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Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat

As second prize winner in this year's Fish Publishing short story competition I was given a free week's residence at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat near Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula in Co. Cork in Ireland. This is my report on the week, which is an independent account, the opinions expressed being purely my own.

The concept of a "retreat" for me calls up images of a religious ritual that I was put through several times as a schoolboy in Ireland, where we would be sent off in a group to some convent or monastery or seminary or other worthy institution for a week's prayer and meditation and, above all, total silence from dawn to dusk. Anam Cara didn't fit this mental image. Having said that it's difficult to pin down exactly what it is because I suspect it might be something a little bit different for each person who goes there. It is run by a vivacious and totally dedicated expatriate American woman named Sue, who reminded me of Socrates in the sense that he regarded himself as a midwife to knowledge while she has clearly taken on the role of midwife to artistic creativity.

In practical terms what you get is a very well-appointed room in a modernised Irish cottage set in its own large grounds, through which a river flows. The views out to sea are spectacular and there are many secluded spots where you can sit outside and write or sketch in the good weather.


Paths and benches and even a hammock have been provided to make things accessible, and there is a swimming-hole (of which more anon) a well populated duck-pond, and a chicken shed. All food is cooked by Sue, and is truly excellent. Among the dinners she provided were fresh salmon, American style ribs, roast chicken with lemon, crab-claws and beef pot-roast. Even someone such as myself, widely noted for my deep streak of self-denial, found it difficult not to eat myself silly at every meal. In fact now that I recall that was exactly what I did.

The day is structured to the extent that meals are always at the same times and it is permissible to make a bit more noise after 5.00 pm, when the working day is regarded as having ended. Beyond that there is no restriction on how people use their time.

View from my window - dusk

Naturally most people want to write or paint or whatever they have come to do, but there are lots of local beauty spots to visit and villages to explore and distractions of all kinds for those who want them. Sue has an extensive collection of taped films to watch in the evenings, if that is what people want to do, and an equally vast collection of music CDs. The evening activities during my visit included visits to pubs where there was traditional music and dancing (one of our group, Vanessa, even going up to the mike and singing a song, brave soul), film-viewing, and, more significantly, sessions where we sat around and read and discussed one another's work. I think we related very well as a group, but that is something you probably couldn't guarantee would happen every time. The ethos of the retreat is fairly strongly American and there are genuine cultural differences that British visitors might need to be aware of: a timid, retiring Hugh Grant type Brit might find it hard to get a word in when a group of enthusiastic Americans are in full flow. One thing I would recommend any potential visitor to check out is exactly who else is going to be there at the same time. If you were, say, the only poet in a group of non-fiction writers you could feel a bit left out. Sue of course tries to organize it so that such things don't happen.

Joe stares into eyes of an invisible mermaid

Taken just after the mermaid Joe was talking to disappeared.

The swimming hole or "cascade" a bit up river from the house became a big feature of our daily programme. I managed to persuade just about everybody to have a dip there sooner or later, even though it was mid September and the water was a bit chilly. It was a great way to relax after the day's writing and work up an appetite for the evening meal.

Patrick probably got more out of these visits than anybody else, his hearty cries of "I'm alive!" being clearly audible in the next parish.

a peek below the surface

Me, on shark patrol.

Patrick the explorer

Above is my good friend Patrick, apparently returning from an expedition into darkest Beara, carrying the traditional shellaleigh with which to fend off the local forest-dwelling ogres and Celtic vampires.

David and Vanessa in the swimming hole

The area is frequented by a rare and endangered species of freshwater mermaid. In this picture your hero valiantly battles the elements to reach one in the upper pool and claim his pot of gold before she returns to Tir na n-Og and becomes invisible once again.

group photo

Some of the people with whom I shared my week. Left to right: Patrick, writing a series of short stories that he is going to link together into a memoir, Michael (artist), Vanessa (poet), Sandy (artist), me (only here for the beer), and Sue (who seems to be fishing for something she has dropped into the fountain).

Overall Impressions

I had a great week at Anam Cara. Would I go back? Undoubtedly, if money were no object. The retreat is really aimed more at the American than the British or European markets, and I suspect it would work out quite expensive for we locals. If all that you want is solitude to get on with your writing, or even solitude plus beautiful scenery and all meals laid on, you can probably buy it cheaper elsewhere. Anam Cara offers that plus other things which are less easy to define. For many Americans there is the lure of Celtic spirituality and the whole magic of being based in rural Ireland. Although I love Ireland and its landscape and its people, having spent my childhood in County Donegal it's less of a novelty to me, and I seem to be pretty immune to the spiritual aspects. The scenery is of course magnificent, but then most of the coast of West Cork is beautiful and so are other parts of Britain. I can really only speak for myself, and if I were going back what I would be going for would be Sue's hospitality and the fellowship of other people who value and understand what I am trying to do and who are trying to do similar things themselves. I don't know whether you can guarantee getting a magic mix of people every time, but my impression from speaking to others is that it usually does happen. And that's something you are going to have trouble buying elsewhere, at any price.

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