Many Irish living away from the island will be familiar with The Pang. It’s that little tug on your heartstrings as you miss the latest birthday, wedding or new baby; the welling in your tear ducts at the opening bars of Fairytale of New York, far from loved ones at Christmas; the sadness that briefly washes over you as you board the bus, boat or plane back to your new life.
For many, the pang is no more than a fleeting nostalgia. For others though, the pull of home becomes something more powerful: a visceral yearning. And perhaps this year it’s more acutely felt, when access to family, nature and community have become all the more precious.
More people than ever are poring over Irish property websites. Estate agents have noted a significant spike in interest from returning Irish seeking homes outside Dublin, and the Central Statistics Office reports that returning Irish nationals are at their highest level since 2007.
But how do you convert a sneaky browse of the property pages, or a misty-eyed daydream, into a full-blown, real-life move? And – paperwork, new bank accounts and PPS numbers aside – what steps can you take to make it as stress-free as possible? These returned emigrants have made the move and learned a thing or two along the way.
Technology as friend
Visiting a new area or a property in person is of course the best option, but if current travel restrictions are preventing you from doing that, friends and family back home can assist in conducting early recces and viewings. They can send WhatsApp photos and FaceTime you from inside the prospective home or rental accommodation.
You can also go full-on Miss Marple, using Google Earth and Google Street Maps to get a sense of the surrounding area, and search online for local news stories or planning permission applications you should know about.
Derry singer-songwriter Keith Harkin was living in Los Angeles when he spotted an almost 200-year-old dry-stone barn for sale on beautiful Inch Island in Co Donegal five years ago. With a hectic touring schedule that prevented him and his now-wife Kelsey from making the trip over to view it, the pair drafted in reinforcements.
“My dad was sending blurry photos and videos of it from his £10 phone,” says Harkin. “We fell in love with the place. It took us a year to buy it, and the first day we set foot in the house was the day we got the keys.” One year on, Keith and US-born fashion designer Kelsey married at Glack House, and relocated there in spring 2019, just before the birth of their son, Weylyn.
Town vs country
If you’ve spent lockdown in a cramped apartment or a built-up city, you may well be craving the great outdoors and a major life shake-up, whether that’s returning to the Irish countryside you grew up in, or more randomly dreaming of somewhere – anywhere – liveable, affordable and beyond city limits.
But according to Cheap Irish Houses (cheapirishhouses.com) founder Maggie Molloy, who discovers empty, bargain gems throughout Ireland, the countryside should be approached with caution.
"Don't be under any illusions. Quietness is the biggest pro and the biggest con of living in the countryside. If you're okay spending time in your own head, you'll love it. But if you're not you'll need a game plan going into your new life," says Molloy, who purchased her disused Tipperary farmhouse in 2004 for €80,000.
“Outbuildings can be useful if you want to try different hobbies they give you the space to do it. You should have a big enough garden to potter in, a shed for lawnmowers. You need to live a country life in that house, and to make it somewhere that you’ll grow into.”
Outside the box
Quotes from removals companies can be high. If you’re willing to take the risk, and don’t have precious artworks or antiques that need to be expertly transported, consider shopping around for other options.
When I made my own move, from central London back to my hometown of Derry, we found a man with a (very large) van to move all our belongings, saving thousands. Instead we spent money on professional packers – a godsend with a toddler and baby to contend with – who swiftly and methodically boxed up the contents of our two-bedroom flat in a matter of hours, and made unpacking at the other end much easier.
Harkin laughs now, as he recalls his homecoming to the northwest with Kelsey, then 7½ months pregnant. “My mum and dad flew over and we all flew back together with 15 huge cardboard boxes, guitars included, at the airport. It took them 40 minutes to weigh everything and sort our tickets at the desk.”
Returning to Ireland to transform a doer upper or vaguely ramshackle property isn’t without its stresses. But if you’re willing to sacrifice luxury finishes, it could be a cheaper-than-you-think way of securing a home here. And if you’ve profited from selling in a more expensive property market elsewhere, it could even leave you mortgage-free.
“People will say, ‘You couldn’t live in that, it might be €30,000 to buy but it would cost you €200,000 to do it up’. And it probably would, if you wanted marble countertops and four en suites,” says Maggie, who specialises in finding cheap hidden gems in the Irish countryside.
“If you actually just wanted to restore it and get it to a stage where it has quite a comfortable energy rating but it isn’t a monstrosity of a McMansion, then you can of course do it up for €50,000 or €60,000 max.”
The Harkins, meanwhile, have spent years working on Glack House, installing new roofing, refurbishing the old barns, and making two custom accommodation cabins and a residential recording studio from scratch. “It was all worth it, but many days I was questioning my judgment,” Keith admits.
