Chrissie Russell: Why my family and I left Dublin and returned to Co Down
From the moment she had kids, it became clear to Chrissie Russell that life in the Irish capital was simply unmanageable and that Northern Ireland could provide them with a better standard of living
It was 2008 when I moved to Dublin. I doubled the pay cheque I'd been getting in Belfast and my husband and I (then boyfriend and girlfriend) moved into a swanky D4 apartment at a not-unreasonable €1,300 (£1,095) a month. Over the next few years we embraced city life with its gigs, theatres, brunches and dinners. I visited art exhibitions, pop-up events and hopped on and off the Dart, never too bothered if it was crowded or a little late. As far as I was concerned, Dublin city life was wonderful.
Then we had kids and all changed, changed utterly.
Dublin is not a family-friendly place to live. I wasn't surprised with a poll last week that found the Irish capital is the worst place in the world to move to. That goes double if you have children. From impossible-to-find (let alone afford) housing to exorbitant childcare, child-unfriendly transport and illogical school place requirements, I've fallen so far out of love with my adopted city that I've abandoned it altogether.
It was when we were expecting our second child, born in May 2018, that I started to feel a creeping hostility towards Dublin life. The jostling competition for space on the Dart from Connolly to Kilbarrack (where we'd bought a bungalow after having our first child and swiftly realising that lugging a buggy up three flights of stairs in our swanky apartment was untenable) was less than fun when heavily pregnant and I was well in to double figures for the number of times I'd almost upended my child trying to get the pram across the giant gap between carriage and platform. Don't even get me started on lifts at stations being out of action…
We hoped to adapt our home to our changing needs and spent several thousand euro on an architect and applied for planning permission. The plan was to add a second storey (as the only single-storey property on the street, this seemed reasonable) and give us a much-needed third bedroom. Having seen then and since (hello rafting!) what gets the green light at council planning stage, we were hopeful - but no, planning denied.
While reeling from this setback, we also entered the quagmire of navigating the complex school application process. We lived across the road from an Educate Together school, which, coming from a mixed marriage, really appealed to us. I calculated that I'd be able to put the kettle on, drop the young lad to school and still be back before it had boiled for a cuppa. Nope. We were informed that there was a considerable waiting list and our proximity had no bearing. Other schools we applied to said we weren't within the catchment area. A whole wealth of options were ruled out on the grounds of religion and gender. It's a frustrating and antiquated system that needs to change.
Speaking of antiquated systems: why does only one hospital in Dublin offer a water birth option? Come on, guys. Evidence shows it's the safest form of pain relief in labour and they're pretty common in the UK. My hopes of a water birth presented me with an epic cross-city commute to the Coombe every time I had a hospital appointment through pregnancy, with road-rage and parking woes playing no small part in my blood-pressure readings.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Ah yes, Dublin traffic. Whether it's a trip to the zoo or to see friends living on the other side of the capital, it was never an easy journey. The Quays in permanent gridlock, traffic bumper to bumper at the East Link, children wailing in their car-seats while I fired snacks over my shoulder like grenades. With car travel so stressful and public transport so unreliable and awkward for buggies, I mostly stopped going anywhere outside my small North Bay radius that contained the essential trips of Montessori, shops and park. Yes, technically I was living in Dublin, but really it could have been anywhere.
When you have small children in Dublin, every time you step out the door you're haemorrhaging cash. Admission for a soft play centre: €9.50 (£8). Family trip to the zoo: €48 (£40.44). No toddler morning or baby swim group comes without a hefty price tag. My husband took our eldest to the cinema and returned ashen-faced having spent our pension pot on popcorn.
Ireland has one of the largest proportions of under-fives in Europe, so you would think providing stuff for them to do (particularly in wet weather - maybe using unused properties for pop-up craft centres and so forth) would be a top priority. It's not. There's very little for small children to do in Dublin in the rain and only so many times you can go round the 'dead zoo'.
Of course, it's no secret that we're woefully lacking on the childcare front. I tentatively looked at whether a return to full-time work and childcare for the kids might add up for us - it did not. Not only was it impossible to find something that would work with the flexibility we needed, but the cost! If you're a parent, you know this already, but average monthly fees in Ireland are one of the highest in Europe, averaging some €771 (£650) a month. If you've more than one child and hours outside the nine to five zone, good luck.
With our 65 sq m home stretched to bursting point thanks to the arrival of child number two, we began the soul-destroying process of house-hunting.
The figure quoted for the average three-bed, semi-detached family home in Dublin is around €433,000 (£364,800). But what swiftly became apparent - as we trudged round houses (usually priced upwards of half a million, £421,247) with no central heating, single glazing, kitchens the size of an airing cupboard and ancient avocado bathroom suites - was that, if you were 'lucky' enough to secure a house at this price, you'd be adding a considerable amount in renovation costs and living under tarpaulin for several months into the bargain.
We looked further afield in Fingal but found that limited public transport options and little in the way of amenities ruled out many locations for our one-car family. And so we decided to look really far afield.
Earlier this year, we moved in to a new-build, four-bed, detached home in a village, 20 miles outside Belfast in Co Down.
We bought it for considerably less than we sold our tiny, two-bed bungalow for.
My eldest son got into the local school, which is a two-minute walk from our house. There's a library, health centre, dentist and supermarket all within strolling distance.
There are not one but two lovely toddler mornings that cost £1 and include coffee and cake for mummy, pancakes, juice, snacks and a hall full of toys for my 18-month-old.
We're a 20-minute walk from the grandparents and the community is small enough that the butcher and baker (no candlestick maker) know us by name. There are two playgrounds and a fabulous adventure playground in the woodland park down the road.
There are negatives too. My husband, who still works in Dublin, now has a 100-mile commute several days a week and has to spend several nights in an Airbnb. We both have concerns about what Brexit might bring.
I miss the walks in St Anne's Park, scrambling in the sand dunes of Bull Island and strolls along the seafront at Clontarf. I miss the friends I made and I'll always be grateful for those heady, child-free years.
But we had to move. I had to prioritise my family's needs first because Dublin certainly wasn't going to. It's just not a city that puts families first.