From a childhood in Coolock to running a monastery retreat in Denmark

Irish archaeologist Garry Keyes runs the Danish equivalent of Annaghmakerrig

Garry Keyes, who runs the arbjedsrefugium at Ørslev Kloster with his Danish wife

Garry Keyes, who runs the arbjedsrefugium at Ørslev Kloster with his Danish wife

 

Garry Keyes was born in Rathfarnham in Dublin in 1974 and grew up Coolock. Having spent time working as an archaeologist all over Europe, he now runs a creative retreat in a former monastery in rural Denmark.

How have you ended up living in a nunnery?
I live in rural Denmark, in northern Jutland by the shores of the Limfjord in a beautiful landscape of woods and rolling hills that often reminds me of the Athy area of Co Kildare which I cycled around growing up.

Together with my wife I run  an Arbejdsrefugium, which is basically a creative residence or retreat house. An Irish equivalent would be Annaghmakerrig in Co Monaghan, or Cill Rialaig on Bolus head in Co Kerry.

The monastery, as our place is known, occupies one of Scandinavia’s best-preserved medieval nunneries. The four wings of the building date back to the 12th century and was the last functioning nunnery, with the last nun leaving in 1587.

Until the first World War it was the manor house at the centre of a large estate. Following the estate’s bankruptcy in 1917, the buildings were empty and derelict until Countess Sponneck bought the house and remaining 22 hectares of woods and meadows and bequeathed them on her death in 1964 to the non-profit foundation we run today. Now we have the sole purpose of utilising the architecture, history and surroundings of the place to create the best possible work surroundings for people of all backgrounds.

There aren’t that many full-time positions in archaeology, so I spent a fair few years moving between digs

We have around 500 guests a year - musicians, politicians, academics, business professionals, artists, students, film and theatre people - who stay on average for about 10 days and come because the place just exudes an atmosphere of concentration. It quiet without any distractions. It’s a very simple concept, but it works really well - people immerse themselves in whatever it is they’re working on and usually get twice or three times as much done as they would at home.

The arbjedsrefugium at Ørslev Kloster in Denmark
The arbjedsrefugium at Ørslev Kloster in Denmark

It’s a long way from Coolock to there. How did you get there?
It’s a different kind of job and career than I could ever have imagined growing up in Coolock on Dublin’s Northside. I didn’t leave school with the best Leaving Cert, so there weren’t many third level options available to me. I did complete a pre-noviate programme with the Marist Fathers in Dundrum, which has left a lasting impression on me.

But it was while I was doing voluntary work in Italy as part of the programme, that I met and fell in love with a Danish girl. We worked and travelled around Europe and after half a year in Israel working on Moshav farms, I decided to make the move to Denmark. It wasn’t easy, but as there is free access to education, I was able to do language classes during the day and got a night shift cleaning job to get by.

What studying have you done in Denmark?
After two years I got onto a degree course in history at Århus Universitet with an Erasmus year at the Université de Poitiers in France, after which I thought I was finished with Denmark.

I moved back to Dublin and was lucky to get a job working for Creative Labs in Blanchardstown, earning great money - but I just didn’t feel at home in my own town anymore. So, I emigrated again and went back to university in Århus and got a Master’s degree in medieval archaeology and informatics.

How is Denmark different?
On the surface, Scandinavia is easy to move to as an Irish person; the Danes have a similar sense of humour and are really helpful, open, welcoming and great fun - even though the attitude to foreigners here has hardened somewhat, especially in more recent years.

This country has given me opportunities that I would never have had in Ireland. So many people have gone out of their way with help, advice and jobs along the way. But it does take time to learn to understand and the values and different customs that characterise Denmark. Democratic values, co-operation, equality and most of all trust underpin everything.

During my university time in Århus, I was lucky enough to live in a collective in an old town house with eight other students, we bought it together as a co-op to enable us to have cheap student accommodation. It was probably the best and most formative way of learning how this country works. The house is still going strong.

What is it like for an archaeologist in Denmark?
There aren’t that many full-time positions in archaeology, so I spent a fair few years moving between digs. There are quite a few Irish people in the business here, especially on the bigger projects such as the Copenhagen Metro.

It’s great and exciting being able to travel and work and I’ve been lucky enough to work in holes (because that’s the reality) all over the country as well as in Iceland, France, Russia, Italy and the Crimea.

So why did you make a move into running a retreat?
When my wife and myself stumbled across the job of running the arbjedsrefugium at Ørslev Kloster, we saw it as the perfect chance to be able to work together in the cultural heritage business we both are trained in. It did mean leaving the city behind and we were apprehensive about fitting in, finding like-minded peers. But it’s been the best thing that ever happened to us, and a fantastic place to raise kids.

The monastery is all about trying to develop rural enterprise and community, not unlike the goals that drive Cill Rialaig in Ballinskelligs. We have run the monastery since 2004 and it gives real satisfaction to see how the cultural heritage of the monastery has become both a social and economic focal-point for the area.

We’re not a museum or a typical manor house making a living from weddings and conferences. Our sole purpose is to be the best possible creative residence and it’s not easy to restore and develop listed and protected buildings, woods and meadows without investment.

Luckily for us, there are a number of large philanthropic foundations in Denmark that have supported our core project as long as we provide and fulfil a public function as a recreative asset for the region.

I would never have been able to make the life I have now, so even though I’ll keep coming back to Dublin, I am an Irish European

Most of our time over the past few years has revolved around designing solutions that develop and improve the arbjedsrefugium for our working guests, whilst improving access, amenities and cultural heritage in the surroundings with for example new gardens and an interpretive centre. We’ve just started work on an €8 million restoration project of the monastery and surroundings that will keep us busy for the next few years.

We were only successful in raising the funds from these private foundations, because we can document the support and interaction with the local region on a lot of different levels. We have about 130 local volunteers that help with all types of functions and activities from a community vineyard, to a Christmas market for regional start-ups in food and artisan crafts.

What does a working day look like?
Our typical working day is really varied and we keep a very hands-on approach, so we have a hand in everything from forestry work, traditional building techniques and materials, building archaeology and research to fundraising and project management.

How do you tackle life outside the big metropolises? Are there specific challenges?
Living in a rural community, there can be a more practical approach to solving challenges, because without infrastructure or a critical mass of people - we have to problem solve with the people and materials we have around us.

A good example is how the local village around the monastery solved a common challenge heating our school, community hall, sports hall as well as the monastery. In partnership with a dairy farm beside the monastery, we founded Denmark’s smallest district heating system, that provides C02-neutral heat and warm water for the local area based on solar panels and local haybales.

So we managed to create one job and now spend less money to solve our heating needs, but we spend the money locally - so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Would you go back to Ireland?
Denmark is my home and I can’t see myself moving back to Ireland to live and work. But I do miss being around my brothers, sisters and the basic experience of being part of a big Irish family network - meeting up to go see a rugby match and have a few pints.

I try to get back to Dublin three to four times a year, and I drag my kids around as much of the country as possible to leave that same indelible impression in them, that they will always have a memory of. I’m not a great leaver, as I keep coming back and I still haven’t applied for citizenship here in Denmark.

Without the EU and the citizen rights it enabled, I would never have been able to take the chances and make the life I have now, so even though I know that I’ll keep coming back to Dublin and Athy for the rest of my days - I am an Irish European.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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