This year, just as the pair planned to finally open their home and studio to the public for weddings and events, the pandemic struck. During a painful few months, “looking around and seeing what you’ve built up, lying empty,” Keith took on a new renovation project: converting his old touring van into a “family wagon”.
In October, the trio set off for Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile friends here are looking after Glack House until they return, and begin to finally plan their opening. http://glackhouse.com/ and https://thebarnstudiosireland.com/
One silver lining of 2020 is managers are likely to be more receptive to flexible working requests – from remote working, to commuting every second week or even monthly. Self-employed relocators might even find demand for their services increase after moving somewhere smaller, where word of mouth and networking is much easier. It will take a while to get established though, so you will need to factor this into your finances.
Irish knitwear designer Michelle McCarroll Neale studied at London's Royal College of Art and was back visiting her family in Donegal when she heard that another designer, Liam Grier, had just opened a boutique in the village of Ramelton. "I decided to drop in and introduce myself and the next thing I knew he was giving me a rail in the shop to sell my clothing," she recalls. "The rest is history. I sold my whole graduate collection that summer."
McCarroll Neale lives in Ramelton and produces her designs in nearby Letterkenny, and insists she has no regrets about swapping one of the most bustling fashion capitals of the world for somewhere far quieter (Ramelton's population was just over 1,200 in the last census). https://mi-chelle.ie/
“There are great advantages to running a fashion business in a smaller town. It’s much easier to get noticed, and word of mouth is the greatest advertising tool you could have,” she says.
“My advice is to use your individuality to your advantage. People always want something unique no matter where they live. Why can’t you have bespoke knitwear in a rural community? And with internet and social media, you have the rest of the world at the palm of your hand.”
Planning a move back with children poses a dilemma – returning may enhance quality of life, but it also uproots children from loved ones, schools and friends. Involving them in every step of the move helps them to feel invested – whether it’s shopping for items for a new bedroom, or ensuring they maintain links with the relatives or friends they’ve had to leave behind.
When Jess Dornan Lynas moved back to Co Down from Cornwall, she and her husband turned the journey into an adventure for her two small children. "We had a 1989 Volkswagen Camper Van and we took our time with the journey, showing them on a map where we were going and staying in hotels along the way," says Dornan Lynas, an interior decorator with Considered Spaces, and Instagram style blogger at The Style Balance. (https://consideredspaces.co.uk and instagram.com/thestylebalance)
“There were a lot of carrots on sticks. We explained to them that they’d be seeing grandparents more, and I was able to meet up with old friends, so our children made friends too.”
For Dornan Lynas, who has previously lived in Dublin, South Africa, Germany and London, it helped that her children (then both under four) were still so young leaving Cornwall. "Any older than that and I would struggle to move them," she says.
Find your tribe
The thought of having to forge new friendships well into adulthood might induce a cold sweat, but it can be a very positive experience.
“You have a clearer idea of who you are as an adult. I’m still very friendly with the people I was close to when I was young, but I’ve also made some great new friends. Interestingly most of my new friends are not from here, or have lived away and come back – we’re a sort of reverse ex-pat community.”
For Molloy, moving to rural Tipperary meant she broadened her friendship horizons. “When I moved in here first, within a week everybody in my lane had made the effort to come over and introduce themselves and see if I needed anything,” she says.
“It’s difficult to make friends your own age, because there just aren’t that many of them. The friends you’ll have in the countryside can be so much more varied. It’s lovely, because you have a community you can call on if something happens.”
The Harkins of Inch Island are making new connections too. “It takes time anywhere, and it’s the same in Ireland,” says Keith. “It was a big change for Kelsey, but she loves the people here. She’s even in a WhatsApp group now called Derry Ma’s.”
Give it time
Settling into a new location takes time, even if it’s where you grew up. There is a muscle memory there, but you will still need to readjust to the pace of life, the loss of anonymity, and the changes that have occurred since you left.
For Dornan Lynas – whose brother, The Fall actor Jamie Dornan, and sister both live in England – moving home had some disappointments. A teenager at the time of the Belfast Agreement, she’d hoped for greater political progress to have been made when she returned (citing the “stagnant Stormont” of recent years as an example).
“I have a very strong sense of my Irishness and my tie to this island. I’m a never-say-never person. I wouldn’t say I’ll never leave again, but it’s a wonderful place to raise children.”
A jog through her local Crawfordsburn Country Park brought the mother-of-two's decision to move home into sharp focus.
“It’s a forest country park, leading down to the sea, with valleys and a waterfall. It’s stunning. The beauty of this country is staggering, and as I ran I thought: ‘Yes. I can do this.’”
Jeananne Craig is a Derry-based journalist and host of All Change Please, a podcast for people leaving a big city behind for somewhere new.