Dispatch from Ireland #1: Writing Across the Water

September 14, 2015
Aoife (l) and Terry in Andrea Cleghorn’s writing group at the Bookstop Vegetarian Cafe ins Kenmare, Co. Kerry, Ireland. – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

By Andrea Cleghorn

The Bookstop Vegetarian Cafe - Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved
The Bookstop Vegetarian Cafe – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

Last fall, which we all know as the real start of any year, on weekday mornings at home in Bedford I starting running workshops called “Writing Out of the Box.”

‘Running’ is the operative word here, because though it is safe to say everyone learned something, it wasn’t necessarily writing they learned. I was the convener, the facilitator, the encourager, but I wasn’t teaching.

Most people wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as writers, but in fact they all did it very well. I gave a prompt to the members of the group, and each person took that idea or premise—a start of a story, a song, a photograph, a word list, whatever—and would take off from there. Participants have 15 or 20 minutes to go in any direction they chose, a memory triggered, total fiction, no bounds.

When time was up, they read what they wrote and then there was conversation, not criticism or judgment. Participants described the process as “mind-blowing,” “The best thing I do for myself all week,” or “Got me to love writing.”

That two-hour workshop always felt like a vacation. The thing was, summer was coming up and I had a plane ticket to Dublin. I wanted to take this show on the road. It wasn’t feasible to take these lovely people with me, but maybe there would be some way find a group of Irish men and women willing to accept the Writing Out of the Box challenge.

I went to County Kerry in the West of Ireland for the first time more than 10 years ago and have been going back almost every year since. I had arranged to rent a place in Kenmare, (or Neidin in Irish), which means “little nest.” I needed to find another nest in which to actually hold the workshop, and of course to find people to attend.

Kenmare is tiny and pretty as a picture, with a permanent population of about 2,000. In the summer, the market town is buzzing with visitors from other parts of the country and of the world. So I put my Irish phone plan to work (at 2 cents per minute) and brainstormed with one person after another in Kenmare. I counted on the Irish love of chat and tradition of hospitality.

I called the director of the local Center of the Arts, Claire, who liked the idea and was interested, but said they had attempted classes like this in the past and they just didn’t take off, for whatever reason.

“I think the problem is that summer is the busiest season for the locals, and the tourists want to be outside if the weather is fine.”

She was willing to poll the local book group and the poets, who also get together. Her poll found there was mild interest, but it wasn’t exactly a groundswell of enthusiasm. The director suggested I try community education.

I investigated continuing ed, but it was not what I had in mind. These workshops were not anyone’s idea of a traditional writing class. Suffering a bit from imposter syndrome after scanning the extensive catalog, I couldn’t go there.

Trying visualization, I came up with a leafy garden with little tables, sun shining on cool Irish mornings, people sitting around with cups of tea and writing. It would need to be quiet but not necessarily totally private. And everyone would gather early so they could take off on other pursuits.

The Irish say theirs is a “sleepy country.” Not much happens before noon, in fact it is hard to get a cup of coffee before 10. And the days are long, long, long in July.

Who would this appeal to? I pictured teachers or students on vacation, bookish types or anyone who could sit still for two hours and enjoy summer reading rather than hiking, and waitstaff who didn’t have to be at the lunch shift until noon. There had to be someone…and some place.

Bookstop Vegetarian Cafe owner Olga, enjoying a story behind the cafe - Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved
Bookstop Vegetarian Cafe owner Olga, enjoying a story behind the cafe – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

Who hasn’t dreamed of a cafe/bookstore? It seems there is one in every town, and I am not talking Barnes & Noble. As it happened, there was one two doors from the house I was renting. It belongs to Olga Ireson.

I knew Olga and her husband, Peter, who also ran the Knockatee Dairy. I even had a picture of her little Westie from my first trip to Kenmare on my kitchen wall in Bedford. I had certainly been to her bookstore/cafe. And to her garden out back.

There it was, almost literally in my backyard: The Bookstop Vegetarian Cafe. Olga was agreeable and even offered to put up posters with my website and email address. The posters ended in the library and shop windows, and there was word of mouth—which the Irish are known for—were promising.

There were a few emails, one from the mother of “an extremely mature 15-year-old” who wanted to sign up her daughter before she headed off to Dublin for a three-week intensive creative writing course. Oh, and some of her friends wanted to come, too.

I wrote to the mom to see if it would be okay to hold the workshop in my own house; I didn’t want to ask for another big table at the tiny cafe more than once a week. I provided what was better than a CORI check—personal recommendations by three lifelong residents. Mom wasn’t worried.

The first workshop was in the sitting room of Cleghorn’s Kenmare rental – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

I hadn’t bargained on kids. Would they be focused, respectful, bored, bullying? None of the above. They brought talent, earnestness, and enthusiasm along with a dose of sci-fi, zombies, and terrorism. They were brilliant! They came to my rented house the first day and then returned to join the adults in the Bookstop Cafe two days later.

“No need to make a reservation,” Olga said she told people who noticed the poster. “I just tell everyone to come along.” I said nothing. Too many would be a good problem.

Covered Eyes
Josh conjured such a powerful tale of terrorist brutality, that Mary covered her eyes – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

The workshops, though not crowded—I needn’t have worried about numbers—were amazing. A friend from Dublin drove four hours to come to the first one, staying over the night before and making omelets for the two of us before class the following day.

The vision of meeting in the cafe garden was not realized, since it was damp verging on rainy every day. We met inside, among the books and the customers coming in and out. The fragrance of espresso and scones and apple tart and whatever vegetables Olga was putting together for lunch permeated the small space. We avoided planning a group at the end of the week because Fiver (euro) Friday grew lines out the door.

A Boston ex-pat joined the course – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved

One workshop participant, an ex-pat from Boston, was insightful about the experience of leaving her extended family south of Boston. She had moved to County Kerry with her own growing family, and was learning to live with all the cultural and lifestyle differences.

“I thought it would be great place to raise kids, and I was right, I think. I did have a hard time getting used to my kids going to school at 9:30, though,” she said.

Oh, that sleepy country.

At the end of the class, James read astrological charts in the garden behind the restaurant – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2015 all rights reserved.

One participant was an astrologer and offered to do my chart before I left. (Yikes, that was a bit daunting.)

Another person asked to read privately from his memoir-in-progress; he is off to a dynamite start and I look forward more, more, more.

In the end, I realized that people who choose to do this, whether they are from the Land of Saints and Scholars or the Home of the Bean and the Cod, all have lots to say and each one has a perspective and an approach.

The two countries may not be divided by a common language, but the turn of the phrase often requires translation. The common thread is the wonderful unpredictability.

Through it all, Olga kept me going with bottomless cups of coffee and refused any compensation.

“We’ll talk about it next year when you get really big!”

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