From the Michelin-starred chef serving up Irish cuisine in Singapore to the textiles guru designing for the First Lady, we talk to some of our extraordinary emigrants about becoming a success story abroad.
“Until the pandemic, I would have described the food at Cure as modern European,” says Michelin-starred chef Andrew Walsh of Cure Nua restaurant in Singapore, “but during the time we were closed, I had time to think about what I really wanted it to be when we were able to reopen. I was missing home and thinking a lot about my roots, and I wanted to express more of myself in my food. As far as I know, I’m the only Irish chef in Singapore, and in Asia, and I felt it was time to fly the flag, to be an ambassador for Irish food. I think Cure Nua is the only Irish restaurant outside the UK and Ireland to hold a Michelin star.”
Walsh grew up in Breaffy, Co Mayo, the sixth of eight children. He left school after his Junior Certificate to train as a chef and has worked in high-end restaurants all over the world, from Dublin and London to New York and Australia, with chefs such as Kevin Thornton, Richard Corrigan, Tom Aikens and Jason Atherton.
For Walsh, observing the progress made by Irish chefs in recent years and the growing quality of Irish produce has been an inspiration.
“A decade ago, I mightn’t have been able to do what I’ve done with Cure Nua,” he says, “but I have been so impressed by what’s happening foodwise in Ireland, and by chefs such as JP McMahon, Mickael Viljanen and Mark Moriarty. It seems Ireland is finally shouting about its produce and cooking talent.”
Walsh’s menu at Cure Nua is now inspired by the landscape and nature of Ireland, in which he immersed himself on a trip home for his sister’s wedding last October, and he says he misses it more the longer he is away. Walsh has lived in Singapore since 2011.
“I bring in Irish ingredients, such as Silver Hill duck, Cooleeney cheese and Gallagher’s oysters,” he says. “One of my favourite dishes is Memories of Peat — a savoury pre-dessert snack of a small, fried charcoal poori cracker filled with peat-smoked ice cream, which reminds me of summer days on the bog with my dad. I also serve Potato Seaweed Caviar 1847, in memory of those who perished in the famine. It’s a warm terrine of potato and kelp, with a cep mushroom sauce and whipped horseradish cream with black N25 Caviar. The caviar represents the worst year of the famine: Black ’47. There’s a Crisp Sandwich (potato terrine topped with crisp garlic, shallots and spring onions) inspired by what I used to eat when I came home from school — white bread, Kerrygold butter and Tayto crisps. The idea is that the dishes represent where Ireland is now and where it has come from. We have had customers from Australia in the restaurant who are making plans to travel to Ireland after eating here.”
Walsh’s years of hard work in tough kitchens around the world paid off in Singapore, where he made the connections that led to the opportunity to own his own restaurants. As well as Cure Nua, he has Butcher Boy, Catfish, Clubstreet Wineroom and Ember Beach Club, a resort restaurant in Malaysia.
“I’m 39 now and I’ve lived in many places,” he says. “I’ve been overseas for 20 years and I’m still highly ambitious, but I have a romantic idea that I’d like to get back to Ireland at some stage and be part of the food scene there. I’d like to do Nua in Ireland, perhaps in a rural location or as part of a boutique hotel. I’m definitely open to the idea. For now, I enjoy living in Singapore. It’s a very social, fast-paced city and when I’m not working I like checking out the new wine bars and restaurants with friends, and running by the river, hiking and boxing to keep fit and de-stress.”
‘If I moved home, I would need to have a purpose to move back with’
The designer — Laura Weber, New York
New York-based designer Laura Weber suffers from that very Irish condition of not being able to say ‘no’. “I do not have that word in my vocabulary,” says the 31-year-old, who moved to Manhattan aged 22 with just $300 in her pocket. Nine years later, the NCAD textiles graduate now owns her own company, LW Pearl Atelier, and last year launched her own luxury lifestyle and athleisure clothing brand.
But the Dubliner is best known in international fashion circles for the work produced at her manufacturing factory, where she takes commissions for intricate embroidery and embellishments for major designers like Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren.
Weber works and lives in the Garment District in New York’s Midtown, where locals all know the petite blonde Irish girl who shot to international fame last January when the incoming first lady, Dr Jill Biden, wore a coat and dress on inauguration evening which featured Weber’s intricate embroidery and beaded flowers from the 50 states in the US.
Weber has certainly come a long way from those early days when she knew no one, lived in hostels and brought her suitcase to work every day.
“The Irish accent gave me away right away, and while I’ve lost it a little bit, and my family slag me for it every day, people still pick up that I’m Irish, and I do think that it’s such a bonus, especially in New York.
