Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Silent Night for Irish Ann

Recently, I was asked by my online publisher,, to pen a travel thingy about how we celebrate an Irish Christmas over here. I thought and thought - and the more I thought, the more I wanted to do something a little different. The result is a story about my Irish friend, Ann McGoona.

I thought I'd share it with you. Thanks to Susan Beverly at Escape Artist for bugging me to write this. You can find the original article at

Her name was Ann McGoona. A funny looking woman, she was a friend of my wife’s and I’d known her ever since coming to Ireland in ‘82. She was all smiles and laughter, and a serious side too that listened intently if you had a problem. Over the years, she and I had become firm friends. I liked Ann quite a lot because she always had a kind word and a welcoming laugh, and when I met her my day always became that much better. Even if I moaned about the constant rain in this country, she’d look up at me from her tiny stature of four foot nothin’ and say, eyes glinting, “Ah, it could be worse, you could be dead.”

I especially enjoyed her outlook on Christmas. Not for Ann the commercial trappings of that season. Instead, she had the outlook and attitude of a child. And on an Irish Christmas of 2001, I longed to moan to Ann about how cold it was, how bloody frosty! And of the smoke that floated from the coal fires of the terraced houses, turning into a thick mist over the small Irish town of Navan. Oh, how I longed to hear her say, “Feck it. It could be worse, ‘cause you could be dead.”
But she couldn’t say it because she was dead. She was dead of cancer at the age of fifty-four, only a few days before Christmas.

Ireland at Christmas is a magical place. It is a time for family and friends; of kith and kin. Yes, it is much more commercial today than it was when I came here half a lifetime ago. But some of the traditions remain untouched. On Christmas Eve, we still light a candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. Wives – and yes, these people are usually housewives – still mix the Christmas Pudding in an immense bowl, kneading the suet, breadcrumbs, mixed fruit and Guinness together until it’s just right. Then boiling in a pot for hours on end until the house smells like a baker’s. And finally pouring the Irish whiskey over it until it has just the right potency.

Christmas in Ireland is a time for children, which means that it’s a time for everyone because almost all of its populace are children at heart. And on Christmas Eve, the entire town of Navan still marches down to Mass, and within the draughty church that’s as old as the history of the town listens to the priest retell the story of a child born to a woman, and of His message of hope that was a precursor to his later dying.
Just as Ann had died.

On that almost Christmas night eight years ago, Ann chose to have herself laid out in a simple wooden box and placed in her parent’s front room. That house was tiny by American standards, and the crowd that came to celebrate Ann’s life could not possibly fit within its four walls. Instead, we gathered outside in the frosty narrow laneway and waited our turn to file past Ann. Inside, her family gathered at her head; a priest in attendance. And when it was my turn, I did what everyone else did: I entered the house to say goodbye. I picked up the fragment of fir tree, touching its silky needles into the bowl of holy water, brushing the droplets gently onto Ann’s forehead. Then, like the others, I walked outside to wait.

As I waited I looked up. On that almost Christmas Eve, the stars glittered overhead. A small mist gathered gently above the row of terraced houses, as if a ghostly wreath. In neighbours’ windows, candles were lit, only this time to say goodbye to a friend that they knew held no wrong. And then as I waited, the bells of the local church began to sing. And their song was Silent Night, Holy Night, and for a moment I thought of Ann and the friendship that she had for this Yank who was so far from home, and I knew that I would remember that night and that Christmas for as long as I lived.

Christmas in Ireland offers the simplicity of giving, love and laughter that many other cultures have misplaced beneath piles of torn Christmas wrappings. But it offers more: it offers a people whose hearts are filled with giving. Just like my tiny friend, Ann McGoona
Happy Christmas, Ann, wherever you are. And if I’m moaning about the rain again, let me hear you one more time: “Ah, for feck’s sake Tom, and give over. You could be dead.”

© Tom Richards and Storylines Entertainment 2009.

Tom Richards was born in Chicago but has lived in Ireland since 1982. He has no Irish blood in him whatsoever. Trust me! He is also the author of A Survivor’s Guide to Living in Ireland, a bestseller on

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Warmth of an Irish Christmas

All right. It's true. The cold winds of the economy, nature, and politics are blowing through the country like an out-of-control winter's hurricane. But while public servants might threaten to strike again; while flood waters might be burying houses, farms, and entire villages in the west under ten feet of water; while the government might be readying an early-December budget that's going to blow us all to hell and back; everyone who lives here has a little secret.

Christmas is just around the corner. And we're all looking forward to it, let me tell you.

So What's Special About an Irish Christmas?

If you're Christian, or just like the spirit of the season, we all know that Christmas is celebrated in just about every country in this crazy world of ours. But an Irish Christmas is...well...a little different. I received my indoctrination to an Irish Christmas in December of 1982. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't exactly what occurred.

I'll start with the economics of the times: back then, in '82, I was almost penniless. But then the entire country was broke too, so I didn't feel unusual. My good wife Bernie and I counted out the small stipend that I'd received from my miserly employer of the time, and went into the town of Navan to go Christmas shopping.

In those days, the town's shopping district was quite small: a main street filled with assorted shops, chippers, and any number of pubs; and a tiny 'shopping centre' that even had a Penney's. We went wild! As I remember, I was able to purchase a pair of gloves and hat for Bernie (as I remember, she bought me the same), a doll's crib for our daughter, a small turkey and ham for the dinner (together with sprouts, potatoes, and bread); and a small bottle of whiskey to cheer the night away. Materially, it wasn't much of a Christmas.

But that's before the good stuff started.

Unlike Anywhere Else...
Christmas Eve in Ireland is quite unlike any other Christmas Eve I've experienced anywhere else in the world. That evening, my brother in law invited me out for a couple of pints of the black stuff. We wiled away an hour or so in the packed pub, exchanging Christmas greetings with the locals, before staggering through the crisp starry night and to the warmth of my house. There, a local priest was waiting, having barged in for a night cap before Christmas Eve mass. I must admit that I was staggered by the many times he went at the small bottle of Jamieson, and reckoned that he'd get through Midnight Mass with nary a care in the world.

After he left, my good wife and I wrapped up tight, put our child in her pram, and took a walk into the town. In those days, outdoor Christmas lights were foreign to this country. Instead, the warming glow of a single candle lit the window of every home, welcoming the Christ child once again into the world. It was an amazingly serene time: the frost covered streets were empty, not only due to the fact that so few people had cars back then, but because those that did were invariably home celebrating the season with their families. Through the small windows of the houses, we could make out parents putting secret lumpy packages beneath their simple trees. Few people then bothered with boxes to make their Christmas perfect. Instead, they would wrap up parcels any old way; dolls arms, toy rifle barrels, the heads of golf sticks would stick out every which way, as if Santa had been so busy that he simply didn't have time to do anything else.

We walked through the town and into the Church. There, our local priest - possibly feeling a bit better for it all because of the Jamieson that we'd proferred- celebrated Midnight Mass with his congregation. The Church was cold and dark, lit only by the candles on the alter and the Christmas lights that glowed warm upon the face of an infant Jesu hiding in his manger. For a moment, and despite the few hundred town's people that sat around me, I felt one of them, content in the knowledge that I'd at last found a place to call home.

Later, and after Mass, we wandered up to my wife's parent's house. There, my mother-in-law Kathleen had sandwiches waiting: thick slices of fresh ham nestled between white bread, slathered with hot Coleman's mustard. My father-in-law Luke handed us not only a cup of tea but a pint bottle of Guinness too. And for awhile, we sat around the coal fire that sparked and sighed and bathed the small living room in ghostly shadow. We whittled away some time with Luke telling ghost stories of the Banshee, and the time as a young man and he walked through the door to find a neighbor hanging by his neck. In Ireland, Christmas is also a time of ghostly tales, and so it was that night.

