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Wednesday 19 June 2019

Exiles: the Irish artists seeking refuge on other shores

Songwriter David Kitt is not the only Irish creative to lose faith with unaffordable Ireland. Hilary A White catches up with some of the Irish artists living in Berlin, Stockholm and beyond

Fears for the creative classes: Roisin Agnew has settled in London via Dublin, Rome and Lisbon, while musician Saramai Leech, left, now calls Berlin home
Fears for the creative classes: Roisin Agnew has settled in London via Dublin, Rome and Lisbon, while musician Saramai Leech, left, now calls Berlin home
Art decade: Dave Hedderman moved to Berlin before the Crash
Write choice: Emma Flynn has moved to Berlin from Bucharest

'I love the fact he said that he can't afford to live in Dublin and he's moving," Nina Hynes says. "When I lived in Ireland, it was shameful to say you couldn't afford something, that as an artist you weren't making enough money. It was seen as a measure of your value."

Hynes, a mainstay of the late 90s singer-songwriter boom in Ireland, is feeling the pain of her colleague David Kitt. She left a credit-crazed Celtic Tiger for a life in Berlin where she's lived for the past 11 years in palatial accommodation with affordable rent, and her family and artistic aspirations glowing. She's met any number of David Kitts in her adopted home.

At the same time, it all feels a bit baffling, she admits, to be at this juncture once again. The problem is compounded, I offer, by a generation that refuses to pay people like Kitt for recorded music. Hard to pay your rent when people are stealing your wares.

"I'm not sure it's a matter of people not paying for his music," Hynes says. "He played here in Berlin and the concert was full. He was a lot more popular than I was. I mean, he had a No 1 album, which is kind of mad - that someone who had that can't afford to live in their own city."

Kitt's recent announcement that he was leaving these shores (citing the prohibitively expensive rental market) has blown open the subject of this housing crisis from another angle. Besides middle-income earners struggling to get a foothold on the property market, what about creatives with inconsistent incomes? And what, by extension, do we stand to lose if we don't secure a place for our creative class in this re-emergent Ireland? While some things may seem worryingly familiar, there are differences this time around that make it possible to have a professional foot in Ireland while laying your head somewhere more accommodating. As long as you have a laptop and a basic sense of how to connect to the world through it, you can work anywhere.

Conor Cusack plays with Dublin rockers Spies and also manages a small talent stable that includes Saint Sister and Tandem Felix as part of international music management company ie:music. He moved to Berlin a year ago.

"I went from paying €600 in Dublin for a room in a four-bedroom apartment to paying €500 to live on my own in my own studio," he says. "I have friends who pay €300. You can eat out for €5. Beer is cheaper than water in some places. And if your rent is €300 and you're working in a café two or three days a week, you've got five days to pursue creative things. It's hard working in the music industry or doing creative things - you don't know when the next pay cheque is coming, especially if you're freelance, but at least you can survive here on minimal income."

Having done the sums, it worked out cheaper for Cusack to live in Berlin and fly to Dublin twice a month for shows and engagements than to live in Dublin. Vitally, that headspace was also freed up.

"It's just nice not having to worry or worry a lot less," he says. "If you're living month-to-month, you can always figure out something. I felt like a weight was lifted and I could focus more on what I was trying to do instead of worrying about the bottom line. It's tough regardless of where you live, but there's a cushion here."

The sentiment is shared by writer Emma Flynn. The 25-year-old has been in Berlin for a month following half a year in "insanely cheap" Bucharest. The Kerry native and her partner decided on the German hub as it was easier to find work to support themselves. The ultimate aim is to finish her debut novel.

"In Dublin, even though I was in a good job, I was still living pay cheque to pay cheque and wages never caught up with rising costs," she explains. "And because work was everything, I had no time or energy for writing. And all of that compounded and impacted my mental health a lot. I know this sounds ridiculous, but here I actually feel more like a person, like I have more purpose, that life isn't solely about making ends meet. At home, I just felt like an employee, either going to or coming from work. Another thing we've found here in job interviews and talking to landlords is there's a different attitude.

"Not only has it been easier than Dublin to find a job, I didn't feel like I was begging for one for the sake of money - I felt like I had a skill set to offer that the employer wanted, a bit of leverage and a sense of worth. In Dublin, you're trying to put on your best behaviour and just get the job."

When people have inevitably asked Flynn why she wouldn't just move back to Kerry to live with her folks and write there, she finds it exasperating. "Why should I? I spent years growing up there and I don't want to move backwards." She underlines something key to all this and that is the idea that our creative class is young, ambitious and determined. Their disenfranchisement from our capital city is not for want of trying. They want to be effective, to have prowess and skill levels that put them on a competitive footing with the rest of the world. They're positioning themselves in an environment where they can apply that skill set to best yield fruit. Relocating to a more affordable region rather than sacrificing their vision is brave, resourceful and shows backbone, the very things millennials are so often accused of lacking.

