Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Movie Made in Beara

Neil Jordan made his movie, Ondine, in Castletownbere and around the peninsula during the summer of 2008. It opened at the Toronto Film Festival on 14 September 2009; the following is the review that appeared in Variety on 15 September.

(Ireland - U.S.)

A fairy tale mashed up against the jagged unpleasantries of the modern world, "Ondine" is a film of unusual narrative currents and pungent tonal effects. Literary to its marrow both in its Irish-lilted language and the storytelling tradition upon which it draws, this modestly scaled home-base outing from Neil Jordan is a decidedly specialized affair that will appeal only to certain tastes, but there's plenty to appreciate if you let it seep in. In a market that demands must-see elements especially from indie-style features, the film can't expect more than fair returns.

Making one of his periodic returns to shoot in Ireland, this time to the fishing village of Castletownbere on the rugged Beara peninsula in the Southwest, Jordan here examines ideas related to luck, destiny, the distinction between physical and moral rehabilitation, the advantages of being willing to believe in good fortune, the value of storytelling, and the light and dark sides of fairy tales and life. Some of it is fanciful and some harsh, resulting in a deliberate collision of moods that defines the picture's personality.

"Anything strange or wonderful?" the scrappy fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) inquires of his 10-year-old daughter upon greeting her, and the two adjectives more or less describe everything that happens in this yarn, beginning with the opening, in which Syracuse raises his fishing net from the bay to find within it a young woman who, unaccountably, is alive. Although fearful she could be an asylum seeker, he prefers to imagine otherwise, that she's Ondine, "the girl who came from the water," a sign that his run of rotten luck is at an end and he may now look forward to seven years of good fortune. Encouraging this view is the fact that his catches increase enormously with her arrival.

As the scruffy fellow relates the yarn in the form of a scarcely disguised kids' story to his daughter, that's what she chooses to believe, too. Annie (Alison Barry), who lives with her disgruntled mom and the latter's loutish boyfriend, is confined to a wheelchair part-time due to weekly dialysis treatments, but has the sharpest mind and most articulate tongue in town. For whatever reason, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) doesn't want to be seen by outsiders, but Annie is the exception, visiting at the little cottage her dad keeps down by the bay and elaborating on his tale, and local legends, with the conviction that Ondine is one of the selkies -- creatures who periodically emerge from the sea, fall in love with a human and grant a wish, only to return to the deep.

It takes a skilled writer to reconcile these wispy notions with the gritty realism that results, in this instance, in bloody violence, but Jordan is deeply versed in both these narrative veins and able to blend them into a single strand. Even if one can't be too surprised by the eventual revelations of who Ondine is and who she's hiding from, the incongruities remain startling, the plot twists "curiouser and curiouser," as father and daughter like to say. Farfetched as it may be, the little fable makes an appealing case for the idea that, once you look at something a certain way, it will be easier to justify what happens as a consequence of having understood and believed things that way in the first place.

A lone wolf who's been on the wagon for more than two years but can't live down his reputation as the village clown, Syracuse is kind and patient with his beauteous guest, who has a trace of an accent and whose perceived otherworldliness initially enforces a certain distance vis-a-vis her savior. When the inevitable passionate intimacy occurs, it coincides with the arrival in town of a dark stranger and difficulties for all concerned.

The unusual story conception is bolstered by the picture's strong physicality, which derives from cinematographer Christopher Doyle's moody, muscular rendering of coastal County Cork's alternately rocky and verdant landscapes. Bleak one moment, the setting looks like a cousin of Brigadoon the next, with weather that never wants to make up its mind. A notably unusual score by Kjartan Sveinsson at times achieves haunting effects.

Farrell is first-rate as a man with a dicey past who decides the wind has shifted in his favor, even if only for a while. Alert and good at quicksilver mood changes, the actor trades on his personal reputation by investing Syracuse with a healthy, self-deprecating attitude toward his errant past, especially in exchanges with the local priest (Stephen Rea) who knows him all too well. He's also splendid with young Barry, graciously allowing the newcomer to steal every scene she's in; captivating and terribly funny in her matter-of-fact display of Annie's bluntness, intelligence, nonchalant bravery and assertive certainty as to how things are, she gives one of the great kid performances of recent times.

The role of Ondine is tricky in that the character must remain mysterious and undefined for a long stretch, and then not become too ordinary once all is revealed. A Polish thesp who surfaced in the 2007 film "Trade," Bachleda is strong-featured and looks powerful enough to be a creature at home on land or at sea. She is also effective at letting her true and emotional self out at the crucial juncture.

Some of the thicker Irish accents will pose a problem for auds in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Five Ways Culture Can Save Us"

The following article, written by Gerry Godley, appeared in The Irish Times, on Friday, 25 September 2009. Although written about Ireland in these difficult economic times, his perspective on the role that the creative arts can and should play in our societies is universal.

