Anyone who has been watching my Twitter feed lately or reading Glenda’s blog or Facebook page will know that we’ve just been to Ireland. One of the extra advantages of our new home here in Portpatrick is that we’re only about half an hour from the Cairnryan Ferry Terminal, from which you can hop on a P&O service to Larne or a Stena Line service to Belfast. The crossing only takes a couple of hours and there are several sailings a day so it’s a fairly quick and easy way to visit the Emerald Isle if the fancy takes you.
In our case, the fancy took us at around the same time as we were in the process of buying our house. Glenda noticed that an art retreat called “A Space for Dreaming” was being organised by an Irish artist and teacher called Pauline Agnew. Not only would Pauline be teaching, but there would be two other teachers running classes – Flora Bowley and Orly Avineri.
Now, Glenda likes Flora Bowley. She has done one of Flora’s online classes before and thoroughly enjoyed it, so the chance to take a class in person was too good to pass up – especially since Flora is based in the US so only appears over here occasionally. Meanwhile, Orly is an art journalling person and Glenda was really interested in taking her journalling class. Add to all of that the fact that the whole thing was happening in the beautiful setting of Bantry House down in the South-West of Ireland – and starting just a few days after my birthday – and the idea for a combined art retreat and birthday holiday trip was born.
We hopped on the early ferry crossing to Belfast a couple of weeks ago with a car containing a couple of suitcases and about one and a quarter metric tonnes of art materials (since, by this point, we were also carrying paint orders for some of the other retreat attendees). On our first day, we drove down to Glendalough in the beautiful Wicklow mountains (and yes, Glenda is named after Glendalough) and spent the night in a lovely B&B there. We then completed the drive down to Bantry on the second day and settled ourselves into our hotel for the next eight or nine days.
Of course, I wasn’t attending the retreat myself so, while Glenda was off doing that arty thing that she does so well, I got to relax, chill out and potter around enjoying the local scenery. Although, in my capacity as driver, LHO (Lifter of Heavy Objects), lugger of art materials and occasional gopher, I also got to spend some time with the retreat folks too. All of which brings me, in my typical roundabout fashion, to the point of this post.
The picture at the head of this post nicely illustrates the first of the “important things” in the title. Our past, as embodied in amazing buildings such as this one and in museums and galleries and sacred buildings throughout the world. In the case of Bantry House, the property is privately owned and has been in the same family for over 250 years. Like all stately houses, it costs a fortune to maintain and the last couple of generations of the family have done (and are doing) all in their power to preserve it both as their home and as a valuable cultural and historical artefact. You can visit the house and gardens, have tea in the tearoom or even stay there in their lovely bed and breakfast rooms in the East Wing. And you really should. If you’re ever planning a holiday in or around Bantry Bay, go there and see it for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed and you’ll be making your own contribution to maintaining and securing this amazing place. And if you aren’t planning a trip to Bantry Bay anytime, then I’m sure you can find your own amazing places closer to home. There are countless buildings all over the world that reflect the history of who and what we are and many of them are in constant need of our support and help to ensure that they remain there for future generations. So pick a couple that you know and love and do what you can to help – whether that’s volunteering to work somewhere local or simply doing your bit as a paying visitor or customer when you’re on holiday somewhere. Not only will the current generation be grateful, but future ones will be too.
Of course, long before mankind came along and started stacking up blocks of stone in interesting and appealing shapes and patterns, the forces of nature on planet Earth had been engaging in some pretty major construction (and, occasionally, demolition) projects of their own. And they’re still going on around us, every minute of every day. This is Mizen Head:
This is the very south-western tip of Ireland, where the seemingly immovable object of the land meets the equally irresistable force of the wind and the water. The buildings that you can see are the Mizen Head Signal Station. The lump of rock that they’re standing on isn’t actually an island, but for all practical purposes it might as well be. There are steep sided coastal gullies to the west and the south and you would have to be superhumanly fit (and certifiably insane) to try to climb across. Fortunately, there’s a footbridge to get you there:
Actually, that particular view is looking back across the footbridge from the signal station buildings. This is the view from the footbridge itself:
See what I mean about being fit? And, indeed, insane? The footbridge is a much better, quicker and safer bet. And it’s worth the walk because when you get there you see stuff like this:
And another one of these:
OK, so about now you’re probably asking what’s with all the holiday snaps, right? Is he just showing off or what?
