Ten years ago, Aoibhín Garrihy was a very different person. Behind the camera-ready smile, she never seemed really at ease, or even very happy.
he life of an actress didn’t particularly suit her. Her mood on any given day was dictated by whether the phone rang about a job. And when it didn’t ring, some mornings she didn’t want to get out of bed.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t successful. She’d played Neasa Dillon in Ireland’s most popular soap opera, RTÉ’s Fair City since March 2010. But there was something gnawing at her inside.
“Things weren’t happening for me as quickly as I would have liked, in terms of my acting career,” she says. “My mental health probably struggled as a result.
I knew there was more to give.
“I just felt: ‘Oh my God, I’m not reaching full potential here.’ I felt deflated. When I’m idle, I’m angsty.”
Why did your mental health struggle?
“When you feel you’re defined by what you do, and you’re not doing that… that was a tough one. Look, I was working. I was in Fair City. And it was great. The closest thing to a nine-to-five. But you don’t become an actress to play the same role for the rest of your days.”
She confided in her boyfriend – hotelier John Burke (they met at a family wedding at the Armada Hotel, run by John’s father, in Spanish Point in Clare in April 2010) that she wasn’t fulfilled in acting.
Did you also tell him, if it’s the actress Aoibhín you fancy, the one who appears on the telly, well actually, that is not the real me?
Video of the Day
That wasn’t an issue for John, she says. “He struggled with it too, because I was gone a lot for work and he was very much rooted here in Clare, and his business is here.”
In June 2015, they got engaged on the Cliffs of Moher. That December, Aoibhín left Fair City but not acting. In May 2016, she travelled to South Carolina in America to play Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen Fairfax in a Gate Theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
In September, she and John were married at the hotel they met in. But by March of the following year, and having been a finalist in RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars, she made the decision to leave acting for good.
She was already living in a small house in Ennis with John, who was by now running The Armada himself, as well as the Fiddle & Bow Hotel in Doolin.
“There was a yearning inside me, for sure, for the quieter life of the countryside. It felt like the death of my career to be uprooting myself from Dublin, from my agent, from the auditions… everything.
“But I didn’t care. I turned my back on it. I don’t miss it.
“Someone said to me: ‘Unless you can’t live without acting, don’t do it.’ This was when I was originally trying to figure a career path that suited me. That stuck with me. ‘Can I live without it?’ A lot of peers eat, drink and breathe acting – but that wasn’t me. I knew there was something else.
“I knew, if I was being honest with myself, as soon as I was on that Naas Road and heading to the West, there was an ease, and a weight lifted, the shoulders dropped a bit. It was getting outdoors. It was time in the hills with John…”
From the living room of Aoibhín’s home on the outskirts of Ennis, the sweeping views of the huge garden, and the endless green stretching across Co Clare are nothing short of spectacular.
Her two giant French mastiffs, Reggie and Ruby, are asleep in the other room. On the wall in the hall is a large painting by the artist Honora O’Neill of the sea.
Below a painting of Christ on the kitchen wall sits a pink mermaid fish tank. The three young girls – four-year-old Hanorah, Líobhan, who turns three in November, and one year-old Isla – who normally feed the fish are out for a walk with their childminder at nearby Ballybeg Wood.
Their mother – a pot of tea on the go and fresh baked brown bread on offer – is telling the story of how she reset her life.
It is a story we all secretly dream of, fantasise about. Getting away to the country – and not coming back, ever.
Most of us are scared of change, and look for an excuse to stay put in the city. But Aoibhín actually did it. She escaped the concrete jungle of Dublin for a more laid-back, quieter life in the West – albeit one with three small children, two big dogs and one husband who once climbed Everest.
In late 2016, she and John were out for a drive when they saw a piece of land five minutes’ walk outside Ennis town.
‘Life in the country, the slower pace, certainly appealed to me’
“We knew it was the perfect site,” she says. “The plan was always to build our own place.”
That said, John also had a plan of his own – to build a dream family home on the coast. Aoibhín was having none of it.
“It was enough of a culture shock for me to move to Ennis from Dublin without moving out to Spanish Point too.”
They bought the site just outside Ennis in 2017. Hanorah was born in June 2018. The builders started work in January 2019. She and John finally moved into their new home in August 2020, the day of their second child, Líobhan’s christening.
“The builders were just pulling off site as we arrived home from the church with friends and family – but we got there…”
‘Getting there’ was as much an inner journey as a physical one. It was more than breathing fresh country air or getting to see stars at night without city-light pollution.
“It was a yearning,” she says. “It was something inside me. I knew there was something more.
