Cill Rialaig: The Residency & Artists Retreat

Arriving to the artists residences in the erstwhile abandoned village of Cill Rialaig feels like coming to the end of a pilgrimage.  Time is left behind as the road narrows and winds at a forty five degree angle along the top of a cliff. At just the point when it seems this must have been a wrong turn the first of the cottages appears nestled behind a dry-stone wall with clear sky and sea all around. At once it is clear this is a place of calm and quiet,  the silence is palpable, even the sea is not too loud.

My first thought (after wow) is – this is going to brilliant!

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Getting down there

I drove down. I had left myself notes on what to pack for weeks beforehand, and on the morning, of course, read the wrong list and still managed to leave something behind. But nothing vital.  I brought with me every possible item of art material I thought I might need, and for every eventuality including being rained in solid for two weeks. (It can happen!) I just put the boot down and kept going – ok, with the odd stop to tidy up a few loose ends (8 hours down; 5 home!).

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The car was stuffed to the gunnels and  I’ve developed a soft spot for motorway service stations.

Settling in

I had set off with an increasing concern that maybe I wasn’t the hermit type – well, more like a creeping certainty. I needn’t have worried, the place has got the balance right between being left in peace and not been found eaten by cats.  The caretaker is chatty and helpful too.

The Place

The cottages are lined along the old headland road, overlooking the Atlantic. It is right on the edge of Ireland. Indeed, of Europe.

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The landscape is stunning.  The scale and breadth of it is a challenge to capture  in any medium.

There are hares all over the place. This is very unusual. They are big bruisers and fearless, they run ahead and across the road at a leisurely pace, just moving on. I now understand why Barry Flanagan chose them for his sculptures, they are a real part of the landscape here.

I was getting local directions. ‘Just up there’  he said’ there’s the baby graveyard’. He pointed up the hill across the stone walled fields. ‘Where?’ I asked, squinting into the sun’. ‘Just there’ he said ‘that stone wall there, there are stone crosses and all’.


We went in search of it another day, but could find only the remains of a 6th c Oratory and Slab crosses. No sign of a burial site for unbaptized babies.  Later I did some research – that is I Googled it! – and found out that these were called Cillins. The tradition was to use to previously sanctified but abandoned sites, even old megaliths. So the Oratory is indeed a Cillin after all.

The Wheels

Act as my mobile studio, stuffed with everything I might need for a day out in-situ en plein air painting and drawing.

I check the map for likely spots and then drive around the narrow country roads keeping a look out for mad cars and great views.  I have come to think of this as location hunting, when I find a good spot I mark it on the map.

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The car is just about still moving. It is well used to rocky lanes and uneven terrain. Another dent will just fit right in, although I do try to avoid it. I am a bit afraid it is on its last legs.


If the weather is atrocious I can push back the seat and draw from inside, or I can wait out a squall and be in position when the weather breaks.

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My investigations were thorough and often till late evening. Some places I ended up were odder than others. I never did see the dinosaur footprints, but maybe they can’t be seen at high tide. And it was chilly!


I like cliffs

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It takes a certain degree of stubbornness to set about drawing a cliff landscape.

First of all there is the issue of access, often requiring a bit of clambering and careful navigation of 45% sloping fields, and those were the easy ones. And of course I have to clamber back up them afterwards. And all the kit has to carried both ways.

And then there’s the continual breeze and or small gale coming off the Atlantic. Cliffs look the way they do because of being battered. Hence, said battering is aimed at anything cliff like or on a cliff – artists included. On a few occasions I had to give up as it got so wild I couldn’t keep the sketchbook flat (the pages are held open with bulldog clips –but the gusts were so strong the whole book was lifting!) but mostly I jammed myself against a big rock and carried on.

In Cill Rialaig, the best views needed afternoon light, so this influenced my schedule. No point trying to paint something obscured by too much shadow, and it took light to bring out the colours.

So, cliffs are spectacular, have the best ‘motifs’ and some of the best colours as the sea churns at the foot into deep cerulean, turquoise and viridian with shots of Prussian blue and gold, all laced with white, beside the dark edges of the rock and shadow. But they also present the greatest practical challenge of getting to them and being on the spot to paint and draw.

Did I mention I like cliffs?


