There and Back Again

By Sheila just back from Ireland

One more report from Ireland, after a rather hectic two weeks spent there furnishing my small cottage. Writing related? In a lot of ways, actually. Research isn’t always about places and how things look—a lot of it is about people, and the small details of daily life.

I’ve been visiting Ireland since 1998 and writing about for nearly as long. After a lot of thinking, I bought a cottage from which I can see where one of my great-great-grandmothers was born.


cottageThe cottage  was built around 1950, but it hadn’t been lived in for about ten years when I bought it. All things considered it was in pretty good shape, but it was empty, and a bit sad and lonely. So my husband and I went over to make it more like a home—starting with the kitchen, and then adding furniture and a wireless connection and a satellite dish.

We’re looking forward to going back in the spring (when all the wild daffodils are blooming and the new lambs are bouncing in the meadow down the lane). But although I have spent a couple of weeks at a time in the area in past years, it’s different when you’re becoming a part of the place and people know it. What’s more, as we writers know, it’s the details that make a book or story come alive, and you see things differently when you have a stake in a place.

The Connolly surname lets people “place” me in West Cork, and it still matters—not out of any snobbery, but because people like to find connections. If you’ve worked on your family history it’s a plus because then you can share information with others. But simply being there and talking to ordinary people who live there (like Ted at the hardware store and Jerry at the furniture store and Sean at the second-hand store, all of whom I’ve spent a lot of time with) gave me a different perspective on the place, and on being an American.

kitchenIt stands out that Americans are conspicuous consumers. Our homes are big, our appliances are big, our cars are big. Cut those down to half the size and you have what is more typical of rural Ireland. That’s not just a matter of economics, but also of the culture. You shop more often for food—you don’t pack a month’s worth of supplies in a giant refrigerator. You cook on a stove-top that’s 24” across. Your washer measures loads in kilograms: the one that came with my place will take up to 4-point-something kilos as a load. That’s about two pairs of blue jeans. Yes, they come larger, up to about double that, but they’re still small by US standards. And not everyone has a dryer, just a clothesline out back.

I have a second cousin who lives in the house her family moved into in 1956, when the place was new. We visited there last week, and by our standards (even for the 1950s) it’s small. She raised four children there, and helped manage a farm where her family raised both pigs and cattle. It is interesting that two of her married children have settled close by and built new homes, and they are more what we here would call a mini-mc-mansion—handsome two story homes with lots of frills, like electric gates (there are both dogs and livestock to keep in). A lot of the new construction in West Cork follows a much more American model, but plenty of people live in the older places as well. And the insides of the older homes are crammed with generations of pictures and mementoes (makes me feel better about my own housekeeping—maybe clutter is hereditary).

farmers-marketSkibbereen is the nearest town, and it’s booming. The population there hovers around 3,000, but there are new homes being built, and the town is proud that they are now home to the Ludgate Hub, a digital hub that enables regional connectivity and provides local business services (and jobs). It opened in 2015. But if you’re envisioning a huge, sleek building, think again—it’s housed in what was formerly a row-house bakery. The town itself still has only one main street, and a year-round weekly farmers market in the center. In the shops people know you and greet you, and if they don’t have what you need, they’ll tell you what other shop to look in. To me it is a perfect little big town, with everything I could ask for (including good restaurants).

Many of the local towns are tiny (don’t blink as you pass through or you might miss them), but they host a wealth of small festivals—literary, cooking, art, theater and more. It’s a lively cultural region.

The whole area, and maybe the whole country, has one foot in the past and one firmly in the present. You stop someone on the road and they’ll turn out to have known your family years ago. At the same time, you can get wireless with a tiny “hot-spot” device, pay as you go, which is more than I can say for my Massachusetts home. Sometimes the mix of old and new is enough to make your head spin.

sunsetI could ramble on (the Irish are great talkers and rarely seem to be in a hurry), but you get the drift: the best of old and new exist side by side in Ireland.

And one thing that either breaks or warms my heart is how many people, those who know me and those who don’t, asked “when are you comin’ home again?” Soon. I promise.

Readers: Have you ever visited somewhere that you’d love to live?


27 Thoughts

    1. Just about. Sometimes it feels like I’ve walked through a time-warp, back into a simpler era. Then I find myself involved in a conversation about the economics of wind turbines with someone I’ve just met. It’s always surprising me.

  1. Well now I want to live in County Cork! I sometimes have longings to live back in my home state of California, in an old adobe in an orange grove inland from the coast. But that’s a fantasy. I’d kind of like to live in Key West part time, like Barb and Roberta Islieb do – but I’ve only visited there once for one night, and that was thirty-six years ago. In the meantime, I’ll wait for you to invite us to a writers’ retreat in your cottage!

    1. Just as soon as I get things repainted and such! But I knew West Cork was special the first time I visited, and it never let go of me. It’s only gotten better since.

  2. I loved this post, Sheila, and I enjoyed meeting you at Crime Bake! Ireland is my heritage and it’s in my heart. I chose Asdee, in County Kerry, where my grandfather came from, as the name of my publisher, Asdee Press. Everything you talk about is so familiar and so dear to me. I’ll be home again before long.

    1. I’ve only been through parts of Kerry once, years ago with my daughter. But my neighbor behind me in Drinagh dropped by (with cookies!), and while we were admiring the sunset view, she said we were looking at McGillicuddy’s Reeks in Kerry. Whoa, what? I’m looking at Kerry? Two counties for the price of one!

