Sue Hubbard finds magic in the ruins of an Irish village abandoned during the potato famine.
I’ve lost my heart to Cill Rialaig. It’s about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off. It is a magical place set in a wild landscape full of ghosts and memories, a pre-famine village that clings to a steep slope 300 feet above the sea on the old road that leads to Bolus Head in Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland.
In winter the sea boils and rages against the cliffs as storms sweep in from the Atlantic. Hugging the hillside, it looks south-west towards the Béara Peninsula and the tiny uninhabited islands of Scariff and Deenish, and eastward beyond Waterville to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. At the right time of year you might see seals or, if you are very lucky, a leatherback turtle. Abandoned by the inhabitants, who were driven out by near starvation, the collapsed cottages stare out to sea like a collection of grieving widows. The one-time fields and tillage-plots that lie on either side of the road are half hidden by rocks and boulders. Criss-crossed now by drystone walls, they are full of spongy tussocks of boggy grass, gorse and bracken. Grazing sheep, marked with the Day-Glo blue and pink dyes of their owners, shimmy up the hill, wiggling their backsides like muddy go-go dancers.
As the mist comes in, settling over the headland like a white duvet, and the rain beats against the windows on this, the last day of the old year, it is not difficult to imagine how hard life must have been up here. Unlike in other parts of Europe the plough was unknown, and cultivation of the staple, potatoes, was dependent on the spade. There was a little fishing and cattle breeding, and rye and oats were grown, the rye primarily for thatch. Houses consisted of one room, with a large fireplace fitted with a croch (hanger) and a drol (hook) for supporting pots. Animals lived under the same roof. Two doors facing each other allowed the cows to be driven in, milked, and then ushered out through the opposite door. Those living here must have been permanently damp, their skin kippered from turf smoke, their lungs full of bronchitis. Young women became prematurely old, worn down by incessant childbirth and hard work.
It is here that, ringed by sacred sites and standing stones, the pre-Augustinian monks built their beehive huts on the cliffs and prepared spiritually for the more demanding retreat on Skellig Michael. Some eight miles from the mainland, it can only be reached for a few months in the summer, even today, by a lenient sea. No boatman worth his salt, however beautiful the day may seem, will waste time making the crossing when he knows landing is impossible in the heaving Atlantic swell. Both Skellig Michael and its jagged companion Small Skellig, a gannet sanctuary stained white with guano that can be smelled on the wind as you approach, and which rises from the sea like something out of a Wagnerian opera, can be seen on a clear day from the mainland. Nothing prepares for the mystical atmosphere of Skellig Michael, home to monks for hundreds of years, with its 670 hand-hewn steps leading up above the sea to the clutch of monastic domes that, even now, seems only a hair’s breadth away from heaven. It was here that members of the Celtic church retreated to the edge of the known world to seek the face of God.
And what of Cill Rialaig now? Well, it’s risen like a phoenix from the ashes of its past. Through the tireless efforts of Noelle Campbell Sharpe, who raised the money to buy the village in the Nineties, the place has been turned into an artists’ and writers’ retreat. Peat smoke rises from the chimneys as photographers, printers, painters and the occasional writer engage in a flurry of creative activity. More than 1,500 painters and sculptors have taken up residencies in the seven rebuilt cottages that have been converted into simple live/work studios. Cash cannot buy a place, only talent can. The remains of the four other cottages stand in ruins, monuments to the inhabitants of the old village. Most recently restored as a meeting house is the home of Séan Ó Conaill, the farmer-fisherman and storyteller who lived here between 1923 and 1931.
Cill Rialaig is a model of restoration, not only of old buildings, but of a community. When each resident artist leaves, he or she donates a work that is then sold in Siopa Cill Rialaig, a purpose-built arts centre in nearby Dungeagan, to help fund the project. But the place is more than simply an artists’ retreat; there is also a scheme whereby one-off craft pieces are produced by young apprentices, local youngsters given a taste of training by professional artists.
It is the untamed authenticity of this place, however, that Campbell Sharpe has helped preserve from developers. If ever you should come this way, walk from the village out along the empty headland to the end of the lonely track until you reach a low, whitewashed cottage with a corrugated roof, which sits in isolation on the edge of the cliff with an uninterrupted view of the whole bay. The path of its immaculate, windblown garden is lined with pebbles from the beach, and the peat stack has been built with the precision of a Zen sculpture.
The cottage belongs to one of Kerry’s farming bachelors. They are a dying breed, but if you should be lucky enough to meet him, you will know him by his shock of white hair and twinkling blue eyes. When once I stopped and said he must live in the most beautiful spot in the whole world, he simply nodded, smiled and carried on working, as though such a statement about this inspiring place was obvious.