Our family created a new life in Cork in the shadow of Covid

Joanne Dwyer grew up in England but always wanted a home in Ireland — she reveals how her dream came true when she moved her family to Fermoy, via Africa
Our family created a new life in Cork in the shadow of Covid

Joanne Dwyer with her family, who have recently settled in Cork — growing up, she always wanted to settle in Ireland. Left to right, Peter, Georgia, Joanne, Flynn and Erin.

IT is a Sunday afternoon, I am nine years old and a rerun of Land of the Giants is playing on a retro television set in the living room of my grandparents’ flat in London.

I am lying on the floor, one eye on the TV. More of a bookworm than an artist, I am attempting to draw a house in the Irish countryside, the land of my grandparents and the scene of blissful summer days that stretched far into the night. Dusk never seemed to come.

My brother and I enjoyed the way strangers would call out; ‘Hi, how are ye?’, quick, 20-minute Masses, and climbing onto our cousins’ garage roof during a game of hide-n-seek.

I announce that the house I’ve drawn is the house I will one day live in, in Ireland, with my husband (whoever he might turn out to be) and four children.

I always knew I would leave England. But it was Africa that claimed me first.

Joanne Dwyer's grandparents, Richard and Josie Cantwell, with my mother as a child in Ireland.
Joanne Dwyer's grandparents, Richard and Josie Cantwell, with my mother as a child in Ireland.

My time as a young volunteer teacher in Kenya would define the next decade-and-a-half of my life, put me in the path of my husband Peter, and, ultimately, bring me to Ireland.

Peter and I met in a tiny airport in the sweltering, lake-side city of Kisumu, in western Kenya. I was not supposed to be there but things rarely run to plan in Africa.

I’d spent an entire morning trying to track down the bus I’d booked to take me across the Ugandan border. The bus was stuck in Nairobi, several hours away, so I pinned all hopes of making my midnight flight out of Entebbe on a last-minute flight to Nairobi where I could pick up a connection to Uganda. Mine was the last available seat on the plane.

Peter spoke first, asking if I was married or had children. He had two daughters. He was South African, older than me, and working in Kisumu. He had once lived in England and knew the town where I had grown-up.

I was in and out of Kenya, running an educational charity and spending time in the place I loved. Peter gave me his card so that we could meet-up.

Five months later, I swapped London for the beginnings of a life in Africa with Peter. 

Travel was woven into our first few years together. Weekends were spent off the beaten track, cranking up the speakers in Peter’s 4x4 and exploring remote places.

Kenya's Great Rift Valley.
Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

Epic is a word that belongs to Africa and the stirring sight of the Rift Valley caught me every time. We celebrated my birthday in the Mara, where I danced with the Maasai, and travelled to Kenya’s stunning coastal region. We visited Peter’s girls and his family in South Africa and flew to England and Ireland, to see mine.

We left the laidback shores of Lake Victoria (where Peter had been working for a prominent political family until the South African shareholders who’d appointed him pulled out) to set up a wine import business amid the vibrant colours and chaos of Mombasa, spending a few months in the old Swahili town of Malindi, before settling in Diani.

Diani Beach.
Diani Beach.

A balmy, tropical oasis with soft white sands and swaying coconut trees, Diani was an alluring paradise. The sparkling Indian Ocean and salty sea air were an antidote to the stresses and strains of urban life, punctuated only by the distant rattling of tuk-tuks chugging along the main road. 

The vast expanse of beach embraced fishermen in traditional sailing dhows, women selling handmade kikois, and people enjoying leisurely strolls.

Peter and I married on Chale, an idyllic island haven, 15km down a bumpy, dusty road; accessible at high tide by a small motorised boat and, otherwise, by a short tractor ride. Ours was a low-key, pre-sunset wedding: my locally made dress came in a brown paper bag (‘Nice packaging’, our wedding planner remarked) and only my parents and Peter’s girls were in attendance — or so we thought beforehand. The manager and several hotel staff turned up, too. It was happy and carefree. We dined afterwards on a lantern-lit beach under the starry African sky, with the sand beneath our feet and the sound of the waves teasing the shoreline.

Our lives were solidified in Diani. The girls lived with us now, and we were having a baby.

Three children in six months. Our oldest girl was home-schooling and the youngest was a student at the small primary school I was running. Peter and I had been presented with a school to take over and said yes.

A mix of children, all pulled from Diani’s eccentric community of work permit holders, locals and long-term residents, went to school in flip-flops and usually wound-up barefoot. 

They learned together, played together, had endless sleepovers and always wanted to prolong the school day. It was a lovely, lively school and the realisation of a dream.

