The rock in the garden of Eden


Wandering through nature's tangle at Liss Ard in the humid soup of a late summer afternoon, lofty thoughts leap quickly to the mind.

As you duck brambles, inch along lakeside edges and scramble ignobly through this dense woodland garden outside Skibbereen, you begin to notice the smallest things. The hippy inside suddenly surfaces and even the throaty croakings of the frogs can seem imbued with some deeply primeval mysticism. It's that kind of place.

This week, though, from today until Sunday, the frog-song will be drowned out as Liss Ard '98 unfolds. It's the second annual music and cultural festival to be staged here, and it boasts a line-up that is quietly phenomenal.

John Martyn's edgy pastoralism, Nick Cave's hell-fired Australian gothic, Spiritualized's inspired psychedelia, Lou Reed's literate subversions and The Tindersticks' eloquent melancholia can all be sampled. Then there's Maria McKee, Mary Coughlan, Patrick McCabe, Nick Kelly, Iarla O Lionaird, The Frames, and countless others.

As at last year's event, surprise appearances are likely. Liss Ard '97 saw Michael Stipe show up for a midnight duet with Patti Smith by a moonlit lake deep in the woods, witnessed by an audience of less than 100.

In West Cork this past couple of weeks, much barstool punditry has centred around who might show up this time. There is smart money on Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Mr Stipe might drop in again, Van Morrison has been mentioned and, well, it could be hard to keep Bono out.

The founder of the Liss Ard Foundation, the German Veith Torske, is clearly a man with connections.

Torske and his wife Claudia came to Liss Ard in 1989 having previously been involved in what they call the "international art scene". They had grown somewhat disillusioned.

"I found that it moved away from the art very quickly," says Veith. "From the moment you are involved as a serious player, it becomes about money and power."

So they came to Ireland with the notion of establishing an ecological garden, the antithesis of the traditional landscaped variety, a garden where nature's reign would be allowed to progress unmolested.

While the Torskes, to be blunt about it, are not short of a few bob, developing Liss Ard, all 200-odd acres of it, has been an expensive job, with some estimates suggesting an eight-figure sum has already been ploughed in.

It was initially Van Morrison's suggestion that a music festival could be staged to help raise a few quid and to highlight the work in the garden. Morrison was among the creative sorts who quickly became enamoured with the beautiful, understated 1850s house at Liss Ard and has been a frequent visitor.

Whispers and tips carry fast in the distant stratosphere of the rich and the celebrated, and Liss Ard has become a retreat for the likes of Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Brian Ferry, Robert Plant, various famous film-makers, and very famous writers.

But the main focus remains the garden and the Torskes have been bemused by the reaction it has generated in some quarters.

"I have had many offers for golf courses!" says Veith. "People have come to me, Irish entrepreneurs, and said, `come on now, we have to talk seriously about this, we can do a golf course . . .' "

The reaction in the Skibb area has also seemed sometimes lukewarm, with charges of elitism frequently levelled at Liss Ard.

"I can't really expect the locals to applaud. There will be talk about the `mad German' and all sorts of gossip and while in the beginning I was irritated, now it doesn't bother me.

"Slowly, I think the concept of what we are trying to do here is becoming known, mainly thanks to the event and that's a good feeling. But Claudia and I have had moments when we thought, `let's go somewhere else, let's enjoy life.' "

"It would be nice to interact with the surrounding community more and with proper management and hard work, I think maybe in the future we can do this. There are venues I have sourced in the area that would be ideal for particular artists. I would like to be able to stage theatre and so on at the same time as the annual event here."

I suspect this idea of a sort of Liss Ard fringe is at a more advanced stage than has yet been revealed. Time will tell. What is certain is that the Torskes see the festival becoming merely the finale of a much longer event, which would see the hosting of summer schools, poetry workshops, lecture series' and so on.

"Relatively, I realise that all this is still a very small thing," says Veith, "but Liss Ard has a power because it shows a principle."

The interaction of the artists who stay at Liss Ard with the setting itself is an element of the project that specifically appeals to the Torskes.

Veith speaks headily of the two, the creative and creation if you like, as being involved in an artistic fusion, almost dialectically. He sees the garden as "a never-ending artistic experience" and also as a sort of ambitious design scheme.

"It can be a place of tranquility, of the highest form of relaxation," he says "but it can also be the utmost provocation to me at a time of inner unrest."

This is a feeling shared by Nick Cave, who has spoken eloquently of his experiences at Liss Ard: "I think this garden can amplify the way that you feel, which is not always peaceful, because we are not peaceful inside ourselves. It can amplify your depression as well as your sense of well-being.

"Being alone here, you are forced to look at the larger questions. There are no distractions. We don't usually tend to look at the larger questions, we're involved in a denial of death and the last thing we want to confront is the fact we die.

"But these questions are close to the surface of things here. This is what nature does. I feel a debt to this place, I feel it has given me an enormous amount since I've been coming here."

Others who have stayed share these thoughts. A lesson taught by Liss Ard seems to be that life is a predicament as much as a celebration, and this play of dark and light is central to an understanding of how the garden can aid or fuel the creative impulse.

Occasionally, the image of citified slickers like Cave transplanted to the raggedy wilderness gives rise to comedy. There is a delicious moment in director Boris Penth's documentary on Liss Ard, Lending The Garden A Voice, where the singer, pale as snow, is sitting in the middle of the woods.

"I'm having my relationship with nature redefined," he muses uneasily. "Even though I haven't really had a relationship with nature."

The Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher has been similarly moved.

"Awright for a good chill-out this," he said on arrival in '96.

The Liss Ard headliners are as follows: today, John Martyn; tomorrow, Spiritualized; Friday, Nick Cave; Saturday, Lou Reed; Sunday, Tindersticks. More details on 028 23015.