An Irishman in Barcelona

In this episode of Interlinks I talk to to Neal Shanahan, a Dubliner who has been living and working in Spain since 1989, and runs his own business in the dynamic city of Barcelona.

In this episode of Interlinks we talk to to Neal Shanahan, a Dubliner who has been living and working in Spain since 1989, firstly in the cities of Oviedo and Gijon in Asturias, which lies on the northern Atlantic coast of Spain, and since the turn of the century in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia in the northeast of the country on the Mediterranean Coast.

In Barcelona, Neal owns and operates a personal training studio and sports massage room in a suburban neighbourhood and works with clients of all ages and from all walks of life.

This is a privileged position that gives him great insight into people’s thoughts and concerns about their health and fitness as well as what they think about what is going on in the wider world.

In this conversation we discuss these topics as well as getting Neal’s perspective on Ireland after over thirty years living in another country.

Click here to read transcript

Hello, this is Patrick Daly and welcome to Interlinks. Interlinks is a program about connections, international business, supply chains and globalization, and the effects these developments have had on our life, our work and our travel over recent times. Today on Interlinks, we’ll be talking to Neal Shanahan. Neal is a Dubliner who has been living and working in Spain since 1989. Firstly in the cities of Oviedo and Gijón in Asturias in northern Spain, and then later, since around the turn of the century, in Barcelona. So in Barcelona, Neal owns and operates a personal training studio and sports massage room in a suburban neighborhood, and works with clients of all ages and from all walks of life, a position that gives them great insight into people’s thoughts and concerns about their health, their fitness, as well as what they think about what’s going on in the wider world. So delighted to have you with us today, Neal. You’re very welcome.

Neal Shanahan:               Hello, Patrick. Good to be here.

PatrickDaly:                      So I mentioned, Neal, that you were in Asturias from the late eighties. Were you actually there in Gijón at the time there that our own Kevin Moran played for the local Spanish First Division team as it was then, Sporting Gijón.

Neal Shanahan:               Yes, I was. I was in Oviedo at the time, and I met him a few years later in Barcelona by chance, and we had an opportunity to talk about that ’cause maybe he’s a bit forgotten now I’d say in sporting because that was a long time ago, but he was a bit of a legend at the time. He’d caused a good impression, and because he was Irish, people tended to like him. So yeah, I got to meet him here with, I was working for Reial Espanyol, the Spanish First Division team in Barcelona as a translator for an Irish player who was over here, didn’t speak any English, so they hired me. And Kevin Moran was his manager, if I’m not mistaken.

PatrickDaly:                      Okay.

Neal Shanahan:               So I got to meet him.

PatrickDaly:                      Oh, like his agent as such, is that what you mean?

Neal Shanahan:               Agent, I beg your pardon. Yeah, that would be the agent, exactly.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah, yeah. Interesting thing about Kevin as well is Kevin played Gaelic football for Dublin as well. So he was both a Gaelic footballer and a soccer player, and he was a hard man. And I remember in Gijón at that time, he was very popular around the town, he had a great reputation because he took no prisoners.

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah, I remember for years, whenever I told anyone that I was Irish or anyone asked me where was I from and I’d said Ireland, and they said, “Oh, Kevin Moran, hombre.” So you always got the Kevin Moran reference, so I thought, “Okay, that’s fair enough, me and Kevin Moran.”

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah. So now you’re in Barcelona. Could you just give me then an overview of your career to date, and how you came to be running a personal fitness and massage business in Barcelona?

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah, so I’ve had different careers along the way, I suppose. I mean, I came to Spain young, I was 19 when I arrived in Spain. And I taught English for a number of years in Oviedo, I suppose you could say that was my first career, as an English teacher. Then I moved into translating and interpreting as I acquired better Spanish. So I did that for a few years as well. Then when I came here to Barcelona, which was 2002, I worked as a lifeguard, which was kind of my second career. I’d already begun that in Asturias, working on the beaches in the summer and swimming clubs during the year. I worked as a lifeguard here, and then I gradually got into fitness instruction, personal training, I got certified as a personal trainer here in Barcelona, then, a few years later, certified as a massage therapist. So I moved into that field, which isn’t a major change because from swimming pools to gyms, it’s kind of the same atmosphere, but definitely more enjoyable, more interesting for me being a personal trainer than being a lifeguard.

                                           So I’ve been doing this for basically the last 15 years, and I opened my own business three years ago, three years ago almost to the day just before COVID. It’s a small center, I work on my own, it’s one-to-one with my clients. I work alone, which is what I like. I control all the aspects of my business, of what I do, and it gives me a lot of freedom, which is really what I wanted. I didn’t want to be working for a business, I was tired of having bosses, I was tired of working within a business structure which wasn’t my own, I suppose, which I didn’t control. And yeah, I decided to go out my own and that’s what I’ve been doing now for a number of years. So I’m happy doing that.