IRISH ARTISTS, your country needs you. If there was a consensus among the high achievers of the Irish diaspora gathered in Farmleigh [an what-to-do-about-the-Irish-economy summit meeting] last weekend, surely this was it. A roll call of totemic figures, including financier Dermot Desmond, philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman, film-maker Neil Jordan and a forthright Minister for Arts, Martin Cullen, all avowed the importance of culture in the economic heavy lifting to come. Earlier this year, its potency in international affairs was underscored by Brian Cowen in New York, when he spoke of how “most Americans encounter Ireland today through culture: whether that is Irish dance and music, Irish film, Irish writing or an Irish play on Broadway”. Mary Robinson asserted its importance in a social fabric context speaking in August at the annual Béal na mBláth commemoration, when she said: “We should listen to our creative artists.”

Like the rest of us, they are each in their own way drawing from the well of our remarkable achievements. Each successive nominee or winner of an Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Golden Globe, Mercury and Man Booker, not to mention this week’s Emmy success, our Nobel Laureate and the world’s most successful rock band, is a jewel hewn from the rich seams of artistic expression that permeate every stratum of Irish life, representing levels of participation surpassed only by our great sporting traditions.

The arts have a vital role to play in our national recovery in five distinct areas.


“Why do the Irish write such good plays?” ran a recent feature headline in the Wall Street Journal, and the New York media’s reportage of Ireland is dominated by culture stories, to an equivalent advertising value of $5 million (€3.4 million) in the second quarter of 2009 alone. Daily on the world’s cinema screens, bookshelves, theatres and concert stages, and in its print, online and broadcast media, Irish artists are our perpetual trade mission, defending and redeeming our global reputation at a time when it is under the most rigorous scrutiny, and offering the most spirited riposte to the perception of a nation in duress. We are economically bloodied, we are culturally unbowed.


Our artistic community is a nerve that flexes the creative economy muscle. The arts instinctively foster those attributes of the enterprise model articulated in the Government’s framework document Building Ireland’s Smart Economy. Lateral thinking, big ideas, resourcefulness and invention, problem-solving, vision and originality find full expression in the output of Irish artists, and their work percolates many walks of Irish life. Dr Richard Tol at the ESRI: “Innovation is about creativity and skills, just like art is. Soon you will not be able to get a degree in electrical engineering at Princeton without having taken drama. The reasoning is that anyone can acquire skills, but the competitive edge is in creativity. Ireland beats Princeton hands down in the arts.”


There is a reason, certainly not the climate, why thousands are compelled to travel here, and cultural tourism disperses €2.3 billion annually in our local economies. This is a bona fide growth industry in Ireland, with projected upward trends of 15 per cent. As with landscape and heritage, the arts have a starring role in how we give our visitors a unique cultural experience, from our mighty international festivals of the performing arts to our vivid traditional music by a convivial hearth. Long before they arrive, it’s our writers, film-makers and touring performers who whet their appetite to come.


In 2008, some 170,000 jobs or 8.7 per cent of the total workforce were within the culture and creative sectors. Within that employment matrix lie the arts, among them practitioners, technicians, producers, curators, publishers and the other highly skilled disciplines that work together to create art from Ireland. We are an indigenous industry, active in every county, we are wholly Irish-owned, and we are exporters. Our earnings are not repatriated, and we are spending locally.

Why then, given the symbiosis between cultural health and economic recovery, are stakeholders so apprehensive about the immediate future? While the goodwill is universal, understanding of the levers and valves through which culture flows appears limited, at least on the evidence of the McCarthy Report, which if implemented will retard the cultural sector for years. Similarly the Commission on Taxation, which in removing artists’ tax exemption will further erode the subsistence income of Irish artists, the majority of whom would view the average industrial wage as a far away country.

Under the McCarthy recommendations’ targeted savings of €105 million in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, Culture Ireland, the cultural export bureau that has dramatically upped the profile of Irish art internationally, will be axed to effect savings of €4 million annually, and the Irish Film Board will face a similarly perilous future. The Arts Council, which funds thousands of independent artists, professional and voluntary organisations across the State, will see its annual funding reduced to €68 million, contextually the same sum that Anglo is lending its client Zoe Developments to complete the construction of its own CHQ in Docklands.

If the arts sector is a sponge, it’s not a particularly absorbent one. When one considers that the renegotiation of the pharmacy contract alone netted savings in the order of €133 million in the health spend, it seems that so much squeezing of the arts will be required to extract meaningful savings that the patient will not survive the procedure.

