My quest to live by the sea upended the family for years. But it was worth it
My husband came home to find a For Sale sign in our garden
Writer Geraldine de Brit on her street in Sutton, Dublin, with husband Donnacha McCarrick and children (from left) Denis (13), Grace (11), Jacqueline (17) and Ronan (14). Photograph: Dave Meehan
Ten years ago this year, in the early days of January 2008, my other half came home to find a For Sale sign planted in the front garden of our house. There had been no joint decision or agreement about this. It was a unilateral move on my part following five years of endless discussions and arguments on the pros and cons of moving but never getting anywhere. The problem was I wanted to move but my husband, Donnacha, did not. He understood my reasons but he wanted to wait a few more years until finances had improved. Like devolved talks in Stormont, the issue had become so fraught it was impossible to approach the matter without it dissolving into accusations and finger-pointing. It was easier just to kick the whole thing to touch and talk about something else, which was pretty much what we did once the sign went up. What more was there to say?
It was a prolonged break over Christmas 2007 in the beautiful winter landscape of Rosslare Strand, Co Wexford, that had finally pushed my resolve to make changes in the new year. We had rented a little cottage in Rosslare Strand and after 10 days of country walks and quiet starry nights, I could barely face returning to the busy, busy, noisy thoroughfare in Glasnevin, Dublin 11, where we lived. It was supposed to be our ever-after home, but we had naively overlooked things like traffic, noise and distance to schools.
On our first night, I knew we had made a mistake. The endless traffic, even at night, buses causing the windows in the hall to rattle every time they pulled up, traffic lights, street lights, trucks, cars and more cars and the biggest oversight of all – a long and heavily used lane that ran the full length of our property into a housing estate behind. It quickly became the bane of my life – from the constant flow of people up and down the side of our house to the anti-social behaviour that went on at night. At one stage, someone even moved a couch into the dog leg in the middle where it couldn’t be seen from the road. But we had a ringside view from a back bedroom. I cursed our stupidity and went on picking the beer cans out of our garden, vowing to get out as soon as I could.
I felt a pull back to what I knew, to my own roots which were once planted on the sandy soil of Sutton at the foot of the heather and gorse-covered rocky hill of Howth
Donnacha just shrugged his shoulders and said we’d get used to it, or, more accurately, that I’d get used to it. He wasn’t that bothered. We could petition to have the lane closed, he said. But it was different for him. This was his stomping ground. He had grown up just down the road and he had family living all around so he was willing to overlook problems. And herein lay the other problem. Apart from the ones I created myself, I had no family either in Glasnevin or anywhere else. There was no balance. Robbed of my mother and brother 30 years previously in a car crash when I was six, all that remained of that family was my father. In many ways, the accident robbed me of him too as he remarried soon afterwards in a bid for a fresh start – which in reality didn’t include me, so by the time I was 19 I was far away from home and completely alone in the world.
Because of this imbalance, I started to feel a strong urge to bring more of my own background into my children’s lives, especially as they came of school-going age. I felt a pull back to what I knew, to my own roots which once upon a time were planted on the sandy soil of Sutton at the foot of the heather and gorse-covered rocky hill of Howth. The big skies and quiet Wexford countryside had reminded me of it so much. I felt a longing for a re-connection to that place that I hadn’t felt so acutely before.
Donnacha, meanwhile, came out in a rash at the mere mention of Sutton. Even if we could afford it, he told me what I was looking for didn’t exist anymore. A 1970s’ childhood idyll in a world where mothers were at home all day and children played on the road until their fathers pulled back into the driveways that evening, just in time for dinner at 6. Could I just get my head out of the clouds and come back to reality? I couldn’t but I also couldn’t disagree. Maybe I was just chasing ghosts. I didn’t know what it would be like to move back there after all these years. Maybe it wouldn’t be what I remembered. Maybe it would be just a place full of strangers. Here in Glasnevin there were aunts and uncles and cousins. The only place I had to visit in Sutton was a graveyard. Even still, the big skies and hill and sea soothed my soul and I would return full of resolve that somehow I had to find a way.
This was 2008. In economic terms, the music had well and truly stopped and anyone who was busy with property transactions was left standing wherever they happened to be, doomed to stay stuck there for quite a while. For all of 2008, nothing happened. We barely had any viewings. By early January 2009, I was getting desperate. Another year gone by, another child starting in a school I knew we would be leaving, making friendships I knew were going to be severed. Everyone told me this was not a good time to sell but I was not deterred. By February, I decided to change agents but then out of the blue a potential buyer emerged. Returned immigrant, a cash buyer I was told. A price was agreed, way short of where we had started but I was what the agents call a ‘motivated seller’. I wanted out.
In April 2009, the closing date was approaching and I had pinned all my hopes on a small terraced house in Howth (Howth had a better range of prices; Sutton was still out of sight). Donnacha was not happy because he hated small and pokey houses. He wanted space and a big garden which was what had attracted him to our home in Glasnevin in the first place. But he needn’t have worried. Mortgage lending in 2009 was only of the hen’s teeth variety, non-existent. Thus the promised loan amount didn’t materialise and we had to pull out.
When we sat amongst boxes, furniture and our children’s memories crammed into every square inch of space, my brain slowly began to catch up with what I had done
Now the wheels were seriously starting to come off. Our own sale was too far progressed to be reversed and with four children and one stunned husband in tow, I had to find somewhere to rent fast (this was my gig entirely). I did, but not to the rural idyll I had imagined but instead only as far as an estate literally across the road from where we lived. By the end of that terrible move, when we sat amongst boxes, furniture and our children’s memories crammed into every square inch of space (some even left outside in the front because there wasn’t enough room inside), my brain slowly began to catch up with what I had done. I had sold our house at a rock-bottom price at a time when all rules regarding property and lending had gone out the window. We were both approaching 40 and had other loans, which like everything else were now tanking and for what? Chasing some lost childhood dream?