PatrickDaly:                      So you’ve been in Spain now for 33 years I think it is, since 1989.

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah.

PatrickDaly:                      What would you say are the main cultural differences and similarities between Spain and Ireland? And what made you stay all that time and make your life there?

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah, I often get asked this kind of question. I’d say there’s quite a lot of similarities between Asturias, where you and I both used to live, and Ireland. The climate is quite similar, it’s an Atlantic climate, quite wet and cold and rainy, and not particularly hot in the summer. And the people have, there’s a Celtic background to the culture. I always found myself very much at home in Asturias. The Asturians would have a great sense of humor, they were always taking the mickey out of each other, kind of Irish in many ways. And then just so beautiful, such a beautiful place to live in, and great food, gorgeous women, all sorts of pluses. Then the rest of Spain, I don’t know, it’s hard to… Comparisons with Ireland, certainly always felt very much at home in Spain and very welcomed Spain.

                                           I mean, you’ve traveled around the whole world and a lot more than me, but nobody dislikes the Irish. That’s the simple fact. Maybe in England there used to be a bit of antipathy, but basically if you say you’re Irish, and particularly in Spain, although it’s a bit of a cliche, people think, “Oh, you’re Irish, you’re kind of anti-English, that’s cool,” because Spain has traditionally, historically been anti-English. So some of these cliches that work in your favor if you’re Irish. But I always felt very much at home, from day one. And maybe that would’ve happened if I’d been in France, I don’t know. I mean, I was 19, you kind of fit in easily at that age, you’ll adapt to anything at that age. So it was probably partly my own personality. But Spain is a very welcoming country, and it’s a country where, I mean, I’ve met loads of people in Spain who came for a week, well, a month, to spend a year or something, and then 20, 30 years later, they’re still here, of their own volition.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah. So now you’re in Barcelona, which is the capital of Catalonia. And you arrived in Barcelona, I guess from Asturias speaking Castilian, or what foreigners know as regular Spanish, and as we know, the use of the Catalan language in Catalonia has increased over the decades since the end of the Franco dictatorship. So did you actually need to learn Catalan as well in order to live and work optimally in Barcelona?

Neal Shanahan:               The answer to that is no. In Barcelona, you don’t really need Catalan. It’s kind of hard to get your head around, and it took me a while to get my head around how the two languages worked in Catalonia and in Barcelona. But the thing you have to remember is that they’re very similar languages, they’re very close. If you speak Spanish, you can grasp quite a bit of Catalan. All the Catalans are bilingual, they all speak Spanish perfectly, and people will often hop back and forth from one language to another, or you might have a group of people sitting around a table and talking together, and with some people will be talking in Spanish, another will be talking in Catalan. So it’s not a situation like, say, the Basque Country, where the Basque language is entirely different from Spanish. And you either speak one or the other, but there’s no overlap whatsoever, there’s no coincidence.

                                           So actually, I did a course in Catalan when I arrived here first, the first year I was here to get a basic understanding of it and a bit of the grammar, which is kind of tricky. And then you just pick it up as you go along really, but you’re listening to it, you’re hearing it little lot, but people speak it all the time. I have to say though, that people, when they realize you’re a foreigner, they will usually speak to you in Spanish because they understand that you’re unlikely to speak Catalan. So it’s never been a problem for me needing the language. I can speak Catalan.

                                           To be honest, I rarely do. Oftentimes, I’ll hold a conversation with someone who may be speaking to me in Catalan and I’ll reply in Spanish or sometimes reply in Catalan. So it’s flexible like that. It’s a bit odd though because you’ll have situations where, within a family, maybe the parents speak together in Spanish, but then with the kids they speak in Catalan, or the children with the mother speak in Catalan, but with the father, they speak in Spanish. So it’s quite an odd linguistic mix, but interesting. And I mean, I’m glad to have learned the language, even though, to be honest, I’m far more comfortable with Spanish.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah. And now as a personal trainer, what kind of services do you provide to your clients?

Neal Shanahan:               So I do one-to-one personal training. I don’t do groups, it’s always with a single person. I have clients of all ages. So my youngest client now is a 15-year-old young fella, and my eldest, my oldest client is 86, an 86-year-old lady. So I have clients of all ages. I do strength conditioning, really is the basis of what I do. So I do pretty much standard gym exercises to strengthen legs, arms, back, abs, also combined with stretching, combined with agility exercises, particularly for older people. So balance exercises, reflexes, things like that. It also depends a little bit on what the person is looking for. So I have some clients who run marathons or long-distance runners, I have some cyclists, I have some athletes who swim. And so we’ll do more specific training for those particular sports.

