A Week in the Life of Cill Rialaig Artists Retreat

Cill Rialaig Artists Retreat, situated in the wild and remote landscape of Bolus Head at the very tip of the Iveragh Peninsula in South Kerry, has been attracting thousands of writers, artists, poets and composers from Ireland and around the world for more than 20 years. 2014 is the second year that Listowel Writers’ Week has been in working partnership with Cill Rialaig and we were delighted once again, in February, to send six privileged writers for a week’s stay at this remote retreat.

Victoria Kennefick Photo Credit Pauline Dennigan
Victoria Kennefick (Photo by Pauline Dennigan)

Victoria Kennefick, a native of Shanagarry, Co. Cork, was one of those writers.  A recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship in 2007, she graduated with a PhD in Literature from University College Cork in 2009. Her poems have been published in The Stinging Fly, Southword, Wordlegs, The Weary Blues and Abridged.  She won the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize in 2013 and her work has been shortlisted for numerous awards.  She tells us about her experience of Cill Rialaig here:

“A full week at an Artists’ Retreat in February?  Yes, please!  The Cill Rialaig/Listowel Writers’ Week Residency is in its second year and came at the perfect time as I’m currently in the process of preparing my first poetry collection for publication.  I had heard wonderful things about Cill Rialaig from writers and visual artists alike who had the privilege of having a residency there – the views, the cottages, the hospitality of Noelle Campbell-Sharp, and most importantly, the levels of productivity.  I must admit there was a certain level of anxiety too; barring brief interactions with the other residents I would be largely alone, without TV, box sets, the internet, my husband!

The Mighty Atlantic
The Mighty Atlantic. Photo by Victoria Kennefick

“I arrived in the dark.  I didn’t know where the sea was in relation to my cottage, but I could hear it out there in the black, roaring against rock.  It was a thrilling way to meet the place.  My cottage was perfect, cute and cosy with a large open living/working area with stove, writing desk and chair.  For visual artists part of the roof is glass, both shiny and opaque that evening, but I would learn later how light leaps off the overhanging cliff onto the paint-splattered concrete floor.  The cottages are self-catering, so there’s a little kitchen with everything you might need to create culinary delights and thoughtfully, Campbell-Sharpe has left a bottle of wine, cheese and apple as a welcoming gift.

My cottage
My Cottage. Photo by Victoria Kennefick

“The bedroom is a small alcove nestled under the roof that I get to by ladder-like stairs.  A tiny window winks over the bed.  The bed is so comfortable I have to make a note of the brand.  The sound of the sea is my lullaby.

“Cill Rialaig is the name given to this restored pre-famine village rescued from the abyss by Campbell-Sharp in 1991.  It rests on Bolus Head at the very end of the Iverage Peninsula creating a unique artists’ retreat.  For nearly 20 years, professional artists, writers, poets and composers from Ireland and around the world have lived and worked at the Cill Rialaig Retreat, making it an important centre for creativity.  Approximately 2,600 artists have visited to date, ensuring Cill Rialaig’s significant impact on the national, and indeed international, cultural consciousness.

“In the morning, the sun melts through the window, and again I am made aware of the sea, whispering now.  I kneel on the bed, look out the postage-stamp window at undulating, shivering water.  It is hypnotic, I climb down the stairs and run out the door and there it is, spread in front of me like song, blue, blue, blue;  the sky high and breathing with puffball clouds, the sea hitting off chunks of land.  The fresh air, the lightness, the freedom; I decide the best start would be a good walk to get my bearings and plan my writing for the days ahead.  On my stroll I bump into Micheal Garvey, a short story writer, and he tells me writer and novelist, Eimear Ryan, is also in residence.  We agree to meet later in the week, but in the meantime there is work to be done.

“I return to the cottage, crack open the laptop and for a moment – nothing.  But after a little while, words somehow appear on the page.  I write the bones of a poem, read some poems by my current poetic obsessions; Sinéad Morrisey and Emily Berry.  I revise existing poems, tweak the new one again, read some more and so it goes.  Occasionally I eat, step outside to take in the view and make coffee.  This rotation continues until I realise it’s midnight!  I had been so anxious that the pressure to write would get the better of me, but the vibrancy of the place has sparked something, something so often buffered by everyday distractions.  It’s an exciting feeling.  I sleep like a lamb.

The view from my cottage. Heavenly!
The view from my cottage. Heavenly! Photo by Victoria Kennefick

“On the third day, Campbell-Sharp suggests we meet her for a drink in the local pub.  It’s been two days since I’ve seen anyone.  She collects us; we meet the other resident, novelist Rob Doyle, in the bar.  Campbell-Sharp is witty, friendly and extremely encouraging of our work.  Michael suggests we come to his cottage for dinner.  He cooks up a delicious feast and we talk, laugh and eat into the early hours.

“I didn’t imagine that I would return home from Cill Rialaig with my collection almost complete, or that I would feel so calm and refreshed.  Or indeed with the knowledge that I would have made an excellent monk (that wasn’t on the CAO form!).  But it has been a truly magical experience, creatively and spiritually.  I am so grateful to Noelle Campbell-Sharp, all at Cill Rialaig and to the Listowel Writers’ Week committee for this wonderful opportunity.

“If you’d like to hear some of the poems composed during the Residency, I’ll be reading as part of the Kerry Women Writers’ Network event on Sunday 1st June at Listowel Writers’ Week 2014.”