“I wanted the slower life, yes. Life in the country, the slower pace, certainly appealed to me. There was a wellness movement also happening at the time – and that coincided with me battling with my mental health I suppose, and trying to figure out what would make me content. It was that contentment I was striving for.”
A connectedness to nature is central to that contentment. Aoibhín immerses herself in the beauty of her surroundings as often as she can – be it the cliff run and sea swim she does every Wednesday in Spanish Point with John (“we call it Wellness Wednesday”), or the outdoor family adventures every weekend to the Burren for a nature walk along Mullaghmore, or a walk to Ballybeg Woods near her home.
She sees these walks as spiritual pursuits as much as they are exercise. “I’m not a tree-hugger,” she says, “But I’ve found myself putting my hands on trees and instantly feeling something. The oxygen in the woods. My mind is almost freer in nature. I just feel grounded.”
What goes through her head when she’s lost in a moment walking in the Burren or the woods?
“Everything and nothing. That’s the beauty of it. My ancestors before me, the history of the place, the unique beauty of the karst landscape, how lucky we are to have a place like this on our doorstep.”
With two younger sisters, Ailbhe and Doireann , Aoibhín was born (on June 20, 1987) and raised in Castleknock. Her father Eugene was from Doolin, while her mother, Clare, hailed from Ballyvaughan.
“We spent summers as kids in the Aran Islands and the Burren. My mom would pack a picnic, and we’d head off on our bikes and explore. They were the best memories and it takes me back to those happy times.
“Nature is therapy for me,” she says. “Time spent in it instantly helps my mood. I’m generally happiest by the sea and feel a deep connection to it. I suppose this goes back to my childhood and my family’s connection to the sea.”
(Her father who came from a fishing background, catching salmon and lobsters under the Cliffs of Moher and around Loop Head, now runs Dublin Bay Cruises, a ferry service in the capital.)
“When I swim, I really feel alive,” she says, and quotes me a line she read recently from Song of Myself by the poet Walt Whitman: ‘You sea! I resign myself to you… we must have a turn together.’
“I love that idea – of dancing with the ocean,” she says. “The wonderful endorphins you get from dancing, the same could be said about sea swimming.”
She adds that they are blessed the sea is less than 30 minutes from their home – be it Spanish Point beach, White Strand, or Lahinch. “We sea swim a lot.”
They also swim regularly as a family in Ballyalla Lake, a place she brings me to later.
“It’s magical,” she says. “We are so lucky to live in Clare. During lockdown we realised what was on our doorstep. When we couldn’t go outside our 5km limit, we discovered all these gems around Ennis.
“Equally, a good day out on Carrauntoohil with John, or walking the Cliffs of Moher is food for the soul. It’s head space. It’s humbling.”
She believes that this “balance” is fundamental to living a happy and contented life.
“I was lacking that balance in my early 20s and I became consumed by the industry I was in,” she tells me.
“The time I spent in Clare gave me the space to adopt a more balanced approach to my life and work, and introduced me to what a slower pace of life could be. It was time spent in the outdoors and in nature. It brought me back to my youth and my happy place.”
Over time, that slower pace of life fed into what now makes up a big part of her life – her social media presence and her role as an influencer. She has 157,000 followers on her Instagram page.
That said, she adopts a refreshingly pragmatic approach.
“I see it for what it is and absolutely see the benefits of it, particularly when it comes to business. I’ve always been creative and so I enjoy the content creation element of it too.
“Capturing moments, beautiful imagery and video, storytelling, engaging. I genuinely enjoy it and it’s a part of my work I take great pride and pleasure in. So many influencers work so hard to deliver quality content and what they create and the rate they churn it out is really admirable.
“I try to take it all with a pinch of salt and when it’s not serving me, I simply don’t go on, or I take a breather from it. Life with three small kids doesn’t leave much time for mindless scrolling anyway, and so in recent years I’ve found myself taking a natural step back.”
Despite the picture-perfect Insta backdrops, Aoibhín is candid enough to admit she is definitely not perfect – particularly when it comes to environmental issues and sustainability.
“I’m not going to claim to be a green queen. We can all do more and do better – but it’s something John and I are very tuned into , personally and professionally. I shop consciously. I shop local and I do my research.
“Where possible, I’m at the local greengrocer, fishmonger and butcher. In my own business with BEO I see the benefit and beauty of a circular economy,” she says, referring to the health and wellness company she co-founded in 2017 with Sharon Colleran.
“We champion green. Our products are dreamt, designed and made in the West of Ireland – and that is incredibly important to us.”