                                           But in general, we’re talking about average people who want to get fitter, stronger, feel better, look better. And I combine that training with massage. So I have clients who only come from massage, so I’m their massage therapist, and then most of my clients, my personal training clients, I do a 15 or 20-minute massage with them at the end of the session. So within the hour, we’ll train for 40 minutes approximately, well, they’ll train 40 minutes and I’ll instruct them, and then the last 20 minutes I’ll get them in the massage room on the massage table and they’ll get a back massage, legs, whatever they need, which also serves as a motivation and an incentive.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah, yeah.

Neal Shanahan:               [inaudible 00:12:23].

PatrickDaly:                      Well, the question I had you then was what’s the advantage of having a personal trainer as opposed to going to the public gym and doing classes and whatnot? And at least one answer I can give you myself, which is that after I’ve been to the gym, I don’t get a massage. And then the next day I’m quite stiff afterwards. So what would you say are the advantages of having a personal trainer as opposed to just going to the public gym?

Neal Shanahan:               Well, that’s a good question. What are the advantage of a personal trainer? I mean, if you’re disciplined and focused, and you know what you want and you know how to train, then you may not need a personal trainer, to be perfectly honest. At the same time, it lends a focus and a bit more intensity to what you do. People are often a little bit lazy really, in terms of doing physical exercise. So knowing that each week they have to come here once or twice a week and they’re paying for it per month and they have to be here and I’m expecting them, then that helps them to be a bit more disciplined and regular.

                                           And also, most people will agree that if you have a personal trainer who’s obviously a decent personal trainer ’cause in this business, you do have kind of inexperienced people as well, so there’s a bit of variety in terms of the standard, to be quite honest, it’s not regulated as much as the other sectors. But certainly, people, after 45 minutes of training with me, they’re pretty exhausted, they’ve done a full-body workout, they’ve avoided injury and exercises that may be in any way bad for them. And they know that they’ve done much more in those 45 minutes than they would ever do on their own in a gym.

Speaker 3:                        93.9, Dublin South FM.

PatrickDaly:                      I guess they’re working as well towards specific objectives that they’ve told you what they are and you’ve maybe helped them to formulate their objectives. So it’s all going in the one direction, right?

Neal Shanahan:               Essentially, yes. Although a lot of people, so it’s interesting, so when it comes to objectives and expectations, it’s interesting, how do you manage objectives, set objectives, and manage expectations? This is a big issue in my business because some people come with a general objective of feeling better, feeling stronger, getting into shape, looking a bit better. So you say, “Okay, let’s work hard, starting to lose a bit of weight, increase your muscle tone, feel stronger, look fitter,” that’s fine. And then other people will be very specific, “I want to run a marathon,” or, “I want to be able to play football better at the weekends.” But setting objectives, specific objectives in terms of size, weight, a measurable objective to work towards, that’s tricky. You have to be careful with that because with the work I do, it depends as much on the client as it does on me what the outcome is going to be.

                                           So you can have a great personal trainer, but if you don’t respond to that, and if you’re not disciplined and focused, and if you don’t push yourself in the gym when you’re training, if you’re not disciplined then with what you eat, if you’re not following the instructions that the personal trainer’s giving you, then you’re not going to meet those objectives. So there’s only so much that I can promise the client because it really depends on the client, a lot of it. So I kind of shy away from setting really specific objectives with most clients, certainly in the beginning, until I can see what they’re like, what their personality is like, because it’s better to achieve, if you say, “Okay, we’re going to achieve a 10,” and you only achieve an 8, it seems like it’s maybe a disappointment and a failure. But if you say, “Let’s look for a 5 or 6,” and you reach an 8, that’s an amazing accomplishment. So it’s tricky with that, but I try and motivate and encourage people to change habits more than specific concrete objectives.

PatrickDaly:                      And in general terms then around, say, physical health and fitness, as busy people, men and women, as they move through their thirties, forties and fifties, what would be, say, the top two or three pieces of advice you’d give them to help them maintain their wellbeing, and give themselves the best opportunity for a good quality of life then in their later years?

