As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

What I miss about Ireland

I stumbled on a very visual and funny post that Guy Kawasaki wrote about a recent trip to Dublin. It was light and entertaining, and inspired me to dig out a teeny little story I wrote about the Long Room at Trinity College, which Guy said was his favorite place in Dublin. I discovered the story in the middle of a report I wrote on the verge of leaving Ireland, in 2005. At that time, I was impossibly sad at the prospect of returning to the US, so I expected a pretty maudlin assembly of observations–but it still stands as a mostly accurate reflection of our favorite aspects of our Irish lives. And the Long Room thing still makes me smile.

It’s a cheap way to get a post in, but I noticed that people seem to read the Irish stuff in this blog the most, so here goes:

2005: We move back to Boston this summer. What a change four years can bring. We approached moving to Ireland with pure excitement. Reversing course is a much harder proposition, full of mixed emotions. In a nutshell, Dublin, even still, represents adventure, small pond living, and the thrill of the unknown. Boston offers familiarity, insularity, and the threat of hamster-wheel living. But if we sought comfort, Boston would be the clear winner.

We don’t seek comfort, but we feel a need to try US living again. If we don’t come back now, we never will.

I start this report with a list of the things we look forward to in Boston, and the things we are glad to leave behind in Dublin. The results are succinct:

Look forward to:

  • Being with friends and family who have known us more than a nanosecond
  • The summer and fall (but not winter)
  • Endless reserves of American optimism and idealism
  • Schools which value individual thinking and creativity more than rote memorization
  • Being more at the center of things, professionally
  • Dunkin Donuts, Twizzlers, Goldfish, Ball Park franks. And cheap, good restaurant food.
  • People who say what they mean—nothing more and nothing less
  • Businesses that answer their telephone and do what they promise to do

Glad to leave behind in Dublin:

  • The cruel, empty promise of an Irish summer
  • All talk-no action community “activism”
  • Mindless, senseless litter and vandalism
  • Snails. Voraciously eating our dahlias. Crunching underfoot on the way to the garbage bin.
  • Having to explain American foreign policy
  • Sunday morning sidewalk vomit
  • A tendency towards insecurity and petty begrudgery in the face of other people’s success
  • Weather that changes 10 or 20 times a day. People in Boston used to say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait 10 minutes.” It must have been an Irish person who imported that comment because this is surely where it originated. You never forget you live on a small island here—the skies won’t let you.

But the main things on my mind are none of the above, but rather what we will miss about living in Dublin. Do you have a minute?

What we will miss:

