Monday 19 February 2018

'There's a magic to it' - Brendan O'Connor on why we should appreciate Ireland for the great little country it is

Tell us why you think Ireland is a 'Great Little Country' to win a luxury break

Brendan O'Connor swims in Dublin Bay in July. Photo: David Conachy.
Brendan O'Connor swims in Dublin Bay in July. Photo: David Conachy.
The Kerry Way
Athlone, Co Westmeath
Glendalough, Co Wicklow
The Claddagh, Galway city
Fanad, Co Donegal
Crookhaven, Co Cork
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

As we kick off our annual series of the best of Ireland, Brendan O'Connor puts out the call for the best ways to immerse yourself in nature in Ireland

As facts become more and more unreliable, I am starting to see that texture is as important to how we experience reality as the actual nuts and bolts of things. Indeed, texture is possibly more important to how we feel than the actual facts.

Sometimes you need to be an outsider to see things clearly. And sometimes you need to be an outsider who has had his mind slightly altered by sleep deprivation to see things clearly.

Sleep deprivation in strange places often gives me a type of synaesthesia where all I can see is textures. It helps when all the writing is in a foreign language, so the facts of all the signs and the writing everywhere don't distract me from the texture.

The Kerry Way
The Kerry Way

I was in Lisbon recently and, sleep deprived and being an outsider, I had the benefit of seeing things clearly. Because it was all strange to me, my mind reverted, and just starting classifying everything by texture. And this is when I had my big insight. I only have a major insight about once a year but I like to think they are usually good.

What I saw in Lisbon was wonderful old textures - the cobbles, the side streets and alleyways, the dark, wooded little bars, the old buildings with the layers and layers of time on them. It felt good. It was texture that you could feel. It felt exotic, slightly Moorish, rich, ancient and sensual. Even the writing I didn't understand felt like part of the exotic texture. And the feel of it all made me feel good. Reality. Time. Terroir. The lives of millions of people and their stories, all etched and engrained into this organic texture, layers and layers of it.

I noticed another texture too; hard-edged, minimalist, metallic, clean, bland. It was the texture of globalisation, and it had been imposed over the ancient patina of Lisbon. It sat uneasily on it. The signs and logos of big international brands. H&M, Tiger, Accenture, GlaxoSmithKline, Grant Thornton and their Nietzschean slogan, An Instinct for Growth. Big anonymous office blocks, giant, shiny shopping centres.

A lot of the locals are unhappy with the way Lisbon is being rebuilt, not only because of the traffic jams as the development goes on everywhere, not only because anyone who invests half a million euro there gets residency so there is a lot of foreign money flowing into property there. Part of it is because they miss things being the way they were. They miss the beautiful old textures of Lisbon as it was. And while we cannot stand in the way of progress, you can see how they feel. People who are redeveloping old buildings into trendy wine bars and shops, where they try and recreate the feel of the seedy bodega-type places, are made to keep the facades and the structure of the buildings, but it is a small concession to antiquity. The texture is changing and with it the DNA of the place.

And that is when I had my blinding insight. The textures of the modern world are making us sick and unhappy. We crave reality, we crave organic matter underneath our feet and around us. We crave surroundings that heave with history and time. And then it stuck me that what better to root us in reality than nature itself, the ultimate texture. And it struck me then that those of us who live in cities are systematically eliminating nature from our lives. Our children barely have any contact with it unless we make an appointment in their busy schedules for them to see or do or feel some nature. We move from one artificial environment in one unhealthy building to another. And it is, by definition, unnatural.

I know. You're disappointed. This is my big insight for 2017? And I think I'm the first person to notice this? And obviously I am aware that hippies and crusties and hillwalkers and tough mudders and runners and the Royal family and indeed conspiracy theorists have known about the benefit of getting out in nature for years. But the rest of us, those of us who live out our lives of quiet desperation in the cities and towns and suburbs, tend to forget this. We are so busy getting on with our routine that we forget to get out in nature. And modernity is slowly destroying our souls.

