Susanne Svalefelt had just finished a long shift on the hospital oncology ward where she worked in southern Sweden when a text message appeared on her phone from her husband, Daniel. It had been a difficult few days for the nurse; the hospital had announced plans to restructure the ward and informed staff that they had to reapply for their jobs.
“I was feeling miserable that day and didn’t know where to go or what to do. And then, suddenly, Daniel texted asking if I wanted to move to Ireland. I replied within minutes, saying, ‘Let’s sell the house and go.’”
Daniel, who was on a work trip to Madrid, had been wandering around the streets of the Spanish capital, reflecting on his time living in west Cork a decade before. “I’d been to Spain a couple of times for work, and it made me realise there were other places you could live outside Sweden. In Sweden everything felt so clean and polished, but in Spain life felt more concrete, more like Ireland. I started getting flashbacks to my time in Ireland, so I texted Susanne. Three months later we were living in Cork.”
We realised we had more friends in Ireland than in Sweden. We socialised more here
Susanne and Daniel had each spent time in Ireland in 1999, but their paths never crossed. Susanne was working as an au pair in Cork city while Daniel worked in an emerging tech hub in Clonakilty, in west Co Cork.
“I come from a family that does not have any tradition of travelling,” says Susanne, who was born and brought up in rural Dalarna County, about 300km north of Stockholm. “We went over the border to Norway sometimes in the summer, but flying abroad was totally out of the question.” When she was 19 Susanne moved to Gothenburg to find work; she started learning German, French and Italian therefore before travelling to Italy to work as an au pair.
“It was languages that made me interested in travel, but I didn’t have any friends interested in the same things, so I decided to go abroad by myself. I came back to Sweden after a year, but there were no jobs, so I went to Cork.”
Daniel, who grew up and went to university in the town of Skövde, north of Gothenburg, was fascinated with computers and technology from an early age – “I was that full-blown computer geek through the 90s” – and moved to west Co Cork for a couple of years after he found a job at the newly established Clonakilty technology park. In 2002 he was recruited back to Sweden; shortly afterwards he met Susanne.
Both avid musicians – Susanne plays the mandolin and guitar, Daniel the fiddle – the pair met through an online bluegrass-music forum. They were married in 2006; two years later Daniel sent the message suggesting they move back to Ireland.
They spent their first four months living in Cork city before renting a house in Clonakilty. “I knew nothing about west Cork at the time, but Daniel wanted to visit the old trad sessions he used to go to,” says Susanne. “As soon as we got there, met the people and saw the town, I knew the area felt like home. I’ve lived in big cities like Milan and Gothenburg, but I always prefer rural areas. I know Cork is small, but it felt impersonal and too big for my tastes.”
Daniel, who was now working with a tech company in Little Island, east of Cork city, commuted daily from Clonakilty; Susanne found work as a nurse in the town. As the months passed she realised she wanted to upskill and specialise in oncology. Daniel, who left his job after three months of commuting and started working as a contractor for his previous employer in Sweden, was meanwhile travelling to Scandinavia for work a couple of times a month.
“We also had issues with our home – it was damp and badly insulated,” he says. “We had gone to look at houses to buy, but even new-builds back then weren’t built with proper insulation. By spring 2009 we realised it wasn’t for us and moved back.”
As the years passed, the couple started holidaying in Italy. Susanne loved the warm Mediterranean sunshine and found it increasingly tough returning to Sweden and facing into the dark winter months. “I started suffering from seasonal low mood. I couldn’t handle the thought of the long winter and couldn’t even enjoy the autumn, which is fantastic in Sweden, with all the colours, because it reminded me winter was coming. We have potential for ice and snow almost six months of the year, and I realised if I stayed in Sweden that’s half the rest of my life I was going to be miserable.”
The couple had returned to Ireland a few times for weekends away, and it was during one of these visits that Daniel suggested they give Ireland another try.
“Irish winters are shorter by a mile, and you have gorse flowers in the winter and daffodils in February, with actual daylight,” says Susanne. “Every time we visited west Cork it felt like coming home, so why didn’t we live there?”
“We moved to Ireland because of the weather here,” Daniel adds with a chuckle. “We also realised we had more friends in Ireland than in Sweden. We socialised more here.”
If we went back to Sweden now life would feel very strange. This is where our friends and social life are
The couple took their time with the move and spent a year doing up their home in Sweden before putting it on the market. They arrived back in Clonakilty in early 2019 and six months later bought a fixer-upper on the Seven Heads Peninsula, between Clonakilty and Courtmacsherry. They slipped quickly back into the Irish traditional-music scene and started playing with sessions in the local area. Sadly, these musical collaborations came to an abrupt end when Covid hit, in March 2020.
Susanne says she felt very lucky to be in Ireland during the pandemic, as it was “much safer than in Sweden”, where people “didn’t take the virus seriously”. At first she didn’t miss the trad sessions, but as the months wore on, and pubs stayed closed, she found the absence of music in her life difficult to deal with. “We invested our time in online music classes and workshops, and I started to properly learn the guitar. We also started a Zoom session group every week.”
The couple are now back playing with local musicians and say they are very happy with their decision to move to Ireland a third time. Daniel runs his own technology consulting firm; Susanne has moved away from medicine to work in graphic design.
“I enjoy life more here, and the opportunities to play music in west Cork are just so much better than in Sweden,” says Daniel.
“I’ll never turn back. I really feel coming here was the right thing to do,” adds Susanne. “If we went back to Sweden now life would feel very strange. This is where our friends and social life are.”