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The charms and challenges of life in Spain for its Irish residents

With some 15,000 Irish citizens now living in Spain long term, what is it that attracted them to make the move a permanent one? What were the challenges and what's their advice for other Irish nationals considering relocating?

The charms and challenges of life in Spain for its Irish residents
Neil, Dermot, Sophie and Andy are four Irish nationals who have made Spain their home. Photos: Handouts

Madrid-based Irish reporter Cormac Breen sat down with four Irish nationals to ask them what it is about Spain that has seen them come to call it home, what brought them here first, their experience of life here, and any advice they would offer to someone from Ireland considering Spain as a possible home away from home.

What brings Irish people to Spain?

As both countries are members of the EU, Irish people can easily live and work in Spain without having to worry about visas and or work permits. The global financial crash of 2008 severely impacted the Irish economy and the subsequent years of financial austerity led to high unemployment levels in the country. At this time, many young Irish graduates chose to move abroad in search of work.

Neil, originally from Limerick, told The Local why he decided to make the move to Spain: “I came in 2009 when the economy in Ireland and the world at large was crashing and there was no real reliable teaching work in the language schools in Ireland. The economic crisis that started in 2008 actually turned out to be a boom time for the language schools in Spain as many unemployed people tried to add English to their skill set to improve their employment prospects so there was plenty of work here”.

Spain is also a favourite of Irish Erasmus students with almost one in five choosing to study here.

For Sophie, originally from Tipperary, her love affair with Spain started after a year spent studying in Almería on the south coast.

“I first came to Spain to study Spanish as part of my degree, European studies. After I finished my degree, I came back to Spain to work, not because I couldn’t find work at home, but just because I wanted to come back here. I really like Spain as a country, the weather, the food, but I really love the Spanish way of life.

“The people are great too. I think they are very welcoming and fun to be around. They’re very family oriented with an attitude that is more work to live than live to work”.

Sophie works for PwC and has been living in Spain for six years.

What makes Spain such an attractive place for Irish people to live in?

It goes without saying that the weather plays a significant role in why so many Irish choose to stay in Spain. That is not to say Spain has 365 days a year of sunshine and warm temperatures. In fact, the climate in many northern regions such as Galicia might leave you thinking you never left Ireland with its windy and wet weather. Having said this, Spain boasts some of the sunniest cities in Europe with places such as Málaga, Alicante and Valencia enjoying up to 350 hours of sunshine per month with an average temperature between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius.

For Andy, originally from Limerick, Spain’s climate is one of the main reasons he has called España home for over ten years.

“To live somewhere where people come for holidays, to have so many sunny days, so much dry weather, so much outdoor life, where even when walking to work in the morning it’s dry most mornings, and very rarely windy.

“It’s a small thing, but it affects every aspect of life just to see people outside, seeing old people sitting in the street, seeing people eating outside. Living here and just to be outside a lot of the time, I just think it’s better for my mental health personally.”

Andy works as an English teacher and has lived in Spain for 10 years

While it may not seem this way at first, Spanish and Irish people share a similar outlook to life.

A love of family and socialising, both countries place time spent with people high on their list of priorities and for Neil, this was one of the reasons why he has decided to stay in Spain.

“I think people here have a fairly laidback attitude to life, which in some circumstances can be annoying, but in general it’s a positive. I think Spanish people are quite like Irish people, they are friendly and open and enjoy socialising. It can be hard to see that maybe if you don’t have the language, but once you do, I think it’s quite easy to settle in.”

Sophie pointed to Spanish people’s pride in their country as one of the main reasons she loves living here.

“I like the way Spanish people are very passionate about Spain and they’re very proud of their country. They know a lot about their country in general and Spain is just such a richly diverse place with so many different aspects to the culture depending on where you go, language, customs, traditions, food, everything really.”

READ ALSO: Where do Spain’s Irish residents live?

What are the challenges Irish people might face living in Spain?

Moving abroad will always present challenges whether that be homesickness, culture clashes, language barriers or simply a feeling of isolation and loneliness.

“You’re always going to feel like somewhat of an outsider or someone who is a little bit different, which also can be a good thing sometimes,” Sophie told The Local Spain.

“It’s kind of nice in a way, sometimes to feel special, but then it’s also a drawback because there’s always a slight barrier to really feeling fully integrated, feeling part of the place you’re in.”

For Andy, language was the hurdle he needed to overcome in order to feel more at home in Spain.

“The language is one thing. I haven’t mastered the language, I get by, but that’s a big barrier to a lot of things. I really miss the kind of crack back home and the little interactions you have, kind of with people every day, just out and about. I really miss that. I love going home and having those interactions.”

Learning Spanish shouldn’t be a deterrent to anyone from Ireland considering a move to Spain. Starting it will be challenging and time consuming but once you get a grip of the basics and can start to have some basics conversations, you’ll feel yourself immersing more and more.

