Gay Byrne’s perfect family summer: ‘We have such fond memories of going out in the boat with Dad’

Crona Byrne with her husband, Phil Carney, and their children, Kate and Harry, in Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
When you find a home away from home it’s not just a place: ‘It is a feeling. A feeling of peace and family.’ Gay Byrne’s daughter Crona, the television presenter Dáithí Ó Sé, the children’s author Sarah Webb and the writer Richard Hogan on their long-standing love of the Irish staycation

Gay Byrne’s family on Donegal

The late broadcaster Gay Byrne loved to retreat from the public eye to Co Donegal, where locals regarded him as one of their own and left him alone. “Our summers were spent up here,” says his daughter Crona Byrne, speaking from the holiday home that Gay and his wife, Kathleen Watkins, bought in Tubberkeen, outside Dungloe, more than 50 years ago. “It’s our happy place.”

This summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. Read all about it at  irishtimes.com/summeroffamily

The love for this home from home is one that Crona and her sister, Suzy, inherited from their parents, and they are now passing it on to their own children. It’s not they weren’t happy at home in Howth, too, Crona stresses, but being on holiday in Co Donegal was “our special time with him”.

This summer of the staycation is a reminder of the value for children of a sense of belonging in another place, to which they can escape, both in mind and body, in years to come. For newer parents, it may have been an opportunity to start the process of repeated visits to the same haunts, to ensure that these childhood pleasures will become ingrained.

“We have such fond memories going fishing, going out in the boat with Dad and hopping off at different islands for a picnic or walking the islands,” says Byrne, who lives in Killaloe, Co Clare, with her husband, Phil Carney, and their children, Kate, who is 15, and Harry, who is nearly 12. She reels off recollections of trips to Glenveagh National Park and being taken out by local fishermen to check on lobster pots, all part of one big happy childhood blur.

Her own family now spends chunks of the summer in Co Donegal, and she sees her children following in her footprints – “they want to go to the beaches, they want to go out to Arranmore, they want to go to Glenveagh. That is what is incredible: all these years later it really is Groundhog Day.

“Even here now, on a normal day we would walk Maghery beach, have coffee and a toasted sandwich at the Ionad community centre or go across to the Strand bar for a pint.”

Crona Byrne with her husband, Phil Carney, and their children, Kate and Harry, in Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Above and below: Crona Byrne with her husband, Phil Carney, and their children, Kate and Harry, in Co Donegal. Photographs: Joe Dunne
Crona with her husband Phil Carney and two children, Kate and Harry in the sea near their holiday home in Dungloe Co. Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Byrne is 100 per cent sure that her children will never stop coming back here either. “The other night it was a high tide, 9.40pm, and my two got into their togs and were swimming around the bay until 10.30pm. That is what childhood is about – the freedom, away from the technology, out and enjoying themselves, running and having fun.

“We love it up here, we really do. It’s hard to explain it, but we’re looked after by the locals; we have lovely friends up here, and the children have the freedom to explore, and that’s wonderful.”

But it took time, she says, for her Limerick-born husband, who lacks their childhood connections to the place, to adjust to it. “It took a while for him to settle here, [going] from a fast-paced area to somewhere it’s a slow, slow pace and quite relaxed. But he has done and he loves it here as well.”

The couple, who run the Owl and the Pussycat creche in Ballina, Co Tipperary, spent the first Covid lockdown of 2020 in the Co Donegal house with their children. It wasn’t planned, but it proved fortuitous. “We were up for the weekend and got caught, and we stayed here for 10 weeks. We were able to work remotely. Because we have a creche, it was closed, and we could do all our paper work from here. Kate did her classes from here, and in the afternoons they were swimming, walking or whatever. It was the best of both worlds.”

Byrne has no doubt that the love of this spot in west Donegal is a gift to Kate and Harry. “It’s a way of life children need to learn. A lot of them only know a chaotic life these days – it’s go, go, go. I think people are realising more and more from the lockdown that they don’t need to be in such a fast pace any more: they can step back a bit.”

Dáithí Ó Sé on the Dingle peninsula

For the TV presenter Dáithí Ó Sé, who has lived in Co Galway for more than 20 years, it is a sense of his native Gaeltacht village of Baile na nGall (Ballydavid), on the Dingle peninsula, in west Co Kerry, that he now wants to pass on to his seven-year-old son, Micheál. As we speak, the two of them have just returned from three days there, visiting Dáithí’s mother.

