Rounding the corner of a steep mountain road in remote south-west Kerry, Cill Rialaig artists’ retreat takes my breath away, clinging to the side of a cliff on Bolus Head at the end of the Iveragh Peninsula.
The retreat, a restored pre-famine village, with the most spectacular views of ocean, sky, stone-walls and windswept hills, consists of eight stone cottages and I’m to spend a week alone in one of them without WiFi, television or possibly, even other people, writing.
The village was built in 1790 and the fishing and farming community survived the Great Famine until the place was finally abandoned in the 1950’s. There was a plan to demolish the ruined houses to make way for a new ring road until former publisher, Noelle Campbell-Sharp, encouraged a group of local business people to join her in buying the village site, effectively closing the entrance to the cul de sac of Bolus Head and thus saving this sanctuary from big tour buses.
Thanks to their unstinting work, the area can still be enjoyed by nature lovers. Noelle then formed the community project of Cill Rialaig, a retreat for artists, poets, writers and composers. Over 3,000 artists of national and international repute, everyone from Irish painter Mick O’Dea to American artist Kiki Smith, have already visited.
Of course you don’t have to be on a residency to enjoy Cill Rialaig. A walk up Bolus Head followed by coffee or a meal at the nearby Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Dun Geagan, makes the perfect day trip.
You can do a looped walk around Bolus or simply park near Ballinskelligs beach or pier and walk up the boreen leading to Canuig mountain. Follow the path up the hill, enjoying superb views of the Skellig Rocks which loom up like twin castles from the white-toothed Atlantic.
A beautifully appointed stone and thatch circular building houses The Arts Centre at Dun Geagan. It holds exhibitions, featuring work by artists who have been in residency at Cill Rialaig, and regular art workshops for adults and children.
It’s the place to buy contemporary art and also harbours one of the best kept secrets in Irish cuisine — the conservatory-like café and its chef, South African Johan van der Merwe.
He fell in love with Ballinskelligs when he visited on retreat and diners now flock to enjoy his food, created with ingredients sourced from local farmers and producers along with gems foraged on the seashore.
Try his Supper Club menus with four courses plus cocktails and canapés for €35, his daily lunch menu, or a delicious pizza from his outdoor clay oven.
At Cill Rialaig, I stayed in the last of the stone cottages hugging the cliff. A partially glass-paneled roof floods the open-plan living and working area with natural light. The space is large but cosy with a stove, writing desk and paint-splattered concrete floor. Upstairs, a small bedroom nestles under the eaves, reached by ladder-like stairs, with a tiny window over the bed.
In the morning, the sea whispers below and sunlight glints on the undulating expanse of water. For the first two days I live like a monk, working solidly, breaking only to eat, take a cup of tea outside, or to trot up Bolus Head. I am alone, without television the internet or other people, just me and the wind. The sound of the sea lulls me to sleep at night. But I never feel alone. I have a sense of the people who have lived, and stayed here before me.
Then, gradually, the place works its magic, I meet people staying in the other cottages - painters from Argentina and Mexico, a sculptor from Antrim, a musician from Cork.
We share food and exchange stories about our work and our lives. I walk miles, swim in nearby sandy Ballinskelligs beach, enjoy a music session at the local pub, go to a house party in a converted shed with stunning views over St Finian’s Bay.
I protest that I have to stay in and work, I have to get back to my novel, but weirdly, the company and the surroundings help me to try new things. I write a song. A poem. I am less stressed about the work I came to do, but strangely, it too progresses.
One of the true wonders of Cill Rialaig is only revealed after the sun sets and the magical stars appear. We’re in The Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve, Ireland’s first, intent on preserving our skies from the light pollution which ravages so much of the countryside.
Astro-tourism is a fast growing sector and, staring half delirious at the night sky, I can see why. It is mesmerising. I see shooting stars. I could star gaze through my skylight all night.
If you want to explore the surrounding area, boats leave Ballinskelligs for the extraordinary Skellig Michael, UNESCO World Heritage Site, where monks of a different kind once lived in isolation.
Drive a bit further in either direction and you’re on Valentia Island, with its famous old slate quarry and breathtaking walk up Bray Head, or Waterville with its golf and restaurants.
Like nearby Sceilig Michael so many hundreds of years ago, Cill Rialaig offers a special kind of space and peace to artists. Its power certainly sparked something in me, something usually dampened by more everyday concerns.
* Cill Rialaig Arts Centre Café, Dun Geagan, Ballinskelligs County Kerry +353 (0)66 947 9852.
* Artists can apply for a residency at www.cillrialaigartscentre.org