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