Coming Full Circle: The Half Door Writers’ Retreat | Guest Bloggers | From the Front Row

Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

Pippa Slattery graduated from the M.A. for Creative Writing at the University of Limerick with (she is proud to say) First-Class Honours in 2021. She was shortlisted by New Irish Writing and longlisted for the 2021 Fish Short Story Award. She has short stories published in The Galway Review, The Blue Nib and The Tiny Seed Journal. Her flash fiction piece, Rag Doll was shortlisted for the Kanturk International Arts Festival and she has short stories and poems in the anthologies Vessel of Voices, Opening Doors and UL’s Ogham Stone 2021.

Here, she tells us how she came to set up The Half Door Writers’ Retreat.

My mother bought a derelict cottage overlooking Lough Derg, in Castlelough, Co Tipperary, in 1971. She afforded to do so, because her godmother, her own mother’s best friend, left her £3,000 in her Will. She bought, renovated, and dug a water well for that amount.

I was ten years old.

We became that typical English/Irish family, who spent term time in the UK, running to Ireland the day school ended, to spend the holidays in our cottage. I fell in love with Ireland the very first moment I stood on the shores of the lake, and I never once looked back.

Years passed and I moved permanently to Ireland in 1988, raising my family down in West Cork and returning to Castlelough every summer to holiday my own children in the same cottage, which we ended up owning for over 30 years. All three of my children were brought to the cottage before they were six weeks old.

Life became busy: the children had ponies; we had a small holding; my mother was ill. With breaking hearts, we sold the cottage in 2002. The day I handed over the keys I sat in the fields above the lake, while my heart quietly broke.

Fast forward 12 years and I found myself single and my children raised and flown. ‘I want to go home,’ I said to them. ‘Where to, to England?’ they enquired. ‘No, sillies. To Castlelough,’ I said. And I did. I sold up, packed up a lorry and returned to the local village where I rented for a while. I bid on houses and lost them, saying, every time I tried, ‘but its not the cottage,’ and wondered for a while if I had made a terrible mistake by returning to Tipperary. One day I decided to phone the woman we had sold the cottage to. ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I sold your house to you some years ago. I am back living in the area and wondered if I could pop in for a cuppa and see the old place?’ I was not expecting her immediate reply of, ‘Well, are you buying the cottage back off me or what? I’ve been waiting for you. I always knew you’d be back and when you came, I knew it would be my time to sell!’ No. I had not been expecting that at all.

So, I bought the cottage back the following day. I tore down Mum’s extension (it was horribly damp and with no foundations), pulled off the roof, exchanged the dreadful 1970’s windows my mother had put in with gorgeous sash ones and built a beautiful extension with views across Lough Derg. I was in by Christmas and even managed to decorate a tree on the day I moved in.

I was home.

For a while I ran a women’s retreat centre, where I nurtured and fed and taught many beautiful people over the next few years. But sometimes life gives you rotten eggs and I had to retire early from the healing work.

Always having dreamed of being a writer, during the pandemic I took myself off to the University of Limerick and managed, from my kitchen table, to receive First Class honours on the MA on Creative Writing under the guidance of Joseph O’Connor, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and all the other wonderful teachers that the MA has to offer. When it was over, I missed my new writing companions deeply and found myself back on my own, the dog and cat my only companions and my debut novel seeming like an unscalable mountain ahead of me.

I had a brain wave.

I’d open the old cottage up as a Writers’ Retreat and I cannot imagine now doing anything else (apart from finishing the elusive novel). People who come and stay have their own double bedroom (it used to be mine as a child and there is a special magic cupboard in there, a bit like the one that takes you to Narnia, only a lot smaller!). They also have sole use of the sitting room which includes a wood burning stove (they must supply their own blocks or eco logs), plus my grandfather’s old writing desk, a kitchenette and bathroom, all to themselves. It really is extremely cosy and exudes the tranquillity that writers need to get down to it. So to speak.

I live with my aged dog, Lughnasa, and my wizard cat, Merlin, on the other side of a door, in the extension. The door can be locked, but it swings wide open when the kettle is on, and conversation is needed about the whys and wherefores of literature, writing, words and books.

All over the wall, in my writer’s den, are photographs of my grandmother, my mother and her godmother, (the woman who made this home possible) for they are the main protagonists in this debut novel I am writing. Their stories, including those of my granny’s own novels, echo around the walls as I write, their whispers becoming words, their love, tangible.

I have hosted many incredible writers to date, all of whom write in my guest book as they leave, on the promise that if they do so, they will indeed become famous writers in the future (the magic is very real) unless of course, they already are.

It is such a joy to sit by the fire, drinking tea, or eating dinner (and maybe drinking a glass or two of wine) with other writers. And when they are writing in the cottage, and I am writing just the other side of the wall in my own den, the clicking of our mutual keyboards is a soothing resonance that holds the cottage in its embrace.

If you would like to come and stay, to get words on paper, texts on screens or just to get away from it all to think about your next project – send me an email through my website. I promise that the door will be open, the kettle will be boiling and the fireflies sparking in the grate.

See here for full details on The Half Door Writers’ Retreat

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