Into the wild West: actress Aoibhín Garrihy on quitting acting and leaving her sisters for Clare
Giving up acting wasn't half as hard as leaving her sisters when Aoibhín Garrihy followed her heart to Co Clare. But now at the helm of a thriving wellness event, the mother-of-one has never looked back, she tells John Meagher
The Poor Clare's convent in Ennis may not, on the face of it, have much in common with a Dublin actress, reality TV contestant, entrepreneur and social media influencer, but it was to nuns that lead a life of prayer and poverty that Aoibhín Garrihy turned in May 2017.
Garrihy had not heard from her husband, John Burke, in a week. He was fulfilling a lifetime's dream of climbing Everest and she was terrified that something awful had happened.
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"I saw this headline that [Swiss mountaineer] Ueli Steck had died on Everest. He was the guy they all wanted to aspire to and I thought, 'If he's gone.' That was the moment where I went into orbit, where I went, 'What the f**k is John doing out there?' I knew there would be communication issues and I mightn't get to hear from him for a while, but I was really worried.
"I didn't know what to do, so I went to the Poor Clare's and I spoke to Sister Bernadine in there - her nephew had actually summited Everest some years previously - and she was really rational and said, 'John won't be fool-hardy'. She was exactly the person I needed at the time."
Garrihy might like to think her prayers were answered. Burke got to the top of Everest - becoming the first Clare man to do so - and made it home safe and sound.
But the dangers of conquering the world's tallest peak were brought home to her last month when 11 people perished, including a pair of experienced Irish mountaineers, Séamus Lawless and Kevin Hynes.
"I had been very nervous [in advance of the expedition], but what made it a bit easier is I went out to Nepal with John for the beginning and I could get to meet the Sherpa and look him in the eye and say, 'You're not going to make any crazy decisions, right? You're going to go when the time is right and when John is ready and in the whole of his health?' I just wanted to be able to come home and relay accurate information to his family."
Much has changed in the intervening two years. The couple are now parents to a baby girl, Hanorah, who will turn one at the end of the month. Might fatherhood stop her husband from taking on dangerous adventures in the future? "I haven't had that conversation with John," she says. "You can't hold out the tide. I'd hate to do that, and I think the feeling is mutual. He'd never hold me back from doing something I was yearning to do and I think resentment can fester if you're with someone who does that."
It's an overcast day when Weekend meets Garrihy in an Ennis hotel, not far from her home in Lahinch, but her disposition is rarely less than sunny. She has taken some time off from the business of parenthood for this interview: "I love it so much but there are sacrifices, your social life goes out the window."
She's ostensibly here to chat about her health and wellness initiative BEO - something she politely steers the conversation to now and again - but she seems happy to chat about everything and anything. Except politics.
The 32-year-old says she is apolitical and makes sensible comments about things that could be done to make life in rural Ireland a little better. She mentions a European election candidate that really impressed her and she talks about her father's connections to Fianna Fáil. But later that night - hours after the interview - she texts to request that her quotes on politics not be used.
It seems to be an odd over-reaction to what are - to any right-thinking person's mind - entirely reasonable viewpoints. But then, we live in an age were people can get offended at the slightest thing and perhaps Garrihy is concerned that somebody, somewhere might take umbrage at what she's said.
She notes that she has been fortunate when it comes to trolls. "Unlike others, I've had very little of it." But she's not been entirely unscathed and she mentions one social media post she made that aroused unwelcome attention.
"There was one thing that I just couldn't let go - and I blame pregnancy for reacting to it. The person said I was irresponsible for climbing [Ireland's tallest peak] Carrauntoohil when I was pregnant. I think I was seven months pregnant at the time, but I was with John and I had climbed it about 50 times and we were careful and really took our time.
"What really got to me was the fact that they said I was putting the rescue services at risk. That really jarred with me because I have family in Doolin Coast and Cliff Rescue and I'd be really tuned in to all of that. And for John, safety is paramount. And so I responded. Usually, I just throw them [negative comments] over my shoulder and I take the good with the bad."
Garrihy has ambivalent views on Instagram, although she admits it's an important part of her business life. She has 113,000 followers and thanks to that sort of number - very healthy for the Irish market - she is able to command several commercial partnerships.
She's an ambassador for Volkswagen, and one of her Instagram posts finds her rhapsodising about the Tiguan SUV she's currently driving. There's also recent work with Green & Blacks, the organic chocolate manufacturer, and both she and her mother Clare feature in a short film that finds them enjoying mum-and-daughter time over tea and chocolate.
Unlike other influencers, Garrihy always mentions that certain posts are paid for via #ad or #sp - 'sponsored post'. Several of her personal Instagram posts feature photos of Hanorah and John as well as her younger sisters Doireann - recently installed as 2fm's breakfast show co-presenter - and Ailbhe, a Dublin-based PR professional who works for the Garrihy family cruise business.
There's even a 'Garrihy Sisters' Wikipedia page and, for the record, it's Doireann who's way ahead on the Instagram followers count, at 188,000. Ailbhe, despite not having gone down the acting or broadcasting route, has an impressive 62,000 followers.
"Instagram? It's very hard to ignore," she says. "A big part of my business is online, but you have to be so mindful that it can drain you and I try to unfollow or mute the people who bring me down.