Well, these pictures are a fine example of my second “important thing” – the natural beauty and splendour of this big ball of rock that we all live on. In our modern times, it’s so very easy to get lost in the day-to-day stresses and strains, the keeping-up-with-the-joneses, the 24/7 connected, switched on lifestyle that we lose all sight and sense of the true wonder of our world. Or we see it online or on the TV in documentaries and we think that all the beautiful places are far away in other countries or on the other side of the world and that you need the services of a BBC wildlife expedition crew (or a hideously expensive tour operator) to see any of it. And that’s just not true – we simply forget how much natural beauty there is closer to home, right on our doorsteps. Even worse, we forget or underestimate the value of those nearby places. And they are so very, very, valuable. Simply spending an hour or two soaking up the natural beauty and atmosphere of places like Mizen Head can probably do as much for your mental and physical health and well-being as half a dozen therapy sessions and a couple of bottles of Prozac. There is something so awe-inspiring and breathtaking in all forms of natural beauty that the world as a whole becomes a sacred place and starts to offer some of that sense of peace that you often find in beautiful cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and temples. It does you the power of good.
After all that, you may well be wondering where on earth this post could be going next? Well, having covered things that are a couple of hundred years old and others that have been around for millennia, my third (and final) important thing is something much more ephemeral, but probably more important than all the others. While hanging around the edges of Glenda’s art retreat and pottering around Bantry, I got to see a lot of it. Or rather, a lot of them, since I’m talking about people. Taking the art retreat as my prime example, you had a group of forty-odd people coming together from all over the world and embarking upon a creative – and emotional – journey together with no foreknowledge of what to expect or where it might be going. And they all threw themselves wholeheartedly into it. They engaged with the whole process and with one another. They shared their lives and experiences daily and used that sharing to drive and inspire their own creative output. As a semi-outsider, it was a wonderful and inspiring thing to watch and it just highlighted all the best aspects and potentials of the human race. At the same time, I got to know some of the other “plus ones” who had come to Bantry with partners who were attending the retreat and I found the same mix of warm, kind and friendly folks as I saw in the classes. And who can fail to mention the Irish people themselves – a warm and welcoming nation if ever I met one. All of this showing just what we can be when we set aside petty rivalries and self-centred obsessions and simply engage with other people as new friends rather than suspicious strangers.
On the last night of the retreat, there was a dinner at Bantry House. Not only was the dinner itself lovely, but during the course of it, Tara (the retreat’s “official” photographer – and an absolute force of nature and awesome character par excellence) delighted us with a slide-show of around 250 photographs that she had taken during the six days. As well as portrait studies of many of the attendees, there were candid shots taken during the classes and during a trip that we all took to Garinish Island on the Sunday. Every one of the photographs was a stunner (the set of 250 having been whittled down from the 6000-7000 that Tara had actually taken!) and they didn’t only capture a wonderful essence of their individual subjects, they also captured something of the delight and wonder of the retreat itself.
After the dinner, we decamped to Ma Murphy’s bar where there was an open mic night (although it actually turned out to be more of a classic Irish pub session, with musicians sitting in a circle and taking turns to play and sing something while others joined in as and when they could). One of my particular birthday treats on the trip had been buying a new guitar so I plucked up the courage to take it along and sit in. The musicians that night were just as open and welcoming as the artists at the retreat and I had a whale of a time. Glenda joined in too at one point, while a crowd of the other folks from the retreat came along and just enjoyed the whole experience. All in all, it made a magical end to a wonderful week and, ultimately, what made the whole thing so special were the people. It’s easy to say that people are important, but it’s also sometimes easy to forget just how important people really, really, REALLY are. Sharing our lives and experiences with others enriches all of us and makes for a better, kinder and more understanding world.
So, amongst other things, this particular post has to be a shout out to all those folks who have helped to make the last couple of weeks such a special time. Pauline, Flora, Orly, Melinda and Dara (Pauline’s niece who helped with the organisation of the whole thing). Barbara and John, Anel, Amanda, Maz, Mischa, Debi and Mark, Nicole, Gillian, Jill and David, Janet, Leslie, Ursula, Linda, Lynn, Line, Tara and all the others whose names I can’t recall – you all know who you are! And not forgetting the lovely ladies at the Box of Frogs cafe in Bantry (my regular coffee spot where they also happen to do a fantastic Rocky Road), all the staff at Ma Murphy’s, Nathan at Soundz of Muzic in Kenmare and a bunch of great musicians in Ma Murphy’s whose names I don’t even know. Wow, just…wow!
Er, I have rather rattled on haven’t I? Got a bit preachy too along the way I’m afraid, but it’s all in a good cause. It’s in the cause of the important things. A sense of place derived from our past. An appreciation of the amazing planet that we live on. And the importance of other people in all of that.
The Past (and its Places)
Here endeth today’s lesson.