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The Allure of Ireland: Living in The Emerald Isle

Expats Can Find Rural Simplicity and History

© Steenie Harvey, from Living Abroad in Ireland, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved. For more information please visit moon.com/living-abroad/.

Living Abroad in Ireland
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Author Steenie Harvey

Wrapped in a soft green cloak of ancient memories, Ireland is one of the most beautiful and fascinating small countries in the world. Cast adrift in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Britain, this jewel of an island has become one of Europe’s most desirable addresses for those wishing to swap the stresses of city life for old-fashioned rural bliss.

Whether you hope to rent or buy a property, it’s easy to acquire residency here. The renowned Irish welcome has never depended on the size of a person’s bank balance. Maybe your idea of heaven is a little whitewashed cottage, maybe it’s a thatched farmhouse, or maybe even an ivy-clad Georgian mansion. A pretty bungalow with ocean views? A centuries-old castle? A city apartment? Somewhere in Ireland you’ll find your dream home waiting.

Is Ireland Right For You?

But why does Ireland exert such a pull on the imagination? What makes it so special? After all, anywhere that goes by the name of “the Emerald Isle” certainly didn’t get all its lush green meadows through having cloudless blue skies and unlimited sunshine. It has to be said that we can’t boast of having the world’s most glorious weather.

But constant sunshine isn’t everything—most expatriates are enticed here for many of the same reasons vacationers are. Ireland lures expats and visitors alike with its unique amalgam of storybook scenery coupled with space, safe streets, and a far more gentle way of life. Along with an absorbing tangle of history, it also offers colorful festivals and curious traditions. What’s more, its vibrant culture of music, dance, and poetry remains wonderfully intact and accessible to everybody. The country is so proud of its literary and cultural heritage that resident writers, artists, and musicians are allowed generous tax breaks. Here you’re never considered too young or too old to learn to play the fiddle, take up painting, or write a masterpiece.

In our polluted world, the notion of a clean, green environment is hard to resist. Europe’s industrial revolution hardly touched provincial Ireland. Between the bright lights of Dublin and the Atlantic’s fossil shores, much of the country remains pleasingly rural, a pastoral haven of small farmsteads, quiet lanes, and rolling pasturelands. Particularly in the wilder reaches of the west, old-fashioned ways stubbornly survive with many communities clinging like limpets to the patterns of the seasons that departed from neighboring European countries generations ago.

Tradition is part and parcel of everyday life, not a tourist sideshow laid on by the heritage industry. Turf, the brown slabs of winter fuel, is still hand-cut from the bogs in many parts of Connemara. Some fishermen continue to put to sea in currachs, fragile hidebound rowing boats that have been used since Celtic times. Visit a horse fair such as Ballinasloe and you’ll see deals conducted in old-fashioned style—with spits, handshakes, and the return of “luck money.”

Yet the great paradox is that Ireland is also part of the new Europe, a modern country with good hospitals and top-class restaurants. Its capital, Dublin, is no stuffy museum-piece city but a place where you’ll find cybercafés and a club scene as well as all that renowned Georgian architecture, traditional theater, and legendary pub crawls. And if you enjoy outdoor pursuits, there’s plenty to keep you busy. The enviable array of activities includes sailing, hill walking, fishing, and riding to hounds (foxhunting), not to mention more than 350 superb golf courses. And although many of you may take a dim view of blasting our furry and feathered friends to kingdom come, shooting is also a tremendously popular country pursuit. Sunday afternoons are a favorite time for gun clubs to go rough shooting, something that remains an almost exclusively male activity.

Most Irish people enjoy good living standards and the economy is in great shape, combining steady growth with low inflation. Rather than laboring in smokestack industries, many of the country’s young and highly educated workforce are employed in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and computers. Your new Irish neighbors are just as likely to be working at the cutting edge of technology as tending sheep and cattle.

The Lay of the Land

In contrast to many Irish home-buyers, the cityscape world of the workplace is what a lot of foreigners usually wish to escape. The majority of newcomers have a craving for nostalgia, preferring to seek out the quintessential Ireland of small towns and villages where everybody knows his or her neighbors. What they yearn for is a kind of Gaelic version of Paradise Lost, a picture-postcard country where the traffic is only a faint hum in the distance and timeless villages huddle below a backdrop of misty blue mountains. Thankfully that paradise is still pretty much intact.

Of course, that’s not to say that you should write off Irish city life. For students and young professionals who need the cosmopolitan adrenaline rush, country life may perhaps prove a little too sleepy. So you may want to consider Dublin, Cork (Ireland’s second city), or Galway—the country’s self-styled Arts Capital.

