‘It would take four generations to become a Kerryman . . . but we’ve been accepted’

New to the Parish: Gerry Ligtenberg and Martin Bierens arrived from the Netherlands in 2014

Gerry Ligtenberg and her Partner Martin Bierens, who moved permanently from the Netherlands, to Glanlough Lower, Sneem, County Kerry, after renovating a 19th-century farmhouse. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Gerry Ligtenberg and her Partner Martin Bierens, who moved permanently from the Netherlands, to Glanlough Lower, Sneem, County Kerry, after renovating a 19th-century farmhouse. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan


Gerry Ligtenberg and Martin Bierens used to go to concerts and movies in their spare time in their home city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Now they spend their afternoons and evenings tending to their garden overlooking Kenmare Bay and reading from their library of more than 2,000 books in their renovated 19th-century farmhouse, 10 kilometres outside the village of Sneem in Co Kerry.

Two years the couple decided to take “a demotion” from their lives working as a doctor and teacher in Holland and move permanently to their holiday spot on the Ring of Kerry. While they have settled into their Irish home and have developed a relationship with the local community, the decision to leave their jobs, grown up children and grandchildren behind was not easy. The couple spent three years travelling back and forth between Holland and Ireland before they resolved to make the final move.

After more than four decades visiting the area, Bierens was certain that moving to Kerry was the right decision. He first visited Ireland in 1975 when he was 22-years-old and spent a season working in the kitchen of a small Dutch-owned hotel in Sneem. There he met fellow Dutchman Eddy who had moved to Ireland four years previously and married a local woman. In the years that followed, his travels brought him around the world but he always found himself returning to Ireland.

Seven years ago the former teacher met Ligtenberg and brought her to visit the caravan he had planted in the garden of Eddy’s B&B. Ligtenberg was immediately hooked. “It was mostly the surroundings, the nature and the quietness of it all. The people were easy going and it was like the Netherlands of my youth. It felt like going back 30 years.”

While Ligtenberg was excited about the move, she admits it was difficult to leave behind her career as a doctor. “The first step of quitting my job, that took time and was difficult because it was a one-way decision. I had a lot of sleepless nights before we finally decided to emigrate. “

“It’s a big decision and you could always be afraid of what might happen. One of us might get ill or there might be problems at home. Of course as we get older something could happen and one of us could end up here alone but you can’t be afraid, because you’ll never make any steps or decisions.”

“A lot of my colleagues asked me, ‘How can you do this? Your pension will be much lower than if you keep working’. Even though I did feel afraid, my standard answer was we don’t need that much.

“We are not into luxuries and of course our income is quite less than what we used to have but it’s more than enough not to starve and that’s what matters, right?” adds Bierens.

He spent a year overseeing the renovation of an old farmhouse outside Sneem before the couple moved to Ireland in October, 2014. “When it was habitable we looked each other deep in the eyes and said why not move here permanently, it’s the kind of life we really love. We don’t have television but we have 2,000 books. So we left Holland and came to live here. We’ve never looked back.”

The couple’s life in Kerry is now “simple, sober and unremarkable”, says Ligtenberg.

“Since we came here two years ago we’ve had to start learning lots of things like how to develop a vegetable garden. We’d always lived in the city so we didn’t know anything about growing vegetables, having chickens, doing the drainage in the bog around us. It’s like a new career.”

Ligtenberg continued her work in medical research on a part-time basis for 15 months after she arrived in Ireland. When her employer offered to extend her contract, she refused. “I was too busy with the garden, dogs and polytunnel so I said no.

“I liked my work in Holland very much and I liked going to the royal conservatoire in Amsterdam but being here and the tranquillity, the quality of life is better. In the Netherlands I was commuting every day on the train and there were always crowds, noise and filth everywhere. Holland isn’t a filthy country but compared to here, it’s very different.”

Ligtenberg says she and Bierens have spent far more “quality time” with their children from previous relationships and grandchildren during their visits to Kerry over the past two years. Her father recently died and she travels to Holland four to five times a year to visit her mother who is in the early stages of dementia. “It can be hard but we manage.”

Once a year the couple travel to Dublin to get “a sniff of some culture” but are always relieved to return to their two dogs, three cats and chickens in Kerry. Ligtenberg admits she misses the daily delivery of her morning newspaper to her door mat but keeps up to date with the news through her tablet and by reading Irish papers.

Asked what he misses from home, Bierens immediately replies that he often dreams of the liquorice he used buy in central Utrecht. It takes him slightly longer to admit that also misses his students. “I miss the contact with them. I used to teach geography and history and really loved teaching young people and offering them broader horizons.”

Ligtenberg has begun playing four-hand piano with a local Czech piano teacher and Bierens now volunteers in a second-hand clothing shop. The couple agree that Bierens’ friend Eddy has played a crucial role in helping the couple settle into life in Ireland. “Eddy is extremely well respected in the community and since I came here I’ve made a lot of friendships through him. I don’t think we’ll be accepted as locals but we’re accepted as friends. It would take four generations to become a Kerryman, that will never happen in our lifetime. But we’ve been accepted.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish