Before the pandemic, Niamh O’Donoghue was living in London. Now, she’s contemplating a move to the Irish countryside…[restrict]
Within ten minutes of asking the internet whether there was anybody who had absconded the city during the pandemic in favour of sprawling, rolling greenery and sea-salt spray air, I was inundated. It’s an idyllic scenario: wide-open space, pollution-less air, an excuse if your Zoom connection cuts short. Tweets and DMs told tales of mornings by isolated shorelines and walks down lonely country lanes, and of weekends spent hiking nearby hillsides and hacking about on horses. It seems that Covid-19 has caused a kind of mass exodus from our cities and a reappraisal of urban living. And I think I want in.
Under normal circumstances, my tiny, rented home is in the bustling borough of Camden, North London. I worked hard to make it look and feel like me, despite it being no larger than a postage stamp. It was mildly damp, but isn’t every rented flat? A family of foxes had claimed my garden (yes, a garden in London!) and the 240-year-old sewage pipes overflowed twice, but it was my space and I loved it.
When Covid-19 took hold, I made the scurried decision to decamp from my nest and return to my old haunt with my parents in Dublin. Almost one year to the day, I’m remain here, gratefully still with a job and my health, and nestled in a make-shift sewing room-cum-office with a Zoom backdrop of loud Orla Kiely-esque wallpaper that teeters on the fence between kitsch and offensive. I continued paying rent for my empty London room for nine months before deciding that: A) it was financial suicide, B) it was unclear when, if at all, I would return to London. As more companies announce employees can work from home indefinitely, people – me, us – have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to knee-jerk from the suburbs and, theoretically, go anywhere the wifi will allow them.
The pandemic has prompted a shift in our behaviour: our favourite city hangouts became Covid19 hotspots almost overnight. Crowded parks appear claustrophobic and suddenly the desire for distance and green space is all-consuming. Interest in rural property soared as the Covid-19 effect kicked in. The humble cottage is experiencing something of a renaissance, with searches for cottages “doubling year on year” says Julian Fleming, a consultant at Gordon MRM, a communication agency who work with MyHome.ie. “The increase in searches for cottages is what stands out. There has been a four fold increase in searches for cottages in Kerry, specifically in cottages priced under €100K,” he says of the surge.
“Searches for a property less than €100K have gone up 6-fold in Cork and Leitrim. Searches in Roscommon have doubled, and Galway, Wexford and Mayo have seen a 5-fold increase,” he adds. Searches for houses in west Cork have also gone “through the roof”, according to Angela Keegan, managing director of property website MyHome.ie, who told The Irish Times in July 2020 that call enquiries had increased by 9,000%. It’s a similar picture across the board, with property viewings up 160% around Galway and Mayo and as much as 200% in Louth. For all of the pain and suffering the last year has caused, the pandemic has also prompted people to reassess what’s important to them, and for many it’s more time with family and loved ones, remote working, a place to grow fresh produce, and a garden for children to play in.
Moving on out
Change can, like fear, deter people from pursuing what they love most in the world. The idea that one could simply upend one’s life for greener pastures might seem like the stuff of fairytales, but if you watch Escape To The Chateau, or follow any #wanderlust Instagram traveller, you might be familiar with the idea that people who make a big change in their lives end up happier than those who continue with the same old, monotonous grind.
That’s exactly what Erica Bracken did. A senior account executive in a busy Dublin-city agency and yoga enthusiast, Erica went from living on a busy main road in the heart of the Liberties with cafes and supermarkets nearby, to “a house surrounded by fields”. Her cue to leave her shared accommodation in Dublin and return to her hometown of Glenville, Cork, came shortly after the announcement of the first lockdown in March, 2020, when it became clear her office would be working from home for “at least a couple of weeks”.
In her own words, “I remember so clearly being in the office with Leo Varadkar’s lockdown 1.0 announcement on RTÉ being projected onto the wall. It was a no-brainer to head to my family home in the middle of the countryside with acres of space and all the home comforts, over working in my small Dublin apartment where I lived with one person who would be working from home too.”
What struck me about Erica’s situation was how unabashedly happy she now seemed at home in Cork, spending her evenings and weekends on secluded walks with her family, with ample personal space, practicing her twisted yoga bends and even renovating a vintage caravan into home-away-from-home garden escape. She paints an idyllic picture and makes a strong case for the mental health benefits of a life with less commodity and more connectedness. But this is life through Covid-19. Would Erica, and the thousands like her who swapped city life for country air, feel the same when the rush of the world returns to “normal”? Am I willing to sacrifice my Pret all-butter croissants and oat milk lattes and chance encounters with friends instead for a chance at a slower-paced life?
There are many longstanding reasons for migration from major cities to more rural areas. First of all, the rent. In normal life, I spend approximately £1,000 per month on rent for my tiny bolthole bedroom. I spend £300 on food, a further £250 on public transport, £130 on utilities and I’d set aside some money for emergencies.
After that, I am left with little or no savings.
For the same price, I could get a mortgage for a 4 bedroom house on 2 acres of land out west.
