Carry me back to old Kiltumper. Couple flees Manhattan for a rural cottage life in the west of Ireland
A little over three years ago, as harried Manhattan commuters, Niall Williams and Christine Breen heard a faint call from a faraway place. That sweetly lilting voice, promising a simpler, more fulfilling life, grew louder. Finally, they heeded it. They jumped from a big-city career ladder in publishing into its antithesis: a whitewashed stone cottage in a tiny corner of rural Ireland named Kiltumper.
``I can't remember a single moment when we made the decision, but I remember many times when we came home from the office feeling dissatisfied,'' says Mr. Williams.
``We seemed to have lost control of our lives. We felt stuck in a pattern where we ate, worked, slept, and did the laundry and supermarket on the weekends.... We had begun to earn more money, but that wasn't enough.
``Then, at a sudden moment, Chris's father bought the house his father was born in.''
That provided the opportunity. The little stone cottage in Ireland was back in the family, waiting to be occupied by the young married couple from New York.
``We were adventurous,'' says Ms. Breen, ``and the most important thing, Niall had always been a writer, and I wanted to paint.''
But on arrival in Kiltumper, artistic endeavors took an immediate back seat to the practical problems of refurbishing a long-vacant cottage.
They learned that rural Ireland operated in a time - or timeless - zone of its own. Nothing happened, nothing was open for business when scheduled or expected. Weeks were spent waiting for the new bed to arrive.
And the weather....
After a hopeful spring planting season, the storms started to roll in from the Atlantic - one after the other in wet monotony. And what do you do in western Ireland when it rains? You watch it rain.
Their first summer in Kiltumper was the wettest on record, saturating peat bogs, beating down vegetable gardens, swamping spirits.
But the surrounding agricultural mentality, preoccupied with weather and seasons, gradually and inevitably took hold of the newcomers.
Tall, bearded Williams is Irish by birth, having grown up in Dublin - ``another country'' from the rural west, he observes.
Breen, a smallish woman with a quick, warm smile, is Irish by ancestry. Her forebears lived for generations in the same stone cottage she now calls home.
They had first met in Ireland, when Breen was studying Irish literature at University College Dublin.
Williams knew nothing of working the land or raising stock when they made the move to Kiltumper.
But farming on at least a small scale is essential for subsistence there - and to become truly part of the community. Hence his commute by tractor to a course for young farmers, and the near-conversionary experience of helping a calf be born.
The west of Ireland, as Williams and Breen portray it in ``O Come Ye Back to Ireland'' (Soho Press, $16.95), is a world apart from modernity - a hilly expanse of incredible greenness, dotted by small houses, small pastures, small towns. The crucial fuel is dried turf, cut from a bog with an implement called the ``slan,'' whose skilled use is a local secret.
The book, an engaging record of their first year in Ireland, testifies to the creative stimulus of a life stripped to essentials. It's written from the heart, mixing a colorful narrative with moody, poetic snippets from Breen's diary.
The authors returned to the United States recently to help publicize the volume.
Chatting in their publisher's uptown Manhattan apartment, the couple seemed uneasy about being back in the urban colossus - even for a visit. Maybe that uneasiness springs from what Williams terms the ``profound imprint'' left by the Irish landscape.
``I get itchy to see the horizon,'' he said. ``We're not used to being confined.''
Ireland not only feels like home now, they explain, but it felt like it, in a way, right from the beginning.
``The welcome there was really welcoming Chris back home'' to her ancestral origins, Williams observes.
Their Irish neighbors - about nine families live in Kiltumper and more in Kilmihil, the nearest village of any size - warmly embraced them, sharing local lore and know-how. The gentle pace of life embraced them, too.
``There are seasons of heavy work and seasons of quiet time,'' says Williams. ``I wouldn't think of writing during haying. That's the most important thing then, and everyone is talking about it - `Get your hay in yet?''' You pick up that rhythm and join in, he says.
You also get in tune with the pace and importance of conversation.
A short, touching chapter of their book is devoted to the first time they ``went on the cuaird'' - went uninvited, but fully expected, to visit their neighbors. As Williams explains, the cuaird is an ancient Irish custom of spending an evening talking, exchanging news, telling yarns with one's friends.
There are few movies and sparse television in western Ireland, so people talk.
``Storytelling is such a part of pass-ing time there,'' says Williams. ``The most trivial thing is spread out and ex-panded.''
And there are a few things not so pleasantly absorbed. The dismal weather, for one, but Breen also admits some difficulty in getting used to the ingrained attitudes toward a woman's place.
``The neighbors can't understand why Niall does half the work around the house,'' she says, ``though the women think it's wonderful.''
She recalls one man who's had seven children, but never changed a single diaper!
Clearly, the bond Williams and Breen feel to Ireland is tightening - a process hastened by their recent adoption of a six-month-old little girl, Deirdre.
Will they be staying in Kiltumper for good?
``One answer to that question is that next year we'll be cutting turf for the following winter,'' Williams affirms.
``And that's as far ahead as we look.''