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Retreating into Cill Rialaig - splendid isolation in Kerry's otherworldly artists' retreat

During Level 5 lockdown, Conor Power and his wife worked in isolation at an artists’ retreat in Kerry. It proved the perfect creative space in a pandemic

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Cill Rialaig Artists' Retreat in Co Kerry

Cill Rialaig Artists' Retreat in Co Kerry

Cill Rialaig Artists' Retreat in Co Kerry

The afternoon sun casts long shadows across a stony field on the edge of a swollen sea. A woman dressed in black crawls across the lumpen land on hands and knees. Her face is a picture of determination; her hair blows wildly in long blond strands about her head. The islands of Deenish and Scariff and the Hog’s Head Peninsula cast a dramatic purple backdrop against the blue water. Several sheep, daubed here and there in garish multicoloured markings, look on bemusedly while the cameraman shouts:

Cut! We’ll try it one more time, yeah?”

It wasn’t your average kind of day. But then again, no two days are the same for an artist fortunate enough to be awarded a residency at the Cill Rialaig Artists’ Retreat.

Set several kilometres west of Ballinskelligs in Co Kerry, the majesty and raw beauty of this 18th-century fishing village perched high on the Bolus Head Peninsula is difficult to put into words.

I was here with my artist wife Fiona to finish writing a period novel about a professional hurler from 200 years ago. Cill Rialaig is a dream made real almost 30 years ago by the vision and determination of former publisher, rock band manager, gallerist and philanthropist Dr Noelle Campbell-Sharp. Arriving this autumn, the first thing that struck us was the quality of the refurbishment work of the cottages, maintaining their traditional character with a layout focused on making it the ideal space for an artist to work and live. A largely open-plan ground floor includes a glass-roofed lean-to at the rear its roof allowing light in, as well as offering unique views of sheep trotting by on the escarpment almost right overhead. There’s a well-equipped modern kitchen and bathroom, with a mezzanine bedroom upstairs, its little window looks out across Ballinskelligs Bay.

This year, travel restrictions have meant no overseas artists could visit. With Level 5 lockdown commencing shortly after we arrived, the Cill Rialaig Artists’ Retreat became a great big bubble; shielded from the rest of the country and just about the most perfect place to find yourself social distancing in the middle of a pandemic.

The one thing that is infectious here is the work ethic. During the day and for long periods at night, artists work tenaciously, exchanging ideas and following lines of abstract thought that produce extraordinary results. It’s a unique hub of creation at the heart of our multi-million-euro art sector; an industry in which the vast majority work for little or no profit.

While my wife worked in the residence/studio, I retreated to Tig an Chomhrá (‘conversation house’); the meeting house in the centre of the eight restored cottages. It was the home of the old village’s last original resident, renowned seanchaí Seán Ó Conaill (1853-1931), and it’s maintained just as it was since the day he departed.

There, amidst an eclectic library of works including a collection of Ó Conaill’s stories, I found the best possible place to create my own chapters. I’d set myself a target of completing the final long chapter of my novel, as well as adding a few scenes to some earlier chapters. I found my surroundings incredibly inspiring the difference between Cill Rialaig and a normal artist’s residency is obvious to anyone who spends any time here. In an artists’ residency, artists or writers are usually put up in accommodation to concentrate on their work. In Cill Rialaig (which has no equal in Ireland or possibly anywhere else), they find themselves in a thoroughly immersive place a kind of ‘Republic of Art’ in an intoxicating setting.

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Creative outlook: Charles Haughey officially launching the restoration of the project in 1991

Creative outlook: Charles Haughey officially launching the restoration of the project in 1991

Creative outlook: Charles Haughey officially launching the restoration of the project in 1991

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The retreat first opened in 1991. Since then, over 5,000 artists have stayed and worked, ranging from those socially-distanced filmmakers I passed to well-known names like Kiki Smith, Mick Mulcahy and Gérard Matisse, grandson of Henri. It was complemented by the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Ballinskelligs a gallery, shop and café in a building rented from Údarás na Gaeilge.

Artists of all disciplines stay at Cill Rialaig rent-free, with a contribution to cover electricity, water supply and maintenance. The project survives thanks a combination of dogged fund-raising and a sizeable grant from the Arts Council. In 2020, that didn’t come through for the first time in almost 30 years, leaving the survival of the project on a knife’s edge; a situation overcome by increasing fund-raising activities.

“To lose that grant was a great shame,” says Dr Campbell-Sharp of a situation that was difficult to understand, given the national importance of the project.

I ponder all of this as I return from the 3km hike to the top of Bolus Head, where views from the ruin of a Napoleonic-era lookout take in a 360-degree vista encompassing Bull Rock to the south, the Blasket Islands to the north and the chillingly dramatic Skellig Rocks in mid-distance. On the narrow road back, I see the remains of ancient settlements, many of mysterious pre-Christian origins. The film shoot of the socially-distanced resident artists is still going on despite the raw wind.

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One of the cottages and a plaque commemorating the launch

One of the cottages and a plaque commemorating the launch

One of the cottages and a plaque commemorating the launch

There was once a plan to build a wide road out to this magical spot; bringing coaches, cars and tourists to a piece of paradise on the Kerry Way walking route. Thankfully, walkers are the only regular traffic now. Below, I see columns of smoke plume from the cottage chimneys like a vision of another era.

As for me, I complete 90pc of the work I set out to do not quite there yet, but thrilled to have made the kind of progress that would have taken months at home.

Ireland may be on Level 5 lockdown, but there is frenetic activity going on in its Republic of Art.

Get there
Artists interested in learning more about the residencies can find contact and newsletter details at cillrialaigartscentre.com. The cottages are not available for holiday stays.

Explore
For more info on the area, see visitballinskelligs.ie. Nearby Waterville (visitwaterville.ie) is famous for its long beaches, golf course and promenade, and its association with former regular visitor Charlie Chaplin. The stunning Bolus Head Loop Walk that takes you past Cill Rialaig is part of the Kerry Way (kerryway.com).


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