LOUISE O'NEILL: 'Now, I understand why people call this place magical'

For a while, it felt as if I was the only author in Ireland who hadn’t gone on an artist’s retreat to the famed Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan. 

“Off to Annaghmakerrig!” friends would write on Twitter, the responses characterised by their hints of barely concealed envy, photos of the Annaghmakerrig Lake and #WritingDeskWithAView flooding my Instagram feed soon after.

Feeling excluded, I immediately completed the application form, one so extensive that I began to worry, despite the four novels and all that, I might be ineligible to apply. But after promising my first-born child and ten pieces of silver as payment, I was in. Well, due to the enormous popularity of the centre, I was in ... in six months’ time, at the earliest.

The house belonged to the theatre director William Tyrone Guthrie who died in 1971, leaving the property to the State with the proviso that it would be used as a place for artists to come and work. It officially opened in 1981, and since then, has been mentioned in more book acknowledgements than God or My Agent. The Big House has 11 rooms, one of which is, naturally enough, haunted by the unfortunate Miss Worby, who was a ‘special companion’ of Lady Guthrie’s.

“I bet I’ll get the haunted bedroom,” I complained to my boyfriend. “That’s exactly the sort of thing that would happen to me. He doesn’t believe in ghosts but “It would make for an excellent story. If there is a ghost, don’t talk to anyone else before you talk to me, OK?” Ever the journalist, that one.

Far more chilling than the idea of a supernatural visitor is the realisation that there is a mandatory communal dinner every night at 7pm. William Tyrone Guthrie, while a very generous man, was also clearly a masochist as the sole stipulation of his will was that all artists have to gather together for their evening meal. The website promises that dinner is “a formal but congenial gathering,” I called my friend Catherine in a panic, “candle and fire-lit, with good food and wine underpinning conversation, argument, song, and declamation”.

“Oh dear,” she said. There’s silence on the other end of the phone. “I hope you’ve been practising your declamming, then.”

I hung up, calling my friend Rachel instead. “I’ve been thinking,” she told me before I even have a chance to mention the words argument, song, and declamation.

“And I’ve decided on the cast of characters that I want to be at your retreat. An older woman who becomes your mentor, for starters. A young man who is brooding and extremely attractive, but who has a dark secret. And I also want a couple to fall in love and have a torrid affair.”

“I think we’re all supposed to be working, Rach, we won’t-“

“I also have high hopes that there will be a murder mystery, a la Agatha Christie,” she cut across me. “But don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s usually the innocent virgin who’s killed off first.” She laughed a little too heartily at this.

But as soon as I passed through the gates and made my way up the driveway, any fears I had quickly vanished. I’d been warned how beautiful the grounds were, had seen enough evidence of said beauty on Instagram, but nothing could have prepared me for the sun’s ray shattering on the glass lake, the 450 acres of surrounding woodland, the stone steps leading up to a front door out of which it seemed that dozens of Bright Young Things could spill at any moment, all sharp bobs and cigarette holders. They would, I imagine, complain about how bloody quiet it is in the country, old chap, and indeed there is a quality of stillness at Annaghmakerrig that makes you instantly, suddenly, calm.

Inside, the house was full of treasures, antique furniture and patterned china sets, and enough artwork hanging on its walls to constitute a gallery. Unfortunately for Rachel, my fellow retreaters were nice, and for all intents and purposes, appeared to be non-murderous. Although I’m sure they found me antisocial at times, preferring to spend my days alone reading, writing, or meditating, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the communal dinners. There was such a mix of people, of all ages and nationalities, who worked in a variety of artistic mediums; the conversation was lively, interesting. I didn’t have to sing, thankfully, or declaim, but I was more than happy to listen to one of the other guests read from their poetry collection, or watch another perform a dance he had choreographed.

The food was exceptionally good — I shall be dreaming of that homemade brown bread ice cream for some time — but most of all, the company felt easy, even for a curmudgeon like me.

Most importantly as I sat at my desk that week, it was the first time in a long time I could sense my excitement at the prospect of creating again, where I could feel the words building underneath my fingernails, itching to be released onto the page

Now, I thought to myself after a full day of work, as I sat at the tree-ringed lake, my feet in its cool water. Now, I understand why people call this place magical.



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