  • Travel. Between the low cost airlines (for which Dublin is a hub) very frequent and extended school vacations, and the proximity of other nations, we’ve been given a priceless opportunity to roam Ireland and much of Europe with great regularity. Being able to go back to places more than once has been one of the best features. Parts of western Ireland, Tuscany, Scotland, Barcelona, southern France, and Paris almost feel like our own.
  • Friends, specifically, and Irish sociability, generally. It’s Fiona Murphy dropping by yesterday to lend us some tables for an upcoming BBQ, and staying on two hours for coffee. It’s the Porters coming over at the last minute this Saturday night to watch the USA-England soccer match. It’s always being pressed to accept a cup of tea when we collect one of the boys from a play date. It’s sending out invitations for a party 10 days before the event and having 70 out of 75 people show up—on a holiday weekend no less. It’s the great, endless, effortless Irish capacity for chat which makes most dinner parties a “floating on air until the wee hours” experience. I think our Irish friends would really feel sorry for people who consult their calendars at every little turn and who have to actually schedule drinks with friends for six weeks out. It’s not that Irish people aren’t busy. It’s just that getting together with friends and family is a paramount priority, powerful enough to knock all the other items further down any given to-do list.
  • Lack of Planning. I can’t believe I’m writing this. Even today I get thrown by the total, utter lack of advance scheduling which characterizes our lives, when they intersect with Irish institutions. Just last Friday, at Dane’s class musical, I was stunned to learn that that was his last day of school. We were sure he had another week to go. No one at St. Conleth’s College put that information in writing and I guess Dane thought we knew. Yet…..somehow…..when I step back and look at our current lives, I realize that not knowing the date of every last soccer match (we only find out the matches a few days ahead of time), parent teacher meeting, registration deadline, music concert, business closing, and school field trip date creates a vast white space in the calendars of our lives. I will find it really depressing to know two or three months in advance that we are committed to be in certain places at certain times. It extracts the sense of possibility and squashes it with the hammerlock of responsibility.
  • Characters. It’s partly a city thing, and partly an Irish thing. Maybe if we lived in a Dublin suburb I wouldn’t be able to write this. But it’s about coming home at midnight on a Tuesday and finding a person I’ve come to think of as “cat woman” on our stoop. Busily feeding the local stray her fish and chipper remnants, she looked up at me with a smile, and launched into an hour-long telling of tales. Being short some teeth was no handicap. She just explained that she misplaced her dental bridge and she was sure she would soon come upon it if she simply prayed hard to become a better person. Thinking that the loss was recent, I asked her how many days she’d been looking for her teeth. “Just over a year” was the nonplussed answer.
  • Texture. It’s the people, the buildings, the history, the land. America seems so thin and shiny in comparison. Ordinary perambulations are layered with interest in Dublin. It’s not all pretty, savory, or even completely safe. But I always feel very alive in this city.
  • French movie night. A med student pal comes over once a week to watch a classic French movie with myself, Gray and Carl. The licorice-mint tea and cookies keep the boys in the game, but the films often work too. Would I ever be able to do that every Wednesday in the US? Would I ever make friends with a much younger med student? Or a lively grandmother, like my friend Sheila?
  • Dublin wit. These people are just endlessly hilarious. Chatting with the mums and dads while I wait for Carl is sometimes as good as going to an open mike comedy night. Most of the humor is not of the scripted kind, but I did hear a good joke last week:

An Irish guy in England went to a building site to apply for work. The site foreman, wanting to test the applicant’s construction knowledge, asked, “What’s the difference between a joist and a girder?” The Irish man replied, “Well now, yer man Joyce, he wrote Ulysses, and that Goethe fellow, he wrote Faust.”

