The Lions initially captured O'Connell's imagination in 1997 when they clinched a memorable 2-1 series victory over South Africa with the squad's Irish contingent playing a full part in their success.
Ireland supplied forwards Keith Wood, Paul Wallace and Jeremy Davidson to the Test line-up and it was their impact against the Springboks which inspired O'Connell, now 25, to follow in their footsteps.
He said: "Like everyone my initial goal was to play for my country. After you've achieved that your targets change.
"The Lions becomes the ultimate achievement. Once I'd first been capped in 2002 I looked at things differently.
"The 1997 tour was the first one I really noticed. I was 18 years old, playing senior rugby in school and not taking it that seriously.
"But the Irish players caught my eye. For me Jeremy Davidson was player of the tour with his fabulous work-rate.
"He set the standard for second-row play and I went on to play against him two or three years later. Keith Wood and Paul Wallace were top guys as well.
"Eric Miller would have started in the first match against South Africa had it not been for injury so there could have been four Irish Test Lions in the pack. They made a big impression on me.
"Ireland has a great history with the Lions. Some of the great Lions have been Irish - guys like Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ollie Campbell.
"It's incredible to think I might follow in their footsteps."