Saturday, 13 June 2015

Postcard from Annaghmakerrig

ABBA Post June 15

This is where I am. I know.

the lake at Annaghmakerrig

This is the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Anngahmakerrig, in County Monaghan, Ireland. Guthrie left his family home to the nation for an artists’ retreat and artists from all over the world have been coming here to work since 1981. (

the house at Annaghmakerrig

I’m lucky enough to be able to come here regularly – at least once a year. Usually for a week, with a terrible first draft that needs to be turned into something more like a proper book.
the desk where I need to spin straw into gold this week

The first time I came here was in July 2008. I had applied months before. My father was dying of cancer, and to be perfectly honest, I had thought that by the time July came round everything would be over. This wasn’t the case, and I decided I couldn’t go. I was exhausted – it had been a very busy year, with a fulltime teaching job, a horse to care for, and of course a seriously ill father. I’ve lived my adult life alone and without many ties, and this was the first time I really experienced what is a reality for many – especially women – writers – the inability to escape from the demands of others.

But I did escape. My father told me to go to the retreat, with his blessing. He had plenty of people around him. He was an artist himself – with wood and music – and I think understood the need to spend time with only your work.

Of course I felt selfish – I felt that the splinter of ice in the writer’s heart must, in my case, be an iceberg. But I went. I went and I fell in love with this nurturing, friendly space where nothing at all was demanded of me except from my story. I had only a few days and I made them count, working feverishly but with a calm that had eluded me all that terrible year, able to concentrate on the first draft of Taking Flight.

I didn’t have a contract yet. I had nothing, really, except self-belief and a very strong work ethic.

And that’s what I bring back to this place, year after year. I’ve edited most of my books here, including the ones that haven’t been published. People ask me, why do you need to go to a retreat? You live alone; you live in the countryside. Isn’t it just an excuse to go to a lovely place and hang out with other artists and eat lovely food?

I’m not denying all those things happen. (Nobody ever lost weight at Annaghmakerrig.)

But as anyone who’s ever retreated will know, there is nothing quite like being alone with your work. I don’t have children or even, these days, pets, but even so, it can hard enough at home to switch off from worrying about the crack in the wall or the tax return or the undone shopping and washing and the ironing and just all the stuff.

We’ve had several ABBA blog posts about SAS retreats, and those are wonderful. I adore Charney, and as someone who, over in Ireland, can feel a bit cut off from the UK children’s book world, I really welcome the chance to get all the gossip, and chat about the industry and the craft in a way that isn’t often possible.

you never know who'll be behind these gates
But Annaghmakerrig is different. You never know who’ll you meet. It’s not one of those hardcore places with silence during daylight hours, but everyone’s privacy and working space is strictly respected. But one of the rules is that we all meet for dinner at seven every evening. Guthrie entertained artists from all over the world in his house, and believed very strongly in the magic that takes place when such people get together. After a day spent alone with your characters, it can be slightly surreal to go downstairs and join what is essentially a dinner party.

Yesterday I spent the day with my annoying, slippery characters, on the grubby and sometimes dangerous streets of Belfast and in the even grubbier recesses of their minds. Alone in a way I can never quite be at home where I actually live alone. And then I spent the evening with dancers and painters, and composers and writers; with artists from Canada, Australia, America, Spain and Ireland. And one fellow YA writer – Lee Weatherly has heard me eulogise about Annaghmakerrig for so long that she decided to check it out for herself. Round that huge table, we talked about everything, and one thing you soon realise is that, even though we all work in different disciplines, we share a great deal.

You don’t get the industry gossip you get at Charney. You don’t get the total solitude some writers crave. But whatever it is that this gracious, welcoming home gives, it’s something I know I’m very fortunate to get, time after time.


Penny Dolan said...

Sounds like utter bliss!

Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds marvellous, and the pictures are lovely! Enjoy!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

It is utter bliss, and I should also have pointed out that it's very reasonably priced.

K.M.Lockwood said...

I *so* want to go.
What a lovely account, Sheena, and I know what you mean about your own place. I live minutes from a lovely beach & mostly I can work by myself in my own room, but going to say, The Hurst or Lumb Bank is quite, quite different.
One day.

Victoria Eveleigh said...

How wonderful. Looking forward to Charney and bracing myself for industry gossip!

Joan Lennon said...


Sheena Wilkinson said...

I'd love to hear on here about any other retreats people have found invaluable. I tend not to venture too far because why would I, having this 80 miles down the road, but it's always good to know what else is out there.