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‘I don’t feel either Irish or British’: English expats on being ‘blow-ins’ in Ireland’s most British town

Ahead of St Patrick’s Day, recent and older arrivals from England reflected on new lives, identity and heritage in Skibbereen, west Cork

Hayley Milthorpe was 16 when she was left to fend for herself in west Cork. Originally from Yorkshire, she moved to Ireland in 1991 aged 10 with her family.

“We came on holiday and never went back,” she says.

After six years, her parents, their funds depleted, moved back to England for work. She moved to Skibbereen and took a job in a local fish factory to make ends meet.

“I had to leave school and just managed to survive until I was about 18. I then met a man and had my first daughter when I was 19; I was a teenage mum,” she says.


Fending for oneself from an early age was a tradition that ran in her family.

“My dad had the upbringing that he was out of the house when he turned 16 so he expected us to do the same. I still don’t know how I did it.”

Milthorpe, a mother of four, is speaking in her office at the Cultured Food Company, a fermented foods business on the outskirts of Skibbereen. Established nearly a decade ago, the company now employs five local people. Hers is Ireland’s first commercial sauerkraut company.

While Milthorpe’s west Cork story is not representative of the many “blow-ins” who moved to the southwestern tip of Ireland, she is one of the 146 UK nationals recorded as living in Skibbereen in the 2022 census.

Five per cent of Skibbereen’s population are UK nationals, making it Ireland’s most British town. Kenmare and Killorglin in Co Kerry, where UK nationals make up 4.8 per cent and 3.8 per cent of the population respectively, come close behind.

Some 83,347 UK nationals were living in Ireland in 2022, making them the second largest non-Irish population after Poles.

Milthorpe may have lived in the area for decades but it is only since she established her business that she finally feels part of the community.

“I always felt like an outsider. I was bullied at school for being English. There’s a weird thing where people here think if you have got an English accent you’re posh. But I’m from a working-class family,” she says, reflecting on identity ahead of St Patrick’s weekend.

She believes the influx of other nationalities has made the place “more diverse” and “made Irish people open their minds”.

“I couldn’t imagine a child coming from England now and being so openly bullied,” she says.

Milthorpe is proud to live in Ireland but admits she “hangs on to the Englishness”.

“I have spent most of my life here in Ireland but I still feel English at my core,” she says in a Yorkshire accent laced with west Cork inflections.

‘The farmers came to gawk at the girls going around with no bras’

Alison Ospina, who has lived outside Skibbereen with her family since 1996, has also held on to her English accent but feels deeply embedded in the local community.

“We had friends with relatives in Courtmacsherry and they said: ‘If you’re going to Ireland, go to west Cork’,” says the psychiatric nurse turned author and chair maker who lived in London before Skibbereen.

“In the kids’ school here you were either ‘blow-ins’ or hippies. And hippies was a derogatory term, it was definitely a put-down. But that’s changed so much,” she says.

Ospina’s 2011 book, West Cork Inspires, examines the wave of European artists and craftspeople, many of them English, who made their home here from the 1960s to the 1990s.

“It was a perfect situation for young people, mainly from the UK, who wanted to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. It was also the time of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and Cork was supposed to be the safest place to live in Europe if there was a nuclear war,” she says. “And there was women’s lib, people who didn’t get married and had kids.”

While there was an undeniable cultural divide between the local community and these English artists, people were welcoming, says Ospina.

“I have been told how they would throw parties and invite the locals, and the farmers came to gawk at the girls going around with no bras. There would have been some tensions but there was also an interchange between them,” she says.

She believes “coastal people” have been “much more welcoming and open-minded” because they have seen people arriving on their shores “for centuries”.

“Very often, it was the people who had been away and came back who were friendly and chatty, who you could really talk to,” she says.

Ospina has noticed a new wave of English arrivals in recent years.

“It wasn’t just Brexit; it was also the pandemic. English people can’t just buy a holiday home in France or Spain any more but because of the special arrangement between Ireland and England they can buy here.”

‘We do have this historical guilt on our shoulders but our Irish friends say it’s all in the past’

Noel and Lesley Lawn, who live above the picturesque Lough Hyne outside Skibbereen, discussed moving abroad before 2016, but say the Brexit vote that year “set the wheels in motion”.

“We were just coming up to retirement when the Brexit vote happened,” says Noel Lawn, a former GP from Devon with an Irish background.

“We were committed to being in Europe and then the vote went the other way. And when Boris Johnson came in it was the nail in the coffin for us.”

“The country felt very toxic and xenophobic,” adds Lesley, a former translator. “But I guess it’s worse now.”

The couple are speaking almost five years to the day when the UK parliament was divided and tensions ran high as the then UK prime minister Theresa May sought a solution to the Brexit conundrum.

They left for Cork 11 months after Britain formally left the European Union in January 2020. They were welcomed with open arms once locals realised they were relocating rather than buying a holiday home.

“There’s only two families on this road who are local,” says Noel. “Everyone else calls themselves ‘blow-ins’ but of course, they’re Irish, just not from here.”

Asked how they feel being British in Ireland, the couple say living in west Cork has made them “more informed” about Irish history but that they have felt “no antagonism” as Brexit arrivals.

“We do have this historical guilt on our shoulders but our Irish friends say it’s all in the past. It’s not forgotten but they don’t make us feel responsible,” says Lesley.

“I feel more at peace and don’t have a moment’s regret about coming here,” adds Noel. “It feels nice to be welcomed in the country my grandmother came from, the place she had to leave through economic necessity. To come back feels like completing the circle.”

‘There were some horrible remarks; they would see us as foreigners with our accents’

Alice Halliday, a clothes designer who lives on the outskirts of Skibbereen with her partner and two sons, says the perception of English people in west Cork has changed compared with when her family moved over in the late 1980s.

“There’s so many different kinds of cultures around here now, people are a lot more welcoming. It’s an easy place to live – it’s an easier pace of life,” she says.

Despite being just one year old when she arrived, Halliday has an English accent, something she was bullied for growing up.

“As a child I was very shy. The other kids would say they didn’t like English people because of the history – that was kind of ingrained in people. Even at secondary school I remember not really clicking with people. There were some horrible remarks; they would see us as foreigners with our accents,” she says.

“A lot of people, when they first met me, would say ‘You’re not from here’, because of the accent. That bothered me because I am from here, this is where I grew up.”

Aside from her first year of life in Bristol, and four years spent studying fashion in Warwickshire, Halliday has lived in Ireland her whole life and loves her west Cork home.

“But I don’t feel either Irish or British,” she says. “We’re all born into the same world, we’re all part of the human race, we should all be treated equally regardless of history. We shouldn’t be defined by our nationality. I don’t feel I should have to identify as either British or Irish. But I do feel this is my home.”