'I leave my phone at home and I forget the rest of the universe exists'

When I was at university, I had two friends who were teetotal, writes Louise O'Neill.

We all treated them as if they were an alien species that should be studied to benefit future generations, wondering how they managed to navigate college life - parties, class events, the Trinity ball, - completely sober. We also marvelled at how much extra cash they must have, while the rest of us subsisted on vodka, weed, and porridge. Now, at the age of 33, I don’t drink and I haven’t seen the inside of a nightclub since The Dress debacle of 2015 (it was blue and black, you monsters) so I can confirm that everything I assumed about my teetotal friends in college was correct. Mainly a) social events where you’re the only sober person are excruciating and b) you do save a great deal of money.

I’d love to tell you - and my dad, and my accountant - that I’ve been saving that money for a house deposit or, I don’t know, my pension. Alas, I would be lying. I actually use it to fund a new habit I’ve developed to replace the dissolute Saturday nights followed by Sundays spent in bed, contemplating the futility of life and my own mortality.

This new habit? Every couple of months, I spend one night in an extremely fancy hotel in Ireland by myself. Please don’t judge me, I know how lucky I am that I have the freedom (no children, self-employed etc) and the resources to do so. It was a New Year’s Resolution at the end of an exhausting, crippling 2016 and it’s probably one of the best things that I do for my mental health. I pick a hotel, the main criteria being that it’s in the countryside and preferably has beautiful views, and after that I leave my phone at home, I bring a good book and my runners, and I forget the rest of the universe exists.

Things are different now that I’m no longer single. My boyfriend and I live 306km apart - not to be too precise - and we spend our weekends commuting from Dublin to Cork or vice versa in order to be together. Suddenly, it feels selfish to announce that I won’t see him for two weeks because I’m haring off to the wilds of Sneem or Enniscorthy to find myself.

Thus, I decided to tell my boyfriend that we needed to re-connect. “Re-connect?” he asked slowly. “When were we disconnected, exactly?” I hurried on, waxing lyrically about quality time and the healing power of nature and finding pockets of silence in this crazy world. “And where exactly would we find these pockets of silence?” he asked. “Ardmore is pretty much midway point between the two of us,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t check and realise that it was an hour and a half drive for me, over three hours for him. 

I’d been anxious to return to the Cliff House Hotel for a while, ever since my parents bought me a voucher for my birthday. (I’m still unclear if this was a great act of generosity on their behalf, or simply a desperate attempt to get me out of the house for 24 hours). It’s a small hotel, so it never feels overcrowded, which suits me because I’m antisocial and aspire, one day, to lose my voice through lack of use, and the panoramic views of the Atlantic ocean from every perfectly designed room soothes some primal part of me, calmness burrowing its way through my busy mind as I stare at the waves crashing against the rocks for hours. It’s one of my favourite places in Ireland.

So, it was to Ardmore that we descended upon. We didn’t tell anyone where we were going, lest they think we had terrible notions - this column might negate that decision, I guess - and we both switched our phones off so we could be fully present.

We ate so much brown bread and butter that I am currently 80% wholemeal flour, I drew Richard a bath with such a great quantity of Epsom salts in it that he emerged with heart palpitations and hallucinations (truly, I am a girlfriend for the ages), we read and slept and swam and then slept some more.

We went for a walk on the cliffs after breakfast each morning. “Do you think you would die if I pushed you off here?” I asked him whenever we passed a sheer cliff edge. “What about here?” I asked 10 minutes later, while he laughed nervously. I am such a delight.

At one point, the clouds parted and light poured from the heavens, and I stood with my arms outstretched, as if hoping to gather the sunbeams in my hands, hold them close to my heart.

It struck me, once again, how incredibly stunning our home country is, and how lucky I feel to live here. I remember talking to friends of mine who work in the New York fashion industry after Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had spent their honeymoon in Ireland and they asked, nonplussed, “but what is there to do there? Isn’t it just fields and stuff?”

I wished I could have brought them to that cliff top in Ardmore, shown them the beauty of that moment, of this country; a beauty that makes me feel whole again whenever I breathe it in, deep into my lungs.

Here, I would have said. Look. This is Ireland. Isn’t she pretty?

LOUISE SAYS

WATCH: I went to see The Milkyboy Kid, Luke Murphy’s one-man show, at the Uillinn centre in Skibbereen. A mixture of dance, storytelling, and film, it’s a strange and very moving exploration of identity and what it means to be an artist.

READ: Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak. The premise of this is clever — one family spends seven days over Christmas in quarantine due to a daughter’s return from battling a highly contagious (and fictious) disease in Liberia. This is an absolutely wonderful novel.

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