Surviving our first Irish winter after 17 years in Sydney

I’m told we’ve had a mild winter so far. Ouch.

‘Warm sand on feet at the beach has been replaced by face-ache during chilly hill walks.’

‘Warm sand on feet at the beach has been replaced by face-ache during chilly hill walks.’

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I’m not sure what I expected of our first winter in Ireland since 1999.

I do recall an old friend who had also returned from Sydney years earlier remind me how gloomy Irish winters are. “Long. Dark.” I lost count of the number of times he repeated those words. Towering above me at over six foot in a dimly lit bar, I got the sense of a world closing in on a person.

My family is still in the honeymoon period of our return from Australia. Everything this first year is new. The more I reflect on that term, return, the less I view it as such. We’re not returning to an old life, we’re creating a new one.

As adults, my wife Anne-Marie and I naturally compare our nostalgic Irish memories with Australia. Our children have more wisdom, taking each moment as it comes, just “being”. It’s their first “proper” winter; the cold is an exciting novelty.

In Sydney, winter is a favourite season for some Irish immigrants. Comfortably warm days, crisp clear-blue skies and drier conditions are perfect for continuing the outdoor lifestyle without the sweltering heat of summer. Three months, rather than six, is also the perfect time span to relax and recharge. Many retreat a little before emerging again for the long summer (spring and autumn are less defined there).

My friend was right. Irish winters are long, dark and harsh. I’m told we’ve had a mild winter so far. Ouch.

Putting aside the weather for a moment, winter offered both challenges and delights.

Daily ocean swims in Sydney have become gruelling weekend challenges in Dublin. Darkness - not water temperatures, I insist - prevent them being a workday ritual. I still did the Christmas Day swim for charity.

Meditation under a warm sun is now by lampshade. Cycling to work remains a habit although I now resemble an Irish ninja with all the gear I have to wear to keep out the cold. Warm sand on feet at the beach has been replaced by face-ache during chilly hill walks. The kids revel in seeing their own breath for the first time.

Family-wise, we spend more time together during winter here, turning inward a little. Anne-Marie embraces making a home, much preferring escaping from the cold to a warm house. She and the kids cook together. We welcome friends and family with homely food rather than barbecues. We make the new house our own little by little. We probably spend more time indoors than I’d like. That will improve as we become more equipped - mentally and physically - for the weather.

In my journal, I’ve a record of how a power outage in October opened our eyes to how calm having no electricity can be. So now every Thursday is candle night in our house. Devices are replaced by books, board games and quality time.

When Anne-Marie’s mam passed in July, a Sydney friend sent 12 envelopes, each with a family adventure for us to do every month. This brings us to the beautiful forests, parks and mountains Ireland has to offer. For the list-maker in me, it’s reassuring to know that you can actually plan spontaneity.

The first half of winter was marked by Halloween and Christmas. The kids scared themselves in the darkness and spookiness; so much easier than trying to frighten someone in broad daylight.

We loved the anticipation and build up to Christmas in Ireland, and will love it every year. We made a list of 24 old and new things to do. It’s ambitious but almost half-way into January, only one, snow, wasn’t ticked (a bit optimistic). Then on January 12th, the kids suddenly abandoned the dinner table as snow sprinkled the windows. The smallest snowman in the world was “miracled” amidst howls and dances of delight.

Christmas in Ireland is big. Maybe it’s because it interrupts that long, dark winter. We enjoyed time with family and reminded ourselves what matters. It was also exhausting. So in early January, we spent a few days in the lovely Red Door near Westport, taking time to switch off, reflect on a whirlwind year and to refresh and anticipate the arriving one.

We’re halfway through winter with the toughest, apparently gloomiest, part to come. We don’t just want to “get through it” to spring. So we’ll continue trying new fun things and make every day count.

We came across some geese and their young yesterday as we strolled along Malahide estuary. The girls tell me Aunt Elaine waved goodbye them from Canada a few weeks ago as they left to seek warmer climes. There is always somewhere warmer and somewhere colder. Therein lies the beauty of this world.

And the peril. Comparison is the death of happiness. We are grateful for everything we have. Is anything more than enough too much?

James Parnell is writing a series of articles on his experience of returning to Ireland after 16 years in Australia for Irish Times Abroad. He is the founder of TheWellBeingGym which provides corporate performance training to businesses, and personal life design coaching to individuals. He blogs at james-parnell.com.

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