Athlone, Co Westmeath
Athlone, Co Westmeath

It's that time of year when we are kicking off our It's a Great Little Country... series. Over the next four or five weeks we will be asking you to tell us about the best of Ireland, about the hidden gems, the little secrets that only you know but that you are happy to share, all the experiences that go to make up the texture of this fabulous country, a country we like to take off around in the summer months.

It's a cliche to say it, but Irish people wouldn't feel the need to go anywhere else if we felt the weather was guaranteed here.

Over the coming weeks we'll be asking you to tell us the best of this great little country. The best places and things for kids, the best summer eating and drinking, and the best Irish summer treats.

But this week we want you to tell us the best ways of getting out into nature in this great little country. It could be anything from a walk, a cycle, a hike, a climb, a swim, a view, a scenic drive or even the small experiences like lying in the grass, watching the sun come up, or go down, being near water, going into the middle of the woods, up a mountain. Where are the secret little places where you get your nature fix? Is there an unexpected spot in the middle of your city or town or suburb where you are suddenly in nature, miles away from the global future?

I'll tell you something daft. I love communing with foxes. If I was a hippy-dippy type I would say that the fox is my spirit animal. I know they are traditionally regarded as being sly and crafty. But I think foxes are fundamentally shy creatures, but independent nonetheless. Often if I'm heading out early I'll come across an urban fox. Sometimes they just run. But often they will stop for a minute and look, and you can lock eyes with them and share a moment. I don't know what it is, but I have some piseog about it. I regard it as a bit of good luck.

I always head off from a fox with a spring in my step, a feeling that I made a little connection with the universe. I don't care much for cats or dogs, but there is something nice about bumping into a fox and the two of us metaphorically saluting each other before we go back into our separate worlds.

Glendalough, Co Wicklow
Glendalough, Co Wicklow

For most of us on this island the easiest way to access nature quickly is to head to the water. I like the full immersion in nature that an outdoor swim gives you. And there's a magic to it. Like when the sun bursts over Dublin Bay like a huge red spotlight, or a full moon shines down illuminating everything. Or try swimming to the centre of the peaty upper lake in Glendalough and then turn around on your back and look at the hyper-real Lord of the Rings style, green, mountainy landscape all around you.

I have all kinds of plans again this summer to swim in different places. I want to go down and swim in Glengarriff where my people swam, and I want to swim in Lough Hyne near Skibbereen at night and see the fluorescence. We want you to tell us where else there are magical swims.

My walking is built into my daily routine. I walk or cycle into work along rivers. Near the house right now there are a family of swans, two parents and four cygnets. It's nice to check in on them everyday. I don't even stop. Just a glance and there they are. Last year I walked a bit of the Kerry Way with my brother, niece and nephew, through streams and vegetation and emerging out on hilltops into glorious views of Derrynane beach. And I understood why people do it. But try and get my damn kids to walk anywhere and you'll see why I don't take the family hillwalking at the weekend. Tell us your favourite walks into nature - long one, short ones, ones for all ages and abilities.

And where are your favourite cycles? Ones that bring you out into nature and away from the world. And where are the places you can just sit and take in the world in all its glory, feeling miles away from civilisation.

Tell us the best ways to immerse yourself in nature and next week we will print your ideas and the best one wins a fabulous weekend away.

Tell us about your Ireland by emailing

For the next four weeks we want you to tell us why you think Ireland is a Great Little Country. We want your suggestions, tips and recommendations, and each week we will publish the best of them — the gems you feel everyone should know about. Each week has a theme, so this week we want you to tell us about your favourite way of enjoying nature — whether it’s a special drive you take, a hike in a particular wood, a mountain you like to climb, a special bike ride, or a view you like to feast on.

Send your suggestions to A Great Little Country, c/o Sunday Independent, 27/32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1 or email

We will print as many as we can next week and there will be a prize for the one we consider the best: a luxurious break at Kelly’s Resort Hotel & Spa, Rosslare, Co Wexford. You can escape to the sunny south east and its gorgeous sandy beach and enjoy a two-night break at the amazing Kelly’s Resort with breakfast daily and dinner on one evening at Beaches Restaurant.

T&Cs: Booking is subject to availability. No cash alternative applies. Valid from August 2017 - August 2018.  Maximum two people sharing. The editor’s decision is final.

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