There are plenty of ways to practice and learn Spanish from language academies to social nights in bars for language learners. Making that initial effort at the start will pay dividends years down the line.

READ ALSO: Swapping Dublin for Madrid – The right escape from Ireland’s cost-of-living crisis?

Can Irish people expect a better quality of life in Spain?

Ireland, like most countries in Europe, has seen a sharp increase in the cost of living with many people having to cut back on their spending to save money. Spain has not been immune from the same financial pressure with inflation peaking at 10 percent this year.

For our interviewees, while the cost of living may be going up in a country already famous for its lower than average salaries, the minimum average being €1,166 gross per month, they still feel Spain offers much more in terms of the quality added to their life by living here.

“In terms of money, I make less here and there’s a big difference in wages compared to Ireland, so that’s definitely a downside,” Andy admitted.

READ ALSO: Dutch, Irish and Norwegians buying twice as many homes in Spain

“But sure look, you can’t save in Ireland, you kind of have to spend money to do things whereas here, even if you only have enough to get by, you go to the park or sit at a terrace, have a have a beer and relax.”

The same sentiment was echoed by Dermot, originally from Mayo, who noted how “definitely my quality of life here is better even if I’m not earning as much as I could be in Ireland.

“I never ate out much in Ireland, here it’s cheap and good quality and something you can do at least once a week if not more. On top of that the public amenities are great. There are so many pools, football pitches, gyms, ping pong tables etc. It’s much easier and cheaper to have fun here.”

Dermot works as a research physicist and has lived in Madrid for almost 10 years

Advice for Irish people moving to Spain

If this article has convinced you to swap Ireland for Spain, then you’re probably wondering what’s the best way to prepare for your move here. According to these four Irish in Spain, the answer is simple – start learning Spanish.

Neil put it plainly: “Start learning the language. You can definitely get by somewhere like Madrid without Spanish, just living in an English-language bubble – but you definitely won’t fully experience what it is to live here without learning Spanish”.

Neil has been living in Spain for over 10 years and works in the education industry.

Sophie also felt learning some Spanish was the best advice she could offer to anyone from Ireland thinking about moving to Spain.

“My advice to someone moving to Spain would be to learn Spanish, you can get by just hanging out with English speaking people, but I really think you would be missing out on what Spain has to offer and some great experiences”.

For Andy, his advice is to take a chance on the lesser-known parts of Spain that many Irish people might not consider when choosing a place to move here.

“Something I will say is if you’re thinking about Spain as somewhere to live, don’t ignore the north of Spain. Spend a couple of weeks here if you can before making the decision to move and try and explore as much of the country as possible. A lot of people kind of forget about the north of Spain, and when they think of coming here, they think of moving to Madrid or Barcelona or one of the cities down south.

Bilbao, Santander, San Sebastián, Galicia, there are so many great cities in the north. Galicia is quite similar to Ireland, and the people in different parts of Spain do have a different character as well, a noticeably different character. There is such an amazing variety of culture here, fascinating history, great food, wonderful weather and friendly people. It’s not just beaches and cheap beer!”


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For members


What are the pros and cons of life in Spain’s Basque Country?

The northern central region of the Basque Country may be very different from the Spain you imagine, but there are plenty of reasons to love it and great reasons to move there.

What are the pros and cons of life in Spain’s Basque Country?


The food

The Basque Country is known throughout the world for its excellent cuisine, and its regional dishes have earned the Basques more Michelin Stars than any other region in Spain. Forget tapas and paella, if you live in the Basque Country it will be pintxos, cod pil pil and many other glorious seafood inventions. The foodie hub of the Basque Country is the coastal city of San Sebastián, but both Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz are also known for their tasty offerings and award-winning bars and restaurants.

READ ALSO: A gourmet guide to ordering pintxos in Spain’s Basque Country

It has a spectacular natural side

The Basque Country is one of Spain’s greenest regions, home to more than 10 natural parks. Its landscapes range from dramatic coastal cliffs to soaring mountains, dense forests and biosphere reserves. This makes the region an excellent place for adventure sports and outdoor enthusiasts with a myriad of activities including surfing, hiking, kayaking and rock climbing.

Exciting cities with lots of culture

The Basque Country may be filled with nature, but it’s home to several thrilling cities that rival some of the biggest in Spain for cultural attractions and events. The two best are Bilbao and San Sebastián. Bilbao is an artsy city, famed for being the home of the Guggenheim, as well as several other architectural highlights by world-renowned designers and art museums. San Sebastián on the other hand has several excellent museums, as well as vibrant festivals from Semana Grande in August to the Tamborrada, a 24-hour drum parade in January.

