Sunday 20 August 2017

Meet the couples who left Dublin for rural Ireland in search of a better quality of life

Selling up in the city and moving to the country can win you a bigger home and better quality of life. But what is it really like to downshift? Caroline Allen meets couples who opted for a rural retreat

Margaret O’Farrell and her partner swapped a semi-D in Donabate for five acres and a detached house in North Tipperary
Margaret O’Farrell and her partner swapped a semi-D in Donabate for five acres and a detached house in North Tipperary

Caroline Allen

If you dream of upping sticks and moving to the country in search of more space, a chance to buy your own home and a taste of the good life, you are not alone. According to the latest preliminary CSO figures, the population in some rural areas is rising, and that is despite lack of broadband, closing post offices and poor local transport.

Take the pretty market town of Sneem in Kerry. It has seen an increase in population of 41.1pc since Census 2011.

Other areas on the up include Claremorris in Co Mayo, up 12.5pc; Roosky, Co Leitrim, 23.3pc; Gort, Co Galway, 13.7pc; Tullow rural in Carlow, 20.7pc; Carlingford, Louth, 22.2pc; Ballycommon, Offaly, 28pc; and Skibbereen, Co Cork, with 4.8pc.

Skibbereen auctioneer Pat Maguire has noticed a 'trend for continued growth' dating back over the past two years. Some buyers are younger Irish couples who are getting mortgages now that the banks are lending again, and are back in the market. Many young couples he sees buy in the eastern part of West Cork, and commute to work in Clonakilty, where there is a large technology park.

A second type of buyer has been working abroad 'in good jobs' in the UK or continental Europe during the crash and now wants to move back home.

Typically, they are looking for large houses on West Cork's Millionaire's Row, the stretch that runs from Skibbereen to Baltimore and which numbers Sir David Puttnam and Jeremy Irons as residents.

"There are good quality schools here to educate their kids and they want to settle down in a smaller community," says Pat.

And then there's the 'grey market', older people who may have sold their business or property and have money on deposit but are getting little or no return on it. They are looking to invest in property. "There is literally no supply of rental properties - buyers are picking up on that, you are virtually guaranteed €600 a month and there's the likelihood of capital appreciation ahead as well."

Many in the grey market choose to retire to West Cork, or use their house their as a holiday home, which they may rent part-time.

In the past, moving to the country usually meant waving goodbye to a well-paid role but digital hubs like Ludgate@Skibbereen, where you can rent a desk or hire a meeting room, and have access to high-speed broadband, now make it is possible to keep your city job or even start a new venture.

Being connected, however, is crucial. Seamus McHugh, his wife Niamh Walsh and their two children, Laoise and Tom, arrived in Carrigart in Co Donegal last October from their rental in Dublin and soon became involved in a local campaign for a digital hub. Seamus is international sales and marketing manager with retail software company CBE while Niamh works with Cushman and Wakefield, a branch of Sherry FitzGerald. Both their employers have been very open to them working from home.

Seamus doesn't miss his 40-minute commute but looks forward to the day when he - and many others - can work from the digital hub. "We relocated for family and lifestyle reasons. We're currently renting with a view to buying or building - here you have the capacity to build a home to your own specifications, with local schools and amenities on the doorstep."

'Dublin? It's just way too noisy'

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Margaret O'Farrell pictured at her home in Lorrha outside Nenagh in Co. Tipp for property feature. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Margaret O'Farrell and partner Alfie McCaffrey went from running a scuba diving business in Dublin to pig farming in North Tipperary in 2003. They had been looking for a new business premises in Dublin "but the cost of 'key money' was astronomical and we just couldn't afford a quarter of a million euro to acquire a new premises. We tried to continue running the business from our Donabate semi-D but it really wasn't viable", Margaret says.

They sold their home and bought a detached house in need of renovation on five acres. "We worked at various jobs up to the end of 2009 when everything once again went pear-shaped and we had to reinvent ourselves again.

"We were keeping pigs for meat for ourselves so set up Oldfarm Pork, selling freerange pork to customers nationwide. Other sources of income are social media training and we've opened up our home to Airbnb since 2013," Margaret says.