  • Hiking in Ireland/Europe. Just 45 minutes from home, we can be taking a wild cliff walk with the ocean crashing below, or a scenic glacial valley ramble, with a panoramic postcard view. Walking through the endless New England forest and climbing small hills for a tiny glimpse of a view (of more trees) just won’t be the same.
  • Theatre. You lay down your 20 Euros and you find yourself sitting in a prime Saturday night seat, appreciating fine acting and writing, in a cozy or elegant venue which is only a 20 minute walk from home.
  • Irish sense of fun. My visiting brother Denny and I struck up a conversation with the security guard at the Long Room at Trinity College. It’s a very tall double story room, one flight up from the Book of Kells. Along both sides of the aptly named room march vast, vaulted dark wooden bays lined with shelves, all stuffed with priceless ancient texts. Each of those bays has at its end, facing the room, a pedestal holding a chalky marble bust of a famous historic figure. All along the middle of the library are glass display cases showing important printed materials. We commented on the winter gloom in the place, and the tiny little ruddy faced guard told us of his nightly adventure. At closing he has to turn off the lights at one end of the room, and run “like the devil” down the pitch black football field length of the library to reach the exit staircase. He talked about how “it gives you a real fright” in the winter, especially when one of his colleagues takes a notion to hide in the stacks and jump out from behind a bust of Julius Caesar. Denny asked, “Well why don’t you just keep a flashlight at work?” The guard replied, “Why, that would take all the fun out of it, so!”
  • Not being marketed to a whole lot. If we want an Irish product or service, we have to seek it out. It can be annoying—I only just this year discovered that I can buy postage stamps on-line and that there is a modern renovated library and also a food co-op very close to our house. But keeping the sell-sell-sell to a minimum is worth it when it saves us from being told by Pottery Barn that our lives would be indescribably improved with a handsome set of Indonesian storage baskets. And by the Gap that “You are a nerd because you don’t have this spring’s narrow jeans.”
  • Being a tenant. It’s indescribably wonderful to just pick up the phone and call landlady Annabelle whenever something goes wrong in the house. It’s even better to look back on the year and realize you spent a total of about one day on house projects—and that was just planting and maintaining the window boxes.
  • Relaxed attitudes. It’s easy to stand out here by making a tiny bit of extra effort—it’s so rarely done! Fundraisers, and social events, and business plans, and term papers, and sporting leagues are undertaken with a native efficiency and, generally, unbothered last minute execution. The results, if not exactly Martha Stewart/Microsoft/Princeton University/Lexington Little League, get the job done, and usually quite well. If someone drops in and the house is a dump, I don’t care because they don’t care. If I call and say I’ll be late to a meeting the response is usually, “Don’t stress. We’ll see you when we see you.”
  • The lack of rules. This is not a good thing for Ireland, especially with the emerging immigrant population. But it’s a good thing for us, as native English speakers, and a recently learned ability to get what we want just by pressing on with a heartrending sob story.
  • Family life. Families are a priority over individuals in Ireland. My American friend Anne once remarked that US kids are increasingly raised like only children, no matter what the size of a family. It’s kind of the opposite here. The needs of all the individuals in a family—grandparents, parents, and children–are intuitively blended to create more interdependent relationships. More time is spent just being together, adults have lots of time for adult activities, work is more contained, and kids are secure about their place in the world. We’re much the richer for some of that having rubbed off on us.
  • Being in the capital of a small country—small pond living. Opportunities just land in our laps because of this. We end up on radio and television shows, we participate in large scale Irish events (Carl just came in third in a national poetry contest that we didn’t know he’d entered), we rub elbows with Irish politicians and celebrities in the course of daily life, we feel connected to Ireland as a whole, rather than to just our local community.
  • Seeing the place change at such a rapid pace. It’s like Ireland is packing fifty years of living into five. It’s not all good, but it’s always interesting. This phenomenon is most evident in the retail trade, about which I hope to write a separate report.

People ask how the boys feel about the move. It’s a mixed bag. Dane would just as soon cruise on out of high school here in Ireland, but he’s glad he’ll be missing the pressurized sixth year exams. He’s about to leave for Mongolia this week and after that very intense five weeks with pals he’ll probably feel pretty terrible about taking off—what sixteen-year-old wants to move anyway? Especially from a city with easy public transport, to a car-dependent suburb. Interestingly, Dane’s lately talking about coming back to Ireland for college, where he’d have a ready-made social life. We’ll see if that idea survives a US-centric college guidance process.

Gray can’t wait to get back to roaming his old Lexington neighborhood with pals, and playing American sports. He’s sensitive to the restrictions of city and Irish life—he loves the outgoing, loud, everything-goes aspect of the States. Yet, Gray’s really sad about leaving his Irish buddies and I think he will miss his tiny school where everything is so geared for boys—it’s a place where the teachers sometimes join in the lunchtime soccer matches, and also enthusiastically discuss The Simpsons as a warm-up to Latin class.

Carl is looking forward to shedding his wooly jumper and neck-choking tie. He can hardly imagine wearing shorts and sandals to stroll into Bridge School, like some kind of degenerate. I think the coed scene will probably be a nice landing for him—if the girls aren’t too precocious. His current fourth grade class of boys is soooo innocent—more like American seven or eight-year-olds. Carl loves art and there will be more classes available for him in the US, so he will probably find that a treat.

None of the boys can imagine a life without constant, yet casual, travel, but I’m not sure that they care as much about that as Des and myself.