“It was the first time I really, really felt that, oh God, I need to bring him down here more, that he’s missing out. In the last 10 years I would not have got home to west Kerry as much, due to work and the fact that my mother loves travelling and comes up to us all the time,” he says.

As a child, Dáithí never went on holidays, except for a trip to Trabolgan, the holiday village in Co Cork, one October when he was about 12, after a long period of accumulating 2p and 5p coins in an empty glass vodka bottle. “That was it.”

In contrast, being married to the American Rita Talty, his own son is accustomed to transatlantic trips to visit her family. But, for Dáithí, going to the local beach on a fine day – once all the jobs at home were done – was his summer holiday. “The treat at that time was I could get an ice cream. There was no such thing as bringing a lot of stuff with you.”

As he tells Micheál: “My father had the car gone to work; we had to walk to the beach, boy, which was very, very exciting when you’re going, but when you have four miles to walk back home after being at the beach all day...

“Dingle and west Kerry has everything for me,” he says. “It has the scenery, it has the beaches, it has the people there as well. It is only when I am down there that I realise what I am missing.”

He was out every day with Micheál during this brief trip, retracing his childhood, back in a boat, going around Dunquin, walking the beaches and sharing stories. “I got him the local [football] jersey that we used to wear when we were younger, and he was walking around in that. I brought him back to the football pitch we always played on for years, and we were pucking the ball around there. It really drove it home to me that, yes, it is nice that Mum comes up, but I really need to get down.”

Ó Sé admits, “I had to put legs and tails on a few of the stories.” How, for instance, Dad scored all the goals in a particular match.

Dáithí Ó Sé with his son Micheál.
Dáithí Ó Sé with his son Micheál

Micheál, who attends a Gaelscoil in Co Galway, “only talks Irish to me”, says Ó Sé. “But down there everybody was speaking in Irish to him, and he kind of got it, although he’s only seven.

“I took my eye off the ball, unbeknownst to myself, and I learned a lesson there. I need to go home more,” adds Ó Sé, presenter of the Rose of Tralee festival, which has been cancelled for the second year in a row because of the pandemic, as has the Fleadh Cheoil, although he copresented a TG4 series to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the latter.

The late Gaybo also helmed the Rose of Tralee, from 1974 to 1994 – with the exception of 1977, when his wife did the honours. But the only public engagement he undertook each summer in Co Donegal was as compere of the Mary from Dungloe competition.

“It’s such a fun time for Dungloe,” says Crona. The contest was held “virtually” for the first time this year, over the August bank holiday weekend, but in normal times “the whole town comes alive with tourists. Music, dancing on the streets, parades and the crowning cabaret.

“We were able to go behind the scenes and watch. Nowadays,” she adds, “I have taken Dad’s role as a judge and I am loving it.” Local and family traditions entwined live on.

Sarah Webb on Castletownshend

As far back as the award-winning children’s writer Sarah Webb can remember, “Dad used to trundle us around the country looking for ancestors – we did a lot of graveyards”.

But as soon as her parents, Michael Webb and his wife, Melissa, went to Castletownshend, in Co Cork, “they felt a real connection there, even before they found the final bits of the puzzle”. With Townsend being one of his middle names, her father found Townsends from generations ago, to whom he is distantly related, and one has become a very close friend.

“He discovered a place and he also discovered a best friend” – although grown men don’t talk like that, she concedes.

For 50 years her parents, their children and, now, the grandchildren have been leaving south Co Dublin at almost every opportunity to spend time in that west Cork village. “When I was very small we rented a house with a tennis court in the back garden – that was the height of glamour in 1970s Ireland, ” says Webb. Her parents ended up buying a house just opposite.

Standout memories for Webb include “going to the beaches and catching crabs with bits of  meat”. It was a “very outdoorsy” existence, she explains, not very different from what she has done with her own three offspring there. “A lot of boating and swimming. The beaches all look exactly the same as they did when I was a child; nothing has really changed, particularly in Castletownshend, where there is one big main street and no space to build between the houses. It still has its phone box.”

Sarah Webb in Castletownshend, Co Cork.
Sarah Webb in Castletownshend

With Webb’s love of a sofa and a book on holiday, she has never minded the rain, and her children didn’t know any different when they were young. “Now they say, ‘We never went to the sun.’ Yes, I did inflict west Cork weather on my children, but we did city breaks as well. We went to Iceland, and we did go to France, so they can’t look back and say, ‘You never took us anywhere.’”

