Researching Brits on the Costa del Sol

Professor Karen O'Reilly on her recent research visit to Malaga.
Professor Karen O'Reilly on her recent research visit to Malaga. / J.Rhodes
  • Professor Karen O'Reilly, Sociologist and Anthropologist

  • The author of British on the Costa del Sol will continue to visit Spain but has no plans to live here

Karen O'Reilly is a professor of anthropology and sociology currently employed part time by Goldsmiths, University in London, to work on the BrexitBritsAbroad research project, which is researching the impact that Brexit is having on British nationals living in other European Union member countries. Her research recently brought her to Malaga, where she interviewed a number of Brits living in the area about their thoughts and feelings on Brexit. Karen is no stranger to Malaga and first came to the province in 1992.

A passion for learning

At the age of 30, Karen, who had been working at a nursery, enrolled at the University of Essex to study a BA in sociology. Having gained first class honours, she discovered a passion for study and that she “loved university and didn't want to leave,” so she went on to complete a PhD at the same institution.

The subject of her doctorate was Brits living in Spain, the idea for which came about when in 1998 she came to Fuengirola with her then partner, and now husband, Trevor . The self-confessed perpetual student explains that it was her tutor at the time who said to her, “why don't you do your PhD on British people living in Spain?”

It was Trevor's dream, Karen explains, to “live on the Costa del Sol”. Karen, however, wasn't convinced at the time as she felt that her life and, in particular, her studies were where her priorities lay. She says that she couldn't understand at first why her partner liked Fuengirola so much, but explains that when she saw mountains she “fell in love.”

The couple have, since then, been back and forth between the UK and Spain as Karen's career really took off in the UK. After completing her PhD, Karen worked for the universities of Essex, Aberdeen and Loughborough, where she describes her career as “based on research using qualitative methods, especially ethnography.” In 2000, she published her book, British on the Costa del Sol. She took early retirement from Loughborough in 2016 to become a freelance research trainer, teaching research methods to medical professionals among others.

Shaping lives

Karen explains that her daughters were nine and eleven when the family first came to live in Spain. They attended Spanish school and had Spanish lessons. When they returned to the UK Karen explains how important she felt it was for them both to continue to learn Spanish. “Their lives have been shaped by it,” she says, adding, “One daughter is married to a Peruvian and their first language at home is Spanish and my other daughter also uses Spanish in her job.”

No plans to live in Spain

The professor talks frankly about Brexit as well as her own background.

She describes her upbringing as “working class” and says that the first time she went abroad was in 1980, aged 23, when she travelled to America. “I'm not from a travelling background,” she says.

However, migration has shaped her life, from the PhD and publication of her book to Brexit to the BrexitBritsAbroad research and a lot of work and research in between. She says she doesn't have much opportunity to talk about her own opinions on Brexit as she needs to focus her work on collecting the opinions of others. “I really didn't think it would happen,” she admits and says that she is concerned about how it is affecting Brits abroad. “Options to travel, live, retire and spend time in EU easily, which we have long taken for granted, are possibly going to be taken away,” she adds.

On returning to Spain after this project, Karen says that she “can't see” that she would “live here permanently” but thinks she and her husband will continue to spend time here in the future, although she concludes, “I've never learned Spanish well enough to feel a full part of life here.”