Writer's Notes: Phil Hanrahan, Part II: Journeying Through Ireland's 'Place of Stone'

Writer’s Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. In this second installment by author Phil Hanrahan, he discusses his research trips and work on a book about the Burren College of Art in western Ireland’s singular Burren region. The book is currently titled Moonlight in County Clare. You can read Phil’s first installment here.

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The final tally was eighteen. Rainbows. Seen during my two-week trip to Ireland in November. This time I did not see a pine marten, an otter-sized mammal with cocoa brown fur, hilariously bushy tail, and custard-yellow bib, that sprite of the scrub, hollows, and limestone crevices of hilly north Clare. The pine marten’s so shy many locals go their whole lives without seeing one. I didn’t see the feral goats this time, either. Those hilltop scramblers with curved horns, beatnik beards. And this time, unlike in July, I did not stand on a windswept heath as an effulgence of sunset light burst from beneath a bank of charcoal-gray sea clouds and lit up a 4,000-year-old limestone tomb, the west-facing slab gold in the glow.          

But the rainbow action was amazing. And I met Ruby the farmer’s collie, who jumped all over me, possibly the happiest dog in the world. (Ruby led the way to the 12th-century church ruin she knew I wanted to visit, running off a pair of cows blocking the pasture path.) I interviewed my book’s central figure, Mary Hawkes Greene, co-founder with her late husband of Ireland’s first countryside art college. I also interviewed Mary’s 94-year-old dynamic mother, an Irish educational pioneer, and Mary’s farmer sister Anita, and a guy, an Irish wine importer, who staged a kind of County Clare Woodstock in a field at the foot of a derelict castle in 1971, and spends part of every year drinking Bordeaux with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts and cartoonist R. Crumb in a south France village. Garrulous Noel O’Loughlin, the wine importer, told me as well of a wine and food festival he organized in the Galway Bay village of Ballyvaughan a mile from the concert site. Best of all, Mary and Anita told me a story I’m using to open the book.

Rainbow in Ireland Rainbow in Ireland Credit: Phil Hanrahan

On a sunny Friday in July 1980, the day Noel’s wine and food festival began, the Hawkes sisters drove two hours north from tiny Askeaton west of Limerick to Ballyvaughan for the weekend. Mary was 24, Anita 18. They traveled in Anita’s 1968 metallic-blue Morris Minor sedan, hand-painted by Anita herself. The harbor town was where Anita’s boyfriend Michael O’Davoren lived, and Michael’s best friend Michael Greene, a 24-year-old hotel manager Anita was hoping to fix up her sister with.

Anita’s matchmaking worked. Three years after Mary met Michael Greene, they married. A year later, they scraped enough money together to buy an old farmhouse on land that included the derelict castle (technically speaking, a medieval Irish tower house). The couple ran a bed-and-breakfast out of the farmhouse to help supplement the incomes they earned from Michael’s Ballyvaughan hotel-managing and Mary’s school teaching job in nearby Gort.

Then one day in 1987, Michael was out rebuilding a section of the ancient stone wall bordering the concert-site field (Zeppelin was a late scratch, but Thin Lizzy, Humble Pie, The Chieftains, and other popular bands played to 25,000 people) when he had his eureka moment. Open a countryside art college. Get students from all over the world. They’ll exhibit their art in the castle. Experience a landscape that has long inspired artists—painters, musicians, photographers, and writers from Tolkien to Yeats. He and Mary just had to restore the ruined castle. And so they did. In 1994, with help from two master stone masons, seven carpenters, and a grant from the European Union’s Irish Development Fund, the couple opened Newtown Castle to visitors after a century of abandonment. The oak-roofed tower house backdropped then Irish president Mary Robinson during her keynote address at the July unveiling of the Burren College of Art.

And it all began with Mary and Anita’s road trip.               

Poulaphuca Dolmen Poulaphuca Dolmen Credit: Phil Hanrahan

Opening with this drive allows me to introduce my protagonist, introduce the book’s north Clare setting, and start things off with a journey. A two-sister journey. A journey that led to everything. I’m recreating it in as much detail as I can, from the clothes the sisters were wearing—Anita showed me photos—to what they might have heard on the radio. I visited the Hawkes family home where the trip began, and retraced the route the sisters took to Ballyvaughan, taking notes, narrating into a voice recorder.

The journey’s final third carried them bayward on one of the world’s most spellbinding roads. Curvy, panoramic, bracingly narrow, one-lane Route 480, lined here and there with fifteen-foot-high thorn trees and hazel scrub, but for the most part wide open, cuts through the heart of the Burren (“place of stone,” it means in Irish), a landscape of naturally terraced hills, Galway Bay views, and hand-stacked stone walls zigzagging everywhere, across radiant green pastures, lunar-looking limestone flats, and wildflower-studded upland. The walls climb right to the tops of the stepped hills, where rare orchids, blue gentians, and white avens bloom.

