When I read about the “Nightmare Book Review Competition” hosted by writing.ie last year, I knew I had to enter. The challenge was to pen the worst book review possible, a review that any writer would be horrified to receive. My nightmare review was: “This novel deserves a place in the literary canon, from where it should be propelled with great force into the Irish Sea.” I was delighted when I found out that I had won the competition. Finally, I had discovered a forum that rewarded my ability to make inappropriate sarcastic comments. Not only that, but my prize was a three-night stay at the Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat in West Cork, a place I had wanted to visit for years.
The retreat was set up by Sue Booth-Forbes, an experienced writer and editor. The name Anam Cara – Soul Friend was chosen, in part, to pay tribute to the work and writing of John O’ Donoghue. Since 1998, the retreat has played host to many writers and artists and inspired and supported those engaged in creative processes. It is situated near the village of Eyeries in the Beara Peninsula, famed for its beautiful landscape of heather-covered hills, rivers and sea.
Getting to West Cork from Dublin by public transport is less a journey than a pilgrimage. It takes steely determination and ample buttock-cushioning. Thankfully, I possess an abundance of both. I arrived at the Anam Cara Retreat late on a Tuesday evening and was greeted by the warm and welcoming Sue Booth-Forbes. Having introduced me to the other guests, Sue presented me with a giant plate of ham and spuds. Something told me I was going to like this place.
Anam Cara is a retreat for many creative practices and attracts visitors from around the world. This is one of the lovely aspects of the retreat: you never know who you will meet. During my stay, the other guests were Diana, an artist from London who was finding inspiration in the Beara landscape, and Herma, a writer and filmmaker who was working on a collaborative book and documentary project exploring ancient Irish sites. Both were gregarious and interesting individuals and we shared some great discussions during communal mealtimes. They even listened kindly as I mumbled on about my novel-in-progress.
The retreat is a beautiful space in which to work. The house is split over three levels, centred around a living room area with wood-burning stove and ample comfy seating. Above this is the snug movie room with a wide selection of films and music to choose from. Of course, each resident has their own room with an amazing view of the West Cork countryside. My quarters were warm and cosy with a view of the sea and a well-stocked bookshelf of short story anthologies and novels. There are also plenty of nooks and crannies throughout the house where you are free to work undisturbed during “silent hours” from 9.30 to 5.30 each day.
Reading material is one thing you will never be short of at Anam Cara. Practically every room contains an abundance of books. There is even a special bookcase reserved for the work of former retreat guests and the sheer number of books that are housed on its shelves is testament to the enormous impact Anam Cara has had on the creative landscape in Ireland.
Beyond the house, there is also much to inspire. The retreat is set on five acres of gardens that overlook the sea and contain a duck pond, chickens and the Anam Cara mascot, Jack the dog. There is also a dramatic waterfall on the grounds known locally as “The Cascades”. Further afield, the beach and the picture-postcard-pretty town of Eyeries are just a short walk away. While staying at Anam Cara, you will feel you are in some sort of parallel dimension where you hear yourself saying things like, “Let’s pop down to the waterfall,” or “Well, I’m off to jump in the hot tub and watch the sunset.” Below is the view from my bedroom window…
An unexpected bonus of my stay was Sue Booth-Forbes’ editorial feedback and advice on my work-in-progress. I was having issues with completing the first draft of my novel. I kept faffing about and reworking the first three chapters – like a big idiot – instead of doing the sensible thing of ploughing ahead and completing the first draft. Sue’s simple but effective advice has since become my mantra: Write it first, then get it right.
If you are thinking of going to Anam Cara – which you definitely should, by the way – I would recommend staying for at least a week. I found three nights to be too short a time to really settle into a routine and find a writing rhythm. Of course, once you arrive, chances are you may never want to leave at all.