he has been at any stage of his life.

Something new

“I moved to Ireland around 16 years ago when Poland joined the European Union as, like many Polish people, I wanted to experience something new in my life. I grew up in Krakow in a block of flats in a fairly rough area. There were two football teams, Wisla and Crocovia, whose fans clashed with each other all of the time. Then when I was a teenager, my two sisters and my parents moved to Silesia.

“I finished school in Sosnowiec when I was about 15, and left home to fend for myself. It was a very tough and difficult time as life with my family wasn’t easy, and I actually ended up spending time in care – but this is all behind me now and I couldn’t be happier.

The island of Arranmore
The island of Arranmore

“I knew from the moment I arrived here that this place would be life-changing for me and I would stay. Everyone made me feel welcome, and I knew Arranmore was what I needed in my life. At first, nobody took me seriously when I said I was moving here but here I am three years later.”

While Sebastian’s girlfriend, who he met on the mainland over a year ago and is originally from an island in the Baltic Sea, runs the local bistro (in the hostel), he takes care of the hostel, volunteers with the local lifeboat crew and runs the Discover Arranmore travel agency which he hopes will help more people to discover the beauty and magic of his new home.

“My head is full of ideas because there is huge potential here and in the whole of Donegal. I am enjoying the chance to show people this beautiful hidden gem, and there is nothing better than the smile on people’s faces when they see some of the secret places on the island for the first time.

“I have already brought a few hundred Polish people here, and they all absolutely loved it – including my sister and her son. This summer I will show Arranmore to the most important person in my life, my lovely daughter, and her partner, and I am really looking forward to seeing how they react to this magical place with the most beautiful scenery in the world.”

Biggest problem

While island life is indeed rosy for Sebastian, not everyone would find the transition so smooth as lack of employment is a real issue.

“In my opinion the biggest problem in places like Arranmore is the lack of job opportunity as the population is made up of mainly older people,” he says.

“When the fishing industry was going well the island was full of people, but since its licence has been taken away there aren’t many jobs available, so lots of young people have to go to the mainland for work.

“So my advice for anyone considering a move to a remote island would be to have a plan in place beforehand. Most of the time you will have to create your own employment as there are not many jobs which can be found on arrival, but if you are a creative person you will be fine as you will know how to organise something for yourself.

“Also, although I love storms and bad weather isn’t an issue for me, you must be prepared for a long winter.

“But having said that, I couldn’t recommend this place highly enough – everyone who visits is really envious and I can understand why as I genuinely can’t think of a better place to live.”

The isolation does not bother him,but Covid-19 does.

“Coronavirus is actually very frightening for Arranmore as more than 50 per cent of our population is over 60 years old. We are currently on lockdown, and advise tourists to not come to visit Arranmore because we are very worried about our residents.

“Obviously it’s very bad for tourism as we have had to cancel a huge number of bookings and parties – it’s going to be a tough summer but we are all united and in the same boat.”

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