Monday, August 28, 2017

Back to the Cottage

Actually, I've been there and back again, last month. It's been a saga that has taken two years so far, but almost everything essential should be done by the time I go back in November. And so much has been changed or fixed already, thanks to my amazing handyman.

As of July 2017. There will be grass and
a new hedge soon!

It's kind of funny, the image that "cottage" brings up for people. This one actually fits my own mental image: small but big enough, with high ceilings and big windows; historical (maybe 70 years old?) but with modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing; in a peaceful rural area with scenic views; and in the heart of the countryside where my Connolly ancestors lived (and some of their descendants still do). And it just feels right. (And it's an amazing feeling to see one of your dreams actually come true.)

It's still a work in progress, but during this most recent trip in July I got a lot done--it's surprising what a coat of fresh white paint can do! But my tireless handyman Diarmuid is miles (or kilometers) ahead of me. Since I was there last fall, he has:

--cut down the 25 overgrown trees, reduced them to firewood, and hauled off the branches and tree trash

--removed most of the gnarly old hedge around the property

--waterproofed the foundation

--laid PVC drainage pipes and created a reservoir for rain runoff

--located the septic tank (kind of important, right?)

--paved the perimeter of the entire cottage to improve runoff

--leveled, expanded and gravelled the parking area, and

--added a very nice path from the parking area and the back door

And he's nowhere near finished. By the end of this month he plans to have:

--replaced all the gutters and downspouts

--graded and seeded my "field"

--added a small patio so I can sit outside and watch the sunset

--planted a new hedge (of some local plant whose name I can't pronounce)

--added one gate at the far end of the field, and a new fence and gate to keep the cows out at the parking end--complete with an arched arbor with climbing roses (that was Diarmuid's own idea--he made one for my neighbor)

--built new front steps and installed the gate I asked for and he found (to be painted green)

--installed motion sensor lights

--acquired and installed a new washer (the old one couldn't even handle one towel at a time)

--installed a clothesline in the yard, sunk in concrete with a winch for raising and lowering the laundry lines

--installed my new old rock, which he introduced me to last month (I swear it's from a stone circle, and my neighbor has three of its mates on her land)

--replaced two windowsills that leak, and

--painted the house

I'm exhausted just looking at the list. What's more, he's not only hard-working but also reliable, knows what he's doing and gets it done quickly, and charges a reasonable rate. And the lady who lives behind me, who's been there two years now, vouches for him (and can keep an eye on his progress).

There's something magical about Ireland. I tell Diarmuid I'd like something, and presto, it appears. The same thing happens in town: I decide I need a new table or some other item, and in some second-hand shop or the farmers market, there it is, the same day, exactly as I'd pictured it.

Do I get any writing work done? More or less. There’s wifi (which gets a little iffy in turbulent weather). But it’s easy to get distracted. I can’t keep away from the views, so I work at the dining room table and look outside regularly. Oh, see the rainbow. Oh, see another rainbow. Look, bunnies! Where are the cows now? And so on. And then I go into town, and of course I end up talking to people, and they hand me “gifts” of unexpected information that I know immediately will end up in a book. My favorite kind of research!

Coming back to Massachusetts was hard, and not just because of jet lag. Mainly because it's both noisy and bright, all the time. At the Irish cottage there is no traffic (a car or two per hour) and there are no streetlights. There is silence, although you might be able to hear a conversation half a mile away. There is darkness, so you become aware of the cycle of the moon (full when I arrived last month, dark when I left). You can hear birds (my neighbor to the side has chickens, my neighbor behind has ducks) and cows and sheep.

You can breathe clean air and drink clean well water and watch the clouds move across the sky and see rainbows at breakfast. And you can hear yourself think. Want to talk to people? Easy. Want to be alone? Also easy. Want to eat great food? Plenty of small but good restaurants. Want to buy locally grown food and make it yourself? There's an incredible weekly market. 