“I don’t know if it comes from our accent, or the way we interact, but we communicate in a very different way to other people. We’re very warm. We greet people very openly. There’s no hesitation when you’re chit-chatting with somebody, no awkwardness when you meet someone for the first time. I think that is huge for Irish people. I think our sense of communication is probably one of our biggest assets.
“I really immersed myself in work right from the first day, so it wasn’t like I really even thought about seeking out Irish people. It was just like survival mode from the beginning. I think the hustle and that work ethic was by far what got me to where I am. I don’t think there’s anyone that understands outside of Irish people how Irish people work.”
Chatting from her home around the corner from Madison Square Garden, Weber talks enthusiastically about her career and all the creative opportunities presenting themselves almost daily.
“I work with stylists, designers, CEOs, production managers. I work with so many different levels of brands and different types of people, so I’m very lucky in that sense. I think that fashion sometimes can be taken as a very big commodity but, at the end of the day, I’m with the people that are actually making things, so it’s a very touching place to be.”
The biggest thing she misses about home is the people. “Of course, I miss the culture and the traditions, but I don’t miss anything as much as I miss the people and my family.”
There’s always Dubliner cheese in her apartment, and she keeps up to date with the Irish music scene, culture and podcasts courtesy of her sister Julie. She wears her Irishness with great pride and will be marking St Patrick’s Day by serving her staff Irish soda bread from a nearby bakery and Kerrygold butter from Brooklyn Fare.
Weber says a move back to Dublin is something she would consider, but not in the near future.
“I definitely have a lot more to do here for the next couple of years, but I think if I moved home, I would need to bring something with me, something that I’m able to make a significant impact with or have a purpose to move home with.
“I would really like to set up a business or a factory or do something much bigger than me, where I’m giving back to Ireland more than just moving home. I think I would need to come with a purpose of like serving Ireland.”
‘Coming from a culture that values the ability to chat to people certainly helped’
The drinks guru — Philip Duff, New York
Dubliner Philip Duff of Liquid Solutions Bar & Beverage Consulting was working overseas long before he officially emigrated 27 years ago, having laid the foundation for his current career “from the ripe age of 16” with summer jobs in UK bars. He says, “I properly left after graduating with my secret weapon” — a degree in marketing that gives him ‘bilingual status’. “I can speak bartender and I can speak marketing and I can translate from one to another, and that’s relatively rare.”
After 17 years living in Holland, but with a lifetime’s worth of industry achievements and international awards under his belt, Duff now resides with his wife, step-daughter and ageing gecko in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “It’s a great place to raise a family. It’s got more green spaces than London, it’s stupidly safe in terms of violent crime, and the free public schools are excellent.” Today, being a world-renowned consultant (Drinks International ranked him number 15 in their 100 Most Influential Industry Figures) keeps him globetrotting to industry events like the seminal Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, where he was the first director of education.
A gift for the gab has helped Duff, originally from Skerries, carve out an enviable client list and impressive CV. “Coming from a culture that values the ability to speak in public, to chat to people, to get along with people, that’s certainly helped,” he says, “as has coming from a culture where drink is ingrained in a way that it isn’t in other cultures.” He is also grateful for what was, in his day, a free education, plus — somewhat perversely — for the “decades of a failing economy” that spurred him to leave. Wherever he has since lived, Duff has enjoyed the “very valuable perspective” of the outsider looking in.
He loves the fast-paced nature of New York. “You don’t need a social network here, you just need to go to a bar, because everyone you want to meet, from Jeff Bezos down, is here. Everyone here is either trying to make it or they’ve made it, and they’re very open to helping others. New Yorkers are actually very nice people.”
The flip side is an ingrained politeness. “In Ireland, where everybody is out to have a bit of fun, there is a higher level of humour in conversations. Even now, the majority of people living in Ireland were born and raised in Ireland, so they’re speaking the same English with the same vernacular and at the same high speed.
“In the melting pot of New York, everyone is speaking English, but they’re coming from a different place, so they’re much more polite. Americans don’t get sarcasm, and, in a sense, they’re very considerate in that way — but I do miss having the craic with anybody, from someone selling you a ticket at a train station to some random person in the pub.”
Duff also misses living in “a relatively well-organised” country “where you know you won’t go bankrupt just because you get sick; where, if the police turn up, there’s an excellent chance they won’t shoot you — that sort of thing”.
His New Yorker wife would love to live elsewhere for a while. Portugal is currently looking attractive, but Ireland might be a possibility too. “I’ve lived abroad for so long and in so many different places that so long as Amazon deliver and they serve drink, I could live anywhere.”
