Dispatches from Ireland – Anam Cara: A Shelter for Artists and Writers

Anam-Cara--wellies
Wellies wait under a windowbox at Anam Cara – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2014 all rights reserved

There is quiet industry in the countryside of West Cork, housed in a pretty house with robin’s egg blue shutters, gorgeous hydrangeas and a plaque on the stone pillar at the driveway entrance: Anam Cara.

Originally it was a home — and it still is — but since 1998 it has been where Sue Booth-Forbes lives and the retreat she offers to writers and artists.

Since then, approximately 800 people have come to do their work and stay at the house on Cork’s Beara Peninsula.  For some, it is simply a quiet place where there are no meals to prepare, no cleaning to do, no ringing phones. They come to show up to concentrate on their art, whatever it may be. For others it is a chance to learn from those with expertise in the field. For almost everyone, it is a place to share and support each other. Most stay for a week, though others spend a few days and others even months.

The very name, Anam Cara, Irish for soul friend, was chosen with the hope that people will find that in themselves. It was inspired by the book of the same name by the late Irish spiritual writer John O’Donohue. It is a place that supports creativity, a small creative community where people with good intentions help each other, the founder says.

There have been all varieties of writing, graphic and visual art, songwriting, silent meditation, lace-making with local artisan Fiona Harrington scheduled over the years. Workshops allow people to work with an expert in the field. “And sometimes writers come and do art and artists come and end up writing. It has been fascinating to watch the cross-pollination. And it is a blessing to meet all the creative people, to get to know their work,” Booth-Forbes said. “We each have a creative process.”

“I have been a writer and editor all my life. I call myself a literary midwife to those who want or need editorial support,” Booth-Forbes says, who was a Lexington, Massachusetts, resident prior to moving to Ireland. A writer and editor all life, she was looking for a new direction for her life. “I went to Connemara with some friends on our own informal writing retreat and loved it,” she remembers. Still, she started thinking of buying retirement property here,   not really a retreat, when a friend called her to say, “Sue, I’ve found your house.” It was the one. That was 16 years ago, which seems to her at time “a minute and a half and some days I wake up and feel that I’ve lived here all my life.”

Anam Cara is her life and her lifestyle, as well as her livelihood. She lives in the house, reserving five rooms for guests and public areas for sitting in the comfy living room with a fireplace, out in the conservatory, watching movies. She cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner and does everyone’s laundry.  Mealtimes are times for the participants to get to take a break and get to know each other; evenings can be used for conversation or sharing work. There is a flexibility where participants work inside or out but the tradition of silence from 9:30 to 5:30 is gently enforced.

The house is overflowing with books in every single room, including the 400 or so participants at Anam Cara have written that are housed on several designated bookshelves.

When Booth-Forbes started out, she did some minor renovations to the house itself to re-purpose it as a retreat. The property, though, took years. When she moved in, it was impossible get to the river that runs along the base of the property; it was in an impenetrable jungle of green vines, moss, trees. Now, thanks to many creative gardeners, it is two kilometers of shady paths, rope “handrails” and more than 30 places carved out to stop and rest. There are cascading waterfalls, a bridge, and wildflowers. Adjacent to the house there is meditation labyrinth mowed into the meadow and a duck pond

Whether the participants have come for solitude or support, a structured environment, a place to share their work, be in silence, hear or see what others are doing, learn a new skill, it is an umbrella to protect each one’s own creative process.

According to Sue Booth-Forbes, “When people have made the decision to come here, they have made the commitment to themselves to spend the time, the money and decide this is important to them. People seem to find what they need here.”

Participants come from all places in the world, most hear of it by word of mouth. Many fly into Cork Airport and take a private mini bus along the narrow winding roads to get to the retreat. “People who are flying in ask me if they should rent a car. I don’t recommend it. If there is a car out there, you are going to use it. And it can be a real distraction from their work.” The need to sit in a chair and write with the fantastic views of Coulagh Bay and the mountains out the window do require dedication when the going gets rough.

One successful writer from Dublin has written several books, coming to work at Anam Cara 13 or 14 times. A few years ago, she was so attached to the environment that she bought a house and moved nearby.  She still spends time at the retreat to finish each one. On one recent visit, she was padding around in slippers and sharing her current outline with a new writer at lunchtime.

This week she was hosting juggler/writers from Hong Kong and holding a book launch for one of the past participants.

Former American poet laureate Billy Collins – who has been to the retreat himself – in his book, Advice to Writers, says that many artists do everything else there is to do before they start on their work.

As anyone who has worked at home knows, it can be hard to move past the dishes in the sink, the weeds in the garden or the stacks of unsorted mail and sit down at a desk. It is tempting to shortchange the essential in service to the practical. A writer friend in Bedford once said that to keep on task she has tied her leg to the chair; by the time she unties the knots she often knows procrastination is driving her and she gets back to work.

Anam Cara is open year-round except when Booth-Forbes goes out of town, usually to visit her two grown children – both of them Lexington High School graduates – and three grandchildren who live in North Carolina and Los Angeles.

She has also gotten involved with the town of  Eyeries, the center of which is within walking distance but looks far away from the house. She organizes fundraisers in the winter for different causes the last Friday of every month. It may be a reading, a musical event or artist presentation.

This past year it was in support of funds to print a publication called “You’re Not Alone” by transition year students dealing with the challenges of  late adolescence.

For those who treasure the retreat for its opportunity for the quiet, the words of the late John O’Donohue in his book of the same name, the following words come to mind:  “When you cease to fear your solitude, a new creativity awakens in you. Your forgotten or neglected wealth begins to reveal itself. You come home to yourself and learn to rest within.”

For information: www.anamcararetreat.com

Anam-Cara--waterfall
A waterfall near Anam Cara – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2014 all rights reserved
A view toward the bay near Anam Cara - Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2014 all rights reserved
A view toward the bay near Anam Cara – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2014 all rights reserved

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