From an outstanding young baker
at the farmers market

Okay, the cottage is not perfect. The kitchen has little counter space, there's no dryer, and there are no closets at all. But all the rest more than makes up for it. I can't wait to see it this fall, when I'm going back again. It will be all but finished, and we can sit in front of our fireplace (fueled by our own wood) and just enjoy.

The next County Cork mystery, Many a Twist, will be released in January 2018 by Crooked Lane Books.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Gate in Garryglass

I haven't had a chance to post lately, due to deadlines and events and life in general, but now I've booked flights for next month and I'm getting excited. I wanted to report on one small piece of the renovations (I'll spare you the pictures of the new drainage system!), and why I want to save the front gate.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook have read about my very energetic Irish caretaker Diarmuid (the Irish for Dermot), and his ambitious plans for the cottage, including building a sunroom in the front and gifting me with a “feature,” which is apparently a boulder the size of a small car, and that he’s eager to get rid of. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve never been the proud owner of a giant rock, much less an Irish one, so why not? (As long as he’s the one who’s moving it!)

Recently I wrote a post on FB and asked whether I should keep the front gate and gateposts or simply eliminate the whole package and fill in the gap (to make room for Diarmuid’s sunroom, apparently). The overwhelming response from readers was to keep the gate (over 100 responses, and fewer than five voted against the gate), for a variety of reasons. That’s what I wanted to do from the start, until Diarmuid came up with his own idea, and I’m glad so many people agree with me.

But the discussion made me think about why Irish houses have gates at all, because they often don’t do anything except sit there. I came up with multiple answers. One is: West Cork is a dairy region, and there are a lot of cows, which periodically must be moved from one pasture to the next. Sometimes a cow will stray from the herd and end up where it shouldn’t, like in your back yard. 

A cow paid me a visit
Another: if a house lies on a busy road (Irish urban houses tend to be built close to the road), a wall with a gate provides some sense of privacy and protection, and defines the boundaries of the property.

Right on the main road
But often the gate doesn’t serve any practical purpose. So maybe there’s a more subtle question: does a front wall and gate convey a sense of status? Dignity? Importance? Often when driving around near a town, in what might be called a suburb, I will pass a relatively new house (maybe less than fifty years old) with a gate in front, at the edge of the road. Notice that I say “gate” and not wall with gate, because many of these gates are free-standing and don’t keep anything out. At best they signal “Enter Here.”

I’d offer you a picture of the former Connolly home in Knockskagh, built in 1907, but it was abandoned in 1956 and no one’s lived in it since, so it’s kind of falling down. 

The Connolly home in Knockskagh, built in 1907
But I can show you the house next door, from more or less the same era, where my great-aunt lived with her husband, and its gate is holding up much better. As you can see, there’s a nice sturdy pair of gateposts and a wall across the front that doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and few people pass by to admire it (only cows and a few sheep).

So what is this fascination with gates in Ireland all about? I think it’s symbolic. There is a kind of psychological transition when you pass through the gate posts, even if they wouldn’t keep out a rabbit. It’s interesting that this same response seems to come from Americans (or at least, American FB readers who follow me) as well as local people.

So I’ll be keeping my gate, which may involve some wrangling with Diarmuid, since he’ll be the one who will be pouring the concrete for the new steps. And I may have to hunt down an ironworker (or aluminum worker?) to make me a new gate, or maybe find a salvage yard. But that’s part of the fun of the place--and I get into some of the most interesting conversations that way!

Bonus picture: my back neighbor's
new ducklings, born last month

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


What do you think of when somebody says “Ireland”? St. Patrick, leprechauns and rainbows, right? I think St. Patrick matters more to people in this country than in Ireland, and I don’t think I’ve met a leprechaun yet (although there was this one guy…), but the rainbows are definitely real.

I forgot to mention “green” on that list. Ireland is definitely green, at any time of the year. Why? It rains a lot. Not long stretches of gloomy days, but more like passing showers that don’t last long. If you call up the local weather on your cell phone, it changes about hourly: rain/sun/rain, and so on. And that’s what produces the rainbows. You need sun shining on the rain at the right angle to create them.