And finally we left, walking again through the clear starry night, accompanies by the glow of candles, and to our own home and its warming Christmas Candle.

Christmas here has changed so very much over the years. As the country has grown richer, the pile of material packages under the Christmas tree have also grown. Now, deep in recession, perhaps once again we'll learn to understand the true spirit of an Irish Christmas: a time of starry nights, and simple Christmas Trees. A time of empty, frosty streets and the warmth of family and fellowship.

A time of candles alight in windows, to warmly welcome friends.

For more stories about living and surviving in Ireland, why not buy Tom Richards' book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Just click here...

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Negative Feelings are Not in the National Interest!"...God

Introducing Brian Cowan, the head of our Irish government, a man elected (almost) by the people, and who, it seems, has now appointed himself as God.
Recently (like only yesterday, according to the radio), our beloved Taoiseach (translation: 'Leader' in Irish) was apparently instructed by his spin doctors to say something constructive that might mitigate against the despair which many Irish people feel regarding the current state of our national economy. I gather that Mr Cowan took this advice to heart. From on-high, and secure in his own fiscal safety net that includes one of the world's highest salaries for a government leader (he makes much more annually than even President Obama), our great leader uttered something like:

"People's negative feelings regarding the Irish economy are not in the national interest."

I heard this as I was driving to what is left of my company, and almost lost control of the car. Hence, I cannot be certain of Mr Cowan's exact quote. But the above gives an exact intent, if nothing else.

For those of you who do not live here, take heart! You do not have to listen to the utterances of the above crazy man. Those of you in America can at least hear the positive spins offered by the President, Ms Palin, the Leader of the House of Representatives, and even such authority figures as Fox News.

Here, we have to listen to the drooling oratory of madmen, of which Mr Cowan is a wonderful example. And his patronising drivel only serves to make those of us who live in Ireland realize one thing:

We're all fucked.

It Really Is a Terrible Beauty
Here, in this delightfully green and friendly country, we're putting up with one of the worst recessions known to modern Irishman - or woman for that matter. Only this past week, another thousand people lost their jobs. That may not seem like much, but in a country of only 4 million people it matters very much indeed. Unemployment is now well over 12 percent and, we fear, bound to go much higher. People are losing their homes to foreclosure. What makes this madness is the fact that the banks to whom they owe money are also broke. However, those banks have received billions in government aid as part of a bail-out program.

Out in the south and west of this country, the economy is made even more difficult by weeks of constant rains that has led to once-in-a-lifetime floods. Hundreds of people in the cities and towns of Cork, Galway, Athlone, and elsewhere are now homeless. Mr Cowan made it a point to visit these wastelands to commiserate with his people, and invariably take advantage of any photo opportunities that might be available. Unlike God Almighty, however, Mr Cowan was not able to part the waters which might have provided some practical help to his poor national constituents.

The country is in a shambles right now: people have no confidence. They have stopped spending. They're losing their jobs. They're losing their homes. The Irish are downright bruised and discouraged, and waterlogged by the rain and the torrent of bad news that has been going on for almost two years now. We need encouragement and vision and a positive outlook on the future.
And what do we get instead? A mawkish, patronising comment from the guy who is supposed to be leading us out of this mess, and that dismisses our feelings of doom and misery as "not in the national interest."

To that I can only respond: "Mr Cowan, get stuffed."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Yarns from a Wandering Yank

Every now and then the day job gets too much. On those occasions - and when the yearning to write creatively grows in my belly - I'll chuck it all for a week and head to an arts center. I'm sure there are such places in the States and elsewhere, but because I've been here so long, I'm not too familiar with the American varieties. Here in Ireland, and on such occasions, I'll throw my laptop and some survival gear into the car, and head north to County Monaghan and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre.

The residence, located in the small village of Annaghmakerrig in said County, is a little peace of tranquility. "This residential workplace (and I quote from their website) is open to professional practitioners in all art forms.... In a tranquil, beautiful setting amid the lakes and drumlins of County Monaghan everything is provided for including delcious food. Sir Tyrone Guthrie bequeathed his family home and estate to the State (e.g. Ireland) with the proviso that it be used for the benefit of artists. It was an inspired decision..."

Inspired is right. You should see this place, and the above photo almost does it justice. The great house, left to Ireland and its artists in 1971, is a virtual paradise. Located in a tranquil surrounding, surrounded by hills and forests, and resting on the shores of a modest lake, it is the perfect place to spin yarns, tell wild stories, create music, proffer jokes to other artists, and otherwise attempt to get some creative work done.

It is a veritable paradise for practitioners of almost any art: a range of studios are available for painters and pot throwers; a full sized dance floor is on offer for those with a bent toward ballet or modern or jazz or Irish traditional. The music room comes with a full size Grand Piano. And us writers know that a desk is available in each room with light, and electricity, and a whole lot of time and solitude within which to go creatively crazy.

But the house has its share of ghosts, let me tell you. And on many an occasion I've felt the skin crawl, swearing that some long-dead visitor has decided to give me a helping hand with a particular story.

Of course, there was one night not too long ago. I'd come to the Centre to work on a horror screenplay, Banshee. Ghosts and bloody ghouls were swirling through my head anyway. And as I was working on one particular scene - a scene in which the full moon rose and the Banshee wailed, I happened to glance out the window.

My room faced onto the lake. And there, above that nearby body of dark, still water, at some ungodly hour of the morning, the full Moon rose. And I could swear that I heard a bump in the night, and a whisper of garments, and the sigh of an old woman behind me. I turned but of course no one was there...

I'm going back to the Guthrie Centre soon to work on a new screenplay that I'm considering, and to write a companion book to A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland - this time a travel book with the tentative title: Yarns from a Wandering Yank. While I'm there, perhaps I'll bring all of you along too.

You never know. Together, we might see the full Moon rise and the screech of the Banshee as it washes over the dark and lonely Irish countryside.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Retire to Ireland! Or So Says Forbes Magazine

Recently, I received an email from my favorite publisher,, stating that they'd been contacted by Siobhan Maguire, a hard working reporter for Ireland's top newspaper, The Sunday Times. Siobhan, in turn, had contacted escapeartist in that she has been tasked with writing an article about Retiring in Ireland. That article, in turn, has been prompted by the following:

In its Oct 15 2009 article 'The 10 Best Retirement Havens', Forbes Magazine ranks Ireland as Number 5 on their list. Not too shabby, I must say. Forbes notes that Ireland ranks high on the list for the friendliness of its locals, as well as its 'rest and relaxation' index. The beauty of the country is also noted, as well as the (relatively) low local taxes.

Their article - and a chat with Siobhan - started me thinking. If I were an American living, say, in Michigan, would I want to consider retiring in Ireland? And if so, why would I? What are the benefits of retiring here? What are the downsides? What would I have to do to gain permission to live here?

Manana...Irish Style
I had an Uncle in Law named Bernie, a true fisherman if there ever was one. Bernie lived in Navan, of course, and spent most of his time on the Boyne River, rod in hand. The man was forever tying flies, and grumbling at his poor luck in landing a salmon...but I'll say this about him: he knew how to live a stress-free retirement. Bernie's idea of a day out was throwing his rod over his shoulder, packing a couple of sandwiches and a flask of tea in his fishing bag, and walking off down the river for a day spent in the misting Irish rain.

He'd whistle to himself as he strolled down the river, with nary a care in the world. The man lived to be 89. One day, he must have decided that the fishing would be better on the other side of that Great Divide in the sky, because one morning he simply refused to wake up. He passed away with a secret smile on his face, and I suspect that he was already considering the casts that he'd use in God's fishing grounds.

