Landing a lead role in the good life
Philip Judge details his embrace of rural life in a magical new pastoral memoir. Hilary A White meets the actor at his Wicklow home
'In Sight of Yellow Mountain: A Year in the Irish Countryside' is published by Gill Books, priced €14.99
'Last year we had our first pears," Philip Judge mutters, examining a branch in the orchard. "This year the trees are taking a rest again. The phrase is 'pears for your heirs', meaning it's years and years before they produce regularly. Apparently, after they have their first fruiting they go, 'OK, that's enough!'"
A big sigh accompanies this, as if Judge were voicing a character in one of the many stage or screen productions he's graced in his career as an actor. His most recent role, however, is a self-scripted one that did not allocate time for rehearsals but may yet bring an adoring audience and standing ovations.
Ten years after playing Michael Evans in a West End production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, life imitated art when Judge found himself living in his own Ballybeg after he and partner Tara bought a cosy cottage amid the rolling slopes of Wicklow. His debut book In Sight of Yellow Mountain has just been released to adoring reviews and sees the Dublin-born, UK-raised thespian take the reader on a stroll through a year of pastoral living. Comparisons have been drawn with Henry Thoreau and Gerald Durrell, while fellow Wicklow resident Sebastian Barry described it as a "luminous, funny and profound reading experience".
It will speak to the many urbanites currently forced to look outside the Pale for affordable houses but also those in search of a better life. A self-professed city-slicker for most of his existence, Judge gradually got sucked in by the easy pace, natural beauty and wholesome lifestyle rural life offered.
There is plenty of "Judge the Entertainer" here, the one-time member of musical comedy trio Morris Minor and the Majors, who scored a hit in 1987 with Beastie Boys parody Stutter Rap. There are countless occasions in In Sight of Yellow Mountain where the book must be put down for a few moments while you deal with a belly laugh as Judge fumbles his way through herding cattle, castrating rams and fixing the septic tank.
"Oh I don't deny it for a minute," he grins, "and I relish that. In my work as an actor, I love when I get serious, soul-mining parts but I also love a good farce, a good laugh, a good musical or stand-up act. The entertainers of my business are as valid and potent as the 'serious artists'. Obviously, I want to move the reader and have them think, 'that's a really interesting point' and 'God, that's a wise thing he's figured out about himself etc', but primarily I want people to smile and be amused."
The turn of the seasons also provides him with a spiritual narrative as his two sons grow up and he is able to look back on his own life, all under the watchful eye of Sliabh Bui, the omnipresent Yellow Mountain of the title. Bookended by the harvest season of Lughnasa, as the memoir rolls forwards, it also moves downwards through layers of self-reflection at Judge's own past and that of the land and its traditions that now sustains his family.
"I'd written a couple of little articles," he explains while pouring the tea. "Short, funny excerpts about 'the tit from the city making an arse of himself in the country'. I fancied writing more but didn't know what that was going to be. Then I remember having this 'that's it' moment. It was the notion of writing about a season in the middle of it, surrounded by it and how the hell did I get here. I knew it'd be more than just 'it's lovely living in the countryside' but I didn't know the substance underlying it all until I started to write. The process itself makes you turn your eye inward."
One particularly poignant moment occurs during Christmas Day when he felt this strange "dissatisfaction" at what was, ostensibly, a lovely day. It turned out that one particularly unhappy childhood Christmas was being echoed at him by one of his sons. It was only through writing his memoir that he could put structure on these feelings.
"I saw that it was really important to say because the past always informs the present. We make these lovely Christmases now because we're happy and we have two happy boys but I realised that me feeling slightly ill at ease was a subconscious connection with a particular Christmas at a similar age to my older boy at the time. It was just after my parents divorced and I'd left Ireland to go to England and I was unhappy. It was the first Christmas where I ceased to believe in Santa, and I had an inkling my older son was beginning to lose that magic. It came so tightly into me and my own memories of my family breaking up and losing my dad and going elsewhere. And it was all in my own head because the boys had had a fantastic Christmas that year."
Before moving to northern England at the age of nine after his mother remarried, Judge had grown up in the South Dublin suburb of Churchtown and still fondly recalls trips to Switzers at Christmas time and drizzly Paddy's Day parades on O'Connell Street. He trained at Sussex University before spending a decade as a working actor in London. All the while, he maintained an Irish identity but imbued his accent with a northern English brogue during the 1970s when the IRA bombing campaign meant it "wasn't cool to be Irish". Returning to Dublin resulted in a "conscious sense of re-appropriation" of the place that he'd been taken away from as a child.
He met fellow actor Tara (or the "Beloved", as she's referred to in the book), a "cosmopolitan country girl", and the pair ensconced themselves in a tiny flat in Temple Bar for a life of good eating, fine wines and busy acting work. The decision to buy a patch deep in the vales of Wicklow in 2003 was made on the back of swelling Celtic Tiger house prices. Another element influencing the move was a serious medical scare that struck Judge during a Gate Theatre production in 2000. He spent two months in hospital where he underwent major intestinal surgery and lost four-and-a-half stone. He also nearly died twice. There was no outright epiphany but a re-ordering of priorities followed.
"I don't think I was looking for answers from nature but certainly solace," he says. "You feel it if you're open to it. You know what it's like when you find yourself out in the country, away from the city and the weather is perfect - or even if it's not - and you feel yourself exhaling and you don't know why necessarily. But I had inklings of it. I didn't come here searching for it. I'd always just thought the country is a lovely place to go on little short dull breaks and get a bit of fresh air before going back to 'real life' in the city, but once I found myself being fundamentally affected by it, I knew that the answers might be found here."
He still loves work jaunts up the Big Smoke for acting and voiceover work and is "effing delighted" to be playing King Lear in an upcoming production of the Shakespeare standard. He also accepts that he has sacrificed certain work opportunities by not being Dublin-based but the trade-off appears justified on this sunny afternoon. Swallows flit overhead while some bees work a nearby pot of oregano. Judge identifies peacocks, red admirals and cabbage whites on a nearby bush as we make our way up to the vegetable garden for a tour of what's hot and what's not this horticultural season.
"When you grow your own food, every meal is memorable," Judge chirps as he places a block of cheese on the table alongside jars of his exquisite home-made chutney (several recipes are provided in the book). "If you grow and make food and feed your family, you just feel settled and deeply satisfied to be able to nourish them and give them sustenance."
The sowing of seeds, the germinating of life and the patience needed to watch things bear fruit have become a metaphor that permeates his evocative recollections. While he and Tara are "blow-ins", their two boys are not, and being involved in the local GAA club ("I'm vice chairman. I'm re-elected every year. They still haven't found me out") and local fundraisers has been a gateway to the community that they mightn't have had otherwise.
"Take your time," is his advice to those considering "the good life". "And you've got to remember that although the weather gets horrible, it always gets better because we're in Ireland. You have to make a life here. It's not just about the country being the backdrop to existence - you have to be integrally involved, whether it's having the chat with the farmer friends about the potato blight or the kids' activities. I've seen people try and fail.
The gardening metaphor comes back again - "you've got to do the digging and the weeding. You don't plant and get the results straight away. But it comes, and when you have a good Lughnasa and the bounty comes, it is plenteous and it is delicious."