British expats in Ireland: You can’t be a ‘stuck-up Brit’
West Cork is home to the greatest concentration of British people living in Ireland. What do they think of Ireland – and Brexit?
Fiona and John Connolly live near Skibbereen, West Cork for almost two years. “I feel more at home here than I ever felt in France. Cork is marvellous.” Photograph: Emma Jervis
Jenny Pyburn has lived in Schull for 46 years. “The biggest mistake English people make is not understanding the Irish ways.” Photograph: Emma Jervis
Dick Miles has been in and around Ballydehob for 26 years. “We English have to be on our best behaviour because of what we did here historically.” Photograph: Emma Jervis
One year in Ireland: John and Fiona Connolly, Skibbereen
John: The perception out there that the Irishman is a thick mick is so wrong it’s unbelievable. We’re from London. We were living in France for 19 years, near Toulouse. We sat down one evening and said we’d go back to the British Isles. I said almost jokingly, how about the Republic of Ireland, and then we discovered that house prices here were very attractive.
I’d been in Ireland before, but it was 45 years ago; shooting grouse and Greenland white-fronted geese in Mayo. You can’t shoot those geese any more.
We came for a week and arranged to see 15 houses in three days. The house we found near Skibbereen would have cost an equivalent of £750,000 of where we would have liked to live in Britain, in Cornwall or Devon, probably quite a lot more.
I feel more at home here than I ever felt in France. Cork is marvellous. I do get a bit impatient sometimes that things aren’t done a bit quicker. And the roads are absolutely appalling; full of potholes.
If we’d had a vote in Brexit, we would have voted to leave, so we’re very pleased at the result. We might have lived in France for 19 years, but we’re Brits. The Brits have never been comfortable with Europe. They have an attitude of sheer bloody-mindedness; they don’t like people telling them what to do.
We’re already losing regular money from our British pensions as a result, but it’s worth it.
Fiona: We’re in Cork because we wanted to be in a country where people spoke English, and property was cheap here. You couldn’t really have conversations with French people. I didn’t speak much French.
We wanted a change. People are very friendly and helpful here.
On Brexit, the EU are doing things that one doesn’t have much of a say in. They’re too authoritative. Personally, I’ll feel much safer when Britain has its own say in Europe, rather than relying on what the EU tells us to do. But we’re too old now to worry about politics.
Three years in Ireland: Paul Phillips, Schull
I started a pie-making business when we came here, so that helped to integrate. I employ eight people, and that helps too. Had I realised there were so many English people already living here, I might have thought differently about moving here. If anything, we make an effort not to socialise with English people.
The reason so many English people are in west Cork, or so it was explained to me, is that it was all to do with the Cold War. People wanted to be as far away as possible from any potential nuclear holocaust, so people looked at a map, and saw west Cork, and started to come here, and then the word spread.
It’s important not to come across as a stuck up arrogant Brit. Some British people think they are better than the Irish people. We’re not, but there is definitely this ingrained superiority in some English people here. I think that those who do fit in here don’t fall into that camp. The ones who do tend to keep themselves to themselves
It’s not just retired people who come here. You still get a lot of people coming here who don’t have two euros to rub together; musicians and artists. They come here for a laid back bohemian lifestyle.
When you live here, you have to realise you’re on a different time clock. People don’t turn up on time to do jobs, but they always get done. The thing is, not to get irate about it, but understand that’s the way things are done here.
Three years in Ireland: Robert Harris, Ballydehob
Someone Irish said to me, if it wasn’t for you blow-ins, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about. One of the problems in rural Ireland is its declining population, so we blow-ins here in Cork are good for the community.
I’m not Catholic myself, but it’s very much part of life here. I feel Catholicism is so deeply embedded in the Irish psyche that I can’t see it dying out; certainly not in rural areas in my lifetime. It’s akin to and related to superstition, and is part of the natural rhythm of life. For me, the loss of that simple faith would be detrimental to Ireland.
If someone dies, for instance, the wake is very important part of life. Then there is First Communion. They’re almost folk rituals in their own way and still very fundamental for the people who live here. It does matter.