Bernie had the right idea: he'd let his worries wash off his back as easily as shaking the rain from his broad fishing hat. And many Irish that I know do the same thing. Maybe it's genetic (and God knows that as a non-Irish person I can sweat the small stuff - as well as the large - most of the time) but many Irish friends of mine - including my good wife - have the ability of saying 'manana' to themselves. Perhaps they see a bigger picture: of life filled with gentle rivers, sweeping green hills, and verdant golf courses. They know that life isn't about the stresses and strains that we're faced with daily, but rather about friends and family; holidays and celebrations; a pint and a laugh with friends.

For that reason alone, this attitude toward living that is at the heart of many Irish souls, Ireland is worth considering as a retirement destination. But there are many more reasons to consider moving here.

Lower Costs of Housing - buying or renting a house in Ireland hasn't been as inexpensive in over 5 years. Now that the Celtic Tiger has met its much publicised demise, finding yourself a little corner of Irish heaven in which to call home is affordable. For instance: a newly refurbished 2 bedroom cottage with lake frontage on Lough Ramor is being sold for €90,000 - that's approx $135,000. Go to for more information on hundreds, if not thousands, of affordable Irish properties.

The Friendliness of Her People - I've written about this time and time again. But it's true. The people here really are friendly, and welcoming, and usually accepting. Yes, and depending on where you live, they can have a 'village mentality' which occasionally means that they'll know your business before you do. But chatting over the gate with a neighbor, or having a pint with a friend, or simply strolling up to a stranger to ask directions - leading to a chin-wag that can last an hour - is one of the charms of this country that I most value.

The Beauty of Her Character - Ireland is beautiful, and make no mistake about it. From the shore just north of Dublin, to the hills, mountains and cliffs of the west coast, this country is a veritable picture post card of pleasing geography. What I love most about Ireland, however, is the simple solitude that is available almost anywhere. I find nothing more enjoyable than taking a walk along a country road; smelling the fragrances of heather and green fields in the air; of the simple quietness that allows one to hear a bee bumble busily in a nearby rose bush, or a far off cow moo her pleasure. The simple beauty of this country is rarely matched.

The Cultural Crossroads of Her Fabric - Ireland is a tapestry of interwoven - and sometimes conflicting - cultural cross-currents. Here, in this little island that measures slightly more than 300 miles long, rests a history that stretches back millennia, but that also contains a highly skilled and educated people, and one of the most potent centres of technology in the world. Here, and within miles, you can visit a monument to Bronze Age engineering (Newgrange, which is only 5000 years old, and by many archaeologists' reckoning, is older than the Pyramids), and the latest chip fabrication plant in Leixlip County Dublin (Intel, one of the world's most profitable tech companies).

Doctors and All Things Medical - we have some great hospitals in this country, and some fine medical practitioners. In my opinion, the medical community really is concerned about the people that they serve. And it's still relatively inexpensive: about €50 to visit your GP.

The Cost of Living - okay, and I'll admit it: Ireland has a bad press when it comes to the cost of living here. For years, the country managed to price itself out of the reach of many visitors -and residents, come to think of it. But the good news is this: prices here are falling rapidly. Everything from the electricity that we use to the vegetables that we buy is becoming less expensive. The downside, of course, is that the economy is still contracting as I write this. But the good news is that it's more affordable.

Access to Europe - Ireland is within an hour of Dublin, 2 hours of Portugal, and within easy access of all of the Continent. Cheap flights ( or and ferry travel ( make visiting other countries and cultures inexpensive and enjoyable.

The Downsides of Retiring Here
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the negatives to retiring in Ireland.

It rains a lot. And I mean A LOT. This year, November has been one of the wettest months on record. But that doesn't stop you from taking a walk, drinking a pint in a local pub while being warmed by a peat fire, or chatting with a neighbor over a cup of tea. Dress for the weather, and it's still a wonderful place to live.

It's also true that Ireland has high levels of 'unseen' taxation. While it's true that those incomes aren't hit as hard as many countries at source (that is, we pay less in Income Tax and social security taxes than many), we are hit by a wide variety of so-called 'stealth' taxes. See my article about the costs of living in Ireland for more information.

Too, being an ex-pat can be a lonely and emotionally draining experience. I've written about this before, but it's something to keep in mind. If you're considering retirement in Ireland, or any other country, remember that the culture will be different to what you're used to. The people are different. They will have different attitudes and beliefs. What I will say is that this is part of the experience of living overseas. If you move with the right attitude, you'll do just fine. But don't be surprised if you battle moments of self-doubt about your decision, or occasionally wish that you'd never moved at all. That too is part of the emigrant journey. And as I always say - if I can survive abroad, so can you.

So What Do You Have to Do?
If you're considering a retirement to Ireland, you will have to prove that you will not be a financial burden to the country. To that end, you'll have to apply for a 'Self-Sufficiency Visa' in which you'll have to spell out your financial wherewithal. Too, you will probably be asked to prove that you have sufficient health insurance. For more information, visit the Citizens Information website, and their Retirement section.

For more information on living and surviving in Ireland, why not consider purchasing Tom Richards' book on the subject. Just click here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Walking in Ireland

I recently received a message from Kristin (she runs a really nice Blog - Wanderlust - at, who asked for some recommendations for walking in Ireland. Apparently, Kristin and her fella are coming in this direction next Summer, and she seems to be the type of person that prefers slogging along a country road to riding over a 4 lane highway in a large Hummer. So... and just for Kristin (and whoever else happens to look in) some comments about walking in Ireland.

Walking in Ireland is Great Fun - Even if it is Wet
Ireland has a wide range of trails and assorted paths that can take you just about anywhere. I've limited my walking to the East Coast of this country (simply because I live out this way), and must admit that as the years have gone by, I've slowed down a bit. I've never considered myself a professional walker. In fact, I still use the same pair of boots that I received for Christmas way back in 1977 (I figure that after over 30 years I finally have them broken in).

Possibly the best walk I've taken is in Glendalough. Located just south of Dublin (in County Wicklow), a walker can start out in a car park of the Wicklow National Park, and walk non-stop right around what must be one of the most lovely lakes in the country.

The trails head starts at St Kevin's, an ancient monastery that is one of the oldest in Ireland. Apparently, this saint was looking for an out of the way spot to do some contemplating. He couldn't have picked a more beautiful area: an ancient round tower and assorted small stony structures sit next to the lake, all of it nestled within a valley. The Wicklow hills surround this beauty spot, which - by the way - makes it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. But if you put on your boots and start slogging, you can leave most of the tourists behind.

Walking in Ireland usually isn't daunting: all you need is a good pair of boots and - of course - some rain gear. Too, and depending upon where you walk, make certain that you bring along emergency supplies of water and food. More than one international walker has become lost and has been forced to spend a night or two twiddling their thumbs as they wait for rescue.

Be prepared for boggy conditions, depending on where you go. The last time I walked around the lake I ended up pouring water out of my boots. Remember that Ireland can be soaking, and dress appropriately.

Carlingford, County Louth
If walking through a tourist area isn't your idea of fun, and you'd still like to stick to the East Coast, you could do worse that try Carlingford. This little village (pictured above), nestled between the Mourne Mountains to the west, and the beautiful Carlingford Lough to the east, is a real gem. Not only does the village have some fantastic restaurants and pubs, but it also happens to offer some great walking.

A few years ago, I put a pack on my back, loaded up with a tent and sleeping back, and set off east from the town. I climbed the Mourne Mountains (I was out of shape, but I suspect that most walkers would find it a doddle), and pitched my tent within a few meters of the summit. I was surrounded by a blend of furze, rock...and sheep...who kept me company throughout my slumbers.

The next morning, I woke to discover that a deck of cloud had formed below me. The sun rose, lighting the area in a magical tapestry of gold. Far off to the east, the clouds dissipated...I could make out the Isle of Man sitting like a far-off Avalon, glinting in the sunlight. For me, that was a moment of heaven.

