Serial entrepreneur Paul Stenson, who describes himself as “chief mischief maker” at his businesses White Moose Café, Charleville Lodge and Sabhna Saunas, was busier than ever during lockdown. He pivoted his cafe’s business model to focus on takeaway and opened three Moose on the Loose locations around Dublin. “I was constantly on the go,” he says.
However, beneath all the activity, Stenson was struggling. The canny businessman, known for his tongue-in-cheek publicity campaigns, had battled addiction and depression for years and his addiction counsellor had advised him to remain “plugged in” to something. For Stenson, that meant going to the gym religiously, as well as attending regular meditation sessions and one-to-one counselling. “All of that went in lockdown, so my mental health took a nosedive,” he recalls. “I kind of struggled badly.”
Things got particularly tough in early 2022, and in April he made the decision to go to Achill (where he had spent many idyllic summers as a child), not knowing when he would come back to his hometown of Dublin. Now, in early 2023, he has still not returned and says he probably never will, as he is trying to sell the White Moose Café brand. “I’m free down here,” he says. “I’m out of the concrete jungle, the claustrophobia that is Dublin 7.”
He had been living in a house near the North Circular Road, where he only had a very small garden and it felt like everyone was “on top of you”. He now rents a house on Achill with plenty of land and a view over the wild Atlantic. His five dogs also love the freedom. In particular, his eldest dog Renko, an 11-year-old Doberman pinscher, has been given a new lease of life.
While Stenson generally enjoyed living in Dublin, he says his life on Achill is “immeasurably” better. “I’m a completely different person. I’m free.” The relocation has also helped him stay on track with his recovery from addiction. “I’m safe from addictive urges, from the triggers — people, places and things — that would cause you to relapse.”
The move to Achill also prompted him to start his latest business venture: last July he opened a wood-fired sauna experience on Keel Beach. “During Covid I got into cold water sea swimming which helped my mental health no end. I then learned about contrast therapy which is the addition of another layer to the cold exposure of sea swimming — heat.” He explains that the contrast of going from the heat of the sauna to the cold ocean, and repeating this, has been proven to have as many mental health benefits as physical.
“I started Sabhna for a number of reasons. The main one was to provide a bit of structure to my life down here and to be able to have my own sauna and sea swim whenever I wanted,” he says. “I also created Sabhna to provide some local employment and to provide another reason for tourists to visit this fabulous island.”
Much as he wants to attract people to the island during tourist season, he loves the quiet of winter, and savours putting his feet up in front of the fire and looking out at the sea, his dogs around him.
The sense of community has also had a big effect on him. He is struck by simple things like going into a shop and knowing every single person there, and people waving as they pass on the road. He feels enormous gratitude to all the locals who have made him feel so welcome. “Achill is now truly my home.”
Putting down roots
So much so that Stenson is now planning on putting down roots and building his own house on the island. His vision is for a home that will fit “within the aesthetic of the rural environment here”. He hopes to build a corrugated haybarn-style building with vistas over the Atlantic. “I’d love to have that with a full glass front as my living and kitchen, and then a link to a stone cottage … and have the bedrooms [there].”
Overall, the combination of a tight-knit community and a healthy island lifestyle has had a hugely positive impact on his mental health, to the point where he is now trying to wean off his anti-depressant medication.
Paradise it may be, but is there anything he misses about Dublin? “The romance.” The opportunities for romance on Achill are “kind of sparse”, he says. “I’m single. It’s not all that easy to meet [someone]. That would be the one thing I do miss. I’ve loads of friends down here but as a 42-year-old gay man on an island … it’s next to impossible to find romance,” he says. “That’s the price.”
- Follow Paul’s Achill journey on Instagram @paulvstenson