Writer's Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. In the inaugural post, author Phil Hanrahan examines the provenance and initial research for his tentatively titled book, A Couple, A Castle, A Dream, which takes him to Ballyvaughan, Ireland and the Burren College of Art.
One August day in 1999, I climbed a set of stone spiral stairs forty or so feet above the Irish countryside to a tower chamber ringed by an oaken balcony and lit by mullioned windows giving views of Galway Bay and the stepped limestone hills of County Clare’s Burren region. The Burren? Gaelic for “stony place.” It’s a 150-square-mile realm of ancient church and Celtic ruins, hill-climbing stone walls, and wildflowers from three different climates—arctic, alpine, Mediterranean—all growing together like nowhere else on earth.
The room’s fireplace was massive—it had been there since the 1540s, when the original wooden balcony held bards singing and reciting Irish poetry to entertain members of the O’Brien family and their guests. But on the day I visited, the main hall of Newtown Castle was filled with funky abstract paintings, inventive landscapes, nudes. It was the work of young artists from around the world, students attending the then-fledgling Burren College of Art. Founded in 1994 by local hotel manager Michael Greene and his wife Mary Hawkes Greene, a special education teacher with experience in Dublin and the Middle East, BCA represented the first fully accredited art school in the Irish countryside.
This mix of old and new, stone and postmodern, was one of the things that grabbed me that day in 1999. (Los Angeles conceptual-art pioneer John Baldessari, called “the artist of the moment” in a 2010 New Yorker profile, sits on the school’s advisory board.)
Another aspect was the husband-and-wife angle, along with the sheer audacity of the dream. “I have an idea for the property,” Michael said to his wife one day at dusk in 1987 while out repairing a hand-stacked lane wall, a chunk of Clare stone in his hand. The property included the roofless, crumbling castle, a 350-year-old coach house recently used to shelter cows, and an 1850s farmhouse they’d converted into a B&B. Mary stood beside their one-year-old son, Diarmaid. “Let’s renovate the castle and open an art college,” Michael, then 30, proposed. Despite the fact that neither of them had backgrounds in the fine arts or private financial resources, that’s exactly what they went on to do. After seven years of research, planning, recruiting and building, the couple, aided by a grant from the just-formed European Union to restore the castle, opened the doors of Burren College in a ceremony attended by then-Irish president Mary Robinson.
During my 1999 visit, in the old thick-walled stone coach house turned college lecture theater, I watched a video created by Irish multi-media artist Brendan Earley—the witty 28-year-old dived in and out of constructed Edward Hopper-like spaces with Buster Keaton-like animation.
I wrote an article about Burren College not long after I returned to New York City. Now I’m starting a book on the subject. My previous work of nonfiction was about a very different topic: the Green Bay Packers football team. There are a few parallels between the projects, however, so with luck some of what I learned writing Life After Favre will carry over. For the football book, I moved from a big city to a comparatively small one, relocating from L.A. to Green Bay in northern Wisconsin. While chronicling the 2008 football season, I also worked to create a portrait of place. I interviewed more than 300 people: not only players and Packers beat writers but also numerous fans, whether at stadium tailgate parties, in local bars, or in Packers bars outside the state and around the country (“Cheeseheads” are everywhere). Three times I traveled to the tiny rural hometowns of Packers players—in Iowa, Kansas, and Louisiana—hamlets roughly the size of the 400-citizen Ballyvaughan, the location of Burren College.
The art school that got its start that day in 1987 is now viewed in Ireland as a model for a new kind of rural institution—one thriving at a remove from urban centers while connecting to its natural setting and reviving a region’s traditions. Education, notably, is one of these traditions, something Michael Greene emphasized with me when we spoke in 1999. With origins as far back as the 6th century AD, the Burren was once home to significant bardic, legal, and monastic schools.
I’m reading about this heritage of Irish learning, as well as about Burren botany and geology, Celtic portal tombs, the architecture of 12th-century Corcomroe Abbey, the influence of the Famine on Ballyvaughan, the area’s butterflies and birds, the recent “Celtic Tiger” economic boom and bust, the local life of poet W.B. Yeats, and more. Like Michael and Mary Greene, Yeats—son of an Irish painter—purchased and renovated a decrepit Irish tower house fifteen miles east of Newtown Castle, which is rectangular rather than round. He named it Thoor Ballylee (Túr is Irish for castle), and in it, he wrote his famous poem, “The Tower.” As it happens, “The Tower” conjures an imagined Irish storyteller with the same surname as mine; three of its lines are: “Go therefore; but leave Hanrahan, for I need all his mighty memories. Old lecher with a love on every wind ...”
In addition to my reading, I’ll also be interviewing a bunch of people, as I did with my last book: current and former faculty and students (including, hopefully, John Baldessari); BCA president Mary Hawkes Greene and her three grown children; and Mary’s mother Nora Hawkes, still active and tack-sharp at 94. An Irish educational pioneer, Nora founded an Irish secondary school in the 1940s, ran it for 30 years, then moved to Tanzania at the age of 71 and taught math, English, and choir in a village beyond the reach of phones. I’ll talk to area farmers, other locals, and to Burren artists, including storytellers, musicians, poets, and novelists.
I’ll also speak with botanists, naturalists, environmentalists, geologists, and archaeologists, all of whom study the Burren, as it has extraordinary features for researchers in all these fields. In addition, I hope to sit down with Vermont-based David Macauley—author, architect, illustrator and Rhode Island School of Design graduate—whose best-selling 1977 book, Castle (adapted for a PBS documentary in 1983) used text and illustrations to carefully detail, stone by stone, floor by floor, the construction of a late 13th-century English seaside castle. I wore out my copy of Castle when I was a kid!
I wrote the above words 50 feet from Newtown Castle in the Burren College computer lab. Today I got my first glimpse of the enormous slate-roofed tower since 1999 and it’s as marvelous as I remember. I’m here for the college’s 20th anniversary, which may in fact be the way I end the book. Sadly, Michael Greene won’t be on hand. In July 2001, this former all-Ireland soccer, rugby and Gaelic football star died of a heart attack while playing football for his local team. “Gone to play Gaelic,” his last note to his wife read. “Your 44-year-old fool.”
The book will have a dimension of sadness. For guidance in navigating this difficult material, I recently read Joan Didion’s two brilliant grief memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, as well as Joyce Carol Oates’ The Widow’s Story. Readers will learn how a strong and dynamic woman, Mary Hawkes Greene, a world traveler before meeting Michael and settling down in tiny Ballyvaughan, carried on the dream she’d shared with him, despite the fact that every inch of the college and town carried memories of the husband she’d lost.
The story I’m telling in this book is a love story. It’s a story of marriage and family, art and architecture, renovation and real estate, history and orchids, landscape and seascape, life and death.
In my next installment, I’ll write more about this summer’s visit to Burren College as I continue to research this project, and as I set about framing a book that has beauty and triumph, but also great loss and the sudden redrawing of a dream.
Ireland, Writers Notes