Ireland has many walks: want a spiritual experience? Then why not climb Croagh Patrick, Ireland's sacred mountain in the west. Desire some of the world's most interesting geology? Then try either Connemara (to the west of Galway City) or The Burren in County Clare. Of course, you don't have to be a professional walker to enjoy Irish walking. Visit any of Ireland's remarkable ancient sites - Newgrange, Tara, or The Hill of Slane for example - and you'll experience some great walks and extraordinary sites of interest, all at the same time.
Oh - and while you're at it, and if you work up a thirst - stop in at any pub that you see along the way. You'll meet some of the world's most interesting people, while also perhaps quaffing a pint of Guinness at the same time.

For more information on walking in Ireland, go to:

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Solution to Ireland's Economic Woes?

Oy! It's not enough that the Irish economy is a mess (unemployment over 12 percent, the government tax take down almost 50 percent vs two years ago; significant increases in total government borrowings), but now that very same government is talking about an imposition of even more taxes and pay cuts upon its already over-stretched public.

I state this due to a comment made in a recent blog in which an erstwhile visitor noted that she didn't realize the good people of Ireland pay loads of taxes. So...and without further ado - and just to make you realize how lucky you are to possibly live in a country with more reasonable tax burdens (if only for the moment) - then take a look at the following.

Here's what we pay in Ireland:

  • VAT - 21.5 percent Value Added Tax. This tax is added - like a sales tax - to almost anything that moves: food, clothes, cars, you name it.

  • Stamp Duty - we pay a 'Stamp Duty' on many items: credit cards, housing, insurance products...don't worry, if you use it or buy it, the government will tax it.

  • Salaries - many of us pay two types of taxes on salaries: PAYE (sort of like Income Tax) and PRSI (sort of like Social Security). We're all taxed in 'bands' that start at 20 percent, then soar to over 40 percent. Many people on higher incomes may soon pay over 50 percent of their total salaries in assorted income taxes.

  • Automobile VRT - this bombshell of a tax can put another 20 percent (or more) onto the cost of purchasing a new car in Ireland. We pay VRT in addition to VAT on new cars.

  • Fuel Taxes - the cost of gasoline (petrol) over here currently runs about 3 times what a person might be paying in the US. Seventy percent (or so) of that cost is government tax.

  • TV Licence Fees - anyone who owns a television in this country has to pay 170 euro per annum for accessing the wonderful local programming that courses through the air.

I could go on and on, but I won't. Now don't get me wrong: we do receive services for these crazed taxes: a reasonably good, almost free medical system ensures that you won't go broke should you need your head replacing; free public school systems; an almost free university system (which, it seems, might no longer be free in the near future); a pension when you retire; unemployment benefits if you lose your job; a children's allowance payable to any family - regardless of income - of 166 euro per month for one child; 332 for 2; 535 for 3, and up to 1,550 euro per month for 8 children (makes one want to have lots of kiddies, doesn't it?) Too, many people - almost 50 percent of the populace who are below the taxable income tax threshold - pay no tax at all....

But...things are about to change.

The Looming Budget
In early December of this year - a few weeks from now - the government is planning to implement a hair shirt budget, one of the most daunting since the miserable early 1980's. In this budget - a necessity due to the horrid economy and swelling government spending - our erstwhile Irish public representatives are reported to be planning a whole series of increases in taxes, together with cuts in public sector pay. The results could be alarming.

Recently, the OECD - those mandarins in Europe who cobble together fiscal recommendations for members of the European Union - suggested wide ranging government initiatives designed to curb public sector borrowings, while promoting (we hope) job creation. Those recommendations included everything from charging tuition for 3rd Level (university) attendance, to significant cuts in pay for public sector workers (read: teachers, police, firemen, nurses, and bureaucrats), to re-tooling the tax table to include more and more lower income workers in the tax net.

Should the government follow the OECD's lead, the shorter term outlook will probably result in: strikes, increased taxes, short-term economic deflation, a drop in total disposable income, and increased unemployment. However, and longer termed, the government here might finally find a formula that will lever Ireland out of its current economic difficulties, and toward a reasonably prosperous future.

For the past 10 years, the Irish economy - and the Irish themselves - have been living far beyond its means. While we may be taxed to the hilt, we were also some of the best paid people in Europe. The result was an 'irrational exuberance' that led to soaring debt as we all financed new BMW's, holiday homes, and global vacations. However, the Celtic Tiger proved to be just as fragile as any human being, and finally succumbed to a combination of domestic and international greed, as we all sought to feather our own nests.

All of us who live here have already had to tighten our belts as the economy has continued to sour. The coming budget will mean that we'll all have to tighten our belts further.

But by taking a bit more pain now, we may be in a position to offer our children and grandchildren a brighter future.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ambulance Chasing Irish Style

What Happens in Ireland When You Need an Ambulance:

Yesterday, our neighbor's son Paul came charging to our door. The poor kid was scared to death; his 13 year old chin was quivering like Jello: "You have to come now! My Mum has collapsed!" So, of course, that's exactly what we did. My wife and I ran next door to discover our wonderful neighbor Paula lying inert on her stair's landing. She was breathing, had a strong pulse, but she was absolutely comatose.

At which point my good wife sprung into action. "Call 999!" she yelled. ("999" in case you didn't get it, is the Irish equivalent of 911.) "We need an ambulance! Right now!" And the young neighbor's son, Paul, did exactly that. Without hesitating, he ran to the phone.

And while we made Paula confortable, we took comfort in the knowledge that a local ambulance - complete with its crew of EMT specialists - was steaming toward us, blue lights blazing, weaving in and out of traffic on its way to rescue a favorite friend.

Now - before moving on - I should explain the following: Paula and her family don't have health insurance. At least not the type that many US citizens have. And yet, my wife, Paula, or her young son didn't think twice about calling for an ambulance.


The cost to Paula and her family was exactly... (wait for it)... ZERO!

What Happens in the US When You Need an Ambulance:
If you're not insured, all hell breaks loose. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Kernville, California. In case you didn't know it, Kernville is located about 2 and a half hours NNW of Los Angeles, and maybe an hour or so from Bakersfield. Located in the arid corners of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and maybe 3 hours from Death Valley, I was struck by the beauty of the spot. The Kern River curls around the town, its tumbling energy attracting trout fishermen (or is that fisher-people, if I'm to be PC?) from all over the Western US.

Kernville has also become a fairly popular destination for retirees. Housing costs - at least by California standards - are relatively reasonable. And the location is everything you would want if you're the type to enjoy the outdoors.

But there's a problem. For you see, Kernville is a good 60 miles from the nearest hospital. And that, of course, means an Ambulance trip if you get into trouble.

I was made aware of this fact - and worry - while having a beer at the local tavern. A retired Viet Nam vet was bitching and moaning about this sad state of affairs over his bottle of Coors: "I love Kernville. But I get worried about medical costs," he said. "Recently, my friend's wife got sick. They called the ambulance to take her into Bakersfield. He was the one that almost died when he got the bill. Just transporting her from here to the hospital was over two thousand dollars. He doens't have insurance, of course."

I've been gone for too long because I almost choked on my Miller.

When I got back, I did a bit of research. Many US ambulance companies charge by the mile. And if you don't have insurance, you get stuck with it. So what does one do in California...or Maine, Florida, or Utah if - like Bernie and I - your neighbor's kid rushes to the door and his Mom needs an ambulance, and the family doesn't have insurance?

Pay through the nose, I guess.

The Pros and Cons of Socialized Medicine
Ireland, of course, has socialized medicine. That's why the ambulance bill was zero. Of course, somebody has to pick up the cost, and that someone is the taxpayer. Remember, please, that Ireland has some of the most onerous taxes in the western world. We're taxed on almost everything: salaries, of course. But we also pay a 21.5% sales tax on almost all goods and services; additional taxes when we buy cars, houses, and investment or summer houses; and tax levies on almost anything that you can imagine...television programming, credit cards, check writing... It's a horrible state of affairs, and means that many people take home less than 50% of their gross pay.