In the meantime, he hopes that his award-winning brand of Old Duff Genever might make it to Irish shores sometime soon. This historic liquor was once “the great, great grand-daddy of all export spirits” as well as “the daddy of whiskey”. Duff describes it as a “delicious multigrain distillate (historically lots of rye) with masterful hints of flavour from a small amount of juniper and (usually a small number of) other botanicals”. Watch this space.
‘I can only be the girl from Kildare abroad. I know no other way to be’
The tech CEO — Emma Waldron, San Francisco
When she left Kildare for America seven years ago, Emma Waldron was determined to make a career move that might, at the time, have seemed unlikely: from modelling to tech entrepreneurship. But you doubt the former Miss Ireland at your peril. Waldron is now the CEO of WiLDE, an online content platform which is backed by a number of the biggest names in tech, including Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google; John Sculley, a former CEO of Apple; and Kees Koolen, founder and CEO of booking.com.
The idea behind the company came from Waldron’s conviction that “social media is broken”, she tells Weekend. “It claims to ‘connect people’, but 61pc of young American adults are lonely. These social media platforms are selling our data and they’re having negative psychological effects on young people, and we decided that this is an enormous problem that needs solving.” WiLDE is a platform which emulates the “participatory communities” of real life and connects content creators with their communities in a way that’s a bit more meaningful than just pressing a ‘like’ button. Unlike YouTube or Spotify, where the artists, however successful, get only a tiny shaving of the pie, with WiLDE, there is an equity model, so creators actually own a portion of the company. “Traditional platforms are built for the corporation, not the community,” Waldron says. They amass a density of followers, but no depth. WiLDE wants to make that experience better.”
Waldron grew up in Celbridge and was spotted by top photographer Lili Forberg on a night out when she was a student. She was signed to a modelling agency and, in 2010, won the title of Miss Ireland, going on to represent her country in the Miss World competition that same year, finishing fourth on the back of some virtuoso violin playing and intelligent interview answers. “Modelling taught me a lot about myself,” she says, looking back on those years. “Being told that your looks are the most important attribute about you — either consciously or subconsciously — is not good. Social media perpetuates this same belief for a lot of women. It makes women feel that they are a commodity, not a human. You see this in the increasingly provocative images on social media platforms. To me, how I look is the least interesting thing about me.”
Waldron worked as a social media manager after moving to New York in 2016 and wrote a fashion blog. She also landed a gig as a television presenter and worked with some of the biggest names in television, including broadcasting legend Larry King, on whose History Channel show she was a roving reporter, and Frankie Grande, the brother of pop star Ariana Grande.
In the midst of this, she found time to teach herself data science and, in 2019, was invited to be a guest lecturer at the New York University Center for Data Science by research scientist Léon Bottou. The “uniqueness” of Irish culture and values were a help in making connections with new people in America, she says, as well as her own authenticity. “I can only be the girl from Kildare abroad and know no other way to be!”
Being away through Covid was “very tough”, she says, “but I am very lucky to have great friends and a supportive boyfriend to get me through it. I moved out to the west coast during Covid, which was an absolute blessing. I’m really loving that side of the world. I made a lot of really wonderful changes with the new-found perspective.”
‘I don’t know if I would have become a writer if I had stayed in Ireland’
The bestselling author — Dervla McTiernan, Perth
The economic crash upended Dervla McTiernan and her family’s life — for good and bad. The now-bestselling crime author ran her own legal practice in Ardmore, Co Waterford, while her husband worked as a civil engineer. They were hit hard in 2008. Initially, they tried to rebuild and move forward, but after several years it was clear they needed a fresh start.
“By the time it got to 2011, we were so thoroughly burned out and I never wanted to practise law again,” she says.
The couple were looking to move to either Canada or Australia, but the Australian visas on offer were more appealing.
In 2011, a heavily pregnant Dervla, her daughter, Freya, and her husband, Kenny, moved to Perth “on a wing and a prayer”.
“Freya was two when we got here, and Ois was born five weeks after we landed. I flew out the last possible week of travel and was the size of a house,” she says.
The first few years were a challenge; they had a small baby, broken sleep, and no support network.
“My husband started working 10 days after we got here… the first couple of years here were really hard,” she recalls. “They always are, especially when you have a small baby and no help.”
However, things started to improve as the years rolled on. Dervla started a new job with Australia’s Mental Health Commission, and baby Oisin started sleeping more. She also began doing something she had always been passionate about: writing.