We moved the school (and ourselves) from the beach to a forested estate populated by monkeys and baboons. Peter fenced the school himself and built an entire playground from scratch. Our house was not fenced off. Some days resembled Planet of the Apes, with human-sized baboons sauntering through the open plan living area on the hunt for food.

Joanne Dwyer’s husband Peter, with daughters Georgia and Erin.
Joanne Dwyer’s husband Peter, with daughters Georgia and Erin.

Once, holding the baby over my shoulder in the bathroom, I locked eyes in the mirror with a baboon standing in the doorway behind me.

It was a unique childhood for our younger children. When he turned two, our little boy began rocking up at playgroup on a piki-piki (motorbike) taxi with Peter. I still haven’t told his Nana how he got there.

But the winds of change had begun to blow. We tried to hang on, but too many things ollided at once and my heart broke knowing we could not stay. Our oldest needed more than Africa could give her; Peter’s wine business was hit by the collapse of Kenya’s largest supermarket chain; and a second school had opened in a town that could only sustain one.

It was always Ireland.

 We sent my parents on a recce to Fermoy and our oldest Skyped her future classmates. But it was a-year-and-a-half before we could all leave.

My visa expired during a tortuous wait for the girls’ passport renewals from South Africa, so I sat out a further five months at my parents’ house in England with our little boy, while Peter stayed in Kenya with the girls.

Some 25 years after I had first imagined a life in Ireland, I was waiting anxiously in the arrivals hall at Dublin airport.

“This is your home now,” a security guard had said as he helped me manoeuvre two trolleys, a pushchair and a toddler.

Our little one jumped into Peter’s arms and the girls wrapped themselves in mine, none of us able to hold it completely together.

Another set of adventures stretched out before us. A life of lockdowns, with just a brief respite from the home-schooling we’d tried to escape, was coming. But in the pre-pandemic world, we had a train ride to Cork ahead of us where Peter would start his unlikely stint as a pig farmer and we’d find a place to live the day before our Airbnb stay was up.

Peter had never set foot in Cork, though his ancestors had before setting sail for Port Elizabeth and making their way along the South African coastline to Durban.

My own childhood memories contained glimpses of an old train station and the sense of a city less daunting than London.

The Rebel County suited us, though it was also chosen for more prosaic reasons. We had no idea where or when Peter would find a job in his field and North Cork seemed an ideal spot from which to launch ourselves. A city would be within our grasp. I had been the one to always soak up flying visits to the eclectic buzz and endless traffic of Nairobi. But part of me had missed bookshops and coffee shops, early evening strolls and cobbled streets.

My family was spread across different counties, Cork among them, and none felt too far away. 

Tipperary was only next-door and Limerick was close enough. This was our pre-Covid thinking, anyway. Even my parents in England saw more of us in Kenya.

Google Earth helped us settle on Fermoy and it was sealed by the kindness of staff at the girls’ school, whose warmth was palatable even over email; patiently answering every question we had on the schooling and wider opportunities available to them and painting a picture of the life they could have.

That life unfolded in the shadow of a pandemic but also, in spite of it. A return to home- schooling, which both girls were doing by the time they left Kenya, was easier on them than most. It was familiar, but this time they were not alone.

Ours was a fairly self-contained unit and the biggest change for us came in the few short months between our arrival and March 12, 2020, with school buses, new friendships and classrooms to navigate; Peter no longer running a business from home (instead returning at lunchtime carrying the distinct aroma of pig manure, before landing a job in town); cloud cover where once we had lived under persistently blue skies; and our little one embarking on a stop-start approach to his pre-school career, when all he really wanted was to be at home and to understand why planes were bringing parcels but not Nana and Pops. I returned to studying and began to write again.

We found our home in SuperValu. A quick scan of the advertising board and we were moving to the lush green countryside I’d sketched out in my grandparents’ living room, surrounded by fields and cows and overlooking the Galtee Mountain range. 

The longing for Africa remains, but life is mostly on a more even keel. 

“Content,” Peter would say.

We have watched one child start secondary school, the oldest graduate via Zoom and plan for college, and the youngest get excited about Big School, mainly on account of the playground and a picture of the Junior Infants drinking hot chocolate.

With bunnies and a baby on board, we are all finding our way on the Emerald Isle, helped by those who carried us through difficult days and a deep gratitude that we made it here at all.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

summersoaplogosml

Called Droid, our next story is about a boy who designs a robot at UCC and chaos ensues. It was written by Margaret Gillies, from the MA in Creative Writing Programme at UCC.

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more