Des and I are just putting our heads down and making the move happen. The goodbyes have started and they are gut-wrenching. They say once you’ve lived overseas, you are never quite at home anywhere again. We’ll see. For the boys and me, our arrival will be staggered through the summer, finally landing in Boston August 15. Des has to finish up his Belfast assignment so he cleverly misses the major events of the move. But he also misses our idyllic interval in Maine–the short end of the stick is not so clear in this situation.

I think I will re-read this in a year and still agree with the sentiments, but have a list of rediscovered pleasures of American life. Kind of like when I used to get so melancholy at the end of my maternity leaves, and had total amnesia about what I enjoyed at work. Then I got back to the office and remembered what a pleasure it was to talk on the phone or eat a sandwich without balancing a baby on one shoulder. I can’t predict the US-life equivalents, but I am counting on finding them.

8 Responses to “What I miss about Ireland”

  1. Katie

    You nailed the differences, the culture and the people. How I miss Ireland, too…thanks.

  2. Colby

    Great post! You’re an excellent writer.

    This gives me solace as an American relocating to Dublin in three weeks’ time. I wasn’t sure whether I’d love it or hate it or both.


  3. julespieri

    Colby, You will never regret that move. I predict you will evolve from “where the heck did I land?” to wonderment, to acceptance, to affection, on many aspect of Dublin.

  4. Sally Hughes Doherty

    Just read this in complete, and it is like you were writing straight from my head after my 4 years in Ireland getting ready to come home. Now that I have been back in the States for 5 I am feeling more wistful about Ireland and back down on those American things I missed so much while living and working in Eire.

    I showed this to my Irish husband and he got a good chuckle from much of it- the good, bad and the ugly of Irish life.

    I guess there is no side where the grass is completely green. Or else, the grass only really looks green when the sun is shining.

    I really appreciated reading this, so thanks for putting it down with such skill.

  5. julespieri

    Oh Man Sally–I have loads of this stuff that I wrote while in Dublin. In fact 35 more “chapters” that are effectively a kind of raw and untamed book. I started writing our first week there as a efficient way to let our Stateside friends know how we were doing. And then people asked for more, and I couldn’t stop the writing either once I got into it. It was a great way to document our learnings and journey. Because once you “get” something–people, a place, traditions, culture–it is very hard to remember what it was like before you understood it. I changed a lot in my views, desires, and preferences, and that path comes through in all the reports I sent home. I am glad to have them. But this one is definitely one of my favorites. I am glad you found it entertaining Sally. Thanks for writing.

  6. Jamie Strowbridge

    Wow! I lived in Castle Troy in County Limerick for 6 months where I attended the University of Limerick in the spring of 07. To bring up a line you used “They say once you’ve lived overseas, you are never quite at home anywhere again” could not be any more correct! Even though I live in Minnesota I still daily find myself thinking about my experiences in Ireland. The friends I have made are life long friends. I have had 7 friends make the trip over to see me since I have been back. When I went over I went alone with no friends because I wanted to go out on my own and it was the best decision I have ever made. The only problem is because of that I sound like a broken record because of how much I talk about it and all the you had to be there stories.I really appreciate what you’ve wrote it really is right on. One of my biggest fears is that I will never get to go back again. Eversince I came back I have always wished I was back there. BUt thank you for what you have wrote, it is great to think again about the little things overlooked by most.

    • julespieri

      Jamie….yes there is huge bond between us, even though we never met. The expat experience (generically) is so powerful, and the Irish one is very special. When we first decided on Ireland I felt like a wimp…I wanted to go somewhere more challenging. But in the end I was really glad i was in a place where I understood the language and could appreciate the more subtle nuances of culture. I KNEW when I was screwing up, and had fun figuring out why. Had I been in, say, Mongolia, I would have been a perpetual tourist. Congrats on your wonderful experience and the priceless friendships. You’ll have them for life.

  7. Jolie

    Thanks, that is a very good article. I found it via Google and immediately incorporated into my feedreader. I am pleased to soon be back here to read again! greetings


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