Retreat for artists and writers to get a new lease of life

 

The Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island, a haven for writers and artists, is to undergo an extensive refurbishment, writes Sheila Sullivan

Long-awaited renovations to the Böll Cottage on Achill Island, which has been used as a writers' and artists' residence for the past 12 years, will begin in mid-September, following the successful purchase of the house by the Achill Heinrich Böll Association.

An Arts Council grant of €46,600 will provide a new roof, an oil-fired heating system and flooring for the white, horseshoe-shaped fisherman's cottage, which was built in the 1950s and is in urgent need of repair. The American Ireland Fund and West Deutsche Landesbank each have contributed €5,000 to the refurbishment.

"We will attempt to raise €25,000 - this is approximately 25 per cent of renovation costs," says John McHugh, secretary of the Böll association and manager of Custom House Studios Ltd., Westport. Funds will be sought from a variety of sources, including former residents of the cottage.

More than 100 writers and artists have participated in the residency scheme to date, travelling to Dugort from as far as Ecuador, Russia and China to seek the solitude that Heinrich Böll found in Achill.

One recent occupant, Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, grew up in a small village outside Hanoi. In the Cyril Gray Memorial Hall he read his poems in Vietnamese, translated by Boston poet Kevin Bowen, a Vietnam War veteran. Thieu told his Achill audience he had always wanted to visit Ireland after hearing of the great Irish poets and dramatists.

The refurbishment project comes on the heels of the effort to buy the Böll Cottage from the family of the late Nobel Prize-winning German writer. Key funding for the purchase came from the former Minister for the Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Síle de Valera, and from Mayo Co Council.

"We are delighted to be associated with it," says Mayo county manager Des Mahon. "It was a partnership between the State and the local authority and the local community to honour the memory of Heinrich Böll."

Two years ago, when the Böll family offered to sell the house for £100,000 to what was then known as the Achill Heinrich Böll Committee, it seemed an uphill climb. A quiet but extensive campaign got under way. John McHugh drew up a proposal, meetings were held. The Irish Times gave prominent coverage to the fundraising effort in August 2001.

Most significantly, a delegation led by the late Denis Gallagher, former minister for the Gaeltacht, arranged to meet the then minister, Ms de Valera, at the opening of the Museum of Country Life in Turlough House, just outside Castlebar. Among the delegation on September 9th, 2001, were founding Böll committee members John F. Deane and Tom McNamara. Poet Paul Durcan, also present to lend support, recalled that Denis Gallagher missed his first All Ireland hurling final in 50 years to attend the meeting.

Six weeks later Ms de Valera promised £60,000 towards the purchase of the cottage. By Christmas, Mayo Co Council announced its grant of £30,000, and the committee used £10,000 from previous fundraising to achieve the purchase price. The committee, now an association and registered charity, became the owner earlier this year.

Denis Gallagher died suddenly in November 2001, aged 78, a little more than a week after Ms de Valera announced the £60,000 to buy the Böll cottage. It was, for the parish of Achill and Currane, the death of a chieftain. The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, who attended his large funeral in Currane, said: "He was truly a giant of the west."

Moreover, Dr Edward King, chairman of the Böll association, points out: "He was instrumental in securing the crucial amount, and the Achill community is grateful to him and to the Böll family."

• Contributions to the Achill Heinrich Böll Association may be sent to John McHugh, Abha Teangaí, Dooagh, Achill Island, Co Mayo, tel: 098-43414; email: hbollachill@anu.ie