      The funny thing is, when I bought the house, that view was blocked by a row of huge, failing spruce trees. I had them taken down (the falling needles were blocking the drains, the gutters, and just about everything else)–and suddenly there was the view, complete with sunset. And a sliding glass door through which to admire it.

  3. I think my problem is there too many places I’d love to live. Although it’s not at all “glamorous” I love Massachusetts and could be very content somewhere near Boston. A close second would be London. Hmmm, old England, New England….

    1. It’s fun, particularly when you keep running into places and buildings and even household items you’ve read about in a hundred or more years’ worth of books. There’s Jeye’s Fluid, and Eccles cakes, and Fairy Liquid cracks me up (available for dishwashing and for clothes washing!). There just isn’t enough time to live everwhere!

  4. I understand what you mean. I had the chance to visit Norway and the trust in people is so great. We never find that around here. (maybe some small towns?) You don’t have to lock the car or worry about leaving your purse in the car. They get excited to see Americans to practice their English skills. Very friendly folks. Ireland is on my bucket list tho.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful place. I think so many of the American homes are WAY to big. We have what is considered a very small house—and it is still too much for 2 people, I think.

    1. After two weeks, we found that four rooms, plus a kitchen and bath added at the back, was fine for two people. Part of that was the many large windows, which brought the outside in, and the surprisingly high ceilings, so the rooms felt larger.

  6. Sheila, I’ve been enjoying your posts from Ireland. Speaking of research, you mentioned your Aga No. 2 cooker. Expecting it to be some sort of crock pot, I looked it up and was surprised to find that it is a combination heater and stove, much like one I remember my aunt having. Of course, now my Facebook newsfeed is showing me all kinds of ads for them.
    I love what you say about the area having one foot firmly in the past and one in the present. It reminds me of Guilford, CT, the town I live in. We have homes that date from 1639. If I could pick a second home it would be Amalfi, Italy, where my wife’s ancestors came from. Some of the homes date from the early middle ages. Everyone there has a connection too. One time we tracked down a relative using only a 35-year-old photo.

    1. I swear, a place with that much history behind it just feels different, doesn’t it? The pub I write about is in a building that’s 300 years old, and the owners still live over the shop. (Hard to remodel places like that, though.)

      I think that the old cookers make a lot of sense. And I love that you can still get parts for them.

  7. Lovely post, Sheila! It made my Monday morning. I’m writing a novel that is set in Ireland, in Howth where I attended a writers workshop in 2008. The medieval buildings that look out to the sea make me feel like I’m “home.” I’m reading a book that mentions John Moriarty, a Christian mystic who says we have a genetic memory that can make us feel at home in a place we’ve never been. Ireland is that place for me. I’m hoping to get there in 2017.

  8. Sheila, It is always a pleasure to read your posts about Ireland. Our family trip to Ireland, back in 2014, was a marvelous experience, especially for my husband and daughter. His grandfather was born in Ireland and we got to see the home and village where he grew up. It was an amazing experience for my daughter, to talk to people who remembered her ancestors. We hope to visit again someday.

  9. Congrats again on getting to own a cottage in an area you obviously love. Hope you have many wonderful trips there getting those small details for your books.

  10. Yes, I have and I’m living there now. I’m from Kansas and I fell in love with Arizona 35 years ago and still love it. There is so many things to do and see, it’s a great State.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still miss my home State but do not want to live there again.

    Mary Jane Hopper


    1. That’s great! I grew up in more than one mid-Atlantic state, but I always wanted to live in New England, which I do now (after detours through North Carolina and California and Pennsylvania).

  11. There are two places I would love to live that I have visited. Both would be much different than where I live now. One is the mountains of Gatlinburg, where they have just had a 100 year fire tragedy. I would love to live in a small cabin with very little other than what I absolutely need. My dog Tyler and I would be fine there I know. The other place I actually almost moved to at one time. My family is from a small town in Germany and we visited there every summer the whole time I was growing up. And then again once I started working for the airlines. I actually looked into transferring there when the airline I worked for started having flights from Frankfurt. I would have done it, except my oma did not want my cats to come with me. It was a deal breaker, but oma had an aversion to cats as they had eaten some of her outside barn critters, :(. I wouldnt mind moving to Upstate NY where a friend of mine lives either. I have visited there several times and love the snow!

    1. I hear you–at this time in my life, getting back to simple basics is very appealing. How lovely that you have places in your life that you remember happily, and no surprise that they’re small towns.

  12. Oh, gosh , I am GREEN with envy! Although the Joyce sides as far as we can see have all Irish names, we have not found the link to the Old Sod. I had friends who bought a castle there,,,that might be a bit much to refurbish for me.I love your place and wish you great happiness and much time there.

    1. How wonderful to buy a castle! I can’t imagine it, although there are plenty of ruined ones sitting around (or falling down piece by piece), which you could probably get a good deal on. I’d probably get distracted and start excavating the moat. (Did I mention the rusty pitchfork I found behind the cottage? Before it could stab me?)

  13. How wonderful!! You’re so fortunate to own a lovely cottage. Congratulations.
    I want to visit the U.K. so badly!! It’s a dream of mine to stay in one of those thatched roof cottages in England or Scotland or even Ireland. Maybe one day.

    1. I’ve never managed to stay in a place with thatch, but they’re around. West Cork is known for its slate–it’s said that the slate roofing for Buckingham Palace was shipped from Leap.

Comments are closed.