Once a Famine Village, now an Artist’s Haven – Cill Rialaig

It’s been described as best kept secret in arts world. It involves rescue and redevelopment of pre-Famine village of Cill Rialaig, at Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, as a retreat for artists, poets, writers and composers of national and international repute.

“This place is indescribably beautiful; before me lies ocean, islands, sheer
cliffs, stone upon stone, grass and wind, flights, sounds and silence. At night, from
small window above my bed, I can see sky and sea and, when I close my
eyes, can sense their presence from sounds they make. But at times, in moments
of calm, there is nothing. I am completely alone here.”

So wrote an Italian artist visiting Cill Rialaig in 1997. Luisella Carretta could (if it had not been for her gender) have been writing from great Skellig Michael itself in sixth century. This resident artist went on to personally “excavate” interior of abandoned cottage (or cabin) ruins next door. Having met elderly previous inhabitant, Mary Kelly, (since deceased) she engaged her help in creating an art installation based on memories of home, Mrs. Kelly identifying pieces of willow decorated plate found in rubble – “my mother’s best plate” – artist going on to tour her book of poems, including Within Mary Kelly’s House, all over Italy.

The village or “clochan” of Cill Rialaig (Kildreelig) was built in 1790 after severe climatic change made an earlier sea side habitation further up Bolus Head Road impossible. It is easy to imagine a great “meithil,” or gathering of people working feverishly with stone and thatch, scraw (a layer of turf on rafters), straw and reed to house these homeless people. Locals are proud that little fishing/farming community was “only half annihilated” by effects of Great Famine – some families clung on for another century, only finally abandoning village (Mrs. Kelly last to go) in 1950’s.

Left to fierce ravages of storms and great winds, houses soon lost their roofs, many gables tumbling in until arrival of two strong competing forces in 1989. There was a plan to demolish old ruins to make way for a new Ring Road. “As a newcomer to this extraordinary place I couldn’t believe that people would countenance, for sake of progress, destruction not only of an historic pre-famine village, but also evidence of our past, if not nature itself,” said former publisher Noelle Campbell-Sharp. Noelle (later to receive a doctorate at National University of Ireland) encouraged a group of local business people to join her in buying village site, effectively closing entrance to “cul de sac” of Bolus Head and forming community project of Cill Rialaig with purpose of using it as an artist and writers retreat.

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