Cill Rialaig artists' retreat proves to be an unexpected success story


ON A blustery wet day 20 years ago, then taoiseach Charles J Haughey laid the foundation stone for the transformation of a group of ruined pre-Famine cottages on Bolus Head, Co Kerry, into an international artists’ retreat called Cill Rialaig.

Standing there, in this elemental landscape on the edge of Ireland, he paid tribute to its promoter, Dublin-based publisher Noelle Campbell-Sharp, describing her as “indefatigable” and expressing the hope that it would be developed “in harmony with the local community”.

Haughey was the guest of honour that night at a lavish banquet in the former Waterville Lake Hotel, where more than 100 potential donors grazed on a lavish buffet of caviar, oysters and poached salmon, followed by fillet steak and the best of locally produced patisserie.

I wrote a jaundiced piece in The Irish Times, under the heading “Making a feast of a famine”. Apart from sending it up, I quoted objectors as saying the project represented the “pillage of Cill Rialaig” and would result in the loss of a “very peaceful place”.

They were wrong, and so was I. Yes, it’s true that architect Alfred Cochrane demolished eight of the ruined cottages and reconstructed them, using the original stone, with plastered concrete-block inner walls, functional kitchens, bathrooms and glass-roofed studios. But Cill Rialaig turned out to be an outstanding success, attracting some 2,500 artists from all over the world (including Ireland) to spend time living and working in this extraordinary place; the spin-off benefits for Ballinskelligs and the surrounding area are almost incalculable.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Cill Rialaig could have had a very different future. According to Campbell-Sharp, plans were being made to replace the boreen, which still has its median grass strip, with a road wide enough to take tour buses around Bolus Head.

With her flaming red hair Campbell-Sharp has become a familiar figure in and around Ballinskelligs. Her traditional-style holiday home, complete with a private bar, The Anchor, was built in the late-1980s.

She is a mover and shaker with two art galleries in Dublin (The Origin on Harcourt Street and Urban Retreat, in the Grand Canal Docks) as well as founding the Cill Rialaig Siopa and Art Centre in Ballinskelligs and, most recently, a “pop-up art gallery” in nearby Waterville.

The latest venture, where the identity of any of the artists is not revealed until a picture is bought (all for €250), coincided with the first Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival in Waterville, of which she’s a patron; Chaplin holidayed there for many years.

“We’re trying to get everyone in Waterville to paint their buildings black and white, just as they were shown in old photographs”, says Campbell-Sharp .

And it’s already happening: the example of the Butler Arms Hotel, a black-and-white icon, is being followed by others.

It’s the kind of inspired notion that appeals to people in these recessionary times, not least because it’s relatively cheap. So does the idea of a “pop-up art gallery”, where all of the works are being sold in aid of Cill Rialaig, to supplement its modest grant from the Arts Council.

The siopa in Ballinskelligs serves the same purpose and is probably the only such art gallery with any street-cred in the entire Ring of Kerry – an antidote for more discerning tourists to the ubiquitous souvenir shops and cafes, geared to cater for a bus load at a time.

Fundraising functions, such as art auctions and golf classics, have been hit badly by the recession. “That’s dried up almost completely,” she says. So has corporate giving. As a result, Cill Rialaig has to fall back on the generosity of artists who’ve stayed at this unique retreat.

“They’ve been really good to us,” she says. As indeed, they should be since they stayed there for free, donating paintings in return. “A while ago, we canvassed their opinions and got fantastic letters, some long and some short, all saying what a life-changing experience it was.”

One cottage, with authentic interior fittings, contains a library on the area’s history. Another is to be of rebuilt as a composer’s house, but she wants to leave the rest of the site as it is, with eight ruins to show what Cill Rialaig was like before the project started.

Her ultimate ambition, which she admits “will probably not be realised in my lifetime”, is to have an Irish equivalent of the Tate gallery at St Ives, Cornwall, somewhere in the vicinity of Ballinskelligs – “not a huge building like that, but built into the landscape, with fantastic views”.

In the meantime, Campbell-Sharp – who dealt at close quarters with so many rogues, ranging from Haughey to Robert Maxwell – has started to write her memoirs. And based on the stories she tells us over a few glasses of wine, they’re bound to be sensational.