This is tacitly acknowledged in McCarthy, which goes so far as to recommend the discontinuing of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism itself, thus rendering us the only State among the EU without a senior arts ministry at cabinet.

At this time of great economic duress, and the solidarity it asks of the collective, I am not arguing for the retention of the tax exemption, continued support to the Arts Council, Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board, and critically the Department itself, from some myopic sense of entitlement. The arts community is not afraid of thrift and austerity, it has always been our modus vivendi. Rather, it is borne of the hope that when the smoke clears and culture is inevitably identified as a pillar of national recovery, the ecosystem that supports it remains intact. It may also help us determine what shape our society takes, which brings me to my fifth point, for which there is no metric, no measurable output, but it is important.


At their best, our artists steer a course for shore when the waters around us became uncertain. They reflect our shared gift for self-expression, our capacity for resilience and reinvention, and are a catalyst for us to heal and resonate, understand and reconnect. The artist’s voice is woven into our discourse, reconciling the past, imagining a future, and as important now as at any of the precipitous moments when our forefathers called upon its counsel. The citizenship of the artist is always active.

Gerry Godley is director of Improvised Music Co and a member of the National Campaign for the Arts, being launched today by many of our most significant institutions and best-known artists. To join the campaign, see

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Workshop Schedule for 2010 -- So Far!

Creating Compelling Characters
Workshop Guide: Susan Hubbard

One-week Residential Retreat, arriving Saturday, 5 June and departing Saturday, 12 June

"Building three-dimensional characters out of words is an essential part of a writer's craft. Creating characters who are plausible, yet not stereotypical, is central to writing poetry, fiction, essays, plays, and memoirs alike. We aspire to create not merely realistic characters, but fascinating ones who will go on to haunt our readers.

"This intensive workshop invites you to construct a character who will inhabit your next poem, novel, story, or nonfiction piece. Mornings are devoted to discussions, writing exercises, and workshops. Afternoons allow time to write, complete assignments, explore the countryside, or schedule one-on-one conferences with Susan. Evenings are for dining, socializing, dreaming, or writing on your own. Whether you are an aspiring or an experienced writer, this week offers you insights into your character and guidance in finishing your next creative project. We also discuss a range of topics important to the creative writer, including how to get published, find an agent, build a writing discipline, and secure a creative support system.

"Anam Cara is an ideal setting for writers to come together, work hard, savor Sue's excellent cooking, and find sustained inspiration. By the week's end, you'll be refreshed, renewed, and inspired, and you'll return home in the company of a character ready to propel your next work to completion."

Susan Hubbard ( is the award-winning author of six internationally published books, including The Society of S (Simon & Schuster, 2007) and The Year of Disappearances (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Her seventh, The Season of Risks, will be published in 2010. Hubbard's short story collection, Blue Money, won the Janet Heidinger Kakfa Prize for best book of prose by an American woman published in 1999. Her first book, Walking on Ice, received the AWP Short Fiction Prize. Hubbard co-edited 100% Pure Florida Fiction, an anthology. Her short fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. Her fiction has been translated and published in more than fifteen countries.

Hubbard is Professor of English at the University of Central Florida, and she's taught summer workshops for Cornell University, Stonecoast Writers Workshop, and Split Rock Arts Program. She has received teaching awards from Syracuse University, Cornell University, the University of Central Florida, and the South Atlantic Administrators of Departments of English. Her writers' residencies include Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Djerassi Resident Artists' Project, and Cill Rialaig. In 2002-03, she served as President of Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).

The Poem and the Dream
Leaders: Paula Meehan and Juliet Clancy
One-week residential retreat, arriving Saturday, 19 June and departing Saturday, 26 June

Following on from the success of this workshop at Anam Cara in 2008 and 2009, The Poem and the Dream is a midsummer poetry workshop using dreamwork as a tool for poets to make connections to their poetry and as a guide to reading and understanding the poems of self and others. The focus will be poetry, making it and making it better. This workshop is suitable for those starting out and those already writing poetry.

Paula Meehan is an award-winning Irish poet and playwright and a member of Aosdána (established to honour those artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland), and Juliet Clancy is a dreamworker whose mentor is internationally-known dreamworker Jeremy Taylor.

Finding the Story
Leaders: Nessa O'Mahony and Peter Salisbury
Three-day Residential Retreat, arriving 1 July and departing 4 July

Narrative is one of humankind's most ingrained instincts. From the beginnings of time, we have sought ways to tell our story, and that of the world around us. Even in this brave new world of technology, we remain captured by good storytellers, whatever the medium. This workshop will lead participants on a journey to discover narrative technique, using a variety of creative writing and drama practices. The workshop will focus on story outlining, finding and building conflict, plot development and resolution, with individual sessions on how we generate story ideas, how characters generate plot and vice versa, and how we build plot and make it credible and enticing. Participants will be asked to respond to a variety of stimulus and will come to understand the narrative structure inherent in all forms of writing.

