Peter Cornish’s dream was to build a refuge from the mayhem
"I spent my school days gazing in the direction of a blackboard that I couldn’t see, which left me plenty of time for dreaming"
Peter Cornish (above) and his wife Harriet transformed a wind-blasted cluster of ruins into a wooded retreat village, creating the charity Dzogchen Beara.
It started as a schoolboy’s dream to establish a community of painters and writers. My mother’s Irish family said, "Why not?" to all of my crazy ideas, while, "Better not," was the English response. Of course the Irish side won and so, in the summer of 1973, I found myself on the Innisfallen ferry to Cork.
I’d been sent to an English boarding school from the age of seven. Suffering from an undiagnosed eye condition that made me half blind, I was taken to a string of consultants. Year after year, they patted me on the head, prescribed new glasses and insisted that, with them, I’d have the sight of a pilot. This was confusing, because I was sure that I still couldn’t see. I wished that I knew what the other boys saw, then I’d know about me. It made me question authority and perception.
So I spent my school days gazing in the direction of a blackboard that I couldn’t see, which left me plenty of time for dreaming. I rebelled against the barbaric system, devoted myself to the breaking of rules and got continuously beaten. And all of the while I held to my dream of cutting a hole in their net and escaping to the free air of Ireland.
The two things I loved most were painting, and reading with my nose to the page when no one was looking. My rebellion was never against individuals, who mostly I liked, but the system that kept missing the point. It didn’t seem to care why we are here, and that’s all I wanted to know.
I left school early, slept rough in London and hitch-hiked through Europe, thumbing noises that I couldn’t see. I lived in Paris, then opened a Birmingham club as a first attempt at my artist-community dream. I befriended the young, deprived Irish lads who attacked the club with pick-axe handles and flick knives and finally closed it.
Then, travelling in an unspoilt Greece, I heard Diogenes’s message that happiness comes from simplicity. Returning to London, I worked in a kitchen and immersed myself in the exciting new world of the 1960s.
On the opening night of the first exhibition of my paintings in Knightsbridge, I accepted that my eyesight had reached the point where I’d have to give up my painting. Some months before, I’d walked to a Chelsea bookshop to choose the last book that I’d ever read. My eyes had neatly disposed of the two things to which I was attached.
In the Scottish Borders I discovered the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the west. There I befriended the great lama, Chogyam Trungpa, and learned that the whole point is to let go of attachment. My dream evolved from a community of artists to a meditation retreat for openminded people of all traditions; a refuge from the mayhem, where great thinkers could learn not to think, or, in thinking could think about others.
I met my wife, Harriet,and got on the ferry to Cork. We found a derelict farm on a cliff-edge, where the Atlantic rolls into Bantry Bay. A half-mile walk from the road led over a bog, through heather and gorse, to a cluster of ruins perched on the rim of a world of dazzling light. Far below and wrapped all around was the ocean, merging with sky, where the last headlands of Ireland lazed in the mist.
Buying a mattress in Bantry, we threw it on the roof of the car and drove an hour west, hanging on to it through the windows. We carried it the half mile to the best of the ruins, shooed out the neighbour’s cows and started the work. But it wasn’t all work. Along with the warmth of the people of Beara, the 19 bars on the short main street of Castletownbere ensured sufficient distraction.
We spent our first winter with rain blowing on to the bed and old plaster flaking into our eyes, our food and the sheets. I bought a horse and cart, enabled to drive to town with the aid of my ears and the eyes of my beautiful mare.
In our isolation, when the first baby arrived, Harriet had no advice. When it cried all night she said, "At least there’s no one to complain when west from our door is New York City and south is the Antarctic ice." With no electricity, telephone or water I’d achieved my dream of simplicity, then questioned it, as I washed nappies in the stream at the back of the mountain.
Many times, we nearly gave up but, as exiles in paradise, where can you go when vou already inhabit perfection? So we stayed and started to build with the confidence that comes from a total lack of experience. We blasted a road, stuffing gelignite with broom handles into holes we’d drilled in the mountain. We planted 10,000 trees, rebuilt the ruins and blew out our candles, installing water and power. Unable to see the bubble in a spirit level, I laid blocks along the line of the omnipresent horizon.
From a wind-blasted clifftop, a wooded village had grown. In 1992 we made it a charity, Dzogchen Beara, giving it to the people of Ireland and the world. A state-of-the-art care centre was inaugurated by Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland. Today, the local economy is boosted by seminars and retreats throughout the year, led by teachers of many traditions, while the bestselling author Sogyal Rinpoche comes to teach for a few days each year.
Struggling at times with convention and the elements, we slowly established a free port of the spirit. Now, 40 years since we began, I’m telling this story to celebrate the realisation of a dream. A dream within this procession of dreams that flash on and off like the Mizen Head light through these first hours of the morning.
Dazzled by Daylight is out now. See dazzledbydaylight.com