BUT, and it's an important least if we want to order an ambulance we know that it won't break the bank. Nor will Irish citizens have to declare bankrupcy if they're uninsured and need a hip replacement, or triple bypass, or require a kidney transplant.

The downsides of socialized medicine are immense: the Irish government is ultimately responsible for the levels of care that we receive. To that end, they've developed a huge, cost-inefficient bureacracy - our Health Board - to oversee national medical care. Recently, and due to the current economic mess - a variety of interest groups have analyzed the costs of that care. And the results have proven eye-opening: huge amounts of waste - particularly within administrative levels - have gone unreported, and undetected, for years. Which means, of course, that Irish taxpayers have not received the sort of cost-effective care that they are entitled to.

As a confirmed fiscal conservative, such waste bothers me deeply. And as I watch Obama's health care proposals move through its various stages, I can only feel sorry for Americans as they ponder the consequences of a national health program ultimately run by bureaucrats. Deciding pro or con on such legislation will be difficult.

While I am not totally convinced of the efficiency of national health programs, all I can say is this: when we rang for an Ambulance to help Paula, we didn't think twice about the cost.

For more stories on living in Ireland, consider Tom Richards book A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland, available at

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween - as Exported from Ireland

Ah, Halloween...a time for trick or treat, and the Great Pumpkin (if you're a Charlie Brown fan, that is). But did you know that the origins of Halloween are Irish?

That's right, folks. Things that go bump in the night started out over here, and is a westernisation of the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Saimhan (which roughly translates to 'Summer's End' from the Old Irish) is the end of the 'light half' of the year, and the start of darker times. If you live in Ireland long enough, you can understand why. Daylight Savings Time ended here last weekend. Now, it starts to get dark at 4:30pm or so...and we have that to look forward to for the next 5 months or so. The Ancient Irish had to cope with this same darkness. So is it any wonder that they wanted to create an excuse for a hoolie? At least they'd have some fun before falling off a cliff that couldn't be seen in the Irish darkness...

Saimhan was, however, not only an end but a beginning... It was the end of one year, and the start of the New. So it was a time for new beginnings, and new journeys. To this day, the Irish celebrate Halloween a little differently than the American version of the holiday...and to be frank, it can be much more fun.

Bonfires of Light
When I first came here in 1992, pumpkins weren't readily available. But I'd go out of my way to order one, ensuring that I could carve my jack-o-lantern just as I had in the States. Mind you, the neighbours probably thought I was crazy! They never carved Pumpkins. Instead, they carved out the innards of a Turnip. Have you ever tried making a jack-o-lantern out of a turnip? It's hard work!

But the Irish had - and continue to have - many other traditions that at the time were somewhat foreign to me. For instance, they would always serve a Halloween Brack, a tasty dense cake of raisins and fruits. Buried within would be a ring. The person who was served that ring was bound to be married in the coming year - and hence a new journey would begin!

Ghost stories are always part of the night, and bound to send a shiver up children's spines. My father-in-law loved to tell the story of the Banshee. He was convinced that he had heard the howl of the Banshee years earlier, upon the death of a friend, and he told that tale so convincingly that many of us could swear that we, too, could hear the Banshee's wail.

But it was the Bonfire that always proved to be central to an Irish Halloween. For months, the local kids gather together anything that might burn - tires, old pallets, beds and bedding - and pile them in the center of a local park. On Halloween night, those mountainous piles of jetsom are transformed into huge burning pyres of light, diffusing the darkness of the night for hours on end.

At the same time, fireworks are lit, lighting the skies with rocket's red glare. And - if you're lucky - a full Halloween moon floats above it all, casting the Irish world in a glow of creepy glory.

Today, Halloween has changed a bit. Irish kids trick or treat, just like they do in the States. Bonfires and fireworks aren't as commonplace due to Global Warming legislation. But many still tell ghost stories, and usher in the new year of light with a fragrant Brack that sends people away toward new journeys.

And somewhere, I suspect that the Old Irish are involved in a ghostly celebration of Samhain, perhaps drinking a mug of Poitin in order to celebrate the end of an old year, and the beginning of the new.

For more stories on living in Ireland, why not buy Tom Richards' book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Click for more details!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Why There's No Bad Guy in Ireland

See the family. See Tom. See Mom and Dad and sister Cindy. It's 1961 Seattle, and this photo is taken only a few miles from the Boeing Aircraft plant. Back in those days, and as a first grader in nearby St Philomena's School, we'd get lessons in hiding under desks as Russian missiles rained down. On the television, and every now and then, the broadcasters would test their Civil Defense System. I can still see the grainy black and white photo of the CD logo in the back of my mind, and the announcer saying, "This is only a test of the Emergency Broadcast System!"

Then, a wild whistle would emanate from the old speakers on our RCA set. Later on, and a bit older, I realized that it sounded distinctly like the whistle of a melting phone in the Cold War film "Fail Safe" - the sound that the phone made as it was melted in the heat of a thermo nuclear explosion. Ah the joys of childhood!

Growing up in Cold War America had its pluses of course. We could make fun of Kruzchav and the Russians and get away with it. Hollywood was constantly coming out with new films that scared us all silly (think of those great 'B' movies: "Invaders from Mars" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still".) Both films pitted good guys against bad - even Red against Blue (Invaders from Mars). But occasionally, one wondered who was the bad guy and who was the good (the Robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still was no bad guy, let me tell you. He had a cool heat ray, didn't he?) And living in Seattle as we did, we occasionally got to see some of the very latest 1960s Western technology (think the Space Needle and the MonoRail - those beat the Rooskie stuff any day.)

In the United States in those days, we knew who the bad guys were, and we had Superman to help us out when those bad guys dared to show up.

In Ireland back then, they had no such bad guy to pick fun at. There were the English, of course. Seems to me that there had always been the English. Four hundred years of servitude makes one think that the Irish would have thrown them out sooner than they did, but that didn't happen until the 1920s. And even then, the Irish were divided in a bloody Civil War over the whole mess. For hundreds of years, the Irish were trapped in a country occupied by an oppressor who didn't do a whole lot for the society. The English banned Mass and the Irish language. They shipped hundreds off to penal servitude - or worse! - emigration to Australia. The English did their best to transform this little country and its people into a jewel in the British Crown. All that happened, of course, was a feeling of resentment that eventually gave vent to war.

And when the Irish at last threw off the yoke of the oppressor, the government did their level best to isolate the country from the rest of the world. Censorship limited imports. The Catholic Church limited free thinking. Films such as "The Man from Aran" portrayed the typical Irishman as a solitary man, alone against the elements, but winning none-the-less. The average Irishman, suffering the slings and arrows of a stagnant economy in those early days of the Republic, must have laughed at the idea of an Irish "Superman", knowing that they didn't have a hero to save them. Only Eamon De Valera, and all he was doing was refusing to mix with the rest of the world which caused only more hardship on an already marginalised economy and people.

Of course, Ireland and the Irish are no longer isolated. Even at the height of recession, this country has one of the highest per capita export industries in the world.

And yet, one thing the country still doesn't have: bad guys to poke fun at and a Superman to save the country. I guess Ireland would have had to go through a Cold War to experience those. Who knows? At the rate the country is going, we may experience a Cold War yet.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Remembering 9/11 - The Comfort of the Irish

I'm old enough that I remember when and where I was when John Kennedy was assassinated. I was sitting in my 2nd grade classroom at St Philomena's primary school in Des Moines, Washington. That's just south of SeaTac airport, for those of you with a geographic disposition. One of those tiny Tanoy speakers came on (every classroom had one) and the Reverend Mother told us what had happened. I was too young to understand, of course. But I do remember our teacher, Sister Raymond Francis, telling us to get down on our knees and say a prayer for the fallen president. I remember my knees hitting the hard linoleum floor, and for 60 seconds or so, thirty 2nd Graders said our Lord's Prayers and Hail Mary's, and when we were done we went back to work. We couldn't understand why the adults that cared for us were crying. Nor could I understand why, when I got home, my mother was wiping tears from her eyes. Now, of course, I understand.

