‘I’m so grateful we were in Ireland during Covid and not the States’

New to the Parish: Marisa Lanning arrived in Dublin from the US in 2019

When Marisa Lanning was nine years old, her parents took her out of school, packed up their household and booked one-way tickets to New Zealand. The California-based family had been in touch with friends who had already left and decided to take the risk and follow suit.

“It was the 1970s so letters was the only contact we had,” recalls Lanning. “They kept writing about how amazing it was and my dad already had itchy feet. I had a brother born in Utah, another born in Boston, another born in LA and I was born in California. We spent several months in New Zealand and my parents ended up buying a house, they absolutely adored it. We’d live in New Zealand for three months on our tourist visa and then travel to Australia or a pacific island for a month or two before going back.

“It was an incredibly formative time, I was gone until I was about 13 or 14. I went from being a loud, obnoxious American kid to a very introspective kid who questioned almost everything. But coming back was hard, I no longer fitted in. Many Americans thought we were both crazy and vaguely unpatriotic. When I got back other students would often ask, ‘when did you immigrate to the US?’ I was no longer ‘American’ to them, that was a little jarring.”

Rent in Dublin is very expensive, even coming from Seattle where we thought the rental market was insane, Dublin is outrageous

Lanning is speaking to me from her home in Maynooth, the place where she and her husband moved to just over three years ago. They spent eight years discussing the possibilities of moving abroad before finally selling their home and moving to Ireland with “five large suitcases, three cats and a serious case of optimism”.

“In 2018 several things happened,” explained Lanning in an email she sent before we spoke for this interview. “My husband’s work offered him a position abroad, my mom suddenly passed and my last child decided to leave the US to attend university — in Ireland of all places. As empty nesters we now had the freedom to pick up and move.”

Lanning and her husband Stan met in California in their late teens but moved to Seattle and later to Bainbridge Island, also in Washington state, where they brought up their two daughters. “I wanted to give my children the same experience I had, to expose them to different places. I think everyone needs to be taken out of their comfort zone and experience a totally different culture. But Bainbridge Island is a very privileged little community. When we arrived it was quite rural but by the time we left it was really gentrified.”

Stan’s job in the Seattle tech industry meant they needed to stay in the region and Lanning stayed home and cared for her daughters while also working a series of jobs, from retail to call centres.

Eventually, Stan switched to a new company with an opportunity for transfers abroad. He quickly applied and was given three options — Dublin, London or Singapore. “London had just had Brexit so that wasn’t going to work, and my husband doesn’t like hot climates so Singapore wouldn’t work. I’d been to Ireland once in 1982 but we’re like sure, why not, we’ll go.”

The couple were also keen to leave because of the deepening polarisation and societal divisions in their home country. “We were shocked by the changes taking place in the US. We had begun to lose friends to gun violence and worried about the safety of my family. My husband is ethnically Jewish and Jewish hate crimes were on the rise in Seattle. My husband’s family’s synagogue was shot up on two occasions.

“It was just exhausting living in the US, it’s really tiring always being alert.”

A lot of Irish people say why the hell did you move to Ireland? You made it, you were in America. But there’s very little I miss

The couple arrived in Dublin in February 2019, just a few months after their younger daughter moved to Maynooth to study for a degree in music and maths. With the support of Stan’s company, the couple found an apartment in Rathgar where they spent a year. They settled quickly and loved the area but were shocked by the cost of living in Dublin.

“Rent in Dublin is very expensive, even coming from Seattle where we thought the rental market was insane, Dublin is outrageous. We’d been homeowners in the US for so long and were new to renting so we thought we’ll buy a house. We looked in Dublin, then we looked outside Dublin and eventually found a place in Maynooth.”

The couple moved into their new home in December 2019, shortly after their eldest daughter also moved to Europe to study for a Masters in Glasgow. Stan was in the US for a work trip when the pandemic hit Ireland in March 2020 and tested positive shortly after arriving back, just as the country went into lockdown.

“He got extremely sick and I got sick too but not nearly as bad. Of course this was before vaccines so we were isolating in our house, that was very challenging. But I’m so grateful we were in Ireland during Covid and not the States. The Irish took the mask mandate seriously, they took vaccination seriously. You cared about your elderly, it was very apparent that Irish people have a very strong sense of family and community.

“I loved the signs on the freeway that said protect each other, stay safe, wear a mask. And everyone did, it was a no-brainer. Nobody was in your face screaming or yelling like they were in the states.”

The Irish healthcare system also makes living in Ireland easier than life in the states, says Lanning. “We have heard the Irish complain (about the HSE) and yes, there is room for improvement, however the care we have experienced has been equal or better to anything we had in the States. Plus we no longer constantly fear one bad diagnosis will bankrupt us.”

Irish people should also feel extremely lucky to enjoy such a rainy climate, she adds. “Ireland is fairly temperate- neither blistering hot nor dangerously arctic. I have had to evacuate from far too many wildfires- first in California, then in the Pacific Northwest. I just love having water, in California people don’t have water any more. Ireland’s generous rainfall means ample water for crops, fish, wildlife and people.”

Lanning acknowledges that being white and American has made settling in this country much easier for her family than it is for many others. However, she describes Ireland’s recent “progressive change” as “inspiring” and says Irish culture “retains a sense of humbleness, kindness and a desire to do even better”.

“A lot of Irish people say why the hell did you move to Ireland? You made it, you were in America. But there’s very little I miss, apart from family and some close friends.

“Ireland should be proud of its history and success. Is there more work to be done? Absolutely, but what country doesn’t? Ireland feels like it’s progressing forward in so many positive ways. We feel like we fit in and are grateful.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com or tweet @newtotheparish

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast