Maeve O’Donovan – Marketing, Education & Governance Executive

Irish-born Maeve O’Donovan has been living in Cabrils on a permanent basis since 2022. During her lifetime, she has lived and worked in a variety of capacities in 10 different countries.  She has 3 adult children who live in the UK and the Netherlands. Here she tells us some of the life lessons that she has learnt along the way.

As a girl growing up in Clondalkin in the 60s and 70s, I remember receiving postcards from my aunt, who lived abroad in exotic locations: Accra, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok & Amman. The postcards featured elephants pushing logs in the jungle, Golden Thai palaces or emerald green hummingbirds. When my aunt and uncle would visit Ireland, the house was filled with the fragrance of Miss Dior, Marlboro cigarettes and whiskey. I decided living overseas must be pretty exciting and that I too would lead a life of adventure. I knew the days of the Raj were over; steamboats taking weeks to reach their destination were a thing of the past and dressing for dinner a tradition only seen in TV dramas. But I was determined to go my own way, to take the path less travelled, in the hopes that that would make all the difference.

Having lived and worked in 10 countries across 4 continents, I now wonder what difference has it made. Am I any different to someone who remained in the same country all their life? Or how different am I from the girl who left Ireland – all those years ago? Let me recap my journey.

Apart from 2 summer holidays in Holland in my teens with said Aunt and Uncle, mentioned above, my first foray into life overseas came via an American Field Service Scholarship to France straight after secondary school. I lived with a young French family just outside Orleans. The dad was away on a computer training course from Monday to Friday for the first six months I was there so the Mum alone with the 3 kids was happy to have company in the house. I took the bus early each morning to the Lycée in Orleans and studied Première B (penultimate year of secondary school). At home in the evenings I merrily watched Louis de Funès films armed with a dictionary to try and understand what was going on. Alas with the husband away, the wife became involved in an affair and my French expanded to understand the meaning of a cinq a sept as well.

Back to Ireland and thanks to the interesting year I had had in France, I realised education could be fun and decided to do psychology at University College Dublin.  Before leaving Ireland I had sworn off any further education due the unbearable boredom of my secondary years.  Following the undergraduate degree, I switched to the commerce faculty and went on to do a Masters in Business Studies in International Marketing, won a fellowship during my final year from Córas Tráchtála (the Irish Export Board) and was subsequently offered an internship by them in Brussels. My own work odyssey had begun. After a subsequent position at a multinational and a total of 3.5 years in Brussels, I moved on to Spain to lecture in Marketing at St Louis University but really to follow the love interest.

I had met a man whose youth had been spent in Venezuela, Angola, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Indonesia but who had attended high school in Massachusetts and university in Tennessee. His father had been born in Uruguay (of an American father and British Mother) and his mother hailed from Venezuela (with Venezuela mother and Spanish father). I had met a kindred spirit and we shared a common goal: we both wanted to continue living and working in many different countries. Spain was the stepping stone for our journey together and my introduction to the world of expats – where parents hail from different countries and their children can carry passports of one country but identify ‘home’ in another.

Marriage in Gibraltar and a brief stay in London (15 months) then brought us to the Ivory Coast, West Africa in 1992. My husband worked for an energy company and I was offered a position with the American Embassy. Life was wonderful in the Ivory Coast, a vibrant French speaking community of locals and expats led by a benevolent president (Felix Houphouet- Boigny- known as Le Sage – the wise man) who ruled from independence in 1960 through multiple elections until his death in 1993. Thanks to Le Sage the Ivory Coast enjoyed stability and prosperity through the 70s and 80s, with most of the wealth generated by the high commodity prices of their coffee and cocoa exports.  While we were there, Abidjan enjoyed a modern infrastructure of highways, universities, hospitals, 5 star hotels (including ice skating rink!) and world class restaurants. Felix Houphouet- Boigny’s benevolence extended to the construction of a basilica (replica of St Peter’s in Rome) in his home town of Yamoussoukro, rumoured to have cost anywhere from $300-500 million dollars. I remember visiting the Basilica, marvelling at the custom blown imported stained glass windows, the Italian marble floors and individual seat air conditioning, the equally grand President Hotel and the purpose built UN convention centre -all quietly and silently languishing in the humid tropical air – in the middle of nowhere.

Perhaps my most vivid memory though was the beauty of the beach at Assinie; crossing the lagoon by pirogue to arrive at a sandbar, coconut and palm tree leaves smacking overhead as we made our way along shaded sandy paths towards the beach huts and pounding Atlantic Ocean beyond. New Year’s Eve spent down there was always so spectacular, watching fireworks set off down along the beach, reflected in the shallow waves for as far as the eye could see. We were fortunate to have lived there during stable prosperous times. Alas with the death of Le Sage in 1993 and divisive politicking following subsequent elections, Ivory Coast became increasingly unstable with civil strife along ethnic and religious lines resulting in a coup and civil war a few years after our departure.

