‘I was often told to leave South Africa and go back to Ireland if I hated the country so much’

Eddie Ennis moved from Marino to South Africa aged 24 and became a citizen to vote in the 1992 referendum on ending apartheid

When we arrived in Johannesburg in 1984 it was a very different place than it is today. It was during the time of apartheid, but we lived in a multiracial kind of area called Hillbrow in the centre of Johannesburg.

It was certainly a lot rougher than any place we had ever encountered before.

Hillbrow was a very strange environment where pubs certainly were not like anything that we were used to from Dublin. People carried guns, and fights were not unusual; but, as usual in these cases, once we settled into the area we realised there was actually a reasonably large Irish expat population living there.

There was an Irish club and a strong Irish music scene on Saturdays and Sundays. Uilleann pipes were played as well as banjos and violins. All kinds of the Irish songs were sung, so really it wasn’t such a different environment from back home, and drink was cheap.


We were also lucky enough to have an existing small but very close group of ex-Marino families here. Coyles, Jacks, McCrorys, McMahons, O’Hanlons and Butlers to name a few. We had our first Christmas with the Coyles, who treated us like actual family and this led to many years of Sunday lunches and weddings and benchmark birthdays.

But I also was very aware of the injustices and racism in the system. It was everywhere and yet concealed like dirty linen. You could choose to ignore it or accept it or fight it.

I tended to fight it, either by overtly challenging authority figures and law enforcement by just simply asking why?

I was often told to leave and go back to Ireland if I hated the country so much. My standard retort was usually to say I don’t hate the country, I just hate the government.

Eventually, I got a job (we were undocumented), and my work life has been amazing. I have mainly worked in heavy industry and mining. South Africa is a very hard-working society, but Johannesburg is also a huge party town – probably dating back to its mining-town history. To my surprise, it was also an incredibly hospitable and welcoming city.

I was lucky enough to see the demise of apartheid and took out citizenship, as did thousands of immigrants from all over the world, to vote in a referendum to remove apartheid and which led to the release of Nelson Mandela and, eventually, led to democratic elections in 1994.

During this time, I met my wife, Jacqueline, from Carrickfergus, Co Antrim. We have been married since 1990 and have a son, Keelan. Jacqueline is a nurse and a very committed and hard-working person, loved by both her employers and her patients. When my business went under, she went back to work and put food on the table when all I could do was try to cope with all the madness and insecurity that these things bring. She’s always kept me focused and centred.

This year, I had 14 family members come for Christmas. They came from all corners of the Irish diaspora – some from Dublin, some from Australia. We had a real ball and it was a real Irish Christmas in Africa

I got involved in my 40s in project management and was lucky enough to be a director of a company designing and building mines in southern Africa. So I became reasonably wealthy for a while and actually looked like I was going to be a wealthy man. However, in 2009 we went bust so I’m back working, but really enjoying my work; amazingly enough, the current client is not only Irish, but the owner and founder is actually from Marino.

So my life has gone full circle.

I’ve worked all over Africa – including Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have been to Liberia and spent lockdown in Nigeria. I have also had opportunities to travel to the US and Australia, so it’s been a really interesting career – one I don’t think I could ever have had in Ireland.

My favourite part was in 2006 when I was lucky enough to be appointed as project manager for a job in Malawi to build a water distribution system for the village of Karonga. It was a philanthropic project and I had the opportunity to get close to some of the poorest people on Earth. It was both humbling and a huge honour, but also a great adventure, and I discovered my ability to solve problems. And to survive tropical disease.

I have five sisters in Dublin – Nora, Marion, Vivian, Bernadette, Evelyn – all of whom I love very much and they have all been out to visit me here. My late mother visited too. This year, I had 14 family members come for Christmas. They came from all corners of the Irish diaspora – some from Dublin, some from Australia. We had a real ball and it was a real Irish Christmas in Africa.

I still try to visit Marino as often as I can and I love having a pint in Kavanagh’s or Grainger’s or Gaffney’s. It’s a really fantastic place to come from.

Realistically, my future will always be in Africa, but I will visit Ireland.

If I retire, I would love to spend three to five months in Ireland and the rest of the time in Africa. The weather here is perfect. I love the wildlife and I love camping. I love the outdoors. I love sitting by a fire till 2am drinking a glass of wine, listening to lions roaring in the distance.

  • Eddie Ennis is from Marino in Dublin where he lived until 1984. At the age of 24 he left Ireland for what was to be a two-year adventure in South Africa.
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