When my son, my husband, and I arrived in Ireland in 1981, we were greeted at times with “and how long have you been home?” This caused a pause; the question was both puzzling and comforting. I loved the assumption that we belonged here and had just been away for a while. As if Ireland was the home that everyone returns to at some point in their lives.
Like many Americans I grew up with knowledge of my Irish heritage - in my case, a great-grandfather. He and his brothers were printers in Northern Ireland and left for the United States in the mid-1800s. The first country I heard about outside America was Ireland; reinforced by the prominence of Irish descendants in America (and, of course, St. Patrick’s Day!)
The American myth of Ireland celebrates Ireland’s timeless landscapes and stories. Yet, tradition solidifies, and centuries of stone erode slowly. Incorporating elements of change is gradual.
I’ll tell a story about how I was drawn to a place that is familiar in its essence and how I felt the experiences of my earlier life in other countries blending with the part of myself that was always in Ireland. The story is about how everything that was essentially me was here when I arrived.
I believe this story is reflected in the lives of many people, including the writers and artists who now call North Clare home.
When my husband and I decided to leave London for Ireland, the decision was based on us both being writers and wanting to find a place to live where creativity was valued. For us, that was Ireland. I’d been teaching in London and many of my colleagues were ex-pat Irish. They all advised against our move, citing the poor economy and less than poor job chances. That made absolutely no difference to me once I focused on a new life where writing and the arts were celebrated.
We chose Galway for its lovely aspect and charm, even though empty buildings lined many of the streets. It had the feeling of a city just waking from a long, restful sleep. That was summer 1981.
My ex-colleagues were indeed wrong in their dire predictions for our future in Ireland. I loved Galway during my fifteen years there. I loved that it was on the verge of finding its poetic voice. That within weeks we had found a writing workshop that was just starting up, based at UCG (NUI, Galway). That workshop led to everything I’ve done in Ireland in the forty years since. From a photocopied pamphlet - Poetry Galway - that contained poetry and stories from workshop members to The Salmon International Literary Journal, we focused on publishing poets from the west of Ireland, and The Salmon quickly gained a great reputation. In the Irish Times, one of Ireland’s most important poets, and mentor to many women writers, Eavan Boland wrote “The Salmon is beautifully produced… a singularly heartening and attractive little magazine.”
Publishing poetry in the West of Ireland was unusual at a time when so many talented people were getting their university degrees and heading off as quickly as possible. Yet, the time was right. And it was time for Irish women poets to come forward.
I had a particular interest in creating a wider publishing platform for women poets. There were many superb poets in Galway at that time: Eva Bourke, Rita Ann Higgins, Mary O’Malley, Joan McBreen, Anne Kennedy and Moya Cannon went on to make their mark in Irish literature. Publishing books was a natural progression from The Salmon journal, and it was thrilling to bring these vital voices to light.
My fifteen years in Galway were a tremendously important time for me, and for the arts. The drain of creative talent started to reverse itself. The 1980s were bustling with innovation. As well as the writing workshop, my husband, Michael Allen, and I set up the Poetry Co-Operative, working with Poetry Ireland to bring Irish and international poets to read their work with poets based in Galway. Poet Gerald Dawe’s ‘Writing in the West’ was a weekly feature in the Connaught Tribune, and his literary journal, Krino, appeared in the 1990s; Michael Gorman’s superb poetry collection Waiting for the Sky to Fall was published in 1984. Through the Poetry Co-Operative my husband and I organized an international poetry festival, ‘Laughing Out, Lashing Out,’ It was a forerunner of the Cúirt International Literature Festival. Street theatre with Macnas and small theatre groups like Punchbag added to the burgeoning arts scene, joining Druid Theatre and the Galway Arts Festival as Galway rose to embrace its creative potential.
It was an important time for me, but there were also personal difficulties, including the breakup of my marriage, and in 1994 I looked for a place where I could have space to breathe spiritually and emotionally and, again, I made a decision that exceeded expectations: I found a house in a wonderful spot half a mile from the Cliffs of Moher in a most glorious part of Clare.
Among the well-known towns in the area, such as Doolin, Lahinch and Lisdoonvarna, I loved the less well-known Ennistymon. An old market town it had, at that time, a timeless feel as if it was resting to get its breath back and move on. I’d been there in 1978, after a visit to the Cliffs, when all you had to do was walk across a field to face the expanse. We visited Stephan Unglert’s superb bakery in Ennistymon, renowned in the area (as it is to this day). In the early 1990s I had a literary association with Ennistymon, editing an issue of the North Clare Journal, published by a group of North Clare writers who held regular writing workshops in Ennistymon. The group included Jacqui Hersey who had come from London and been part of the Derry House Co-Op and Kilshanny leather, and later opened the first health food shop in Ennistymon; llsa Thielan, who came to Doolin from Germany in the 1970s and established a legendary restaurant, Ilsa’s Kitchen, and who is also a well-respected photographer and poet. A key figure in the workshop was Knute Skinner, from Washington State, who bought a cottage in Killaspuglanane, Lahinch, in the 1960s and spent summers there until he and his wife, the writer Edna Kiel, retired and came to Killaspuglanane for good. I had known Knute for many years, having published his poetry in The Salmon International Literary Journal and then his poetry collection The Bears and Other Poems. At the time, I didn’t have any thoughts about living in North Clare but when I decided to leave Galway, Clare was on my mind.