"I can't say there were any problems integrating into the community except I guess that you do always feel the blow-in. People here have gone to school together and have known each other all their lives, so we will be outsiders to the end. That's not said in a bad way, but we're not related to anyone or haven't been born here, gone away and come back, we are completely from outside. So you just have to accept that."

Alfie had a heart attack last September. "Alfie was able to ring our GP at 6.30am to get a letter for the hospital - not sure we'd be able to do that in Dublin," Margaret says.

"I drove like a lunatic to get to Galway Clinic, an hour away. Alfie was taken straight in and was on the operating table within half an hour. At the same time my 88-year-old dad had to wait two hours in Malahide for an ambulance to take him to Beaumount." The couple can't envisage returning to Dublin. "It's way too noisy," Margaret laughs.

'The sooner you make friends, the better'

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Carmel Harrington from Screen, Co.Wexford photographed with her husband Roger, daughter Amelia aged 5 years and son Nate aged 3 years

Wexford native Carmel Harrington, author of The Things I Should Have Told You, relocated to her home county in 2010 from Dublin after 20 years of city life, with her Dubliner husband, Roger, and seven-month-old daughter, Amelia.

"I was ready to come home, to be close to my parents and siblings. While I loved my life in Dublin, I always thought of Wexford as my home, and having children was a game-changer for me," Carmel recalls. "For my husband, it was a bigger adjustment. He not only had the complications of a location move, but a new job to contend with too as he transferred in his role to Wexford. It was at times a stressful process for him.

"Roger, who works for the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, had applied for a transfer a few years before that when we got married, but was told there were no positions available in Wexford. So we decided to do some work on our Dublin home, as we were starting a family.

"Then out of the blue, after the extension was completed on our semi-D, he got a call to say a vacancy had arisen. Ironically, it was probably the fact that we had just renovated our home in Dublin that made it easier to sell in a market that was nose-diving at the time. We had an offer after first viewing."

The family rented in Wexford at first, in a village close to Carmel's childhood home. "Being able to drive to my parents' house within five minutes, and seeing the relationship that our two children, Amelia and Nate, have with their grandparents is a joy to watch," she says.

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Writer Carmel Harrington — ‘We got a bigger bang for our buck in Wexford’

They bought a house in 2015, putting down roots in Screen village. "There's no doubt that we got bigger bang for our buck in Wexford. We have a four-bedroom detached bungalow, with a huge garden. Our children attend Screen National School and it's such a supportive and imaginative environment. Amelia and Nate are privileged to be educated there. We're lucky that we live in a beautiful part of the world, close to the beach and forest. It really is postcard pretty and we've made great friends within our community."

The pace of life, Carmel remarks, is much quieter, with less traffic and noise. "But Wexford has so much - a vibrant arts and culture scene; historic towns and great shopping. And it's an easy commute to Dublin, which both my husband and I have to make on a regular basis."

There are downsides. "We miss my husband's family and our friends we left in Dublin, but I suspect they quite like the fact that they always have a bolthole to visit. Overall the move has been a positive and exciting one."

Carmel's advice is to rent first to get a feel for the area. "Get involved with your local community - the sooner you make friends, the better. And when things get stressful, as they will, remember all the reasons for the move in the first place."

8 tips for movers

  1. It's a buyer's market. If you are selling in the city and moving to the country, you will find that your euro stretches much further.
  2. Choose a spot you know. Somewhere you're familiar with or have some connection with will help - ie, friends who can introduce you to the social scene, help you select a school and be there with cups of tea during your first months of settling in.
  3. See it in winter. Make sure to visit potential country homes in winter or on a grey wet day to get a sense of how it would be to live there outside of summer.
  4. Watch your distance. If you have young kids, choose somewhere within walking distance of a school and shops. You do not want to be in a car all day.
  5. Connectivity is key. Given the state of broadband in rural Ireland, check that you can be connected if you need it for work or sanity. Or that there is a local internet cafe or digital hub.
  6. Consider leasing land. If you want to be a hobby farmer, it can be a good idea to lease land initially until you know the country life is for you. Don't buy more land than you can realistically farm.
  7. Look at the costs. Allow for higher heating, septic tank and other costs.
  8. Mind the kids. It's so much easier to 'bed' children in when they are pre-school or in junior school. Move sooner rather than later.

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