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‘Ireland offers all that we want from a family holiday’

Radio presenter Eimear Ní Bhraonáin and family have used ‘the pandemic years’ to rediscover their appreciation of Ireland. She spoke to Shauna McHugh

Eimear Ní Bhraonáin has always been more familiar with her locality than most. Born and raised in Carlow, and going on to become a presenter and news journalist with KCLR 96FM, she’s constantly on top of what’s happening right across her homeland and in neighbouring Kilkenny.

She has reported from just about every town, village and suburb the two counties can offer, while her partner, Alan O’Reilly, has also covered every nook and cranny for his meteorology work with his website Carlow Weather.

Having exhaustively explored everything within their county borders for their work, the couple were challenged by the lockdowns of recent years more than most. What exciting or new things can you do in an area you know like the back of your hand? The answer came in the form of the couple’s eight-year-old daughter Róise, and a need to keep her happy and entertained even during the toughest of restrictions.

“As the pandemic started to feel more relentless and we had to stay within just 2km and then 5km of our homes, we were just itching for some kind of escape,” admits Eimear. “All of a sudden, things as minor as walking through a small graveyard on the Barrow track became big adventures for us.

“It was almost like a game of Scooby Doo mysteries for Róise. We were just trying to keep her content and keep ourselves sane by finding things to do.”

It was a far cry from how Eimear had originally planned to pack in the family fun. A “craving for a Vitamin D” fix had prompted her to book a family holiday to Lanzarote for summer 2020. Yet as lockdowns stretched on, it became clear that the getaway was off the cards.

Eimear and Alan were devastated, not least over the money lost on flights, but also by the thought of not getting to properly unwind from what was becoming a very hectic period at work, and not being able to create key memories for Róise during her formative summer holidays.

A week in Kerry

In a bid to lift their spirits, the family instead spent a week in Kerry, tucked away in a Stradbally cottage surrounded by forestry. In that first reprieve from the madness of the Covid outbreak, Eimear has fond memories of them cosying together, lighting fires in the evenings, and feeling like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

It was by no means an extravagant or jam-packed holiday, but it did the trick. The trip began a love affair with the south or Ireland that would see the family heading there again the following summer.

By coincidentally perfect timing, the family ended up exploring West Cork in July 2021, while history was being made there. One of their first stops was Skibbereen, where the town was all abuzz thanks to local representation at the Olympics.

“I’ll never forget the atmosphere while we were there,” Eimear recalls. “There was just such a great joy about the place, posters literally everywhere supporting the rowers and coverage of it in every pub we passed. It was such a hub of excitement.”

Not far from Skibbereen, there were even more gold-worthy memories to be made.

“I didn’t know this until we got to Cork, but there’s a lake called Lough Hyne there that’s famous for a really rare phenomenon,” Eimear explains. “It contains bioluminescence, which means once you put your hand under the water and shake it around, it looks almost like there’s LED lights coming to the surface. It was honestly heaven on earth, just so beautiful to watch.

“Every time we went there, my worries about the pandemic and everything else totally disappeared. One night, after Róise had a decent nap, we all headed down to the lake just before midnight. We went out on our paddleboards and the way the water lit up beneath us was absolutely breath-taking. We made memories for life. Róise loved it, she thought it was some kind of fairy dust under the water!”

Glamping debutants

Another highlight for Róise during that summer was a trip to Ardmore, which saw the family try out glamping for the first time.

“We stayed in these glamping pods that were right beside a petting zoo. I’d expected it would be a holiday that would mostly suit Róise, but it was actually great for all of us,” Eimear says. “I never thought camping would work before, because we just need so many toys, gadgets, phones and all the rest that we wouldn’t be able to keep charged and lug around with us.

“The glamping pods have absolutely everything you could need though. You get to feel like you’re surrounded by nature while not being cut off from the essential parts of life as a parent either. Róise loved seeing all the animals, and she got to make some lovely little friends too.

“There aren’t that many pods on the site so you get to know and trust everyone, and Róise got to play with two girls camping next to us. She had other children to hang out with, and they were all free to roam around on their own because the camp site was so safe. Once you get into it, you close the gate behind you and you don’t have to worry about any speeding cars or whoever else could enter. She got to run wild while we could sit back and relax knowing she was safe and having a good time. That’s all any parent could ask for from a holiday really.”

In fact, the family’s staycations have ticked so many boxes that Eimear is unsure whether they’ll ever be lured towards the likes of Lanzarote again.

Unlimited luggage

“If you get good weather for an Irish holiday, it’s an unbeatable destination. It’s also just so much more convenient. If you’re not going on a plane you can just take the car and pack everything you could want or need. That’s a huge swaying factor for me. I’m not joking, you’d want to see what was in the boot when we headed off last summer — we brought absolutely everything!

“We even got to pack our SUPs (stand-up paddleboards) and safety gear too, which were our one big spend during the pandemic, and meant we saved so much by not booking activities or expeditions during our stay. Having more room to pack is a great reassurance, especially for us because Róise has severe food allergies. The fact we can bring all her familiar, safe foods with us is such a comfort. I’d hate to be bringing things like that through customs!”

Another great comfort of staycations, in Eimear’s eyes, is that they’re also a way of being kind to the planet.

“I think climate change is going to be the real driver behind why people will choose to stay in Ireland for their holidays, more than any lingering fear of coronavirus. I think people are starting to realise that we all need to take some responsibility for the environment. I really believe in a few years’ time it will be an ethical dilemma, deciding how many times a year a person should fly abroad. For me, at least, I’d be much happier to stay in Ireland and support our local economies, especially as we’re coming out of an awful pandemic.”