And it was amazing to me that I found a wonderful spot on a hillside near the Atlantic, half a mile from the Cliffs of Moher. Again, timing was in my favour and we (myself and my colleague and daughter-in-law Siobhan Hutson Jeanotte) were able to avail of the rapidly developing technology of the internet. At the time, there was only a landline dial-up connection to the internet, but it enabled us to bring Salmon to this wonderful unspoiled place and carry on as if we were producing books in the middle of a city. Perfect. Salmon was the second publisher in Ireland and the first literary publisher to have a website. All from Knockeven, half a mile from the Cliffs of Moher.
Meanwhile, Ennistymon was becoming a home for visual artists. The Courthouse Gallery on Parliament Street was established in 1997 as a space for artists to work, and ten years later it opened as a beautiful gallery space, hosting exhibitions from Ireland and abroad. Kathryn and Michael Comber were instrumental in highlighting the visual arts, and that encouraged many artists to come to the area.
It was exciting to see the gradual creative opening of Ennistymon, changing focus to expand creative entrepreneurship; market days becoming showcases for a different sort of growth. Visual artists standing back, considering the environment, the landscape with a network of creative connections. This isn’t new, of course. Writers and artists have been drawn to Ennistymon and the otherworldly character of the Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands for centuries. Yet in recent years, these places are defined by creative work and innovative activities.
In 1977/78 I worked at the National Poetry Society in London. The Poetry Society was established in 1909 and was the prominent institution for poetry and poetry activities in England. Its journal, Poetry Review, set the standard for English poetry. At the time The Poetry Society was housed in a beautiful Georgian building in Earl’s Court Square, with space for offices, readings, and accommodation.
The 1970s were the well-documented poetry-revolution years in England. There is an excellent book about those times, Poetry Wars by Peter Barry, which is an account of the six-year battle between the Poetry Society establishment and the many poets who felt that the Poetry Society and its journal The Poetry Review espoused a far too narrow view of poetry; stifling creative freedom. It was an invigorating time, and I was lucky to witness it first-hand.
I had just finished university and was beginning to publish my own poetry in journals, so when a job came up at the Poetry Society it seemed perfect. My job was to assist with organizing poetry readings outside London. During that time, revolutionary fever grew, and began to involve physical protest in the Poetry Society building. The grand piano was broken, books were strewn around the library, and I often came across poet-protesters sleeping here and there. These protests caused the housekeeper, who had been with the Poetry Society for forty years, to quit. She had a flat on the top floor of the building and since my son Tim and I were looking for a new place to live, the Poetry Society directors offered us the upstairs apartment. In return I would be responsible for looking after the house and running the regular reading events. It was challenging but, for me as a poet, it was liberating too, particularly at that time.
One of the more focused people at the Poetry Society was Ian Robinson. He was a poet, publisher, and lecturer at the Kingston College of Art. Some of my best memories of that time are chatting with Ian as he ran the huge old lithograph printer in the Poetry Society basement, turning out copies of his literary magazine, Oasis. After I moved to Ireland, Ian and I gradually lost touch, and then I heard that he had died in 2004. I regret that he never had a chance to visit me in Ireland. However, he and I were to connect in Ennistymon in a way neither of us could have imagined.
In 2012 an opportunity arose for Salmon to take on a bookshop on Parliament Street, Ennistymon, from Gerry Harrison, who had brought his huge stock of books from London and settled in the area. We had been delighted when Gerry set up the bookshop. After a year, due to health problems, he decided to give someone else the opportunity to take on the bookshop. At that time, Siobhan and I were looking for more space for Salmon. We had outgrown our home office, where Salmon books were stacked to the ceiling. When Gerry let me know that he was selling his stock and looking for someone to take over, I knew this was our chance to have not only a terrific new and secondhand bookshop but, with some renovations, a home for Salmon, with office space, writing workshop and seminar space, and a large walled garden for literary events.
One day, when Gerry and I were going over the stock, I picked up a book, opened it and saw the words ‘Ian Robinson, London 1978’ handwritten on the flyleaf. “This was owned by my friend in London!” I exclaimed. When Gerry said that he had bought the collection of books from Ian’s widow and confirmed her name, I was stunned at this wonderful serendipity. That my friend’s carefully collected library would come to me here in this small Irish town years and hundreds of miles later confirmed for me that I was, indeed, in my creative place; here and forever coming home.
Oh La La Breton Café
Ennistymon. Co. Clare
Crocheted light hangs with the sun
In the café window
Touches the face of a soft afternoon
Drifts with the honied scent of crêpes
Across a golden lion on a scarlet sky
Here, the air is the breath of stone centuries
A river crossing, a gathering
And if I look into the shimmering morning
Past the bridge, just beyond the first turn
I can see the best part of my past
Returning home from far away
This essay also appears in THE ART OF PLACE: PEOPLE AND LANDSCAPE OF COUNTY CLARE, EDITED BY PEADAR KING AND ANNE JONES, published by the Liffey Press