The Irish in Rome: from Emerald Isle to Eternal City

Long before Ryanair launched low-cost flights from Dublin to Ciampino, the Irish were coming to Rome in their droves.

Current estimates, drawn from the Italian ministry of the interior and Irish embassy records, put the number of Irish nationals residing in Italy at about 3,000; of these, roughly half live in the greater Rome area. These numbers have doubled over the last 20 years. This is partly due to the increase in young people who arrive for work or study purposes and then remain for personal reasons – often marrying Italian nationals and becoming Italian citizens.

In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in young Irish professionals working in the city, many employed by Rome’s various United Nations organisations, others teaching English in private language schools.

Dubliner Andria Spring is one of these people. As a teacher of business English, her classes tend to be on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. Her hours are long but her salary enables her to enjoy her time in Rome; in addition she likes “meeting all these people, learning about their lives and jobs, and reassuring myself that I could never be a business person.”

Possessing a keen love of travel, Spring is one of a growing number of Irish people in their 20s who choose to leave Ireland for a period of ten years or so to experience life on the continent. Unlike many expats in Rome, however, she envisages an exact time of departure. It will be in 2008 when her boyfriend Jean-Yves’ work contract ends. Nevertheless she is not unduly worried by the prospect, remarking that “being an English teacher I can get a job almost anywhere.”

One Irish person who doesn’t fit so easily into any obvious job category is Dave Tinsley. This self-effacing Dub has been working here since 2000 as a freelance sound designer for movies. After moving to Italy in 1995, he started out as a sound engineer at the Forum Music Village in Rome before working his way up to being regarded as one of the most accomplished wizards in the business.

Each year he travels to America to work on one or two movies and “to see how it’s supposed to be done”. Finding the bureaucracy in the city nightmarish, he describes the differences between the film industries in Rome and Los Angeles: “Here, there is a constant struggle with production companies to pay up. In L.A. it runs like clockwork.”

A married man with a four-year-old son, Tinsley has a great affection for the Italian lifestyle, and has made many friends here. “I love Rome as a city and as a place to live. It’s absolutely beautiful... you just have to stroll through the side streets to soak up the real atmosphere and you are hooked.” However, when pressed on his future plans he quips: “Ask me in a year’s time – I’ll probably be in L.A.”

In her role as broadcast journalist for Vatican Radio, Emer McCarthy reports on all Pope Benedict XVI’s activities. While her work sounds incredibly hectic (she writes, edits and reads the news broadcasts, as well as interviewing various Church officials on important issues), she finds that her schedule is less demanding compared to those of her friends back home.

Having arrived here in her late teens, McCarthy has now spent ten years in the city she loves, and has no plans to leave any time soon. She still misses “the Irish sense of humour and patience, the relaxed attitude and, of course, family”, but adores the warm climate, the lifestyle and the fact that Rome is generally a lot safer at night than Dublin.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, many young Irish people gain employment in Rome’s thriving bar industry, yet only a small number actually own their own premises. One such entrepreneur is Declan Crean who, having just turned 30, owns the hugely successful Scholars Lounge in the city centre. Another Irish person to donate his 20s to mainland Europe, this Wexfordman managed a variety of acclaimed drinking emporia in cities from Paris to Berlin, before finally taking over this bar in late 2005.

“Working in the centre of one of the world’s most historic and vibrant cities, one gets to meet an incredible amount of people from all corners of the globe,” says Crean. With an international staff, many of whom hail from the Emerald Isle, Scholars has already become a home from home for the close-knit Irish community in the capital, offering a genuine céad mile fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes) to both residents and visitors alike.

Traditionally the days surrounding St Patrick’s Day (17 March) see a gathering of the Irish in Rome. This year, Mass will be celebrated in St Patrick’s church on Via Boncompagni at 10.00. It is customary for sprigs of shamrock (a three-leafed clover which has become the unofficial symbol of Ireland) to be distributed amongst the congregation and there is always a large turnout of people wishing to commemorate Ireland’s patron saint.

For the past 15 years the Irish Club of Rome has organised the Celtic ball, a black-tie event that is both a fundraiser for charities and a lively celebration of the national feast day. This year it will be held on 10 March in the prestigious Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi, near Villa Borghese. Guests include members of Irish and Italian diplomatic and business communities as well as a wide array of expats from all walks of life.

For sports enthusiasts too, 17 March provides something of a treat. The Six Nations Italy v Ireland rugby game will be played in the Stadio Flaminio amid growing speculation that the victors might be waving green flags. It looks like the Irish influx is far from over.

Andy Devane

Photo Amy Briggs

St Patrick’s Church, Via Boncompagni 31, tel. 064203121.

Scholars Lounge, Via del Plebiscito 10/b, tel. 0669202208.

Irish Club of Rome, tel. 0677204379 or e-mail irishclubofrome@gmail.com.