THE 80-hour-week job that kept her away from her young family, as she juggled planes and trains, had slowly been taking its toll. There was her father’s tragic suicide and her mother’s subsequent death from cancer.
But it was her miscarriage that tipped Niamh Gunn over the edge. She was broken, burned out.
“Most of us at some stage in our life will have a moment where things will fall part — whether through sickness, burn out, trauma, death, relationship breakdown. And we need somewhere accredited and safe to go to for these times,” says Niamh.
“My father committed suicide in 2004. A few months before he took his life, he had begun to unravel and I had tried to find somewhere for him to go that was safe, to take time out. I was unable to find anywhere. He was not suicidal at that stage, and not suitable for hospital, but he was in a personal crisis and needed a safe place where he could work through what was going on.
“When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had less than four months to live, we wanted to go somewhere together to take time out, as we were caring for her at home. There was nowhere to go. I would have loved to have had somewhere that we could have gone together and had space to share, to find support for my sisters and me.
“Also when I burnt out, again I needed that safe place.”
Niamh has finally found that place. When she stepped away from the corporate world, she was determined to find work with a social agenda, a real purpose, to “feed her soul and heart, rather than her head”. Profit would never be the motivation. Eventually she found herself on a mission to create a ‘wellbeing centre’ for Ireland, a space where, at its very core, there would be stress release and mindfulness.
“Last year when exploring what a wellbeing centre for Ireland might look like, we surveyed over 1,000 people from a diverse range of backgrounds — and stress, support with work/life and day to day life were the critical concerns,” says Niamh.
“As part of the research, I spoke to lots of groups — there are some places for different wellbeing purposes, but there is no central location where a range of different programmes could be available together, that all organisations could potentially work together from.
“Research and education would also be key.”
Enter Liss Ard estate, Skibbereen, Co Cork.
Originally a stronghold of the O’Donovans in the 1800s, it has had Irish, English and American owners, transforming from private house to country house hotel in the late 1980s/early 1990s when European art dealer Veith Turske took the reins. It became an unexpected venue for rock concerts, with visiting musicians in the late 90s including Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Patti Smith and Lou Reed (and no, even after his death, they still won’t reveal where he planted his tree on the grounds).
Turkse’s lasting legacy was his vision for the 100-acre grounds. The standout was the Irish Sky Garden, dreamt up by internationally acclaimed American installation artist, James Turrell. His world-renowned, breath-taking, man-made crater is scooped out and moulded from the earth.
Twenty years ago, the hotel changed hands again, to the Stern family. It lay vacant for years, until it reopened its doors a few years ago, as a boutique hotel. The once-exclusive grounds were also opened to the public, hinting at the prospect of fresh ideas and new life at Liss Ard.
Niamh Gunn was looking for a home for her Wellbeing Centre. And Liss Ard was seeking change.
And so, The Well was born.
Currently running on a pilot basis until May, it has a full programme of events, with workshops and retreats facilitated by local and international leaders in the fields of well-being.
Niamh’s vision is that it will become Ireland’s first-ever National Wellbeing Centre. And with her track record, there can be little doubt it will become a reality.
In 2003, when she was studying law, she was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to work for a summer with Barry Scheck, the lawyer who became a household name in the US when he represented OJ Simpson. Away from the cameras, his Innocence Project frees the wrongly convicted from death row or a life behind bars. Niamh’s two-month stint became six. She uncovered evidence that would ultimately lead to the release of Walter Swift, a man who had served 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
At the exoneration hearing, Scheck, a lawyer renowned as one of New York’s toughest, broke down in tears as he quoted Seamus Heaney and described the full extent of Niamh’s involvement in the case. “That woman,” he said, pointing to Niamh, “That Irish intern found all the evidence.” Apologising for his emotional state, he added, “She stood by Walter all these years.”
Niamh’s determination is now solely focused on The Well. The 37-year-old mother-of-two — her third baby is due next month — from Rochestown, Cork, knows she has the perfect onsite team behind her with Mari Kennedy, a former Project Coordinator with Mary McAleese, and Matt Padwick, former Director at Dzogchen Beara, the renowned west Cork meditation retreat centre. Her advisory panel includes Hermann Stern and his family (the owners of Liss Ard) with Ariane Datz, and Lawrence Crowley, Bill Liao and Kingsley Aikins.
She knows she has the dream location at Liss Ard. The crater may be the showpiece, but with eight beautiful gardens, lakes and untouched woodlands, there is no better space to reflect on the art of better living. Visitors are encouraged to walk the land alone, an invitation to go deeper, to pilgrimage, to retreat. The paths are narrow and winding for a reason — to keep you grounded, focused on the moment. At points, the ground beneath your feet visibly changes — the stones transform from uneven, jagged slabs, to perfect circles. Subconsciously you stop, and hear the rippling water. Again you are back in the now.
Later you find a bench by the lake that is so low you are virtually squatting — and then you realise you are on the same level as the water, at one with nature. It is breathtaking. And there is no better meditation.
You are encouraged to lose yourself in the garden trails, woodlands and lakeside walks (signposts are minimal) — but there is no getting lost. Head uphill and you’ll get back to the main house, it is set on the highest point of the 100 acre site. There is a real sense of liberation.
The workshops take place in the stunning main house with a smaller venue available at the Lake House.
Overall, Liss Ard can accommodate around 60 people in its luxurious, Voya-stocked rooms.
“It’s time to put well-being and better living at the centre of the vision for a better society,” says Niamh. “It’s time to redefine success beyond economic terms. We are curious about our nation’s wellbeing. During the pilot phase, we want to ask the people of Ireland what they want. We want to provide a centre where individuals, families, groups and organisations can deepen their connection with themselves, with each other and with nature.
“We want to develop a dedicated wellbeing and better living learning centre that provides both formal accredited educational programmes and more informal casual wellbeing workshops. And we want to encourage and support collaboration and research with organisations and individuals working in wellbeing with a view to influencing and informing national policy on wellbeing.”
The Well is hosting a broad range of events over the pilot period with a mix of events and workshops to accommodate individuals, families and organisations — everything from creative writing, to yoga for women and men, to employee wellbeing workshops.
“The pilot is really the second stage of our research,” Niamh explains. “Pioneers in wellbeing and those working on the front lines in health will also come together to discuss what form a National Centre for Wellbeing and Better Living might take.”
Over the Easter holidays wellbeing workshops are also planned for parents and children, with yoga, mindfulness, foraging in the woods and Easter egg-making on the itinerary.
And as part of the pilot, Dr. Pat Bracken, Clinical Director/Psychiatrist, West Cork mental health service will host a day workshop, “Conversing about depression”. It will be a space to exchange ideas and experiences, and generate hope through discussion. It will be open to anyone suffering, working or supporting depression.
Further information is available on www.thewellatlissard.com and 028 40018.