Her role as an influencer is what led to her latest project. Every Day is a Fresh Beginning: Meaningful Poems for Life, is collection of poetry chosen by Garrihy that includes works by WB Yeats, Emily Brontë and Seamus Heaney.
“These poems resonated for me at different points in my life and helped to bring comfort,” she says. “I wanted to share poems that inspire, empathise, encourage us all to pause, but also to persevere.
“I had been reciting a lot online on Instagram. I had a series in lockdown – ‘Poetry for Pause’ – where I would recite and share poems each day. Deirdre Nolan of Bonnier Books asked if I would consider an anthology with an accompanying audio book. It felt like the most natural project for me.”
She keeps poetry books by her bed (among them The Faber Poetry Diaries, The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart, and Poems to Live Your Life By by Chris Riddell).
“Depending on my mood or what I’m going through on that particular day I will pick up a book and scan it for some words of clarity or reassurance.”
I ask what she means by “reassurance”.
“I recently heard Ethan Hawke talk about art – and specifically poetry. He said most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, but in our hour of need it’s no longer a luxury, it’s sustenance. We need it.
“This is certainly true for me. I find myself turning to it when I feel confused, or angry, or overwhelmed, or sad – but also when I feel elated, overjoyed and totally in love. There’s something reassuring in someone articulating those big emotions for you – and when they come at the right time it can offer so much clarity.
“I think people are going through an awful lot at the moment and I’m very aware of them. So, I don’t want to be playing my own small violin.”
Poetry has been a constant throughout her life. It started with her father, who left school in Doolin at 16 but always had a flair for poetry and the spoken word. At every milestone in his children’s lives, he would write something to mark it.
The very first poem he wrote for Aoibhín was when she was a baby.
“It was on a sunny day. He looked at me and knew that I was pushing out a poo. He wrote about the nappy changing cycle and how relentless it was, and how my mother was the one who would always do it.”
The poem – which isn’t in the book – hangs proudly in the toilet.
Long since grown out of nappies, Aoibhín stands in her state-of-the-art kitchen and recites it 35 years later…
‘Aoibhín, oh Aoibhín, how do you do it?
It appears you’re making a massive big poo.
When the nappy is full, the work is all done
You call in your mummy to take it and run
To the bin she takes it, out of sight, out of mind
And then she comes back to wash your behind.
She washes and scrubs each crevice and crease
Puts on a new nappy and sends you to sleep
When the work is all done, it seems so insane
But you wait for the cycle to start over again.’
Since we’re on the subject of young children, she takes the opportunity to describe her own three.
Hanorah “is very like her dad. She’s a high achiever. She gets very annoyed with herself if something doesn’t go according to plan. She has attention to detail in the way she lays out the toys.”
Líobhan is “chill, very laid back”, and Isla “has been the easiest baby” of the three.
“She wants to be in the thick of everything with her sisters, loves to be around them, and is dying to get walking.
“Someone asked me recently: ‘Do you have childcare?’ It actually annoyed me. Does a man ever get asked that question? I don’t think John my husband has ever been asked when he’s at work: ‘Do you have childcare?’ But a woman always gets asked that question. Of course, I have help. I need it.”
It’s 2.30pm and Reggie and Ruby are still asleep in the other room. Hanorah, Líobhan and Isla are due home any minute. Aoibhín is reflecting on why, in the years since she made her own great escape, so many others have followed suit.
“The pandemic was an opportunity for people to reassess. Lots of people realised they could work from anywhere, and be closer to the coast or nature.
“That sense of being part of a community all really appeals. Dublin was home for me – I loved it, and in lots of ways I still do. But now, when I come up to do work or visit family, there is no doubt about it, I’ve been countrified!”
How do you look back on that fast-paced girl of 10 years ago?
“I felt low, and in my early 20s definitely felt lost and unsure of my path – but me now versus me 13 years ago are very different people, for sure.
“The difference is contentment and self-assurance. I am naturally quite a positive person – a glass half-full person – and even in difficult times I tend to look for the positives. I naturally practice gratitude, probably not actively, it’s more a passive, natural thing and I feel so blessed.”
‘Every Day is a Fresh Beginning: Meaningful Poems for Life’ by Aoibhín Garrihy, published by Bonnier books, is out on September 29
https://www.independent.ie/style/celebrity/celebrity-features/aoibhin-garrihy-turning-my-back-on-life-in-dublin-felt-like-the-death-of-my-career-42012062.html Aoibhín Garrihy: Turning my back on life in Dublin felt like the death of my career