Yesterday was the 8th Anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Like my memory of Kennedy, I'll always remember where I was on that day. I was at work. My wife rang me, telling me that it had been reported that a light plane had hit one of the Towers. I turned on the set that we had at the office, and by God she was right: smoke was pouring out of the building. I should explain that I used to fly light planes, and couldn't understand how any pilot would be stupid enough to hit a New York skyscraper. I put it out of my mind, then climbed in the car to visit a client.

A couple of hours later, I was sitting in a board room discussing something that I now forget with clients who were also friends. The door flew open. A secretary announced that one of the towers had collapsed. "One of them?" I thought. We rushed to a television. CNN was broadcasting live. I got there just in time to see the second tower collapse. And like everyone else in the world I suddenly realized what was going on: my homeland was under attack. People were dead. Innocent people. And in that moment I broke down and started to cry uncontrollably. The client that I was visiting - Teresa Maguire, and I'll never forget what she did for me - took me in her arms and let me sob, then led me back to the board room for a moment of quiet.

In that moment, the professional nature of our relationship changed. We were simply human beings who didn't understand too much.

Over the course of the next few days, I received constant visits by Irish neighbors and friends. All of them wanted to commiserate. To sympathize. To extend their heartfelt feelings of loss and support to me. They did so because I was their friend. I think they also did so because I was American, and in comforting me, they also extended comfort to the land of my birth.

Ireland has always had a special relationship with the United States. For hundreds of years, my homeland has extended comfort to the Irish. Thousands of Irish took the words carved on the Statue of Liberty to heart: they immigrated to the States: the tired, the restless, the poor, looking for the Light of freedom that was shining so brightly on that open door.

On September 11 2001 the Irish returned the favor, at least to this one Yank so far from home. They extended to me hearts of comfort and kindness; warmth and helpfulness. They let my wet tears of sorrow flow onto their comforting and broad shoulders.

I'll always remember where I was on September 11th. I was in Ireland. With a people who's hearts have an infinite capacity to comfort.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The End of Free Higher Education in Ireland?

Meet my son Jonathan. Taken only yesterday, Jonathan is pictured having just received his BA in Irish and media studies (don't ask me where his penchant for Irish came from - certainly not from me or his mother!)

A quick parental Brag List (I just finished putting my 3 kids through college - 9 consecutive years in all - so figure I'm entitled): Jonathan worked his arse off. He ended up at the top of his class at NUIM (National University of Ireland, Maynooth), and by doing so, also won the John Hume Scholarship - which gives him a free ride for four years toward his PhD in Irish Studies. I am justly proud of the hard work of my son. And also so very pleased with the quality of the education that he received.

Now all of that is wonderful. But what's more wonderful is this: during his undergraduate years, Jonathan (as well as his sisters) benefitted from an outstanding, and almost 'free', university education. Of course, I footed the bill for each of them. The cost? Approximately $12,000 per annum. That's right, twelve grand. And that includes everything: tuition, room and board, books, even the occasional pint.

Comparing Costs of an Irish Education with the US
I compare this cost to that of a fellow that I met in Boston a couple of months ago. About my age and with a son in one of the SUNY schools, this poor fellow and I were sitting in his office, comparing notes. It had been an age since I'd received firm figures regarding the cost of university in the States. So naturally, our talk turned to just that topic:

Me: "Ah, it's so nice to think that I'm almost done putting the kids through college. I think I'll buy a yacht!"

Him: "Don't rub it in. I still have 3 more years to go."

Me (now deadly curious): "Ah, Larry, would you mind if I ask?.... What does it cost to send your kid to SUNY?"

His eyes darkened. His brow furrowed. His face grew pasty white.

Him: "Funny you should ask. I just got the bill for the next Semester." He reached behind him and extracted a fairly standard looking statement. Written in nice lettering, it stated, DUE NOW. My eyes quickly scanned a detailed, line-itemed list of fees: tuition, room and board, frizbee ("We'll see about that!" he told me). And finally, I made it to the bottom line:


Me (choking): "This is for a semester?"

Him: "Ayyyy!!!!"

A year of college at what truly is a great university costs poor Larry about fifty thousand bucks. On the other hand, a year at NUIM - which is a great university, let me tell you - is less than a third of that.

Larry glanced at me. "What does it cost to send your son to college?" he asked. I told him. The poor man had to run to the Men's Room, he was so struck with jealousy.

However, Larry and other jealous parents can take heart! Because, and due to the collapse of the Irish economy, it looks like Irish education will be almost as expensive as in the States!

Coming Soon! Increased Costs for Irish Education
The quality of Irish education, and its relative cheapness, has long contributed to the growth of Ireland's economy. Back in the early 80s, when Ireland was mired in an economic morass, even the IDA - the Irish Development Authority, those charged with bringing investment to Ireland - used the quality of Ireland's bright young kids as a sort of Corporate Mission statement. That is to say, Come to Ireland, and you're going to be able to tap into some of the brightest, and most highly educated young people in the world.

And that statement was - and still is - true. Ireland's system of higher education is second to none. For years, the government has seen fit to invest heavily in this area. And by so doing, they have also invested in the futures of its young people and therefore in Ireland, itself.

What's more, higher education - as illustrated above - was (and still is, for now anyway) affordable. If you wanted to go to college, and if you could make the grade, then you could afford it.

While I am NOT a socialist by any stretch of the imagination (okay, time that I admitted it: I'm a registered Republican. Mind you, I voted Obama), I have seen the benefits of almost free higher education at close hand. And the benefits are enormous. Higher learning has provided younger people with skills and knowledge that they might not have been able to afford elsewhere. And that investment paid off handsomely during the Celtic Tiger years.

But now? Now that the economy has tanked, the government is thinking of pulling the plug on free higher education. This year's budget (scheduled to be announced in December, or so I remember) will institute a real schedule of tuition charges. Invariably, many will no longer be able to attend college. And that will rob Ireland of a generation or so of talent and skills.

"But," you might ask, "So what? I had to pay tuition. Why not these kids?" I had to pay tuition too, back in the States. The difference was - and still is - that a wide range of loans and grants are available to US college-bound kids. That's not the case over here. Federal loans are non-existent. Grants are as scarce as pond lillies in the Sahara (my son won one of the only Grants available in the country, God bless him). Private loans from banks are expensive.

Which means, of course, that when this new tuition comes in, kids here considering college will be faced with the same sort of decisions that many US kids face: either forget about going to college at all, or know that you're going to have a six figure loan balance upon graduation.

Maybe that's okay. I don't know. But I do know this: free (or almost free) higher education was one of the significant benefits that attracted me to Ireland in the first place. If that disappears, it will make Ireland just that much less attractive. To me, and a whole lot of other people.

And that, unfortunately, is a great shame.

For more stories on living in Ireland, why not buy Tom Richards' book A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Just click on that link!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Irish Diaspora - a Global Network

I was standing in a Boston cemetery only a week ago. Around me rose the spectre of Irish immigrants. Post-famine headstones marked the successful - or not so successful - lives of Irish men and women who made their way to the United States in the hope of a new future. There, they struggled with millions of other immigrants to transform America into a land of opportunity.

Over the years, I've stood in so many graveyards throughout the United States and Canada and looked down at the remains of Irish immigrants who made their way to America in pursuit of their dreams. During the famine years, thousands of hope-filled Irish paid their way across the Atlantic in search of economic and political freedom. When they arrived in the States, they worked hard to make their dreams come true. And it was a struggle. Is it any wonder, then, that they stuck to their own?