I think Irish politics are much calmer than British politics. Politicians respect each other here.
Four years in Ireland: Siobhan Arnold, Ballydehob
I was born in London to Irish parents. I call myself London-Irish, and the London bit was always more important to me when I was younger. I don’t see myself as English or British, but my kids would say they were.
The main thing we noticed when we moved here would have happened anywhere in Ireland - everyone knows everyone else’s business. One of the things I don’t do ever do is gossip, because you never know where it’s going.
Local Irish kids and English kids don’t usually mix well in school. Irish kids describe anyone with an English accent as a hippy, but they’re not using the term accurately. Some of those kids could be from families that have been here 45 years.
I know what “blow-in” means, and it’s definitely not a complimentary term. There is an element of them and us with the term, but it is getting less and less as the years go on.
You can see why people were called blow-ins. There was a perception that the British – and other nationalities - who came here were pushing property prices up. You need to be aware that banter has to be tolerated, and it could descend into dislike quite quickly.
Four years in Ireland: Ian Hardy, Ballydehob
We’re here four years, but we had the house for 30 years. I’m conscious that I’m known by more people than I know. People here love to know exactly who you are. They might expect that you’d know them, and you wouldn’t always make the effort to know who they are. I can see that British people could be interpreted as standoffish because we don’t do that.
It can be difficult here if you try and get something done. We needed the septic tank drained. I was looking at the Yellow Pages and in local papers and directories, and getting huge quotes. Eventually, I asked a neighbour and they knew someone. It was just a question of asking the right person. In England, you haven’t got that local knowledge in the same way.
People are more conservative here, and religion is very important to them. Don’t get involved in conversations about Irish politics is something I say to other English people. Irish people’s views on politics are very deeply entrenched.
Up until Brexit, what went on with Irish politics used to make me feel better about English politics. We voted Remain.
Twelve years in Ireland: Jamie Budd, Ballydehob
I’m from Manchester. My wife is from Cork; I met her in Spain. We’ve been in Cork 12 years, and in Ballydehob over a year. We’re living over the restaurant we run.
The weather isn’t great here, but the people make up for it. I don’t mind being called a blow-in. If anyone called me an English bastard, I’d be a bit more offended, but blow-in is fine.
I never realised how big a population of English people live down here in west Cork, even though we’d been living near Cork city for years. It was a bit strange coming to west Cork and being surrounded by a lot of English people, because when I travel, I try to avoid my own people, purely from a cultural perspective.
The kind of people who are attracted to west Cork are very creative people so in general, we are very like-minded; we’re craft makers, artists, musicians, artisan produce producers, cheesemakers.
One thing I find very unusual is that there are people born and bred in Ballydehob, with English parents, and they have a stronger English accent than I do, even though they grew up here.
I had a vote, but I didn’t vote in Brexit. Being a bit of a free spirit, I didn’t think I was in any kind of position to cast a vote.
I was surprised at the result. Knowing the result, do I wish I had voted? I’ll say probably no. Here in west Cork we really depend on tourists coming from Britain, so I suppose that would be a bit of a concern, but only time will tell.
Fourteen years in Ireland: Josephine Jefferies, Ballydehob
I got divorced and I wanted to leave the rat race behind, and to think about a new life. That was 2002. I heard through a friend that a blind goat farmer on Cape Clear needed someone to look after his goats, so I went there as a Wwoofer [a volunteer programme on organic farms where people work in exchange for bed and board] and stayed for two years.
Then I moved to Sherkin too, and worked as a librarian there for eight years. After that, I was a caretaker in Jeremy Irons’s castle for three years. I should write my memoirs.
I’ve been in Ballydehob two years. Mainland life is totally different than island life. Island life is so calm and peaceful and you can walk everywhere, or you get a taxi. Living on an island with no transport, you’re never stuck. On the mainland, you have to drive.
I have noticed there are a lot of arguments about land. I’m never going to be marrying an Irish farmer with a lot of land: Irish farmers joke that they’re looking out for a teacher with a good pension, or a woman with a lot of land of their own. They joke about it, but I’ve learned that there’s an element of truth in it.