Dublin, Ireland’s political and financial capital, is a world-class city with ample opportunities for theatergoing, dining out, clubbing, and shopping. The country’s most prestigious colleges, Trinity and UCD, are found here. Like all European capitals, it’s a shining magnet for school-leavers from the provinces, constantly drawing new blood into its orbit. While this creates an exciting buzz, the downside of Dublin living is that it goes hand in hand with the country’s highest house prices and rents.

With stunning seascapes on the doorstep, Cork and Galway are more affordable—and they’re also top-class cities in their own right. In 2005, the title of European Capital of Culture passed to Cork—a good excuse for this City of Festivals to indulge in a yearlong festival. The Cork Jazz Festival, the International Choral Festival, and the International Film Festival are regular annual events.

Waterford in the southeast is another attractive option if you’re seeking city life on a smaller scale. But by American standards it is a very small city, numbering fewer than 50,000 people. A working port, Waterford holds the distinction of being Ireland’s oldest urban settlement. Vikings built a trading settlement here back in A.D. 850.

Dublin and Galway especially have long been a popular choice for foreign students wishing to brush up their English in language schools. Once school is out, the city streets become a hubbub of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. You can sometimes find yourself wondering what country you’re in.

I realize I haven’t really answered the “where should you live” question, but it’s impossible to pinpoint any one county as being the place to head for. The entire western seaboard is a rugged patchwork of loughs, mountains, and offshore islands that’s just as spine-tingling and heart-wrenchingly beautiful as imagination always promised. Alternatively, you may prefer the less well-known coastal villages of Ireland’s sunnier southeast corner or the lush river valleys of an inland county such as Kilkenny. But even if you choose to live inland or in the middle of a buzzy city you’ll never be too far away from the sea and the delights of crescent moon coves, craggy cliffs, and golden-sand beaches.

Myth vs. Reality

For anyone with even a smidgen of romance in his or her soul, the allure of long ago is irresistible. The early Irish bequeathed an incomparably rich legacy—not just of ornately carved crosses and high round towers, but a huge trove of folklore, manuscript illumination, and gold and silver craftsmanship. Celtic metalsmiths produced sumptuous treasures, often decorated with enamel-work stylized animals and studded with amber and rock crystal.

Countless localities resonate with even older messages than those left by the scholarly Celtic monks who darkened the druidic balefires with the beacon of Christianity. Ireland is a land with a thoroughly pagan past, a twilight realm of mysterious stone circles, hollow hills, and prehistoric earthen burial mounds known as “fairy raths.” Every mirror-bright lough and green-cloaked mountain seems spellbound by enchantments: Listen hard and the westerly winds still carry the fading whisper of otherworldly voices.

The famous (or infamous) laid-back lifestyle of the Irish people is another good reason to bid farewell to the rat race. A cliché it may be, but Ireland really is one of the friendliest, safest, and most relaxing countries in which to live. It’s a caring society where people are still more important than profits. Hospital treatment is free and if you need medical attention, you’ll find family doctors make house calls—even if it’s the middle of the night.

Whether you’re looking for a retirement destination, a holiday home, or a place to raise a young family, Ireland is easy to fall in love with. Yes, the clouds do sometimes leak but contrary to wicked rumors, we often enjoy dry days and sunshine too.

The drawbacks? Well, Ireland isn’t an especially inexpensive place to live and you’ll certainly find the cost of running a car is higher than at home. And although it’s still possible to buy cottages for under $150,000, nowadays much depends upon location. A fairly substantial prosperity gap exists between Ireland’s eastern seaboard and many western communities. For anything resembling a bargain-priced home, it’s necessary to look to rural areas where the Celtic tiger is yet to roar. Dublin and its surrounding counties have benefited most from the booming economy and this translates into property values. House prices in these pockets of affluence have now surpassed many other major European cities. To experience the Dublin lifestyle, you may have to consider renting rather than buying.

But wherever you choose to live, you won’t pay property taxes. And many of you will be able to travel around for absolutely nothing—all qualified retirees travel free on the country’s public transport systems. Seniors entitled to Irish citizenship or who are receiving Social Security pensions may also be able to benefit from an additional number of free health and welfare plans for older people. Who says that age doesn’t have its advantages?

Although relocating to another country is always going to be a bold move, it’s a blessing to know that here you won’t have the constant frustration of trying to communicate in a foreign language. Well, not unless you go to live in one of the Gaeltacht areas where the ancient Irish language is still spoken.

Some Americans come here to enjoy new adventures. For others it often feels more like coming home. It’s estimated that around 70 million people throughout the world have what you might call emerald-green blood coursing through their veins, largely because of the tragic famine years and the resulting Irish diaspora. But that doesn’t mean you need Irish ancestry to make new friends and fully appreciate the quality of life here. Whatever your own ancestral background, you’ll certainly find the phrase Céad Míle Fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes) applies to you too.

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