'Cork is gorgeous, it has everything'

Mags O’Brien tells Roisin Burke about her love of the sea and passion for travel.
'Cork is gorgeous, it has everything'

Mags O'Brien sea swimming at Sandycove for the Characters of Cork series. Picture Dan Linehan

BUBBLING with enthusiasm and brimming with interest in trying new things, Mags O’Brien is a tonic worth taking time to distil.

An all year round sea swimmer, a retired nurse and constant source of entertainment, Mags is a well known character in Cork although she goes by many names.

“I got married, as they say in this country, ‘late in life’ so I had my name for many years, Buckley, but my married name is O’Brien and I took that eventually. It’s very confusing, if I make a booking in a restaurant I’m always asking myself which name did I give!”

Late to married life, meeting her husband Paul at the age of 38 and tying the knot in her mid 40s, Mags, formerly Buckley, said she still has trouble remembering she is O’Brien.

“We were at an airport one time and we were with another couple for a whole month. They were calling my name out over the intercom and I sat there, chatting away until the other couple eventually said: ‘Isn’t your name Mags O’Brien? They have been calling it out for an hour.’”

Mags met the second half of the high-flying duo that is ‘Mags and Paul’ through a Cork scuba diving club.

“I was in the scuba diving club and when Paul came to join the club, I was the training officer and one of the criteria to be allowed into the club was to swim 20 lengths of the pool. So I told him to do 40, cos I liked the look of him. And I said to him afterwards, I was just checking out your stamina.”

As well as having two surnames, Mags, can also be referred to as one half of the Mags and Paul partnership.

“We’re like two peas in a pod, we were together so much, that there was two kids in the diving club and one day at the club, I wasn’t there at all and the kids said to Paul ‘Hi Mags and Paul’, there was no Mags there!”

With no pets and no children, Mags said she enjoys the freedom of her lifestyle, travelling and experiencing different cultures, with the ever-patient Paul by her side.

“I love travelling, we went to the Antarctic for Paul’s 60th birthday and the Arctic for my 60th birthday, It’s what we do every year, we decide what we are doing for the next year.

 Mags and Paul O'Brien sea swimming at Sandycove for the Characters of Cork series. Picture Dan Linehan
Mags and Paul O'Brien sea swimming at Sandycove for the Characters of Cork series. Picture Dan Linehan

“I love getting to know new cultures and trying out new food, I’d try anything, I’d eay anything, they used to call me the dustbin at home, because anything they were going to throw out, they said sure Mags will eat that!”

From eating snake, scorpion, tarantula, pigeon, to guinea pig, Mags said there is nothing she wouldn’t try.


Growing up in Kinsale, Mags always had a profound affinity with the sea, but it was only when she moved to Cork city to train as a nurse that she learned to swim properly.

“When I came as a student, there was the baths and a group of us went down and took up swimming lessons, that’s where I learned to swim properly and I never stopped.”

After graduating, Mags took off for Canada with two pals and spent six years living and working in Nova Scotia, a location picked by a London recruiter after applying to an advertisement in the paper.

“It was the best thing ever, there is a huge Irish/Scottish residency there. The contract was six months and we kept extending it. It was a six-year party, even though the work was hard, but we had good times.”

A social being, Mags continues to keep up communication with her Canadian friends as well as the nurses she studied with all those years ago.

“One of the nurses I went over with, stayed and got married. She comes home once a year and we meet up. There was eight of us that shared a house when we were training in Cork and we are still in contact. We meet up a couple of times a year.”

A pure Cork woman, no chat would be complete without a glowing review of all things belonging to the Rebel county. 

“Cork is gorgeous, it has everything. There is loads to see. It’s a great city.”

A fan of fun and always on the look out for adventure, Mags said she loves to laugh and thinks humour is the secret to survival.

”I have a great sense of the ridiculousness, it can turn a bad situation into hilarity.”

While the sea swimmer lives life on the edge and doesn’t believe in regrets, Mags admitted there are times when she speaks too soon.

“I can be a bit of a John Wayne, shoot first, ask questions later. But I always learn from it and I have no problem apologising. I will always say sorry.”

The 69-year-old woman, who lives life to the fullest, said if she was to go back and tell her younger self anything, it would be to be confident in herself.

“I had no confidence growing up. It was only when I went to Canada, I had to stand on my own two feet. I had to be myself.”

The social butterfly said while she loves a good chat and is a great listener, she has no interest in social media and is not on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

“I tolerate WhatsApp but I much prefer to pick up the phone and find out what is happening. I don’t entertain social media at all.”

When ‘Mags and Paul’ are not swimming, socialising or travelling the world, they enjoy reading, although have very different literary tastes.

“I love historical novels, huge big things, anything at all, it could be the 19th Century, I just love it.”

Outside of these pastimes, Mags is also learning Spanish and enjoys perfecting her accent and pronunciation in shops while on holidays, much to the amusement of the ever-patient Paul. Together 32 years, Mags said she feels very lucky to have found Paul.

“Paul O’Brien is the love of my life, there is no contest, we are still laughing, having great craic and we’ll never stop.”

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