In England, growing up, there was a song about Cromwell knocking lots of Irish castles down. That’s about all I knew of Irish history.
When I got here, and after I learned what the English did to the Irish, I don’t know how they still let us live here. I wanted to go and find a rock and hide under it.
Fifteen years in Ireland: John Pettersen, Schull
When my wife Nona and I first came here, we said west Cork is like England in the Fifties. We felt so at home here. It felt like old home, going back in time, to old England.
We’re fairly private people, even though we go out. Or rather, we were. My wife died suddenly a year ago. After she died, I realised she had little bank books, small savings here and there of a couple of hundred euro each. I had to go around all these little places she’d had savings with a death cert, to close the accounts.
I was in one and when I explained why I was there, the woman, whom I didn’t know and was Irish, left her computer, came out from behind the counter and gave me a hug. I did the same thing in England in a place where I had banked with for 40 years, and they couldn’t even look me in the eye. People really care here, and that’s why I’m going to stay here.
If you get talking to anyone Irish in a bar, they will know all about you in 20 minutes. What I still find wonderful is that the Irish have a great vocabulary. They come out with words you don’t expect. I don’t want to sound condescending, but you don’t expect to hear a road sweeper use a word like ‘recidivist’, which has happened to me in a bar.
The strangest thing I’ve found here is that you miss people’s funerals. In Britain it can be three weeks before a funeral. By the time you hear Johnny or Paddy or whoever is dead here, they’re long buried. I don’t know how people know when people are dead, unless they’re looking at rip.ie every day.
Twenty-six years in Ireland :Dick Miles, Ballydehob
I came to Ireland because I thought Charles Haughey was a marginally better option than Margaret Thatcher. I found the political atmosphere at that time in the UK very depressing.
Not long after I came here, I saw a grocery van pull up at the side of a road, lift a stone, take money and leave a bag of groceries. They were for an old woman who’d been doing that for 35 years. I knew then I’d come to to the right place.
It’s important to try and integrate. English people who were here in the 1970s might have thought it was acceptable to be smoking cannabis all over the place. Regardless of legality, socially and culturally, it wasn’t. Then you get English people being referred to as hippies, and it leaves a legacy.
I do think racism or prejudice is only under the surface. We English have to be on our best behaviour because of what we did here historically. It took me a couple of years to discover that.
Forty years in Ireland: Sisters Moira and Deirdre Collins, Schull
Moira: We came here on family holidays in the 1960s and then bought the house in 1979 and moved over. The first lesbians had just arrived in Ballydehob and that was a bit exciting for the locals.
Along with the artists, a lot of the English people here then were old upper-class colonials. They’d lived abroad, in Rhodesia, or Hong Kong. The bought big houses and lived out in the country. England wasn’t what it had been, but they found Ireland was instead. They could afford to keep a maid and a gardener.
I’d never have the temerity to say I was a local, even after so long. You’re never regarded as a local, no matter how long you live here.
Schull feels quite suburban now. The fun has gone out of the place. It used to be enormous fun, especially in the winter. There were tricks that we played would go on for weeks.
Deirdre: The doctor went away once, and we put a For Sale sign on his door. That went on for a while. Life is far more dull now. People used to live on the main street, over the shop. It was totally different then. Everyone knew everyone else. A lot of the locals now say they don’t know who all the people are who’ve moved in.
Forty-six years in Ireland: Jenny Pyburn, Schull
My parents moved here in 1970. My mum would say west Cork was 50 years behind England. You could buy a property at the edge of the water here that you couldn’t afford any more in England.
We were here when Bloody Sunday happened. That was a very difficult time for the English community. The rector and priest went together to every family in the parish. They came and talked to all of us, and they were amazing.
I have seen a lot of English people come and go. They have unrealistic expectations, and expect things to be cheaper, and don’t realise that hospitals have to be paid for and are two hours away.
The biggest mistake English people make is not understanding the Irish ways. If you’re coming to another country, you have to learn their ways. Ireland is not England.