Irish neighborhoods (and sometimes tenements) sprung up in all the major cities. Within those communities Irish traditions of family and loyalty were cultivated and reinforced. Favors were exchanged. Political power established. Over the years, the influence of the Irish swept through America - sometimes welcome, sometimes not. This network of power and influence protected protected the Irish. And the Irish Diaspora (a phrase coined by Irish President Mary Robinson) stretches throughout the world.

If you are considering a move to Ireland, you might see how you can turn the power and knowledge of the Diaspora to your advantage.
The Help of the Irish
It is no secret that millions of Irish descendents live in the United States alone. Many of these people have friends, colleagues, and relatives living in Ireland. As importantly, many of these people may belong to Irish-related organizations based in the States. In turn, these outfits may have contact information in Ireland.

If you're considering moving to Ireland, why not see if you can network through this existing network that is the Irish Diaspora? Research local Irish clubs and societies that might exist in your area. Contact them. Ask for their help: do they have contacts in Ireland? Are there people in their organization that you might talk to? Can they provide additional contacts in Ireland that could lead to a job or more information over here?

If you're currently living in the US but have a passion to live in Ireland, why not start your journey using the closest - and therefore easiest to access - source of information? Your local Irish organization. By doing so, you will not only make some good friends, but you may be able to network through them and onward to Ireland itself.

Thoughout history, the Irish worked hard to make their dreams come true. With a little work, you too may be able to move here too.

For additional stories on living and surviving in Ireland, and for a copy of Tom's book on the subject, to to A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Do We Emigrate?

For some strange reason, I've been thinking about the title of this entry. "Why did I emigrate?" I ask myself over and over again. The practical reasons are simple to understand: I met an Irish girl. I brought her home to the States. There, I lost my job. We had a daughter. I was living in the San Francisco Bay area, and the 82 Recession was horrible. So I had to move somewhere. And why not Ireland after all?

But the practical doesn't always explain the impractical, or the sub-conscious hand that pushes us ever onward. Hence that question: "Why did I emigrate?" I'm curious. And I started to draw some conclusions on the childhood up-bringing that made this tumbleweed blow so far East.

My father was an airline pilot. The photograph above is a United Air Lines DC-6, one of the many types of aircraft that he was rated for. His love of flying took us all over the United States. Over a ten year period Mom, Dad, my sister Cindy, and I lived in Chicago, Seattle, New York, Florida, back to Chicago again, then onto California - and meanwhile, I went to college and lived in Bloomington Illinois, Michigan, and Los Angeles. To my reckoning, and from 1964 to 1974 (and excluding my college years) I lived in four different states and in 8 homes, while attending 8 different schools.

That's a lot of travel. And I found it affected me in many ways.

I felt rootless. Since those days, I constantly ask myself, "Where is home?" Home, as they say, is where you hang your hat, or where your heart and family are. But for me, that's never been quite the case. Home to me is the smell of Mom's cherry pie wafting through our Seattle home way back in 1960. That's a long time ago. Mom isn't with us anymore, and the house - while still there - contains other people and other types of cooking smells. So finding my version of 'home' is impossible.

Moving and Moving and Moving
Moving so many times had other effects on me: while I made friends quickly, I knew that I was going to lose them. Unlike many transplants like me, my commitment and loyalty to those friends was more than 100 percent. I wanted and needed their friendship. Because I was a stranger, I wanted to be liked instantly. I did everything that I could to fit in and to deserve friendship. And when I left, I was always devastated. Even more so when my letters back to them went un-answered.

I grew up to be a cameleon: a fellow who could change his spots almost instantly. A guy who always fit in - but not quite. It is a discomfiting, uncertain feeling. A scary feeling. A feeling of never belonging to anything.

But what is most interesting is this: this sort of background also makes you want to move again and again and again. You're never quite ready to settle down. You want to experience other things on an almost constant basis: "What's around the next horizon? Will it be as beautiful as what I've already seen? Will the people be as intersting? Will they accept me and befriend me?"

For a long, long time I thought I was one of the only people in the world to feel this way. And then a friend of mine suggested that I was much like a child brought up in the military: a Military Brat. That clicked with me. In the airlines, the children of airline pilots are called Airline Brats, and for the same reason: we are powerless to control our destinies. Instead, we are the subject to the whims of airline seniority, or a new city with a chance of a promotion to Captain or a different airplane type.

I finally found a blog devoted to these types of rootless, tumbling people: Written by a woman who was the daughter of a career Army officer, it explains a lot to me about my own penchant for risking everything on a whim. It also explains to me why I never thought twice about moving to Ireland and becoming a lifetime immigrant. It also tells me that while I've settled here and am happy here, Ireland has never quite been my home.

It tells me why I've been able to make a go of it here, yet also why I continue to miss a home that probably doesn't exist anymore.

So tell me. If you're considering a move to Ireland - or anywhere outside of the United States - do you have a similar background? Are you a tumbleweed who revels in your own rootlessness? Who enjoys the challenge of trying new places and people, and that desires to push the envelope by now trying a completely different culture?

I'd appreciate your posts. I'm really interested if there are other people out there who are as puzzled as I am when I ask myself the question: "Why did I move to Ireland?"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Staying Put in Ireland

First, my apologies for being Absent Without Leave. Things have been a bit crazy for the past 6 weeks or so, and are going to get even crazier over the next 2 months. I fly to Boston on business on the 3rd August; my day job provides no let up (thank God - it helps to make a bit of money just now); I have a screenplay due in 2 months (and haven't started it); and I'm messing with a new novel. The fact that I've relocated to Trim in County Meath has only compounded things a bit.

But Trim is lovely! A walking town, and with Trim Castle at its heart (the same castle that was used in the film Braveheart), it's a magical place which fills my soul with goodness.

How-and-ever. That's me. So what about you?

Today, I received a post on this Blog from a woman who has just returned to Ireland from what I can only assume was an extended period abroad. She states 'Now all I have to do is stay put!'

It's difficult, that. And she's not the only one. I have a close friend - an Irish fella - who has lived in the States for 10 years. He's moving back to Ireland this coming November. And he's worried about it. "What happens if I don't fit in?" he asks. "What happens if I can't stand the place anymore? I feel like a man without a country. I belong in Ireland, but I also belong in the States, my new home."

Oh, how well I understand that feeling! - of belonging, but not quite so. So what do you do to 'stay put', as my post-lady asks? What do you do to feel a part of the place again.

I'm not exactly sure. But I have one idea: simply breathe.

The Wonder of Irish Solitude
Last week I had a business trip to County Mayo. I visited Westport, and for 2 days I stood on an open field in the rain, watching as a crew of refurbishers put up a series of electric poles. I've been contracted to help a company with a website, and the owner - a big Mayo fella who used to be a lighthouse keeper but now owns the company - stood beside me as it began to softly rain. "Ah," he says to me. "Isn't it a wonder. Breathe that air. You can believe in angels in this weather."

Angels? From a guy as big and as tough as the solid wooden poles he was erecting? And yet, that was the case. He believes in angels and so, I suspect, does the entire population of Westport because of their soft and open nature, and the goodness that I met so many times while I was there.

The next morning, I woke up early. I wandered down toward the old Harbour, and there I beheld the sunrise. Croagh Patrick, the legendary pilgrimage site, rose hundreds of feet through a horizon of cloud scud, and for a long while I stood at the sea and beheld its glory as the sun finally painted it in the warmth of the rising sun. For a long time, I just stood there: hearing the whispers of the far-off cormorants hunting for breakfast; the gentle breath of a breeze on my balding pate. And in that instance, I felt part of the place. As if the angels of the Mountain were welcoming me home after a long journey.

