Moving to Donegal from Manchester, ‘we burned through our savings in short order’

New to the Parish: Ken Harper and Jason Gerber arrived from northern England in 2014

Ken Harper with  husband Jason Gerber at their home at Biddy Dan’s Cottage, Meenbannad, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Ken Harper with husband Jason Gerber at their home at Biddy Dan’s Cottage, Meenbannad, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

 

When Ken Harper and his husband Jason Gerber decided to leave their city life in Manchester and relocate to Ireland in 2011, the plan was to move to Kerry.

They had spent a weekend in Killarney the previous year and Gerber, who had never been to Ireland, was charmed by the beautiful scenery and friendly locals. However when they discovered the price of housing in Kerry, plans had to change.

“We soon discovered Kerry in 2011 wasn’t affordable but internet searches revealed Donegal was,” says Harper. “A day trip was arranged and a local estate agent was to show us two properties. We were taken with a derelict cottage on an acre of land near Dungloe and made an offer straight away which was accepted.”

The quiet life we’d expected didn’t happen; the social life here before Covid really could be quite hectic

Originally from north Wales, Harper had visited Ireland in the late 1990s with a previous partner and had fond memories of Co Kildare and Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh, where he spent many holidays. A former member of the British Labour Party and a councillor in Oxfordshire, he worked in the railway industry for nearly three decades before moving into a job with the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care NHS trust.

In 2006 he met Gerber, who is originally from Zimbabwe, and the couple were married in 2009.

“We decided we wanted a bit more land and Jason was more used to the outdoor life and wide open spaces. We didn’t necessarily need dozens of people around us and we’d loved that long weekend in Killarney.”

After a protracted buying and construction process, the couple left Manchester and moved into their new rural Donegal home in 2014. They were surprised by how quickly they made friends and how welcoming people were to a gay couple from abroad.

“The quiet life we’d expected didn’t happen, the social life here before Covid really could be quite hectic. The postman knows what’s happening before you do; we love it really. We were welcomed into the community because we weren’t just another holiday home, we were here to live and immerse ourselves.”

Despite this warm welcome, the couple quickly discovered the cost of living in Ireland was far higher than they’d previously envisioned. Accustomed to the free services of the National Health Service, paying to see a GP came as “a major culture shock”.

“Nobody in the UK has done that for 70 years. We burned through our savings in short order. You’re budgeting for something you don’t have to budget for in England. If you got a cold or something before Covid-19 you’d have to ask yourself, is it worth paying to see the GP?

“Ireland needs a national health service and I say this as someone who worked for the NHS.”

For two nations so physically close, the cultural differences are stark. Teenagers actually talk to us here

The Brexit referendum also significantly impacted Harper’s finances. “When the referendum happened we couldn’t believe it; we’ve never recovered financially. My pension income fell 15 per cent overnight with the drop in the exchange rate and still hasn’t recovered to its 2015 level. We greatly underestimated the cost of living difference with car insurance and road tax in particular being much higher.”

The couple also quickly became aware of the implications of Brexit on the Donegal community around them. “It was a nightmare, people around here live and work crossing the Border, even kids go to school over the Border.”

Gerber eventually decided to find a job and secured a position in a local hotel, something he hadn’t anticipated doing when they first moved from the UK. “I was happy with the decision,” he says.

“Every time we talked about needing money I’d just open the back door and stare out at the beautiful countryside and say okay, it was worth it.”

Two years after moving to Ireland, the couple took part in the 2016 marriage equality campaign. “We plastered posters all around Dungloe. The whole town was plastered with ‘Yes’ posters,” remembers Harper. “We experienced no homophobia, even when canvassing for marriage equality in a constituency where it only passed by 33 votes. The difference here in the end was Daniel O’Donnell when he came out in favour. You can’t underestimate that; he’s almost like a god figure around here.”

Having taken part in that campaign and watched the 2018 abortion referendum, Harper says he has come to the conclusion that “Ireland is more misogynistic than homophobic”.

Given his Labour background, Harper would like to get more involved with Donegal politics but joined the Northern Irish Alliance party after struggling to find a local political group that aligned with his beliefs. He’s interested in the Social Democrats but they don’t have a representative in his local area.

“The choice here is Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil; in Donegal everyone under 45 is with Sinn Féin and everyone over 45 is Fianna Fáil. So if you’re on the soft left like me there’s no one else. If I’m not able to engage locally in Donegal I may as well cross the Border.”

Despite speaking no Irish, the couple agree that the local Gaeltacht community has been very welcoming. However, they have seen comments on Twitter complaining about non-Irish speakers moving into Gaeltacht parts of the country.

“Our view is that any local person – Irish-speaking or not – had 50 years of opportunity to buy up our ruin and move in. But they chose not to do so. Young people continue to leave the area so if you don’t allow people to move in, the community will die.

“We spend most of our income in local shops and pay all our taxes to Irish Revenue. While we are sensitive to the charge of diluting the local culture, it’s hard to see how maintaining a policy of ethnic isolation is in the long-term interest of the Gaeltacht.”

After more than six years in the country, the couple agree they have no regrets about moving to Donegal and say they’ve felt heartened by the “safety of a community net” during the pandemic.

“For two nations so physically close, the cultural differences are stark. Teenagers actually talk to us here. In Ireland, kids are almost a collective responsibility.” We attend weddings, funerals, First Communions and christenings of people we hardly know. At busy times they open a till for us at SuperValu and close it again after we pass through. Relatives visiting from the UK revel in the fact that we seem to know everyone.

“There are other gay couples around now too, so we’re no longer the only gays in the village.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.