Retreat To Get into the Write Frame of Mind
Good food, good company, and seclusion to create. Who could ask for more? Bridget Whelan checks out Anam Cara writer’s retreat.
“GOT to go, I think I’ve a poem coming on.”
After an hour of chat and laughter that covered life, love, and potato blight, a writer excused herself from the dinner table and went back to her study bedroom overlooking the glorious Coulagh Bay on the Beara Peninsula.
It was a typical mealtime at a residential retreat in West Cork that provides writers and artists with good company, good food and, most important of all, time to slow down and listen to those small ideas that might grow into a poem, a painting or a story if given the right nurturing.
My own stay at Anam Cara was funded by a generous bursary from The Society of Authors, granted to buy me the time to work on my second novel.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the five-bedroomed house in an out-of-the-way corner of Cork four miles from Castletownbere during one of the wettest summers in living memory.
Fellow writers had recommended it, and I already knew that it was connected with the prestigious Fish literary organisation: A week at Anam Cara is a prize in one of the international writing competitions that they run every year.
With such excellent credentials, I was hoping for sufficient space and solitude to get down to some serious work. I got that and more.
My fortnight turned out to be both a retreat from routine concerns and an advance into an Irish way of living that reconnected me to my roots.
An added bonus was being able to explore a very damp and beautiful countryside in a borrowed pair of Wellingtons.
Anam Cara has every amenity. There is an upright grand piano in the lounge, and guests can access a DVD collection that most local libraries would envy.
Worries can be steamed away in the sauna, and on one memorable night, I sat in the hot tub on the terrace gazing at the stars as soft West Cork rain washed my face.
In the surrounding five acres, there are ducks and chickens, a magnificent waterfall, hidden walkways and numerous places to rest and drink in the mountain and sea views.
I don’t want to give the impression, however, that it is a superior bed and breakfast.
Guests come either to attend a workshop or to focus on their own project.
There are few rules, but the most important is that this is a place for creative work.
For that reason, the house is quiet between 9.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. every day – and even the postman knows to come on tip-toe.
It is a book-filled sanctuary that offers, in the words of the director Sue Booth-Forbes, the opportunity to “slow down and hear your voice. It is a chance to do your best work.”
The spirit of the retreat is summed up in its name. Anam Cara means “soul friend” in Irish, and it was chosen, in part, as a tribute to the work and writing of the poet and scholar John O’Donohue.
The retreat has an extensive library, and the section devoted to books written by former residents is a testament to the diversity of the work produced since it opened in 1998.
Here hard-hitting action novels sit alongside contemplative verse, and light romantic comedies jostle for shelf space with award-winning short stories.
It had the look and feel of a happy international community, and when I glanced at a visitors’ book on the first night, I was given a flavour of what I could expect: “An idyllic life writing and eating in a little bit of paradise – the mountain, the sea, the sky. Life doesn’t get much better than this.”
If there is a community within the walls of Anam Cara, the community outside also contributes to the success of a creative centre that is firmly embedded in the life of the Beara Peninsula.
During my stay, I went to three dances (and actually danced), visited an art gallery, and attended a birthday party that went on until 4 o’clock in the morning.
How much or how little you socialise is up to each individual artists or writer, but for me – and I think for most other residents – that sense of being included complements what we are trying to do.
The fact that I produced more solid work in 12 days than I had in the previous 12 months is evidence of that.
The view from my bedroom window was also important, even when the wind blew straight off the Atlantic, and the sky was 40 shades of grey.
Looking across Coulagh Bay most days, I could see the shores of Kerry, the part of Ireland that I claim as my own because it was where I went every summer as child, the place that I grew up calling “home.”
It’s still the place that calls me back, but the sad truth is that I now have more graves to visit than relatives.
In coming to Anam Cara and the Beara Peninsula, I found something that I hadn’t anticipated: A new feeling of belonging.
Looking again at the visitors’ book, I know I wasn’t the only resident to experience that connection. “My week here made Ireland real for me,” wrote one guest with an American address.
The Ireland of my childhood no longer exists, but the easy welcome and generosity of spirit I found in a creative community wedded to West Cork reminded me of the Yeats poem:
Whatever it says on my birth certificate, “I am of Ireland,” and I came away with the sense of myself reinforced. And 40,000 words done.
This article, written by Bridget Whelan (Brighton, England), appeared in The Irish Post on 17 October 2009. Bridget's first novel, A Good Confession, is published in the U.S. and the U.K. by Severn House.