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New to the Parish: ‘We love Dublin. It’s like a mini New York’

Two native New Yorkers made the emotional decision to move, on their wedding anniversary, to ‘where their family’s DNA is’

James Sweeney and Ellen Baker: ‘The feeling of the city and the whole vibe is so New York but it’s cleaner, friendlier, smaller, cheaper.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Ellen Baker and James Sweeney: arrived from New York in May

James Sweeney was standing beside the ruins of a 19th-century stone cottage outside the village of Easky in Co Sligo the first time he felt a real connection with his ancestral home. He placed his hand on the cold stone walls of the ruined building and imagined the bustle of 19 brothers and sisters growing up inside.

In 1899 Sweeney’s grandfather left Ireland with his family in search of a better life in the US. Almost exactly 100 years later, Sweeney made his first trip to Ireland with his wife, Ellen Baker, to find out more about his Irish roots. Baker was also eager to learn about the woman she was named after: her great-grandmother from Cahersiveen in Co Kerry.

“We’re all made of stardust,” says Baker. “When you come back to where your family’s DNA is, there’s just something there. I think that’s why it was so easy for us to make the decision to move here. It was the most natural thing in the world.”

Earlier this year, Sweeney and Baker relocated from Tarrytown on the banks of the Hudson River, north of New York city, to Dublin, where they now live in an apartment on the banks of the Grand Canal.

As you step inside their Dublin home, you’re greeted with the story of their lives. A vibrant art collection covers the walls, and family photographs are dotted around the rooms. They spent a year sifting through their belongings before leaving and gave most things away. The rest was packed into boxes and shipped to Ireland.

Sweeney and Baker had spent most of their lives living in New York. “With New York city it’s a love-hate relationship,” says Baker, who grew up in the Upper East Side. “It’s hard to live in New York and it’s very expensive.”

Professional lives

Sweeney, who was born in Brooklyn, got a job in his 20s at the Montefiore Medical Centre, where he stayed for nearly 40 years.

Baker, who was born in Manhattan, dropped out of college when she was 21 and spent 10 years doing secretarial work on Wall Street. She then set up her own business in book-keeping and accounting. “It was just something about it that appealed to me because it’s so orderly,” says Baker. “That’s the way I like to live my life. I like to know where everything is and I want it all to fit into place. I want a beginning, a middle and an end.”

The couple began dating in the early 1990s and within a few months were married. Although they no longer lived in the city, the events of September 2001 affected them on a personal level. Sweeney’s sister had just retired from the Port of New York Authority, which was involved in the construction of the World Trade Centre and had offices on the site. Baker was on the phone to her sister-in-law as she watched the disaster unfold live on television.

Sweeney arrived at work in the Bronx that morning to hear the hospital was preparing for disaster. “We expected casualties but they never came. It’s a type of disaster where there aren’t too many casualties. You either get away or you don’t.”

Meanwhile, Baker was worried about her mother. “My mother was a die-hard New Yorker; wild horses couldn’t drag her out of Manhattan. She had just moved in to a retirement home in Battery Park, four blocks from the World Trade Centre.”

After making contact with the retirement home, Baker drove in to the city to pick her up. However, coming to terms with the disaster was difficult for her mother. “She only lived a year after that,” says Baker. “She hardly survived it, she was so shook up. The next few days she was hallucinating. She said there were bombers. She was reliving the war. It was awful for her.”

Focus on the future

Like most New Yorkers, Baker and Sweeney spent a long time coming to terms with the events of 9/11. However, with retirement looming on the horizon, the couple began to focus on the future. After more than a decade of trips to visit family in Sligo, they were determined to spend more time in Ireland.

“We knew we would not be able to maintain a large house as we grew older, and property taxes are so high and continue to rise unabated where we lived,” says Baker. “We were concerned about driving as we aged and wanted to settle somewhere we did not need a car.”

The couple originally planned to settle in the countryside but a love of Dublin changed their minds. “We loved Dublin because it was like a mini New York but without all the downsides of New York,” says Baker. “The energy here, the feeling of the city and the whole vibe is so New York but it’s cleaner, friendlier, smaller, cheaper.”

The couple arrived in Ireland on their wedding anniversary, May 4th, 2015. Sweeney began researching courses in veterinary science and was accepted into the Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute to study animal healthcare.

“I had the aspiration to fulfil a dream I’ve always wanted. I’ve worked in healthcare all my life but I was always on the non-clinical side.” Sweeney now studies five days a week and is already making useful contacts, which he hopes will help him find animal-welfare work in the future. “I must be the oldest person up there. The teachers could be my children and the students my grandchildren.”

Baker volunteers as a tour guide at St Patrick’s Cathedral and at an Oxfam shop with people from “all over the world. I’m the book person. I go down to the bowels of the basement, check the book, make sure it’s good enough to put on the shelf and price it. It’s real menial work, but it’s so satisfying and working there is amazing.”

After six months in Ireland, Sweeney says they’ve really “grown into the place”.

“I had no idea the incredible influence that Ireland has on people with Irish heritage,” says Baker. “You come here and it’s like, ‘I understand your brain and your sense of humour.’ We had a dream, we made a plan and then we jumped in the water. Trust, trust, trust. Anyone can learn how to swim.”

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