All Muse, All the Time – Ireland ’s Beara Peninsula , Poets & Writers, March/April 2003
Anam Cara, a year-round artist's retreat, is set amid the rolling hills of southwest Cork ’s remote Beara Peninsula . Established in 1998 by Sue Booth-Forbes , a former communications director from Boston , Anam Cara accommodates five guests at a time. For writers accustomed to an urban landscape, the retreat’s five acres surrounded by farmlands that gently slope down to Coulagh Bay , will probably seem like a work of art in and of itself.
Anam Cara’s main purpose is to provide a sanctuary from everyday life for writers and artists. As director and host, Booth-Forbes views herself as a “supportive facilitator” who hopes to provide what writers and artists need to “slow down enough inside” to produce their best work. Each of the five guest rooms is furnished with a queen-sized bed, a desk and a comfortable chair with proper back support, plenty of electrical outlets (if you live outside Europe you should bring an electrical converter or two), shelves for books, drawers, closet space — and of course magnificent views. The four north-facing bedrooms overlook Coulagh Bay , while the one south-facing bedroom faces Mishkish, the local mountain, whose peak often disappears into a cloud of mist. One of the four sea view rooms has been remodelled to accommodate disabled guests.
Daily working hours are from 9:30 A.M. until 5:30 P.M. During this time, guests are expected to maintain a reasonable level of quiet so that others may work in peace. In addition to a private study and bedrooms, the house and the grounds offer many settings for creative idylls: the porch swing in the conservatory, the sunken living room, the window seat in the gallery room, the “island” near the cascading waterfall, the low wall beside the stone fountain, the bench beside the duck pond.
Mealtimes provide opportunities for residents to share ideas and socialize. After dinner, guests often linger to relax with a glass of wine, share work, or listen to music. Other times they head upstairs to the loft to watch a movie, selected from Anam Cara’s comprehensive collection of videotapes. Those who want an evening outing may take a walk to one of the local pubs to listen to traditional music and try step dancing.
Although computers may be used for word processing at Anam Cara, Internet access is somewhat limited. It is possible to check e-mail or work on the Internet from Anam Cara; however, at the present time there is a single phone line to be shared by all the guests. Those who wish to do extensive research online or who need to be in frequent e-mail contact with friends or colleagues at home have the option of using Beara Business Services in the nearby town of Castletownbere, a thriving fishing port with a population of about 1,000 roughly four kilometres away.
Most guests travel to Castletownbere for supplies and errands. But often a trip to town is ended with a walk along the dock or a visit over a pint served at a local pub.
If you want to take a break closer to Anam Cara itself, you can go for an easy walk down to the strand (beach). Along the way the peninsula’s natural world takes on its full colors in the form of magpies, peregrines, gulls, and finches, as well as wildflowers, including honeysuckle, cowslip, reddish-purple foxglove, lavender harebell, fushsia, and bright orange gorse. Or you can take a short work along the upper, main road to the village of Eyeries , less than a kilometre from the retreat. Amid the village’s carmine, blue, and yellow houses, you’ll find a petrol station and grocery store, three pubs, a Catholic church, and a Post Office. The townspeople there, as in Castletownbere, are friendly and helpful, especially if you mention that you are a guest at Anam Cara.
For those who wish to venture farther afield, the countryside offers relics from long ago. Up the main road north from Anam Cara, and past Eyeries, the Hag of Beara (Cailleach Beara in Irish), a stone about the size of Plymouth Rock, but craggier, sits on a low cliff, looking out to sea. Legend has it that, having been turned to stone by a local saint, she waits forever for her man to sail home. The Hag has become a kind of shrine and repository for griefs and hopes. Locals and tourists alike tuck stones, coins, and small trinkets into the rock’s nooks and crannies and make a wish or send up a prayer.
Farther down the road are the ruins of Kilcatherine, a church named for the saint who placed the curse on the Hag. Among the many headstones and statues in the churchyard is a four-foot-high, rough-hewn stone cross purported to be one of the oldest in Ireland . Still farther along stands the largest known ogham (pronounced o-am) stone. Like other standing stones of its kind, it may date back to the middle-to-late Bronze Age. Stone circles originated from the same tradition and time period as ogham stones. The Outer Ardgroom Stone Circle is just a few miles from Anam Cara. The original purpose of these formations is not known; however, many of the stones appear to have astrological and solar alignments. In addition to these ancient markers, 200-year-old former dwellings with walls made of flat stones fitted together can be found scattered along the road. Many of these buildings are roofless, while others now have bright orange tin roofs and are in use as storage sheds. On the Beara Peninsula , as in all of Ireland , the past continually informs the present.
As its residents will happily attest, Anam Cara, which is Irish for “Soul Friend,” lives up to its name.
Barbara J. McGrath is an assistant professor of English at College of the Southwest in Hobbs , New Mexico , Her poems and reviews have appeared in Nebraska Review, Passages North, Colorado Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Bloomsbury Review, and other publications.