Fruits of Doonreagan – how my home environment has impacted on my writing.
I am in no doubt that Doonreagan has been the key to my career as a writer. Anything that I consider to be of any value to have come out of my pen has been written here.
To begin with, I worked in an octagonal little hut down by the road. Lately I work in greater comfort in an attic in the stable yard that I have converted to an office. I like to shut myself away for hours, days, weeks, months if possible. I used to think that all I needed to write was silence, and solitude. But I’ve come to realize that it is silence and solitude here, in this location. Being cloistered… enclosed by four walls keeping all external stimulus at bay, I am able to fully absorb the spirit of this place. The sense of freedom it brings me is something that, paradoxically, I only experience when thus confined.
Finding my feet as a newcomer in Connemara, my first interest was the Connemara ponies. And I couldn’t have chosen a better gateway to this region and its people. The ponies cut across all divides and in this fraternity I made friends for life. Before long I found myself running a centre at Doonreagan breaking and training young ponies for the export market – a way to greatly enhance their value for local breeders. However, this work was demanding and I soon longed to be reunited with my pen – if only I could decide what to write!
Then one day I met a publisher, Philip McDermott, who had a holiday house nearby. He commissioned me to write The Connemara Whirlwind, featuring my obstreperous young stallion Cuaifeach as protagonist. His book became a bestseller and was followed by two sequels, The Connemara Stallion and The Connemara Champion. The trilogy remains the most commercially successful venture in my career. However, when media started to refer to me as a “horse book writer”, I decided it was time to try something different.
I returned to the theatre, where I had had my professional training and early debut as a playwright. In 1997, Baptism of Fire, a comedy set in Connemara, was staged in Galway and Clifden, before travelling as far as Bulgaria.
I was then commissioned by RTE to write for A Living Word. The texts, intended to be inspirational, had to carry some relevance to each of two million Irish listeners, from varying walks of life, ages and educational background. And no broadcast could last for more than two minutes.
The need to be both concise, engaging and universal proved the best discipline a writer could ever wish for. For ten years I worked intermittently for A Living Word. My contributions were published as a millennium project in a book called Keylines. It took on a momentum of its own and is now published in many different languages all over the world.
Some of my keylines are directly attributed to my life at Doonreagan.
The following I experienced out on a walk with long-time friend Tim Robinson:
“Hillwalking in Connemara,
my guide stopped and pointed
across a broad expanse of barren bogland.
Down there was a townland
with a substantial two-storey house
surrounded by mature trees,
smooth green fields,
solid stone walls:
all testimony to erstwhile prosperity.
Apparently, this had not always prevailed.
At one time, a man had lived there on his own,
starving in a hovel, struggling to survive.
Then one night he had a dream that,
if he went to the bridge in Limerick,
his fortune would be made.
With little to lose he set out,
walking for days, until he found the bridge.
He lingered there, but nothing happened.
After three days, a man stopped and asked,
what keeps you here, stranger?
Hearing about the dream,
the Limerick man laughed out loud.
“What would the world be like,
if we all followed our dreams?
I dreamt last night I was in a place called Úraid.
I dug in a place between twin thorn trees
and unearthed a pot of gold.
But never would I be such a fool
as to take any notice of that!”
“Thank you,” said the man from Úraid
and returned home,
to dig in the spot
between the twin thorn trees.
The pot of gold was there;
his fortune was made.
So this is the place I call home:
Where dreams take precedence.”
And here – summing it all up:
“An adoptee from far away,
I’ve spent nearly half my life
living in Connemara.
The place I was born to
was quite different:
a park-like landscape,
dappled by the sun,
pretty and sheltered,
through centuries of prosperity.
Trees sighing softly in a summer breeze;
tidy gravel paths for lakeside walks,
water lapping gently at your feet.
Those impressions dwindled to a wistful memory,
when I found myself exposed to
the harsh conditions
of this extreme western edge of Europe.
A bleak wilderness of vast open spaces
bordered by a jagged mountain range.
pelted by heavy downpours,
ravaged by storms devastating
the little growth they yielded.
Today, the evidence
of age-old poverty and starvation
has mercifully been eclipsed
by the advance of the Celtic tiger.
And as my eye wanders unrestricted
over bogs and meadows
that know no boundaries, no limits…
across the wide Atlantic Ocean
swelling with the tide
in an echo of my own pulse,
reaching for horizons ever shifting,
I am in no doubt that here is my home.
My bedrock of complete security
and total freedom.
Where the heart is at peace
there is no need for shelter.”
In 2005 it was discovered that Doonreagan was the place where Ted Hughes had taken refuge in the late 1960s after the death of Sylvia Plath. With him here had been his two young children by Sylvia, as well as his lover Assia Wevill and baby daughter Shura.