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah, don’t drink and smoke. Do not drink, do not smoke. I mean, don’t drink, don’t drink to excess, don’t smoke at all. Diet and nutrition is very important, really important. You need to stay trim, you need to stay lean, if you put on weight, that’s going to affect your overall longevity, that’s going to affect your overall quality of life. Food, what you eat is very important. You don’t have to be obsessive about it. I mean, I’m not ultra strict about what I eat, but I do take care of my body weight and I make sure I’m getting all my nutrients each day. And then regular exercise of, it doesn’t have to be high-intensity, it doesn’t have to be every single day, but you need regular exercise two, three times a week. Even if it’s, as the World Health Organization, I think, recommends, is it two hours a week of moderate exercise, two or three hours a week? That’s enough. You don’t have to be in the gym every day two hours to get fit, to stay fit, but you need to be disciplined and regular at doing it.

                                           And just start with walking. A good brisk walk, half an hour, 45 minutes, that’s a great exercise. You could do that pretty much any day of the year if you set your mind to it.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah.

Neal Shanahan:               You can do exercises, you can train at home, you can go to a gym, you can play tennis. There’s loads of things you can do, but you need to be consistent with it.

PatrickDaly:                      Make those behaviors habits, I guess, that if you don’t do them, almost your body misses it and pulls you towards getting those things done, yeah?

Neal Shanahan:               Well, that’s exactly what happens, yeah. So you reach a point where your body is begging for that endorphin rush and that great feeling of having sweated and put in the effort, and come out the other side feeling great, this is it becomes part of your lifestyle, and the problem for a lot of people with exercise, average people who are not athletes, is that exercise is an imposition, it’s something they have to force themselves to do. Because they know they’re supposed to do it, they know it’s good for them, they know that they should be doing it. But in actual fact, they don’t really enjoy physical exertion all that much, maybe they haven’t had great experiences with sports and activities and going to the gym. So it’s not something that they really want to do very much. So this is one of the things that I try and do, people constantly come to me saying, “Listen, I don’t want to go to the gym. I don’t like it, but I know to do something.” So what do you do with a person like that?

                                           You have to change the way they look at exercise, and what they get out of it and their attitude towards it. And so it’s kind of an educational thing as well. And that gives me the great satisfaction when you realize this person actually comes back on their diet to get into the gym here with me and do a workout, and they enjoy it and they feel better, they look better, having had a bad relationship up until then with sports and exercise.

PatrickDaly:                      And with your business being close and intimate, physically in a small space with people one-to-one, how has COVID changed your business and the way you work and interact with clients?

Neal Shanahan:               Well, to be honest, not very much. I was really lucky, insofar as because I work one-to-one with individual clients, I wasn’t subject with many restrictions as large sports clubs and health clubs were during the first two years of COVID. So I didn’t have to change my business model at all, in actual fact, I could continue working one-to-one. I wore a face mask the whole time. Clients, most of my clients didn’t wear face masks, they felt comfortable enough with me wearing one. Some would wear them, but for doing exercise with a face mask, it’s uncomfortable. So I was able to continue working pretty much as per normal. And to be honest, I actually benefited from COVID, which I don’t like to say very often or very loud, but because there were so many restrictions in larger health centers, a lot of more people came to places like mine because they felt safer, they weren’t surrounded by grunting, heavily-breathing people.

                                           And it was just me, it was a secure environment, in terms of COVID or as secure as you possibly can be with one another person. So business actually really took off. I mean, it really blew. ‘Cause I opened just before COVID, and then we went into lockdown, and then when we came out of lockdown, which was May of 2020, business took off. People were coming out of the lockdown period, they wanted to get fit again, they’d put on weight, they were out of shape, their backs hurt them, their necks hurt them. So it was actually good for me. I was lucky. I was lucky, I have to say.

PatrickDaly:                      And as you work with a broad section of people, you get a privileged look at what people are thinking about, ’cause I guess they chat to you and they tell you what’s on their mind and so on. What are you picking up at this time? Because we’re in a difficult or a strange period where there are lots of things kicking off the world, whether inflation or rising interest rates or wars and so on. So what kind of things are you picking up from people? What’s concerning them? What are they worrying about as they look to the future?

Neal Shanahan:               Gosh, what are the things that people are concerned about? Certainly the cost of living, that’s a recurring theme. Increases in the cost of living, people are concerned about that. People are very concerned about where the war in Ukraine could lead to and what it could lead to. And then there’s the local politics as well, of each particular place here. You’d have the whole independence issue has died down, but that’s still there. The Catalan separatism issue is still there, that’s still quite prevalent in politics. So some people like that and some people don’t like that. That’s an issue. I mean, the business people that I work with, I have executives and business people, a lot of challenges for them in terms of disruption to their business, things like supply chains, stuff that you usually deal with that’s affecting a lot of clients who are in business.