Led by Dublin-based writer Nessa O'Mahony and drama facilitator Peter Salisbury, the workshop is aimed at writers of all genres who wish to develop their skills in narrative. Nessa O'Mahony is an award-winning poet who has published two collections of poetry and a verse novel (In Sight of Home, Salmon Poetry, May 2009), and has a PhD in Creative Writing. Peter Salisbury is a writer, director, and drama facilitator, whose clients include The Gaiety School of Acting and the National Learning Network.

Writing from Within: Haiku and the Spiritual Dimension
Leaders: Maeve O'Sullivan and Kim Richardson
A One-week Residential Retreat, arriving Saturday, 17 July and departing Saturday, 24 July

Following on from the success of their "Writing from Within" workshops held at Anam Cara in July 2007, 2008, and 2009, this workshop is designed to help you develop paths to your inner inspiration -- the path within. Toward this goal, the group will work with the ancient medium of haiku poetry and its related forms, with their links to Zen and its emphasis on mindfulness. Combining the haiku work with meditation, breath and light practices, the outstanding natural beauty of the Béara Peninsula, and the peace and quiet of Anam Cara, the aim is to heighten levels of awareness and to open creative channels.

Maeve O'Sullivan is a leading Irish haiku poet, a founding member of Haiku Ireland, and an experienced haiku workshop leader, and Kim Richardson is a published haiku poet and experienced leader of meditation retreats. Maeve and Kim are joint authors of the haiku collection Double Rainbow, which was launched by Alba Publishing in 2005 and received a number of favourable reviews (see

The Art of Seeing in Ireland: A Workshop for Photographers, Writers, and Visual Artists
Leader: Patrick Keough
One-week Residential Retreat, arriving Saturday, 31 July and departing Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Art of Seeing workshop will give participants creative techniques and exercises for developing heightened awareness (hypersensitivity) to the world, to look beyond mundane and commonplace subject matter, and to break external visual references down into basic lines, forms, colors, values, and textures -- to abstract (frame) these commonplace external references into new and visually interesting compositions in both words and pictures. It's all about learning to see as an artist. These techniques can be applied to any art form; however, we will be focusing on writing (journaling), photography, and sketching during the retreat.

Patrick Keough has taught art, photography, journalism and graphic design for the Community College System of North Carolina for 25 years. He was the Chairman of the Society for Photographic Education Southeast Region from 1996-1999, won First Place for his digital photograph Eyeries Village at the 2002 Carteret Arts Council Art from the Heart Juried Exhibit, and exhibited his Ireland photographs at the Secret Garden Gallery on Ocracoke, North Carolina in 2003. He also showed is Ireland images at Anam Cara Writer's and Artist's Retreat and Gallery in Southwest Ireland in the Fall of 2003. He had a One-Man Show of his Ireland photographs at the Jacksonville Arts Council's Gallery during June and July of 2005. Keough published his first book Einstein Place and other Stories in 2006 and has been publishing a series of "blurb" books on his family, travels and journals since 2007. Images from Patrick's, and his daughter Andei's, last trip to Ireland can be seen at: . For more of his work, see:

Visual Storytelling
Leader: Selia Honig
One-week Residential Retreat, arriving Saturday, 14 August and departing Saturday, 21 August

Art making, is, at its best, a communication medium. The story it tells transcends the experience of the maker and speaks more broadly about the experience of being human. The task of the artist, for the most part, is to find a story and the exact materials necessary to do that story justice.

This workshop will allow you to explore visual art making in a variety of media using the landscape of the Beara Peninsula, and the peaceful setting of Anam Cara, as inspiration. Through guided visual journaling and flexible time to explore media and content interests, this week will help you examine and focus on the relationship between narrative, material, and meaning to develop a richer vocabulary in both the craft of visual art making and its function relative to storytelling.

In the mornings, there will be exercises and prompts to both inspire and demonstrate different approaches to visual art making. In the afternoon, these activities can be more fully developed into more finished pieces, or may provide the seed for a series of images done individually or collaboratively, that focus on the narrative. There will be ample opportunities for both peer feedback and as well as individual feedback by the instructor.

This workshop is appropriate for both novices wishing to explore visual art making as well as more experienced artists, and will provide a supportive and rich environment for personal growth in visual art making.

Selila Honig is a visual artist and an award-winning short story writer. She is also an instructor at the Corcoran College of Art in Design, teaching courses in both digital media design, fine art studio, and teacher education. She is studying for a doctorate in teacher education and the arts and frequently writes and speaks on the issues facing the art education field.