In 1997 and two small babies in tow, we moved from Abidjan to Caracas, Venezuela – a vibrant, busy and massive South American city sitting in a valley with the Avila mountain range separating it from the Caribbean coastline. We rented a house on the top of a hill with an expansive view of the city below and began our life again – getting the kids into preschool, meeting new friends and making the house our home.

Venezuela had enjoyed steady growth from the 50s to the 70s thanks to its oil reserves, considered to be the biggest in the world. In its heyday, the Venezuelan economy was ahead of Greece and Spain. However, Venezuela had also suffered a turbulent political history and with the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s reportedly over half the population of 23 million were below the poverty line. By the elections of 1998 the majority of the population were looking for change. Our arrival coincided with the run up to that election with candidates’ faces smiling at us from enormous billboards on the highway as we made our way to Caracas. One of the candidates was ex army officer Hugo Chavez – who had participated in an unsuccessful coup in 1992. He would go on to win the election and usher in a new way forward for the country.

Our early years in Venezuela allowed us to travel to see Angel Falls in the Canaima National Park, to see the turquoise waters of Los Roques archipelago and to the islands off Chichiriviche. My volunteer work brought me into the barrios to play, work and fundraise for a street kid’s organisation. In addition,  we enjoyed living in a city with extended family members close by to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings etc. However we were keenly aware of the increasing insecurity and civil strife precipitated by the contested election results and subsequent tinkering with the constitution. At short notice we would receive phone calls from the school to say ‘Come now and pick up the kids, there will be a demonstration down town later and impossible to cross the city’. I remember driving through tear gas to collect my husband from work one evening with national guards out on the street. The situation became even more fragile after 18,000 striking national oil workers were fired. An attempted coup and ongoing political rallies, demonstrations and protests heightened security concerns.

Gradually our travels were confined to work, school and home with robberies and express kidnappings becoming more regular. We finally left Caracas in 2005, tears in all our eyes as we drove down to the coast, never to return to a country we had grown to love and a place the kids called home.

Back to Africa and after a brief 2 years in Ghana, our family of 5 now moved on to Hanoi, Vietnam where the kids were lucky to get spaces at the United Nations International School (one of only 2 UN schools in the world, the other is in New York).  My husband’s new job was to negotiate with the Vietnamese government to develop natural gas fields off shore Vietnam. I became involved in a women’s social and cultural group that fundraised for grass roots projects in health, education and community aid. I travelled to Dien Bien Phu to review micro finance projects with the Black Thai ethnic minority group, to Lao Cai to inspect a vocational centre for rescued trafficked women, to San Sa Ho to visit a funded dormitory school for ethnic minority children – and so many more projects. All this as a volunteer, while running tennis groups, and being a stay at home Mum. As the children became older, I went back into full time employment.

Overall I lived in Vietnam for 15 years (with a short move to Malaysia halfway through that time). The last two years in Vietnam saw the borders closed due to Covid with the possibility to travel out restricted and with no means to get back in. Having gone back to full time employment in 2013, and the three children all working or studying in Europe, I finally felt the pull to be closer to my roots, my kids and Irish family. In 2022 I moved to spend more time in our holiday house in Spain -where I currently reside- my husband (now ex) chose to remain in Vietnam.

Living in Maresme has been such an eye opener for me. Having moved from country to country where kids, a job or a school tended to provide the foundation of our social life, none of that existed for me on my move to Cabrils in 2022. So where to start? Initially, I joined an international women’s group in Barcelona, from there other cultural groups closer in Mataro, tennis groups, wine tasting groups, walking, hiking, book club, karaoke, dancing, volunteering – you name it, I’ve put my name down for it. And what can I say? Life is great in Maresme – there is always something on for anyone at any age. I continue my peripatetic life both within and outside of Spain and am lucky to have kids who love it here too and visit as often as they can. But most of all I have been blessed with the luck of great neighbours who have become close friends.

Being Irish is a great passport wherever one goes. Whether travelling in the depths of a south American jungle, a south east Asian beach or European cocktail bar ‘oh you’re Irish’ will always bring a smile, a story of their visit to Dublin, the music, the beauty of the countryside and the friendliness of its people. I have been lucky to have this heritage as I travelled around the world. To that extent I haven’t changed: I am Irish and I always will be. But how different am I now from that young woman who left Ireland so many years ago? Who knows?

We are a product of where we have lived, what we have done, whom we have met and what we have pursued. Viewed like that, I must be a bit of everything and everywhere. Perhaps one would describe that as unique – although I like to believe we are all unique -‘And that has made all the difference’