But it’s west Cork that’s lodged in their hearts. In 2019 there was a big extended-family reunion in Castletownshend, with some coming from the US and the UK, as well as Michael’s own four children and nine grandchildren, who now range in age from 27 down to three.

“It is, I suppose, the family happy place, where we spend time together away from the busyness of Dublin. Last summer it was a real godsend,” says Webb, who is there as we speak, with her youngest, 15-year-old Jago, and two of his friends.

Becoming teenagers didn’t diminish her children’s desire to go there. “I think they like the pace of it. They like showing their friends it. They take their bikes out every day – they can go swimming or kayaking. I just turf them out. They also realise the whole village knows who they are, so they can’t really get up to much! It’s funny: I thought it would reach a stage where there would be pushback, but there hasn’t been.”

For Webb “it is not just a place. It is a feeling. A feeling of peace and family. It is much closer to nature.”

That sense of calm persists even when she’s working in the house, going there on writing retreats three or four times a year, with just the dog for company. “When I am driving towards the village I always put on the same song. I have no idea why I chose this song. I think it was just on the radio or my CD player one time when it was just so lovely – David Gray’s Babylon. I always put it on now to remind myself to chill.”

She can see that some of Michael and Melissa’s grandchildren are also likely to develop long-lasting links with the place. Webb’s eldest son, who is 27, already goes down sometimes with his friends, independent of her.

They want to introduce friends to the place because they think it’s special – “and it’s a free house”, she points out pragmatically. “I think for children, and especially teenagers, the importance of a sense of belonging is not to be underestimated,” she adds. “Belonging in two places is a lovely thing – in your home and then in a second home.”

Richard Hogan on Sam’s Cross

Another part of west Co Cork is shaping up to be a lifelong memory for the three young daughters of Richard Hogan, the family psychotherapist and author of Parenting the Screenager. He and his wife, Erica, who live in Malahide, Co Dublin, regularly bring their children, 10-year-old Hannah, seven-year-old Lizzy and four-year-old Sophie, to the home of their maternal grandparents in Sam’s Cross, where the revolutionary Michael Collins was born and just over 30km from where he died, in an ambush, at Beal na Blath, in August 1922.

“The magic for us is that, when we go down, the grandfather brings my kids for a walk along what he calls Nature’s Way, where Michael Collins lived, and he tells them stories, the Black and Tans coming and burning down the houses. The kids come back with their eyes wide after hearing all these stories about Michael Collins and how he was a freedom fighter.”

There’s a famous pub in Sam’s Cross, the Four Alls, “where the oral tradition is still very vibrant,” says Hogan. “When we go up to it we bring all the kids with us. My eldest daughter will sing a song, and I play the guitar. She loves singing. Then people stand up and recite. It is incredible for kids to see a man stand up and recite a story about Michael Collins. They deliver it like Brad Pitt,” he says, laughing.

Richard Hogan, author of Parenting the Screenager pictured at home with his wife Erica and children Hannah (9) Lizzy (6) and Sophie (3). Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Richard Hogan with his wife, Erica, and their daughters, Hannah, Lizzy and Sophie. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Such never-to-be-forgotten experiences can anchor children for the rest of their lives. “We can access memories at any point; we don’t have to be in the place,” Hogan explains. “Something can just trigger the memory and you’re right back in the skin of that young girl or young boy. I think that’s what sustains us over our lives, those lovely moments when we were innocent and knew nothing about life and death – and we had the magic and wonder of it all, when everything is possible.”

Describing himself as “very nostalgic and sentimental” at the age of 45, he says, “I reminisce a lot”. It is something he encourages in his daughters too. In today’s world, he says, communication is so abbreviated: everything is so quick, and people are watching TV while on their phones, and nobody is concentrating on anything. “I get the kids to try to stop and interpret what is going on for them.”

In the car on the way home from west Cork he will ask them what was so good about that particular trip. “I try to punctuate it for them; develop it, actually.” It just takes a bit of that intentional parenting, he suggests, to help them reflect in their own minds.

“What you are developing there is gratitude, which is an incredibly important attribute to develop in your children, because if they don’t appreciate things they are never going to be happy.”