Dervla dreamed of being an author but felt creatively constrained in Ireland. Moving away from home emboldened her and gave her the confidence to start. “I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t know if I would have done it if I had stayed in Ireland,” she says. “I think it was always this silly dream. That everyone thinks, ‘Some day I’d like to write a book,” but you know you can’t because no one ever makes any money, and you have to pay the bills.”
If she had remained in Ireland, she would have stuck with the “responsible choice” and would never have given it a shot. The impact of the crash also encouraged her to begin writing.
“I think because everything had gone so badly wrong for us, even though we were real box-tickers and responsible people. So when we came to Australia, we thought, ‘OK, we are going to do things our own way.’”
Dervla began writing in 2014 and soon signed with a literary agent. The moment was bittersweet; the same day that her literary agent contacted her expressing interest, Dervla was diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain tumour.
“I had brain surgery and was recovering and going through all that, so it was a really weird year. I came out of the GP’s office and was looking at a list of neurosurgeons on a Post-it note, when I got the email from the literary agent,” Dervla says.
She was back at work when the submission for her first book, The Ruin, went out to editors. The book ended up with eight offers of publication.
“It was that moment everyone dreams of,” she says. “It was amazing and surreal… it was the wildest ride.”
The Ruin went into Australian’s top 10 bestsellers. Since then, she has written two other bestselling novels, The Scholar and The Good Turn. Last year she signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins and she has her next book, The Murder Rule, coming out later this year.
Dervla believes her Irishness has been integral to her success. The first three books she wrote are based in her hometown of Galway and she almost considers them a sort of love letter to the city.
“I don’t think it would have been as clear to me what made Ireland Ireland, and what made Galway Galway, if I wasn’t here in such a totally different physical environment. Part of what made those books what they are was the fact that I was in Perth and looking back, thinking of home.”
‘I always say if you put Ireland and Sweden together, you would have a perfect country’
The journalist/GAA evangelist — Philip O’Connor, Stockholm
When the broadcaster and founder of GAA team the Stockholm Gaels, Philip O’Connor, moved to Stockholm in 1999, it was intended to be a short-term stay. His wife, Maria, is Swedish and suggested they try it out for a year, maybe two.
“Like most Irish lads, I said, ‘Yeah, why not? We’ll do it for a year.’ Twenty-three years later and I am still here.”
O’Connor has a lot of strings to his bow and has established himself as a writer, podcast producer and journalist. However, it took considerable time to make a name for himself in Sweden.
When he first arrived in the city, he found it difficult to make inroads; he knew hardly anyone. On top of that, the pace of working life in Sweden was much slower than he was used to.
“It took really long… Irish companies come over here and they are horrified at the pace things move. What gets done in Ireland in one month may take six months here.
“It took years [to get a job] but the great thing about it taking so long is that once it gets going, you have been tried and tested and are battle-hardened; you’re ready to go.”
After three years of applying and knocking on doors, he got a job with a news agency. From there, journalism and TV opportunities started opening up to him.
Once the work became more regular, he found his professional anonymity liberating. “In part, when you go away, there is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to try different things — you don’t have the baggage you have back home,” he says.
“I don’t think I would have done what I am doing here had I been in Ireland. I don’t know if I would have made it through all the hoops you have to jump through.”
Having contacts and relationships with people in the same industry is a huge asset. But sometimes it can also be limiting, if people pigeonhole you or underestimate your potential.
For Philip, the freedom to start from scratch was a fair “trade-off” for not having a professional network. As his career developed, he wanted to become more involved with the Irish community in Sweden, so he co-founded the Stockholm Gaels.
It’s also a way for his Swedish-born daughters, Saoirse and Freia, to have an understanding of his culture. He wrote a book about the burgeoning Irish GAA community called A Parish Far from Home, which was nominated for two Irish Book Awards.
He has just launched a new podcast called Irish in Sweden in which he interviews expats, and he also has a longer-running podcast, Our Man in Stockholm — a name the late broadcaster Marian Finucane gave him whenever he appeared on her show.
The Irish community in Sweden is small (2,500-3000), Philip says, but it is dynamic. He attributes this to the differences between the two cultures.
“I always say if you put Ireland and Sweden together, you would have a perfect country… Irish people have creativity and community and Swedes organisation and long-term planning, and their dedication to doing things well. I think we’d be unstoppable.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/irelands-success-stories-abroad-coming-from-a-culture-that-values-the-ability-to-chat-certainly-helped-41454329.html Ireland’s success stories abroad: ‘Coming from a culture that values the ability to chat certainly helped’