Take Navan dream-pop duo Saramai Leech and Cormac O'Keeffe who go by the name 'p e a r l y'.

Ahead of their Hard Working Class Heroes festival appearance in Dublin later this month, Leech explains how they moved from an idyllic situation near Kells in search of the stimulation of a metropolis. Dublin, with its barking rental market and pricey rehearsal studios, was pie-in-the-sky. Berlin was realistic. "If we were trying to do what we're doing in Dublin, we'd need to be spending most of our time working on something non-creative to pay the rent," Leech feels.

"We know lots of artists based there who live somewhere remote like we did because the rent is cheap. But artists need to be sparking off each other and have a forum. It's not a healthy scene if all the artists are dispersed to out-of-the-way places where no one knows what they're up to and their work isn't challenged.

"We have a one-bed apartment and a rehearsal studio for roughly a third of what it'd cost in Dublin. That said, Berlin rents have been rising steadily. People on older contracts are well protected from rising rents but there are vulture funds buying up and cornering the market here as well. We got lucky through friends. We don't live in one of the very well-known artsy areas like Kreuzberg or Neukölln, as rents there are now more comparable to Dublin, but we love where we are and the city is very well connected."

While Berlin has been the traditional bolthole, Irish creatives are finding more conducive conditions in other cities, too. Lisbon and Prague also provide an inexpensive but good quality standard of living as well as cheap, direct flights to Dublin. Amazingly, Dublin's disastrous rental market is even making places such as London and Stockholm handier for some.

Dubliner Dennis Harvey wanted to do a master's in film but didn't have the five-figure sum needed for this. Instead, his Swedish girlfriend suggested Stockholm where such a course would be free. The couple live there now in an affordable rent-controlled apartment while the 27-year-old studies and works in documentary film-making. "There's thousands of landlord companies in Stockholm which own huge properties and rent out apartments," Harvey explains.

"You get on a list to get a contract from them that has rent control and legislation protecting it. My girlfriend was on it 12 years because the Stockholm housing market also has issues but different ones to Dublin. The queue now can be 20 years, and then there's a huge second-hand market of subletting by the people who have these contracts. But you can actually live cheaper than in Dublin. We pay about €600 for a one-bedroom apartment between us and we shop in Lidl."

As a member of The Immediate, Dave Hedderman was in one of the most exciting rock bands this country has produced. The dissolution of that group (leaving bandmate Conor O'Brien to form Villagers) came alongside the end of Hedderman's relationship and the passing away of his father. Berlin was somewhere to bring his already fruitful painting career and start afresh. He settled 10 years ago just on the eve of the Crash, an event which made him thankful to be in a new exciting environment with cheaper living costs. He offers a word of caution to those eyeing-up Berlin as a get-out-of-jail card, however.

"It's not as easy as you think," Hedderman (35) says. "I still need to work intensely to survive. If you're going to do it, do it now because it's completely changing. I used to live away from my studio but now I'm going to live in it as well as work there. In Berlin, there's no rent control for commercial space so my studio is now what I was paying when I left Ireland. Also, I pay €120 per month health insurance. It's compulsory, even though I haven't been to the doctor in about 20 years, and if you don't play the game they'll catch you."

While Hedderman grew roots quickly in the city's vibrant and warm community, it still doesn't feel like home, he says, and he's biding his time to move back. And while the conditions might be good to make work, it is not the best place to move it, meaning he's had to forge a new line teaching life drawing to make ends meet.

"The art scene is flooded," he says. "Swamped. And it's funny and entertaining and super exciting, but also confusing as hell trying to find your place in it. Dublin on the other hand is a great size. It has a great arts scene, the music scene is the best it's ever been, a young creative artistic energy is driving huge change like we saw with the Abortion referendum. I actually saw David [Kitt] two weeks ago at this festival here. The first thing I did was give him a hug! He was asking about Berlin and I gave him advice. It makes me sad that people like him are leaving because if you can hang on, it's an exciting time in Ireland."

Someone who has written about this topic before is journalist and aspiring screenwriter Roisin Agnew who has moved around Lisbon, Rome and London after experiencing gig-economy burnout during her time in Dublin. She doesn't want to "dump" on Dublin but she is frustrated with the way the city is going.

"I love London," the 29-year-old says of her current home. "In fact, I'm a little shocked how much I love it. From here, it's easier for me to maintain a strong relationship with Dublin. Dublin has always been heartbreaking to get away from because it's so unique and such an amazing place because of the people. It's incomparable. There's nowhere else that has that kind of community in my mind.

"And people don't travel to Dublin because it's the European answer to San Francisco, they travel to it because of its artistic heritage. If you turn it into a playground for people on middle to high incomes, you could destroy the creative classes. It's very worrying to see this collective amnesia about what happened before. Everyone's just comfortable and affluent again and it doesn't feel like there's potential for things anymore because money is the only thing people are listening to."

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