"We're comparing ourselves to these lives that we see online and it can be hard. It's like, 'Why is she having avocado on toast while I'm having a shitty scrambled egg again?' We tend to put the best of ourselves up there. It's that keeping up with the Joneses thing. I wonder is social media plateauing a bit? I think people are wising up to it."
If Garrihy's Instagram features tasteful and wholesome posts from a confident early thirtysomething mother, it's a far cry from much of the competition where some Irish millennial influencers (of both genders) seem mainly fixated on posting shots of their six-packs and biceps.
"I can't get over the level of nudity on women's Instagram," she says. "I see who John follows and he doesn't see the same level of nudity that I see. I'm following girls who'd be seen to be fashionable, but there just seems to be nudity everywhere and I'm thinking, 'This is almost pornographic!'" It makes her nervous when she thinks about the increasingly beauty-fixated world in which her daughter will grow up. "I'm so nervous for her and it's uncharted waters ahead. We don't know what's around the corner. And I didn't have to contend with any of that [social media] growing up."
Garrihy grew up in Castleknock, Dublin, and spent much of her childhood in the adjoining Phoenix Park. Like her sisters, she was educated at the fee-paying Mount Sackville school and she says she threw herself into every extracurricular activity that would have her.
"My mum would say don't be putting yourself down, but I was a jack of all trades, master of none. I wanted to be in the choir, I wanted to debate, I wanted to do tennis. I enjoyed it all. I was always a bit that way. I did three years' acting training in Trinity College and I got that before even sitting the Leaving Cert - it was all audition-based. It was a rigorous audition process - there were only 12 places. The notion of going off to act was a foreign notion to my parents."
She had mixed fortunes in the acting world. There was regular work for a while in Fair City and her credits include bit parts in Love/Hate and The Fall and some theatre. But Garrihy grasped early on that the unpredictable nature of acting was not for her.
"I hated being between jobs, constantly having to wait for the phone to ring. If someone asked me what I was up to, and I wasn't up to anything, I wanted the ground to just swallow me up.
"And there's a snobbery as well - that if you're not true to your craft and if you do the likes of Dancing with the Stars [she competed in the first series of the popular RTÉ show], or you take on something else that's completely different, you're seen to be bowing out. I didn't like that. Like, why pigeonhole yourself? Why say you're only X when you could be Y too?"
It was after she started seeing her future husband that she decided to quit both acting and Dublin. John Burke is a west Clare native and was born into the hotel business. He runs the four-star Armada Hotel in Spanish Point, Miltown Malbay. Garrihy used to summer in west Clare from childhood and she says it felt like a home from home for her.
But it was hard to leave her sisters. She says they have always been incredibly close. "My mum used to always say, 'Boyfriends and girlfriends will come and go but your sisters will be there for life.' It's always been easy with the girls. I've probably suffered in terms of my other friendships in being that close to Ailbhe and Doireann because I feel like I have it all in them. Sadly, I've fallen out of friendships, but with the girls it's just easy. They're always there. I have their back, they have mine. I just know I can tell them anything."
She was initially reluctant to trade the bright lights of Dublin for rural Clare - "it felt like career suicide" - but says she realised that she always felt happier on the drive to see John, rather than the return journey to the capital.
"The slower pace here can lend itself to a lot of creativity," she says. "I feel like the rat race in Dublin can make people tunnel-visioned. They can get caught up in what they're doing and not see the bigger picture. I see start-ups here really thriving because of their surroundings. I don't see that sense of community in Dublin so much. People are getting back to basics here and that excites me."
Her own wellness events business, BEO, began life two years ago. To the uninitiated, it sounds a little like Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop - but without the super-expensive aromatherapy oils and vaginal eggs made of jade. Women come together and attend seminars, talks and workshops - there's an opportunity to meet like-minded people.
"The idea for BEO [Irish for 'life'] began when I saw women, including myself, who were burning the candle at both ends and just not putting themselves on their own to-do list. Everything and everyone else was being put first. We need to practise a little more self-compassion, self-love and that was the mission of BEO, to kind of spread that message. I see that with my own mother. Women tend to be martyrs and it doesn't have to be that way." She says BEO is part of a wellness movement that chimes with the times. "Before, we would have sat together around the fire or around the table or we would have gone to mass - that would have been a form of meditation. Even just looking into the fire in the evening - that's mindfulness. Now we don't have any of that and people are spending money on classes and yoga and wellness retreats. They're looking for something." And some may have found it with BEO.
Garrihy says 15,000 women from all parts of the island of Ireland have attended BEO events - and many more will likely be attracted to the BEO tent at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch Golf Club next month. "Golf isn't just about men," she says. She is happy with how BEO has taken off and says the sky's the limit. "People have said to me, 'This has come at a time in my life that I really needed it: I was in a relationship I wasn't brave enough to leave; I was in a job I felt stuck in and I wasn't filling my potential'.
"The feedback I've got from day one has given me more joy than any theatre review or any write-up or credit that I've ever received."
It's clear she's proud of BEO - and what it might achieve. But that's for another day. Right now, there are more pressing matters: like getting back to Hanorah, nappies and to like-clockwork feeds - the sort of day-to-day parenting duties nobody ever posts on Instagram.