Surviving Our First Irish winter

This article is part of an ongoing series for Irish Times Abroad about James Parnell’s experience of returning to Ireland after 16 years in Australia.

I’m a planner. I like a good list. I’ve made a career out of putting order on chaos. I help people and businesses become more productive, organise their lives and find clarity in an increasingly chaotic, fast-paced world.

While I like to think people see me as fun and energetic, spontaneous might not be a word others would use to describe me. But there’s no point in having a schedule if you can’t tear it up every now and then.

So the day I learned you can plan spontaneity, I was a happy man.

My wife Anne-Marie’s mother Liz passed away exactly eight weeks from the day our family returned to Ireland from Sydney. It happened quickly. Death has no optimum speed.

It was a strange period. We hadn’t yet reconnected with many friends in those hectic first weeks of settling in. In the same breath that welcomed us back was an offer of sincere condolence.

Anne-Marie’s close pals in Australia were also devastated for her. But out of the ashes grew a rose. Jill, one of her Irish friends in Sydney, had a creative way to offer support across the miles. Her sympathy card read:

“I know now and the coming days and year ahead will be very sad and difficult. I won’t be physically there to take you out for lunch or a walk or even just to call in for a cuppa and be there. Grief is very tough.

I want to do something mainly for you, yet I hope will benefit you all. I’ve put together a little pack of Sunday adventures to open on the first day of each month … places my folks brought us to as kids that hold the loveliest of memories. May they bring you peace and happiness – and somewhere to remember your mum every time. Love, Jill xxx

PS: As kids I know we moaned about walking, but we always loved it once there.”

New adventures

So each month, we open a new envelope and follow instructions. It tells us where to go and what local nuggets to look out for. Envelope number one was an August sea swim at Sandycove.

The day trips took us on a forest walk in Djouce woods in September, cycling in Marlay Park in October, hiking near Ticknock in November, to see the Christmas lights on Grafton Street in December, deer spotting in the Phoenix Park in January, a picnic at Glendalough in February, sight-seeing on Killiney Hill in March, and bird-watching in Cabinteely Park in April.

Here is how Jill describes our next outing. Each one is in her own handwriting; there are no hyperlinks to maps or further information with these instructions.

“Your 10th Sunday adventure is one of my favourites. Tibradden Pine Forest lies between Cruagh and Kilmashogue mountains and is about 320m above sea level. It is in the midst of beautiful woods of Scots pine, Japanese larch, European larch, Sitka spruce, oak and beech. Examples of old pine woods planted in 1910 can still be seen. You can see deer, foxes and badgers. When our folks walked the trails, Ken and I would run deep into the forest. This place is nature at its best. Enjoy the long walks and remember the kids’ treat – but only if there’s no moaning!”

So there you have it. Twelve envelopes for 12 adventures and we’re off the couch and out of the house. Each one allows us to remember Liz, and be grateful for one another and for good friends such as Jill.

Sometimes the weather is miserable. On those days, are we glad or sorry we go? Every time we rediscover that there’s no such thing as a bad day trip. Each one helps us adjust from the outdoor Australian lifestyle that we loved so much, to the outdoor Irish one.

I owe Jill and her envelopes. They have helped me to view Ireland with a new lens – to re-discover the old parts I thought I knew, and to seek new adventure in the places yet to visit. Every day and every place is an unopened envelope. On the tough days when I might feel sorry for myself, I think of new envelopes and the words yet to be written.

Simple things

The contents of the envelopes are simple. Some may not find them exciting at all. But that misses the point. You can plan spontaneity. All you need is some envelopes and willing buddies. We meet a group of friends every couple of months and choose a new country’s cuisine. Our old Sydney housemates, who returned to Ireland in 2003, have four of the 32 counties remaining to complete their personal All-Ireland – one night in each county together.

It’s easy to do: pick your theme – travel, books, social or health. Make it big (visit all the countries of Europe), or small (let someone else pick your main course). It is all about shared experiences taking you outside your comfort zone.

I write this in Bundoran in Co Donegal, after surfing with new friends I met today, most of them half my age. I’m inspired to try things that scare me when I can.

In Sydney, while weighing up the pros and cons of returning to Ireland, we talked about new adventures and the opportunity to travel. Our first year involved settling logistically with our heads down.

As we approach the end of that year, I feel we are entering a second phase of looking up and forward. From planning security, to plotting some risk! In the hostel here there is is a giant atlas covering an entire wall. It serves as a visual radiator of possibility.

I have a renewed sense of adventure. As we’ve learned this past year, you can’t plan everything – but you can plan spontaneity. And life’s too short to be predictable.

James now helps emigrants settle in Ireland, as a launchpad for designing the life they want. Check out our Returning Emigrants Programme here.

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