Moreover, the Burren contains the greatest profusion of ancient ruins anywhere in Ireland. Megalithic tombs like the one I encountered on the sun-struck heath. Thousand-year-old monastic churches. 800-year-old ringfort habitation sites. Medieval tower houses, four- and five-story stone structures built as fortified family dwellings. Route 480, whose S-curves give way to Z-angled switchbacks just after your first glimpse of Galway Bay, takes you past examples of all this stuff. Twenty steps from the road sits the most iconic of Ireland’s megalithic tombs, Poulnabrone dolmen. A dolmen is a box-like burial enclosure formed of stone slabs. With its uncannily balanced massive capstone, the Poulnabrone image has inspired a million Irish postcards, photos, calendars, and pub signs. Carbon-dating puts the burial monument between 5,600 and 5,800 years old, making it older than the Pyramids.

 

Leamaneh Castle Leamaneh Castle Credit: Phil Hanrahan

Even some of those zigzagging stone walls date to prehistoric times.

“It looked otherworldly,” Mary said of the Burren during our November interview, remembering her drive with Anita. “I was gobsmacked. It didn’t even look like Ireland.”

At 24, the Dublin school teacher was uncommonly well-traveled. She’d gone abroad every summer since she was fourteen. She’d worked in France as an au pair. She’d spent eighteen months on an Israeli kibbutz. She’d traveled alone through the Middle East and Malaysia. Jerusalem had mesmerized her—the antiquity, the light, the stone, the spirituality—and now this green and stony realm in her own country was moving her the way Jerusalem had.

Last July, speaking to an international gathering of art educators and artists at Burren College’s 20th anniversary celebration, Mary said, “I fell in love with both Michael and the Burren that weekend.”

Chapter one traces the start of this love. Sitting in the elegant hilltop home Mary and Michael built before he died in 2001, I heard the story of how they met. Mary remembers the exact moment she first glimpsed this handsome, dark-haired 24-year-old, seen in profile as he pulled a pint behind the bar of his family’s Hylands Hotel pub.

She remembers the warmth of the night, the full moon, the festival-goers enjoying food, music, French and Italian wine. She and Michael talked briefly as he worked, talked some more after he got off work, then ended up driving to Bishop’s Quarter beach just east of town. Moonlight bathed the shoreline and sand dunes, the encompassing hills, and the surface of the sea. The couple swam, just the two of them, in moonlit Galway Bay at 3 am.

If you read the first installment of this Notes series, you know that Michael Greene, father of three, died at just 44 while playing Gaelic football, a kind of rugby, for his local team. It was just one day after he and Mary had celebrated their wedding anniversary.

Michael Greene and Phil Hanrahan Michael Greene (left) with author in 1999Speaking with her about this loss had concerned me since day one. But with time’s passing, she was able to bring back what happened in a steady voice, just looking off here and there, even smiling at a memory. She’d been swimming in the ocean the morning he died. For the first time ever that sparkling July day, a beloved local dolphin came right to her side. Not long after came the horrible call. I asked her if she’d thought of leaving this place of a million memories, taking her son and daughters somewhere other than Michael’s hometown, away from a campus where every square inch spoke of their close partnership and love. She said no. This was her life, everything they had was invested in it, she had her children and staff to consider, she couldn’t walk away from what she and her husband had built.

She was raised to get on with things, she added, no matter how painful or difficult life gets. Mary mentioned the example of her mother Nora Hawkes, firm-willed principal of an Askeaton coeducational private high school for thirty years. Widowed in her early sixties, the educator, born Nora Duggan in rural County Mayo, moved to Tanzania at the age of 71, where she taught English, math, and choir for four years in a remote village, living in a hut without air-conditioning, window screens, or phone service. There was in Nora a vivid example of resilience and strength, along with the inspirations of her independence, adventurousness, and passion for education.

Reflecting further, Mary said she thinks focusing on work, leading the college as its second president, helped keep her from being broken by grief. Her mother said the same thing to me.

In the kitchen of Mary’s bright, airy home, there’s a painting of a dolphin. As we sat in an adjoining fire-lit room, she told me a story. Her friend Luka Bloom, an Irish singer-songwriter, younger brother of famed songwriter Christy Moore, wrote a song on Bishop’s Quarter beach in 1998. It’s called “Water Ballerina,” and its main images are a man and woman meeting while swimming, swimming even after sundown, and a dolphin. Mary and Michael had loved the song, a beautiful ballad that moves from enchantment toward wistfulness as the encounter becomes just a memory. For years after Michael’s death, during Bloom concerts Mary attended, the singer would look Mary’s way and ask with his eyes whether she thought she could handle hearing the song.

She would signal that she wasn’t ready yet.

Until last summer. Luka Bloom played a gig in Ballyvaughan. This time Mary let him know with a look that she thought she could handle hearing "Water Ballerina."

Bloom played it.

Phil Hanrahan is the author of the football book Life After Favre. He has taught college writing, worked for Oxford University Press-NY and Zola Books, served as media aide to a former presidential candidate, and teamed with an Emmy-winning director on a documentary film about a journey through the Canadian Arctic’s legendary Northwest Passage.