ON THE EDGE: retreat on the west coast of Kerry

by Sue Hubbard

Picture 148I have come about as far west in Europe as I can go without falling into the sea. The next stop is America. It is a different world to the busy life in Islington, north London that I normally lead dominated by deadlines, art openings, friends and family. I am in retreat. I have been coming to this extraordinary place, Cill Rialaig, an abandoned hamlet of stone cottages on the edge of a cliff, 300 feet above the Atlantic in Kerry on the west coast of Ireland for some time now. The village was restored in the 90s as an artist's colony. Mostly for visual artists but the odd writer, like me, slips in under the net. You have everything you need, though it's very simple. A kitchen, a shower, a peat burning stove. I sleep in a tiny converted hay loft, reached by a ladder. It has steep eaves and the bed nearly fills the room and there is only one tiny window. It is the view from that window that brings me back, that has entered my heart. It looks straight out on the Atlantic. At night the sky, a black dome of twinkling stars, my own planetarium. On a clear night you can see every constellation. It is rare in the modern world to experience real dark. And across the bay there is the blip of the far off light-house, like a heartbeat. Waking in the morning is always different. Sometimes there's a thick sea mist and everything is invisible, as though someone has spilled a bucket of white wash. Or it might be raining; insistent grey Irish rain that soaks everything, including the sheep sheltering behind the dry stone walls. But if you are lucky the strait will be full of sun, the sea calm and the colour of pewter, and you'll be able to see out to the two little rocky, uninhabited islands of Scarif and Deenish and the soft mountains on the headland beyond. It's like a peep of heaven. This is what this place must have looked like a hundred, no five hundred, even a thousand years ago. The only sign of modernity is the barbed wire fence that keeps in the sheep. Ahead there is only sea, sky and the islands. The rest is a just patchwork of fields with their tumbling dry stone walls and the odd standing stone or carved Celtic cross their inscriptions erased by harsh storms that lash in from the Atlantic.

I come here to think and write. I have written a series of poems The Idea of Islands, about my response to the place which was published by Occasional Press, here in Ireland, with wonderful charcoal drawings by the Irish artist Donald Teskey. They express something of this bleak and beautiful landscape, scared by poverty and abandoned by previous inhabitants forced to emigrate to America or Canada to find work. The also explore in language that, I hope, is both painterly and muscular, the ‘anthracite dark' both actual and internal, and how it is we make sense of it in a secular world. These poems now form one third of my new English collection, just published by Salt: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air. It was here I also finished my recently published novel, Girl in White, and wrote the introduction to my book of art essays: Adventures in Art. Writing, walking, reading, sleeping; that's what you do here.

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