“I doubt we’ll ever get another mortgage,” Donnacha commented dryly as I attempted to cobble together edible dinners in the awful cramped kitchen of our new home while wanting to throw up at the sight of food myself, such were my levels of stress and anxiety from my failed housing gamble. It was the start of what I call the ‘wilderness years’, where I lost nearly two stone in one month, existed mainly on yoghurts and wine and just about functioned as a mother. My only respite was a daily fix of a three- to four-hour ramble on the soothing pages of myhome.ie – my happy place – and talking to estate agents, my friends.
Nothing had really changed in terms of what we could afford and after one year of searching and with my confidence shot, we ended up renewing the lease on our rental for another 12 months. I had all but resigned myself to the fact that this was where we would be staying. We started actively looking at houses that came up for sale in the estate. This wasn’t a bad outcome. The children were happy, they liked the freedom of the estate. Donnacha was happy as he was staying in the same neighbourhood. I was nearly happy. And yet . . . I just couldn’t let go of the reason I had started this whole thing in the first place.
Like an addict (and maybe I was), I continued talking to estate agents and checking myhome.ie. I knew that once we committed to another house that was it. There would be no more moves, not until the children were grown anyway. We couldn’t afford another mistake. If we bought here I could put all dreams of big skies and rocky hills out of my head forever. There was more to it than that, I knew, but I couldn’t articulate what it was and Donnacha was out of patience with my ‘notions’.
And then something happened. An agent rang me (they were always ringing me). There was a house, not on the market, in Sutton, detached, four bed, loads of space. In need of renovation, of course, but the owner was anxious to sell to a family and he may negotiate on price. We had already sold hadn’t we? Yes.
Were we mortgage-approved?
I couldn’t believe it. A detached house in Sutton for not much more than we would have paid for a holiday home in Wexford in 2006 when we had toyed with that idea as a way out of our Stormont impasse. And even more amazing, the ‘rock bottom’ price we had accepted for our Glasnevin home in 2009 turned out to be not so shabby in 2011. Who could have predicted that? Not me for sure.
I went to look at it alone first. Undercover. I was disappointed initially because even at a bargain price, this house needed a lot of work. But the space, the light, the big sky.
No sooner was our offer accepted, than fear descended. I was convinced this was a mistake and I honestly didn’t feel I deserved to get my prize
We went sale-agreed in June 2011 having just about, by the skin of our 40-something teeth, persuaded PTSB to give us one more mortgage, for which privilege we were awarded an eye-watering variable interest rate of 4.75 per cent.
No sooner was our offer accepted, than fear descended. I was convinced this was a mistake and I honestly didn’t feel I deserved to get my prize. Who was I to dare to try and get what I want? It was so much easier to stay in the safety of what I knew, surrounded by disappointments and what might have beens. I began to believe all the negative advice I had ever heard about my proposed move.
You can never really go home. The Sutton you remember is gone. It’s not about you anymore. Why are you being so selfish?
Raw fear kept me from signing the contracts. Donnacha didn’t care anymore, he just wanted a decision to be made. Our solicitor eventually persuaded us to sign the documents with the promise that nothing was written in stone until the other party had signed.
I sighed with relief. I had time to pull out, or, as our solicitor had warned, the vendor may pull out as we weren’t making it easy. Great, I secretly thought. If he pulls out, I can get back to my comfort zone of checking myhome.ie.
Every day I was pulling out. Every day a pep talk from our solicitor kept me in.
I rang everyone I thought could give me advice on what I should do – friends, old neighbours from Sutton, a girl from school I hadn’t talked to in 20 years, Barnardos Help Line for Bereaved Children, my father.
One morning our solicitor rang. The vendor signed, he told me.
No going back
I went into a tailspin. Now there was no going back unless we wanted to forfeit our deposit. For the first time in my life, the sight of Sutton Cross filled me with dread. I had made a mistake, I knew it, another one, a colossal one. I had even managed to kill the thing I loved. What the hell was wrong with me?
Strangely, Donnacha was very calm, even upbeat. He liked the house, the space and the big shed. It’ll be okay, he told me. It was a decision at least. We could go from there.
And so we did. Again, it took a while for my brain to catch up with what had happened. But every morning (once my deranged look had subsided) and I saw the familiar shape of the hill to my left and the line of sparkling sea to my right and I reminded myself they were not going away, that they would be here every day, my heart gradually opened up and let in the enormity of what I had achieved. A succession of chances, timing and luck that I very nearly let flitter away because of fear. I could barely believe it.
How had fate smiled so much? And the pure joy of knowing that this was it forever. It was mine now. No one could take it away. I was back on the same footpaths and blustery shores where I first opened my eyes under a 1970s’ forever-blue Sutton sky and which I had held in my heart dormant for all those years, afraid to believe I could ever really go back. It was real and it was life-altering. No pretend happiness, no making the best of things, trying to be grateful. This was profound. Something deep within me was mended just by being here. And even before I realised the community I couldn’t see before, but which emerged now in the months ahead, was there all around me like one big protective blanket, I knew I was finally home.
My advice for New Year resolution makers: do the thing that is burning in your heart; don’t procrastinate; don’t not do things because of (youngish) children – they get over change quicker than you.