I didn’t see a rainbow until I was sixteen. I was walking home from school and got caught in a downpour, but near the end of the walk I looked up and there it was. I didn’t mind that I was soaking wet.

When I first visited Ireland with my husband and daughter, there were rainbows. I wasn’t keeping count, but it was fewer than ten, although that still seemed like a lot to me. And they’d show up when you were least expecting them, like when you were walking down a street it a town and you happened to look up, and there it was.

Then came the Irish trip my husband and I took in 2011. We rented a cottage on a hill in Ballyriree in West Cork (which of course turned out to have belonged to some branch of the Connolly family—that happens to me a lot over there). The kitchen had large windows on two sides. The front of the house faced east, and I could sit at the kitchen table at the back and watch the rainbows appear in the west. Every morning, like clockwork, at 8:30. Look, it’s rainbow time! They’d come and go, as the morning showers moved through. Sometimes they were doubles. Sometimes there was more than one at a time. It was a wonderful free show, and it went on for most of the two weeks we spent there.

But that wasn’t all: the rainbows started chasing us. We visited the townland where my father’s family had lived: yup, rainbows. We’d be driving from somewhere to somewhere else: more rainbows. It became kind of a running joke. Hey, where's the rainbow?

We stayed at that cottage, and one next to it, in following years, but never saw as many rainbows again.

Then came the day when my husband and I first saw what was to be “my” cottage. I was driving, following the estate agent (realtor) along the typical narrow winding roads. In Drinagh we turned off the main road onto one that went up and down and turned corners and went over a bridge and so on, and when we came to a straight stretch I looked up and there right ahead of me was the brightest rainbow I had ever seen. Of course it ended right over the cottage. I figured it was an omen.

Couldn’t exactly stop for a picture, but there will be more rainbows. The dining/everything room at the cottage faces more or less west, so on a showery morning, I can sit at my dining table and watch for rainbows out the big glass doors.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Cottage

I first visited Ireland in 1998, spending less than a week there, wedged in between quick tours of England and Wales with my family. We found the places where my father’s parents were born, armed with no more than the names of the county and the townland, which is the smallest division of land in the country. We didn’t know anybody.

That trip changed my life. When we arrived in Leap, a village in West Cork, the first thing we saw was a pub called Connolly’s. We had no reservations for the night, but we scrounged up a room at a bed and breakfast—and the landlady introduced me to her mother-in-law, who had known my Connolly family years earlier. We ended up staying a day longer than we had planned.

After that first trip I kept going back—with my daughter one year, with a friend another year, and quite a few times since. I found a cousin there (again, thanks to that landlady), and she took me to see the last house my Connolly family had lived in, abandoned since the 1950s.

When I began to write, one of the first books I ever finished was set in Leap and a small pub there. That was in 2001. It took a while to find a publisher for that, and it went through quite a few changes, but eventually it blossomed into a series—the sixth book will come out in 2018.

And last year I bought a cottage in Ireland, in a townland called Garryglass (which is Irish for “green garden”), in the village of Drinagh, which has a population of about 500 people—and two pubs. From the back of my property I can see the steeple of the church where my great-grandparents were married, a mile away. On the other side, across a narrow lane, I can see nothing but rolling hills and cows. And it feels like home already.

At the moment I don’t plan to retire there, although I could: it’s a small simple house, all on one story. The taxes are low, and the electric bills are too. I have my own well there. And I have plenty of relatives in the neighborhood! It’s not particularly old—probably built around 1950—but everything works (and things like wiring and windows have already been upgraded). It’s located near a town that I love, Skibbereen, which has shops and an arts center, and good food, and a farmers market that’s been held weekly for centuries. The area is rich in local history, both ancient and modern (Michael Collins was born only a few miles away from the cottage). But it’s also modern, with reliable wifi and satellite television. The best of all possible worlds.

It’s lovely to fantasize about living there, even if it never happens. So far I’ve spent only two weeks at the cottage, in November 2016, but I hope to get there three or four times a year. I want to see Ireland in all seasons. I want to get to know my neighbors, including the cows. And it’s a wonderful place to slow down and unwind—and, I hope, write.