The picture is just as bleak in Dublin where couples now need a joint income of a minimum €100,000 to buy the cheapest apartments available on the market. Yes, millennials like me are scolded for eating too much avocado toast but the true underlying fact is that most of us graduated or entered the workforce just as the entire global economy was shutting down.
Saving was a key agenda for Erica, who has doubled-down on her efforts thanks to moving home. Despite being relatively isolated and no longer able to enjoy the usual amenities that city life offers, like yoga studios and high-spec gyms and trendy cafés, Erica now has financial security to plan for her future which, she says, would have taken her years were she still living in Dublin city. “With this amount of savings and the comfort of knowing I can live at home rent-free for the foreseeable, it has given me the luxury of being able to really look at what I’m doing with my life, consider my values and what I want to do next. I think lots of people are reassessing whether they really do need to live in the city to work and if that lifestyle is even what they want at all. I’m looking into all my options now, something I wouldn’t have been prompted to do had it not been for the current circumstances. And with savings behind me, all those options are much more open to me.”
Chickens and WiFi
My partner and I now spend our weekends ogling over cheap romantic houses in need of rescue, from the rolling green hills of Sligo and the boglands of Fermanagh, to the salty, taste-it-in-your-mouth sea air at Keem Bay on Achill Island and the blissfully peaceful lake-side walks in Leitrim. Keeping in line with my Cancerian, water-sign tendencies, having a direct gateway to the sea is, for me, the ultimate luxury. Room in the garden for some chickens and a horse is an added bonus. Strong WiFi is a must.
The question remains: would I still feel the same way when the world returns to normal? (I type this tentatively). When the shutters of my favourite restaurants creek open, and my Whatsapp groups are a hive of activity, would I still feel the same then? What about those glorious, sporadic afternoons in town that turn into 4AM ragers in The Globe? Seeing friends, catching up with former colleagues and going out for dinner (with not too much notice) is a real joy, as are having takeaways and a weekly walk around Dublin’s Dead Zoo and IMMA. What if I shift my life outside of my city, then sorely miss it?
Edel Hennessy, a Dublin transplant, returned to her family farm on the Carlow/Wicklow border (what she calls “a decent drive from any town”) during the earlier stage of lockdown, and admits that despite having ready access to nature and quietness, she misses the buzz of city life. “I don’t have friends close by where I live now and this isn’t the time to try to make new friends,” she tells me, noting the isolation factor of living so remotely.
“There is no infrastructure nearby,” she adds, telling me that the closest town with a supermarket is a 15-minute drive away, while the nearest large town is a 30-minute drive. Edel has since invested in a car to enable her to travel more freely and have more independence while living outside of the city. While rural living has afforded her time to recalibrate and the rare opportunity to submerge herself into nature – “being surrounded by it is truly a joy,” – Edel admits to missing the services city living provides, like food deliveries, cafés, gyms and random meet-ups with friends.
“It’s impossible to walk at night, particularly on country roads. There are no street lights and, even if you dress up in reflective gear and headlamps, it just doesn’t feel safe,” she tells me, listing off some of the less desirable traits that come with a bucolic lifestyle. “You cannot order a takeaway if you are very rural. That isn’t an important one, but for a previous takeaway addict I do miss the luxury of food being delivered!” Although Edel’s time in Dublin city was not without its difficulties, she’s hopeful that when restrictions lift she may return city life again with fresh eyes.
Living beyond the suburbs is not without complications and, as Rosa Rankin-Gee writes for British Vogue, the “‘getting more for your money’ argument has long been the blinding, guiding light of gentrification.” Dreams of navigating rural Ireland as a young, ambitious person are quickly squashed when you consider the crippling transport services, lack of access to rudimentary mental health services, a shortage in youth services, a delay in rural development and no national broadband plan (in 2021!!!).
Rural Ireland’s trifecta of socio-economic, cultural and political issues will take far longer than my lifetime to fix, but groups like the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) and Macra na Feirme Rural Youth Committee are lobbying for more local and national government reinforcement to encourage more of the working force to areas of the country that need it most. Unfortunately, the state of Ireland’s remote towns and villages is a symptom of the overall health of the country.
The global deceleration has, undoubtedly, provided something of a marvellous opportunity to regenerate rural Ireland. We’re no longer required to live on the commuter belt, spending three hours a day getting to work and back. We’ve proved, with great gusto, that we’re still producing really, really good work from the comfort of our own environment. Whether that trend will continue into the future remains to be seen, depending on how willing employers are to adapt to the new norm, but right now we are experiencing an incredible cultural shift of slow-down-ness and I am gripping it tightly with both hands.
I know, too, that rural living isn’t for everyone and that cities are an integral part of the engine that drives our society forward. But right now I am craving waking up beneath vertiginous mountains or next to a sandy shoreline somewhere (or both?) and fresh air in lieu of botox (for future me). I have, by virtue of my subconscious, already began to swap suit pants instead for functional dungarees for when my fencing needs fixing or the chicken coop needs mending. And, above all, I am ludicrously overexcited about submerging myself into nature. Maybe by writing this I will manifest it quicker. Until then, my country-living fantasy lives rent-free in my head.