An Afternoon at Cill Rialaig Artist Retreat

Cill Rialaig 5

Armed with a packed lunch for all, we travelled the winding boithríns of South Kerry to our un-signposted destination of Cill Rialaig Artist Retreat to meet the seven writers invited by Listowel Writers’ Week to spend a week in one of the most remote parts of Ireland.

Nestled in the heart of South Kerry, Cill Rialaig was a pre-famine village that lay in ruins at the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula until 1992 when the site was purchased by art curator Noelle Campbell-Sharpe and transformed into the cultural haven that it is today. Since its inception, the Cill Rialaig Project has seen more than 3,500 artists from many different artistic fields pass through the doors of its seven charming cliff-side cottages.

Front door of Tigh Comhrá

I met the seven writers in Tigh an Comhrá, or The Meeting House, where artists on retreat can gather in the evenings. Speaking to Galwegian Alan McMonagle whose debut novel Ithaca will be published by Picador in March, he said “I’m a townie, so the first thing that struck me about the place was the silence. Before now, I actually hadn’t seen anyone since I arrived,” (they had arrived on Saturday, it was now Tuesday). While on retreat, he is working on the first draft of his second novel and is enjoying life by the sea, and being able to write prolifically with no distractions.

The isolated setting was a source of inspiration for horror / comedy writer Graham Tugwell who is currently writing short stories for his brainchild Down Below The Reservoir, Ireland’s first horror fiction podcast. Graham says once he has a table and the right attitude that he can write anywhere; “You may not realise it in the moment but there will be a sensation or a memory that you’ll bring with you that can form the next story, like the isolation here, or even the hum of the wind through the windows.” There was a discussion among the writers at the table about one particular cottage which was rumoured to have been occupied by a ghost — but they were adamant to not reveal which one.

Writers at work; inside one of the cottages.

Cork author Billy O’Callaghan enjoyed recent success with his short story The Boatman, which was runner up of the Costa Short Story Award 2016. Billy is using his time in Cill Rialaig to finish his fourth collection of short stories, but he has another interesting reason for taking the opportunity to come on retreat; “I have a novel coming out in May 2017 set in a stone house similar to this, in a very remote place just like Cill Rialaig. It almost felt as if what’s happening in the novel is being drawn to me, even though it’s completely finished, so I thought it would be great to actually experience it.” Billy is a very disciplined writer — he writes from 6am to noon every day and here, it’s no different.

Barbara Derbyshire, an established poet, looking forward to ‘leaving life behind’ was pleasantly surprised by the setting. “I looked at the cottages and thought it was amazing how once upon a time, ten or eleven people could live in here. I came in with the idea for a story and in such a short space of time, I’ve written twelve pages. It’s practically finished.”

Laura Enright, Erin, Alan, Angela, Billy and Liz Dunn (Festival Chairperson)

Angela Carr is working on her second collection of poetry and has been particularly enjoying the scenery; “There is definitely a benefit of being surrounded by nature rather than writing where I normally do, at the kitchen table. Yesterday I went for a stroll with my camera and my notebook and I was just taken aback by all the colours on the hillside. It helps with the creative process.”

Dani Gill and Festival Manager Máire Logue

Dani Gill, former director of Cúirt International Literary festival, is working on edits for her first poetry collection, due for publication on April 8th. “I arrived here in the dark so when I woke on the first morning, what I noticed first was that the small window in my cottage was facing the sea. The unique setting has given me the right amount of headspace needed for creating space in a poem, which is ultimately what a lot of writers are after,”

Erin Fornoff, spoken-word poet and director of Lingo Festival has a poetry manuscript due in a few weeks, and is also working on the first draft of her novel. Erin is a native of the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina so she is accustomed to having beautiful scenery to inspire her writing. “I’m really enjoying writing with no distractions, it’s giving me the discipline to focus on exactly what I need to do, rattle out this manuscript and get it done. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten the opportunity to come to Cill Rialaig, it looks like a postcard of Ireland,”



We wish all of the writers the best of luck in their endeavours. For more information on the Cill Rialaig Project, please email Mary O’Connor at

Blog Author: Laura Enright, Intern at Listowel Writers’ Week 2017