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Sheep at Cill Rialaig

Postcards from Cill Rialaig

Poet and film-maker Lavinia Currier recollects time with fellow poet Martin Edmunds at the Cill Rialaig artists’ retreat on the Atlantic shore of County Kerry in Ireland.

Before the wild Atlantic wind leaves off boxing my ears, I want to recollect two weeks spent in Cill Rialaig, once a fishing village on a stony hillside. Martin and I are friends from college, it wasn’t our first adventure together. Martin arrived with two sets of clothes, a computer and two books: the poems of Seamus Heaney and plays of Brian Friel; he gallantly unloaded my extra suitcase filled with workbooks from an ocean on the other side of the world, and inks and blank books and stops en route at village post offices for rolls of brown paper and pushpins. Our task besides writing was keeping warm in our stone cottages, generously helped by our new friend Mike O’Neill and the farmer Joe appearing with sacks of turf which smelled when burned like Appalachian coal, or tramping straight up the mountain, in gorse, of course, which Martin’s poem aptly describes:

Bushwhacking Bolus Head to Reach the Fort and Glimpse the Skelligs    

Who set fire to the hillside
flaring through this mist?

It’s gorse!
Dyeweed, greenweed, woadwax, dyer’s broom—

whatever name you call that devil by,
once up against him,
he tests your mettle.

Forget the sun-forged
yellow petals—

it’s the thorns burn our flesh
fast as a matchflame.

Onward? Return?

Both promising—

More of the same!

On our twice-weekly drive to Cahirseveen to visit Mike and Regine and to re-stock food and fuel, Martin and I generally managed to get lost in one direction or the other. Regine’s studio is the store on Main Street that Mike’s grandmother, Catherine O’Neill, ran successfully for decades. Mike gave us a paper tea packet from the old store and I wrote this poem:

Catherine O’Neil:
Grocer Spirit Mackerel Curer Corn Merchant
Grass Seeds

The Store’s double door painted apple red
nicks on the doorjamb from harness buckles
the cart horse clomps through the kitchen unhitched
from merchandise he pulled from the freight boat
through Cahirsiveen to his resting yard behind
upstairs in the parlour Catherine O’Neill’s
grandson Mike does homework by a turf fire

Now packets of goods and ledgers yellow
in cupboards, Mike O’Neill’s wife Regine paints
headlands, salt wind, furious strokes of sunlight,
flowers for summer shows on a deadline
her black hair shines like lacquer, she scissors
newspaper to collage, her glance a wild bird
flies the studio, Catherine’s store, her muse.

Our last day Mike hiked with us up the Skellig Way to Bolus Head; for the first time in two weeks glorious sunny weather revealed Skellig Michael clearly eight miles out, jagged as a jaw of carnivore teeth: the roadside stereoscope that you feed one euro to see the Skelligs was in use by the only other visitors we saw all day, but Mike described the the ancient island monastery to us in his magical way, and Martin picked up a pebble on the beach upon which the image of Skellig Michael appears, on my table now. In retrospect it feels the Skelligs had us, scribbling in our cottages, in their scope all along.

Stone cottage at Cill Rialaig in County Kerry

What the Skelligs might have eavesdropped on, if they tuned their crystal sets to Cill Rialaig’s wavelength, here in Martin’s poem:

Night coming on—
baa-ing of sheep,
wind in the flue,
kettle’s cracked song:

riddle that sieves
fine from coarse, something
from nothing that wasn’t
here all along—

this place has a knack
for téigh gan.

[téigh gan: doing without]

Lavinia Currier is a film director and writer. She studied poetry at Harvard with Robert Fitzgerald; her chapbook, Eclipse, was published at Ephipany.  She has directed two feature films, Passion in the Desert, adapted from a Balzac story, and Oka!, featuring the Bayaka Pygmies of Central Africa. She lives in the Rocky Mountains in the USA and on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, where she is involved in conservation.

Martin Edmunds’ poems have appeared in Agni, The New Yorker and The Paris Review. His book Flame in a Stable and chapbook Black Ops were published by Arrowsmith Press; The High Road to Taos won the National Poetry Series. Deep gratitude to Daphne Astor for telling us about Cill Rialaig and all she does for poets and poetry; Noelle Campbell Sharp for her vision and magic trick; for Regine Bartsch and Michael O’Neill for such generous measures of inspiration and warm fellowship; Lavinia for sharing the adventure.

Poems and images copyright © Lavinia Currier and Martin Edmunds 2024.

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