San Sebastián is one of the most exciting cities in Spain. Photo: ultrash ricco / Unsplash

It offers competitive tax rates

Data from the Taxpayers’ Union (UC) and the Taxation Competitiveness Index (IACF) reveals that the Basque Country has some of the most attractive tax rates in Spain when it comes to income, wealth tax, inheritance, and property transfer tax. It also offers great incentives for businesses and attracts global companies.

The salaries are some of the highest in Spain

It’s well known that you’ll probably be taking a pay cut if you move to Spain from other northern or western European countries, as well as from the US or Australia. If you find a job in the Basque Country, however, you can still enjoy high salaries compared to the rest of the country. The latest stats show that those in the Basque Country earn the most in Spain with an average salary of just over €31,000 per year. It’s also one of the richest regions in Spain. 

READ ALSO: Why are the Basque Country and Catalonia so rich compared to the rest of Spain?

Easily located for frequent visits to France

If you’re a fan of France too, then living in the Basque Country enables you to travel easily between the two countries. The region has a great public transport system, one of which is the Euskotren, like a metro, but connecting most of the major towns and cities in the region, as well as small coastal villages and across to Hendaia or Hendaye in southern France. 

It has low levels of unemployment

If you’re hoping to find a job in Spain, then the Basque Country is one of the best places to do it, particularly because of the low levels of unemployment in the region. The Basque province of Gipuzkoa topped the list of Spanish provinces with the lowest unemployment rate as of the second quarter of 2023, with an unemployment rate of 6.51 percent. The region has also attracted many big foreign companies, meaning that there are many more vacancies than in some other regions, such as Extremadura for example.

The Basque Country is a great nature destination. Photo: Rens Greveling / Unsplash

It has one of the best education systems in Spain

If you have school-aged children, making the move to Spain can be worrying as you’ll wonder how they’ll cope and whether the level of education will be the same as what they received back home. The latest stats from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which carries out tests every 3 years on 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science, show that the results from the Basque Country were above average compared to the rest of the country.  


It’s expensive compared to other regions

Yes, the Basques may earn the most money in Spain, but the region is also generally considered to be one of the most expensive to live in too. San Sebastián is among the top 10 municipalities where the rent is the highest in the country. According to stats from Insurance broker Kelisto, the cost of living in San Sebastián is 33.44 percent higher than the national average, making it the most expensive city to live in Spain.

When it comes to buying a property it’s also the most expensive with an average cost of €511,830 for a 90m2 home. Both Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz are still among the most expensive cities to buy a home in Spain but are still cheaper than San Sebastián. When it comes to rent, San Sebastián is the third most expensive in the country behind Barcelona and Madrid, while Bilbao comes in fourth place. 

According to the cost of living website Numbeo, consumer prices, restaurant prices and grocery costs are all higher in San Sebastián than in the capital of the country Madrid. When compared with Barcelona, however, it’s slightly cheaper in all categories apart from groceries. The cost of living in Bilbao is also higher than in Madrid, with the exception of rent. Of course, if you choose to live in the smaller towns or countryside, it will be cheaper, but not as cheap as some of the least expensive regions in Spain such as Andalusia or Extremadura.

The weather can be unpredictable

The weather in the Basque Country is not the typical weather of sunny hot days and mild winters that you might be imagining. The weather can often be rainy and the winters cold. According to data from the national weather agency Aemet, San Sebastián is the rainiest city in Spain with an of average 141.1 wet days per year. Bilbao comes in at number seven on the list with 124 rainy days per year and Vitoria-Gasteiz with 99.3 days. Summer temperatures are not always hot enough for the beach either, with the average between 23C and 27C.

It can often be rainy and overcast in Bilbao. Photo: Rodrigo Curi / Unsplash

You have to learn another language

This can actually be a pro or a con, depending on how good you are at learning languages. If you move to the Basque Country, as well as learning Spanish, it’s a good idea to learn some Basque too. Many signs and street names are Basque, plus it will earn you some brownie points with the locals. The downside is that Basque is known to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. This is because Basque isn’t related to any other known language, meaning nothing will be familiar, and knowing another Latin or Germanic language won’t help at all. 

Political tension

The Basque Country has had a very turbulent history and tensions between separatists and the rest of the country have been high for decades. Thankfully, the separatist Basque terrorist group ETA formally disbanded in 2018, but there are still many in the region who want to be independent from Spain and it’s still a contentious issue that’s best avoided in conversation. You’ll notice that some towns in the Basque Country hold onto to strong separatist beliefs, hanging flags that call for ETA prisoners to be returned to the region. 

Locals are not known for being warm and friendly

The Basques are not known to be as open or as friendly as people from the south of Spain, such as Andalusia for example. Locals often tend to stick to their friend groups that they’ve known for years or who they’ve grown up with. You may find it easier to make friends with other foreigners or Spaniards from other regions who have moved to the Basque Country. Having said that, if you do manage to break into a local Basque circle, you’ll find that they make very loyal friends.