A Connecticut Yankee in a failing Ireland

Author David Monagan moved his family here ten years ago, buoyed by a romanticism that has since dimmed a little says Colette Sheridan.

“WHAT the hell are we doing here?” journalist and author, David Monagan, has been asking his family since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. The ex-pat American, who has just published Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a Wildly Changing Country, moved to Cork 10 years ago with his wife, Jamie, and three children, then aged 12, 10 and six.

The couple, who have Irish ancestors, had romantic notions about Ireland, fuelled by the literature of James Joyce, WB Yeats and JP Donleavy, and Monagan had studied English at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1970s.

His first book about Ireland, Jaywalking with the Irish, published in 2004, revealed his love affair with the country.

This distinguished-looking, tall, white-haired New Englander always had wanderlust.

“My mother was a born wanderer. My father was an accountant who led a very stable life in Newbury, Connecticut, staying in the same place for his entire life,” he says.

“But my mother never lost the itch for adventure. During the Great Depression, she and her family moved house 31 times. As the years went by, raising five children, she took odd jobs and squirrelled away money which she used for taking trips, often without my father.

“I suppose I have the spirit of the maternal side of my family. Certainly, there was an itchiness in me to try a new life in Ireland. Jamie was game for it as well.”

While Monagan balks at the suggestion that his life in Connecticut was the fulfilment of the American dream, he says that “there was a lot of goodness to our life. We lived in Newbury, Connecticut, one of the most beautiful New England towns. It’s a village, really, and a lovely place to raise children.”

The family’s large house, complete with swimming pool, was near a lake, a wood and a ski resort. Monagan’s lucrative career involved producing corporate-sponsored publications. “I had several people working for me and had all the work I could handle and more. But, eventually, it began to seem repetitive. I wanted to do something new, and also, the golden era of newsletters started to die out before my eyes because of the internet,” he says.

Having been in Ireland several times since his student days, Monagan decided to take his family on a sabbatical in Cork for a year or two. He says that his children were reluctant to leave their lives in Connecticut but the Irish trip was presented as an adventure, something that would be fun.

“When I first moved to Cork, I thought it was a gas. I’d fall into the Hi-Bi Bar where there was singing and laughter at any time of the day, much to my wife’s consternation,” he says.

While Monagan spends less time in pubs these days, he loves the craic and the spontaneity of Irish social life. “It’s there as a backdrop; it’s part of the quality of life in Cork although there aren’t so many parties these days. People are watching their dimes,” he says.

Monagan’s children, Laura, Harris and Owen, initially found the Irish education system difficult. “It’s different in orientation than the American one. While there’s probably too much emphasis on self-esteem in the American system, here there is too much rigid doctrinaire learning for exams. The children had to adjust but they were young enough to be flexible when they came here,” he says.

Ireland Unhinged is a colourful book that is part commentary on the excesses of the boom and part a quest to find the ‘soul’ of the country. It is also a memoir of a family adapting to a new life. The book includes a meeting with JP Donleavy in his stately pile and an encounter with a white witch. Monagan also spent time with eco-warriors trying to save the Hill of Tara. His research took him to Northern Ireland where he hung out with an ex-IRA man and also spent time at a monastery with holy men.

“I think the book paints a portrait of some of the excesses that seemed kind of mad to me. I had a sense that the Celtic Tiger was unsustainable. Having seen the incredibly dramatic and tragic collapse, it sometimes seems irreversible — although I hope that’s not the case. But I don’t think we would have come here and invested our family’s life in Ireland if there hadn’t been the Celtic Tiger. I’m not so romantic that I’d ever want to go back to the dreary old Ireland that I first encountered as a student,” he says. Monagan worries about his children’s future “Whether my children will return to America is a completely open question. I’m hoping, not just for my family but for all of us, that things will begin to turn for the better. I have become more accepting of the changed terms of life here, for the moment. I’m trying to be positive about the future. There are many creative people in Cork. I’m not just talking about professional musicians. I think there’s creativity in the talk and outlook of the people. There is a unique quality of life here and lots of good conversation and storytelling. I’m trying to be patient and more positive than I was a few months ago,” he says.

* Ireland Unhinged by David Monagan is published by Transworld Ireland, €12.99.


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