Urbane and sophisticated, but also rootless and displaced, Assia Wevill had abandoned her third husband and a lucrative career in advertising in London for a new life of quiet domesticity with Hughes, in the seclusion of what was at the time a remote Connemara homestead.
Out of interest I started researching this little-known aspect of the Poet Laureate’s life, largely overlooked by his English biographers. And the more I discovered about Ted and Assia and their time here, the more I felt I could empathize with both of them: with Ted as an artist with a deep affinity to the place, and also with Assia as a woman, coming here from London and, after initial qualms, being won over. However, Ted and Assia, in spite of their efforts to make this their permanent home, had to leave. The consequences have the hallmark of a Greek tragedy: back in London, Assia subsequently killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura.
After spending years researching and contemplating the fate of these two characters, I began to hear an echo of their voices, clamouring to be recorded. And suddenly, one day, I sat down and in a few days, wrote the play Doonreagan. It explores the doomed relationship between Ted and Assia during their brief but intense spell here: an ultimate test of conjugality and family life, at which neither of them had excelled so far. The play reflects their efforts to establish a common ground free from the towering shadow of Sylvia Plath; their longing for peace and contentment; and their discovery that, close to nature, away from the judgments, pressures, demands and expectations of the world at large, they came closer not only to each other, but also to themselves: for Ted, this was a welcome incentive to creative work; for Assia, it was a challenging new experience.
My intention was not so much to produce a narrative but more to explore how the spirit of an environment can bring you so close to your true self that the essence of your entire life – past, present and future – emerges as crystal clear and inevitable.
Doonreagan was first shown at our first Ted Hughes conference, where a number of Hughes scholars gave it their whole-hearted approval. It then went on to London and Cambridge and later had an Irish tour. The play is now set to become a feature film.
And here are some of the characters’ own reflections on the place.
Ted is utterly attuned to his surroundings. Poems flow from his pen.
As he tells Assia:
“There’s something about these wide open spaces…
The air is so clear,the light over the sea so brilliant…No shadows, no grey areas,any haze or mist swept away by the wind…Like a giant mirror, reflecting, not what you want to see,not what you expect…but things as they truly are.”
Still – they cannot escape the ghosts of the past. Suddenly a suggestion comes to light that Assia may have precipitated Sylvia’s suicide. Ted is appalled. Afraid that she’s losing him, Assia has to try something to bring him back.
“When I think of people around here…like Teresa and her family.They have so little,aspire to so little,and yet they seem perfectly content.It’s as if all the hardship,hunger and deprivationgoing back generations,has taught them more than we knowabout being happy.”
The two of them seem to have attained a happiness here like nothing they’d experienced before. But it was cruelly cut short by news that the owner of Doonreagan wanted the house for himself. As it turned out, he wasn’t here for long: shortly after moving in, he suffered a stroke that landed him in a nursing home. Following his death, my husband Robert bought the house, fully furnished and equipped, more or less as Ted and Assia had left it.
In the play, we see Assia devastated at the prospect of leaving. She begs Ted to find them alternative accommodation nearby.
“You know what Teresa said to me the other day?
She said to me, ‘There is one thing I shall never give up.When I wake up in the morning,I am in the one place on earth where I want to be.’It made me realize that this is what really matters.”
“Well that,” Ted sighs, “is a luxury few can afford.”
In the Epilogue to the play, he admits to being left haunted by an image: the earth in a vast universe, and somewhere in the darkness, two pinpricks catching a glimpse of the morning sun. His memory of Doonreagan: a glimpse of life – as it could have been.
Teresa was the young local girl working for them, helping look after the children. She remembered the Hughes family well. Sadly, she is no longer with us, though I’m glad to say, she got to see the play.
However, the line ascribed to her about waking up in the place where you want to be, was not hers. It was uttered over thirty years ago by one of my early friends here, Phyllis O’Donoghue. It stayed deep in my heart and in due course ended up in the mouth of Assia Wevill. I kept forgetting to tell Phyllis that I had included a line of hers in my play. I only remembered on one occasion earlier this year, when we ended up in the same queue for the till in SuperValu in Clifden. I hope she was pleased to hear that I had done my bit to immortalize her little pearl of wisdom – one of many, for Phyllis always had something of value to impart. I say had, for that evening in Supervalu was her last evening in life. She died the following morning.
Teresa and Phyllis are among many Cashel people who have helped enrich my life here. I owe them a deep gratitude for making the place what it is.
Or perhaps, allowing the place to be, and remain, what it is.
A haven in the heart of Connemara.