                                           The other day, I was talking to a client of mine who’s a real estate developer, manages a real estate development company, and she was saying that it’s not just labor, labor is hard to find, skilled labor, raw materials have gone up, fuel has gone up. So a lot of serious problems for them in building. So I wouldn’t say people are excessively negative, I don’t know what things are like in Ireland at the moment, really. I get back occasionally. But I think we came through COVID fairly well in Spain, and personally I think the government handled it quite well, mistakes were made and all that, but we came out of it quite well. But now this kind of recession that’s kicking in now and the cost of living, this is a problem and this seems to be people worry about that.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah. So outside of work then, what kind of things do you like to do in your spare time?

Neal Shanahan:               Tomorrow’s a bank holiday here in its Spain.

PatrickDaly:                      Oh, you have a double bank holiday this week, I think. Isn’t that right?

Neal Shanahan:               There’s a double bank holiday, yes, Tuesday and Thursday. Yeah, one of the amazing Spanish things, the double bank holiday the same week. I’ll be off tomorrow, but I’ll be working on Thursday. So tomorrow I’ll go out cycling with my cycling club. I’m a member of Club Ciclista Gràcia, which is the oldest cycling club in Barcelona. So we’ll go out cycling tomorrow, do about 120, 130 kilometers tomorrow. At the weekend, I’ll be cross-country skiing, so it’ll be my first weekend up in the Pyrenees for the cross-country ski season. And pretty much every weekend now until late February, early March, I’ll be up skiing at the weekend.

PatrickDaly:                      Excellent. Are you reading anything or listening to anything currently that you find inspirational that you’d recommend to listeners, podcasts, audiobooks, stuff like that?

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah, I read, so I listen to a number of podcasts through The Guardian newspaper, I’m a Guardian reader. And there’s all the podcasts through The Guardian, tech, science, current affairs. I would listen to them, one I often listen to is The Guardian Football Weekly, but I’m sidestepping this World Cup, so I’ve stopped listening to that for the time being, I’ll get back to it when the World Cup is over. Yeah, unfortunately, this World Cup, it’s just I’m not getting into it at all.

PatrickDaly:                      It’s a little bit tainted, is it?

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah. It’s just I really don’t feel like getting enthusiastic about this World Cup at all, which is unfortunate because I always get really worked up about World Cups.

PatrickDaly:                      Yeah.

Neal Shanahan:               So I’d listen to podcasts through The Guardian. And recently, what have I been reading? Quite a bit of non-fiction, actually, I read an excellent book, just finished it, called The Story of Russia. So it’s a single volume history of Russia from the early times, from about the 9th century up until the present day, including the invasion of Ukraine, written by an English historian called Orlando Figes. I think that’s the correct pronunciation.

PatrickDaly:                      That’s [inaudible 00:27:09]. F-I-G-E-S, is it?

Neal Shanahan:               F-I-G-E-S, so Figes, no? And it’s superb. I just thought that I wanted to try get a better understanding of what is it that goes on inside Vladimir Putin’s mind, and what is it that this Russian patriotism, imperialism, what’s it all about? So I bought this book and I read it. It was really superb ’cause he gives a very clear history of right up now, with an emphasis on understanding the present by looking through the past of the whole of Russia’s history. That’s a superb book I would recommend.

PatrickDaly:                      That sounds interesting, I’ll definitely check that out. So where can people find out more about you and your work and your business, and how can they contact you?

Neal Shanahan:               Yeah, so my business is Equilibrium Fitness and Massage in Barcelona. So the website is If you look Equilibrium Fitness and Massage Barcelona, it’ll turn up, you’ll find me straight off. And I’m at, if anyone wants [inaudible 00:28:18].

PatrickDaly:                      And that’s N-E-A-L, yeah?

Neal Shanahan:               Exactly. N-E-A-L,, yeah.

PatrickDaly:                      Well, excellent, Neal. Thank you very much, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today. Wish you the very, very best for the future, both professionally and personally.

Neal Shanahan:               Lovely. Thank you very much, Patrick. Lovely talking to you.

PatrickDaly:                      And a Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year also.

Neal Shanahan:               And to you.

PatrickDaly:                      So thanks again to our listeners for tuning in. And until next time, keep well and stay safe.

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Patrick Daly Interlinks Podcast

Interlinks is a programme about the connections, relationships and supply chains, that underpin the globalisation of our modern world.

In each programme, we interview people from around the world including entrepreneurs, executives, academics, diplomats and politicians to get their unique perspective on globalisation as it has affected them both personally and professionally.

There is a little bit of history, a dash of economics, a sprinkling of business and an overlay of personal experience both from me and from my interviewees from around the world.

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