I was enjoying the Seamus Begley and Steve Cooney concert at the end of December, back in the Mills, (one of the pubs in the village) when I had something of a realization. It was a great treat to see the two musicians who give a really dynamic concert: Steve with his energetic style on the guitar and Seamus with his distinctive box playing. Great stuff altogether. Seamus was in his usual form throwing jokes around to the audience like they were sweeties in a mixture of Irish and English, and getting some very talented locals up on the stage to perform. Step dancers, sean nos dancers and set dancers. And wonderful singers, Nell Ní Chroinín and Ownie Maicí Ó Sulleabháin. It was friends all round and we were all loving it. Then Seamus told limerick jokes and ended with one from Kerry (his native county and great rival to Cork) and one from Cork. The one from Kerry was a typical saucy one, but the one from Cork had us roaring with laughter. No rhyme, but full of innuendo. I thought it was brilliant. Seamus cut in on the laughter and said ‘the Americans didn’t get that at all when I told it over there.’ I laughed even harder and said to my friend next to me, ‘This American gets it,’ and she said, ‘Well you’ve been living here long enough now, then.’
I realized in some ways, I suppose I have. I’m here ten years now, and though still a ‘blow in,’ I am really no longer an observer of my Irish community, but a part of it. I automatically lift my finger when I drive along the local roads to salute a passing car or person out walking. It is rare that I attend local events and don’t know at least one person there or when people are recounting some news or tale that I can’t place the person they are mentioning. But I don’t even think about these things, they just are.
My life here in Coolierher/Cúil Iarcht (I can pronounce both now—it only took me 6 years) is as different from my life in Philadelphia as anything could possibly be. I look out every morning on a meadow and a valley and hills in the distance, not my yard and the other neighbor’s flat grassy expanse. Right now there is a strong hoar frost on the grass and drops of rain clinging to the bare branches of a cherry tree. Our fruit bushes—black currant and worcester berry—are pruned back into skinny little skeletons waiting for spring. The wild daffodils that cover the meadow are starting to poke up just a little.
Every morning I walk up the road, along the furzey bogland to a farmer’s field where I’ve met the bull I thought was called Charlie because that’s what I thought the farmer said (it really was a Charlois bull) and on, to the view of the large valley capped by the Paps Mountains in the distance. It isn’t every day that I remember how fortunate I am to be able to walk it so often, certainly not when the rain is lashing down, but I do still think it on occasion.
The house is finished enough, but of course that means it’s needing attention, like the painting jobs on a huge suspension bridge: once you finish it, you have to start all over again. Such is the fact of an old stone built cottage that has no damp course and has a north wall that is below ground level. If you’d asked me in Philadelphia what a damp course was I would have said it was a series of lectures about damp. A lecture series I am well equipped to give now, since I’ve learned many little tricks about that alright, in our dear little house.
Another thing I’ve learned is that my reading desire and capacity is still more suited to a large house than a cottage. It was the one thing I wasn’t able to downsize when I came here. Books spill out of shelves and are piled on surfaces around the upstairs bedrooms, despite my best efforts at weeding. Just yesterday I was hunting for Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots that I had since I was a teen and have resigned myself to the fact that I probably got rid of it. Even my Kindle can’t resolve that problem.
I did downsize my art space. I no longer have an art room that my house outside of Philadelphia provided, but when everywhere around you outside nearly is a painting it is a fair trade off. I still paint, creating makeshift art areas in the kitchen or upstairs with my oils or water colors. I don’t paint as often, but teaching art classes certainly keeps me on my toes and allows me to nurture some of my creative self with some very talented people. In the summer I have been fortunate, so far, to work as a relief librarian in libraries in the county that are short-staffed from employees who take the summer off because of their children. I’ve worked in a number of libraries and found it a great opportunity to work in different communities and different staff. It also allows me to plunder other book stocks to check out and pile by my bedside for future reading.
I still run the book clubs in the village library and can hardly believe I’ve been doing it for ten years. The early members of the teen book club have long left university and some of them are now working in far flung areas like Canada and Australia. Sadly, one is dead, drowned in the Lee River several years ago in a tragedy that hit the community hard. But fresh groups have kept coming, giving me the enjoyment of hearing their own views on books and life in general. One of the highlights for them and for me was when the group was selected to be among the judges of a national children’s book award and travel up to Dublin for the award ceremony. That happened twice and the teens really enjoyed meeting the authors and getting a real insight into one aspect of the publishing world.
I’ve broadened the teens’ ideas about the publishing world after my own experiences of it in publishing my books as well as encouraging their interests in creative writing and understanding of writing novels. They have surprised me (and I shouldn’t be surprised) with their incredible creativity and I’ve broadened the teens’ ideas about the publishing world after my own experiences of it in publishing my books as well as encouraging their interests in creative writing and understanding of writing novels. They have surprised me (and I shouldn’t be) with their incredible creativity and imaginative approach to some of the exercises I’ve given them from designing book covers to creating a character that might go in a story. Inspiring.
I was also inspired by my years in the community to write a novel that included St. Gobnait, the local patron saint and patron saint of bees who lived during the 6th Century. It was a project that compelled me to really visit the nature of the community and their deep attachment to Gobnait, whose remains, holy well and the remains of once might have been her women’s community. It was a journey in itself for me, to learn about the legends, to immerse myself in understanding what life might have been like in that time and to come to my own understanding of the nature of Gobnait herself, ‘who drew women around her,’ as the narrative written by the scholar and former occupant of this house, Donncha Ó Líonsigh, stated. I am hoping that novel, ‘In Praise of the Bees’ will be published later this year.
And so now that I’m here ten years, in a life so different than it was before, despite the economic downturn, I still feel fortunate to be able to be here. People ask me when first meeting me what brought me to Ballyvourney and I tell them it was the music. And there is no denying that I have been privileged to meet and hear some amazing musicians, not just traditional Irish musicians either. I’ve seen my all-time favorite fiddle player Martin Hayes up close and personal on many occasions, have heard Donal Lunny, Paddy Keenan, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (Altan), Tony McMahon and a host of other Irish traditional music legends in the intimate space of the Ionad Cultura in the village and in some cases afterwards in the pub for a session. I’ve had an opportunity to sing original pieces in Irish in the local choir and play the harp at events in the county. I was present at the Oireachtas this year when Nell Ní Chronín won the Corn na Ríada (O’Ríada Cup), the first time for someone from Munster. Wonderful thrilling opportunities to experience music happen all the time here, sometimes spontaneously. Music is certainly one of the things that drew me to this area, along with the very paintable scenery. And they help keep me here, along with the warm welcome and support and very good friends I have here.
If you're interested in reading previous Irish Observers go to the Observer section on the Website.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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