How do you Stay Put in Ireland? Perhaps one of the answers is this: listen to the angels. They sing to us with a song of welcome.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lonely in Ireland - What Ex-Pats Rarely Discuss

When expatriates get together to discuss their moves abroad - or when people ask me questions regarding a move to Ireland - those subsequent conversations usually stick to facts: how do I move there? How to I get a job? What should I bring?

What is often unstated, and unasked, is the emotional impact of moving to a country and culture far away from your own. Recently, on, I saw the following cry for help:

"I have lived in Portlaoise for the last year and am wondering if there are any other expats around. I am from California and would like to know if there are other US citizens or people from other countries interested in chatting about life in Ireland. There is an expat group that meets monthly in Dublin, but the timing and distance makes it hard to get to the meet-ups...maybe if there are a few people interested we can start up some sort of group for the midlands. I've been really homesick lately and would like to hear from anyone else who is nervously facing down another Irish winter. "

Living abroad combines a sense of adventure with a sense of being a 'fish out of water'. Being an expatriate for any length of time is a roller-coaster of emotion: moving from the 'highs' of experiencing the excitement and joy of a completely different culture and adapting to it, to the 'lows' of sadness and even despair, because you may be far away from friends, family, loved ones and a culture and nation that you love.

And anyway, you can't get Bisquick over here. And suddenly, that becomes a huge problem! Or at least it seems like it... When that happens, the world seems grey and grim indeed. Colours aren't as bright, and the journey of moving to a new country can seem not only daunting, but soul destroying.

What to Do?
So what do you do when those 'lows' get too low? And it's important to recognise that you're low, and to take appropriate action: Lows can - and do - lead to depression. Over the years, I've experienced this darkness of despair, and know other expats who have felt the same way.

For what it's worth - and I'm no psychologist - here's what I've done in the past and present when Homesickness gets a little too much:

1. Go Home for a Visit - when I first moved here in '82, I didn't return to the United States for four whole years. I didn't go back for one simple reason: I was broke and couldn't afford it. And I missed my 'home' sorely. Back then, airfares were horrendously high. But now, things are different.

If you really miss home, and the world seems grey, for God's sake go back for a few days or a few weeks. A whole range of airlines now operate out of Ireland bound for the United States and North America: Aer Lingus, Continental, Delta, Air Canada... You can fly into Boston, Atlanta, Chicago... and from there, anywhere in the US. And prices are relatively cheap! So if you miss home, Go! Right now, not later! Go walk the streets where you lived. Go hug friends and family. Go to assure yourself that nothing has really changed back there, and that if it becomes truly hard, you really can change your mind and go home. You have that right! And I've found that by knowing I have a choice, living here is also my choice, and a choice that I make every day.

2. Talk About It - do you have a local friend or spouse that's empathetic to your needs and wants? If so, share your feelings of occasional loneliness and isolation with them. Find someone 'safe', and be truly honest with them. Tell them what you like about Ireland. But also tell them what you don't like, or are frustrated with. Being allowed the privilege of 'venting' truly helps.

3. Emerge Yourself in the Culture - a number of years ago, I met a Canadian who had moved here...and was miserable. He constantly complained about the country, and how much he missed home.

But was it any wonder? Turns out, as I got to know him more, that he never gave himself a chance. He never tried to make Irish friends. He never got out from his Dublin home to see the rest of the country and what it has to offer. He hung around only with other North Americans. In fact, I felt that he was living in a 'bubble'. So...what I always suggest is this: make some Irish friends! Get out into the culture of Ireland! Join some local clubs; volunteer for local organisations. Try your best to see the beauty that surrounds us here (when it's not raining, of course): the history and the hills, the fragrant colours of Ireland's hills and fields; the majesty of its mountains and cliffs. And critically, and a most welcome fact: the warmth of the people here.

Emigrating to any country is hard work, and can be emotionally quite stressful. A move of this type catalyses a roller-coaster of emotions. To survive - and emotionally prosper - in a new country, you need to devise a coping and support structure. You need to open your heart, and mind, and soul to what surrounds you. You need to recognise that you won't feel like a fish out of water forever. That as the days pass, you'll feel more and more comfortable in your new home. But that you will also suffer from the occasional day of greyness and seeming solitude when 'home' back wherever you come from looks so much better.

Hang in, is all I can say. Ireland is worth the effort.

For more information and stories about surviving Ireland, why not consider buying Tom's book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Simply click on that link.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Moving to Ireland

Don't Pack the Ark Until You Know What to Bring

Well, what'cha know. It seems that I'm getting some followers. Which means, of course, that it's only nice to reply! First, an apology: it's been over a week since my last post. Things at this end have been frantic for one reason for another. And bound to keep up that pace for a bit. So if I'm a bit short on advice, or not as quick to respond as I'd like to, forgive me...

But onward.

First, a question from Nick who asks: I do have a general question...I'm in my last year of law school in California, any insight on American lawyers finding jobs in Ireland? Anyway, thanks for the blog and keep up the good work.

Tom says: Ummmm...short answer to your short question is: unlikely. But that's just because I'm not a lawyer (I do know a couple of lawyer jokes, but that's not going to help at all!), and so don't have a handle on what's truly required. In my ignorance of all things 'law related' I'd suggest that you simply Google "lawyer/jobs/ireland' and see what happens. I just did it, and a whole lot of links came up. Mind you, I have no idea what they really mean!

Do remember, however, that a whole lot of US companies have offices and service centres in this country. (Go to for a list of ALL 'foreign' countries based in Ireland). I suspect that each of those US companies employs somebody or other regarding their corporate legal affairs, and the interplay between the US and Irish corporate bodies. Anyway, you might start there. My first 'real' job here was with a division of Hyster, the fork lift company. I weasled my way into their marketing department. If I can do it so can you.

Now onto James's question. James (who became an Irish citizen through ancestry) is married to an American gal, and they plan on moving back to Ireland soon. He asks a question:

"My question is this... what sort of advice would you offer someone like me, as far as what to bring, what not to bring, etc. We will be renting a furnished place, so we are planning on packing very minimally. I have been informed that my wife shouldn't have any issues working since she is married to an Irish citizen. Do you know any info on this? I know we have to provide proof etc to get her a visa, but any addtl info would be helpful, as well as any other tidbits of info you might find useful. Thank you in advance for your help!"

My Answer: only bring along what is absolutely necessary. But DO make sure to bring:

* US Passport/US Birth Certificate

* PROOF from your Automobile Insurance company that you have driven at LEAST five years without an accident. Get that note on their letterhead, signed! You'll need it to get a 'No Claims Discount' from a car insurance company over here. By doing so, you can save up to 70 % on premiums. So don't forget it.

* Bring anything that's run on batteries, or via 'recharge' and that you want to use here. Laptops, cell phones, etc can be powered up using the 240 watts that we use over here via their charger (that charger should be able to convert from 240 to 110/120 - but look on the Charger! It should tell you!)

* If you bring said charger, but plug converters (see previous blog). They should be available at the airport. You can get them here but I think it'll cost less there.

* Bring CLOTHES, especially your good wife. Fashion here is DIFFERENT. It's European! She might not like it (but will hopefully get used to it). And clothing is - in general - less expensive in the US.


Anything powered directly by 110 volt. So ditch, store, or give away: your hifi/radio/ boombox /iron/wild hand held mix master that you got for your wedding. Don't bring them because they won't work here UNLESS you buy a Transformer. And you don't want to do that. They are BEAST heavy, expensive, and horrible. I tried it: when I moved here, I brought along what then was a brand new Marantz Hi Fi component system. I LOVED the bloody thing. Then I went out and spent a fortune on a transformer that I couldn't afford.

The result? The Marantz was blown within a year, and I had to buy a new system - at extortionate prices. I should have given the thing to my sister then living in California. If I'd left it behind, she'd probably still be using it.

Hope that this helps, fellows! Onward!

For more advice on living in Ireland, you might consider a purchase of Tom Richards' book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland. Just click on that link!