Solo in West Cork
My Writing Adventure in Ireland
“I heard you went to Ireland…I haven’t seen it in many years. Is it still green then, and beautiful?”
“Wet as a bath sponge and mud to the knees but, aye, it was green enough.”
Casting a wide net two years ago in search of a summer writing program, I made an inspiring discovery. For about the price of a two-week writing retreat in Vermont, I could fly to Dublin, rent a car and enroll in 5-day poetry workshop with one of Ireland’s leading poets at the week-long West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry. I could also attend the festival’s many events and explore the land of Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and so many more great writers, living and dead.
Four months later I was winding down pastoral backroads from “Newt Cottage” (my hobbit house rental complete with newt pond) in farmland near Ballydehob toward my first day of class in a Catholic elementary school called Aras Baenntri.
Over the last rise, a sailboat-dotted bay glistened, flanked by colorful Bantry village. Because I was constantly getting lost in the countryside, I drove that first day with minutes to spare through the town’s narrow streets past Ma Murphy’s Pub, Bantry Library and St. Brendan’s Church up a steep hill to the school where poetry, fiction, memoir, screenwriting, travel writing and other workshops were held for 3-5 days from 9 a.m.-noon. As I parked my pink (!!) rental car in the crowded school lot, a helpful local pointed out that one of my mud-caked “wheel trims” was about to fall off. “Don’t worry,” she said, cheerfully, “just give it a kick!”
I found my crucifix-bedecked classroom just in time and sat down with 15 other poets at long tables around a blackboard. Over that week these Irish and English writers (all residents of Ireland), including teachers, editors, a professor and a musician, would challenge my assumption that we shared a common approach to the art and craft of poetry. Under the diplomatic guidance of Gerald Dawe, one of Ireland’s leading contemporary poets and director of the graduate writing program at Trinity College, Dublin, I learned about the rich cultural heritage that informs most Irish writers.
In critiquing each other’s work, these poets easily drew comparisons and allusions to works by Irish writers whose work I knew only in passing: Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heany, Eavan Boland and Dermot Healy. The only American in the class, I soon learned how much I didn’t know about the differences between Irish and American literary tradition. My informal, vernacular style in one poem baffled most of them, leading “Gerry” (as Dawe insisted we call him) to kindly observe that Irish poets could learn from Americans, who tend to incorporate more humor into their verse. Ireland’s deep literary tradition instilled a formality and rigor in their writing that mine seemed to lack, and I found the workshop experience as humbling and isolating as it was instructive and inspiring. When we broke for tea and biscuits every morning at 11 a.m., I found myself listening to their conversations like an American operative on a mission to crack a secret code. I became a word collector: taking note of the Gaelic door signs on the girls’ and boys’ restrooms, the liberal use of feck and shite and figuring out in context what banjaxed (broken) and jacks (toilet) means. I also enjoyed the music of the English language as spoken by the Irish: the addition of the questioning expression, yeah, at the end of sentences, and the way the people from West Cork added a lilt to every word (for example, transforming the town, Kinsale, to the more poetic-sounding, KinsAle).
I usually attended packed readings by leading poets, novelists and playwrights at the library after class, then walked down to the bayside Mariner Hotel for a cup of seafood chowder, a regional specialty, followed by an afternoon program. Performances filled each evening—from a Gaelic/English poetry reading with live flute music to a taping of a radio variety show and a launch party for the Fish Anthology, one of Ireland’s leading international literary journals.
In my free time, I walked the formal gardens of historic Bantry House and snapped countless seascapes against rain- and sun-streaked skies. On winding commutes back to my country cottage, I listened to Irish radio (RTE) and learned many new ways to put a positive spin on a dreary summer before retreating to the heat of the rental’s dry sauna. Most important, I learned how Irish attitudes about weather can apply to life itself: “If it’s raining outside, wait five minutes.”