I found an excellent cliff to paint just up the way from the village. It necessitated climbing over the fence steps to the Oratory and then continuing down towards the sea. following the line of the stone walls. At the end of this I perched on a rock near the edge and balanced my paints carefully, worried a gust would take the lot – and me – into the depths.

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I trundled around looking for more and found a spot in Valencia Island looking back across the bay southwards, the Skelligs in the distance, disappearing and reappearing in the sea haze like Hy-Brasil.


The view from the top of Bolus had was also quite spectacular. A huge panoramic vista of mountains, headlands, islands and sea. The scale was too much for my iPhone (I use it to take record shots to reposition the page on return visits to the same spot).


Eventually I went to see ‘The Most Beautiful Cliffs in Kerry’ – very spectacular and almost surreal. Strangely striped with bright yellow lichen. Whistling gale at the top though,  so I didn’t get much done.

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I took out a selection of dry media and paint everyday, but in the end reverted to the usual selection of watercolour with some pencil sketching. There is a reason for this beyond familiarity. Over the years I have developed a kit and method for painting in awkward-to-get-to places, I have it all whittled down to the essentials. So, inevitably, this was what I used most.


Back at the cottage I laid out every piece of material I had brought with me, a real luxury (I am already missing the dedicated studio space) and did some follow up work from the sketches.

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In some cases, I’d had to give up because of rain or too blustery wind, and did what I always do marking them up with tone code to finish off later.

work up

As you can see I am also going for housekeeper of the year award.

As I searched around for the perfect spot I realised that large chunks of the seascape looked just like Donald Tesky paintings and prints.  The landscape down there meets you on its own terms, I could see it might be a battle to get to grips with it. And indeed it took the better part of a week of sketching and walking around for it to finally ‘click’. 

The final word

Somewhere along the line thoughts that had been gestating came together and coalesced into a final something.  A next stage. I had been wrestling with a few formal concerns and a technical issue and somehow in the two weeks I was there these got resolved, sending me onto the next level of trajectory. To say I was pleased is an understatement! I can see this having a real impact on what I do next.

The place is isolated enough that is is away from irritating distractions, but with enough people around or passing by that if you want it a chat can be had or a dinner shared.

I loved every moment of it. I am now ‘sold’ on the idea of residencies, and I can’t wait to do more  in other places.  And to go back to Cill Rialaig again.

The Skinny: Practical information

Details about the residency and applying are available on request and they have a Facebook page too. The application procedure is straight forward enough, dates are assigned about a year ahead of attendance and there is some wiggle room on the timing, although it looks like there is a positive stampede for August dates.  From what I hear on the grapevine there also seems to be a different atmosphere down there depending on the time of year. I got the impression that throughout the summer it was all very business like. Maybe people who have a very limited precious time to get a lot done.

Visiting artists leave a piece of work (or bring one with them) to donate to the fund raising efforts for the residency. Writers might leave a signed copy of their book.

WIFI is available free in the Cill Rialaig Art Centre itself. A few – though not many – local cafes and pubs have a sign up to say it’s available, but it’s not everywhere by any means. Data allowances used to create a personal hot-spot  get gobbled up pretty fast, and I also found this unstable and unreliable in the cottage. I didn’t use it much, just the occasional urgent email, but in fact, some of those didn’t get through, despite reading as sent at my end! That said, I did hear that some of the others had solid enough connections.

Location, location, location.

The retreat really is off the beaten track. Without a car you would be stranded. There really is nowhere within walking distance – and I will walk! The village is at the top of a winding hilly road, the nearest shop is back towards the Art Centre & Gallery, which is a good 30-40 minute walk each way.  This is a small garage shop with essentials and lovely soda bread. All around the area are holiday homes and even a caravan park, it seems to be catering for these.  It is not the cheapest. The local destination is Ballinskelligs beach and beyond that a small harbour.


The nearest pub –Cable O’Leary’s –  is also about 30 minutes walk away down that hill. This is the biggest pub for miles around and is where the locals go. There is music on some nights.

There is (2015) one bus to Caherciveen every Thursday and one to Killarney every month on a Tuesday. Local taxi’s can be expensive.

The nearest supermarket is in Caherciveen but this is quite a good branch of Supervalue with all the usual stock as well as few local items.  chaherciveen itself has a good selection of shops, in particular a brilliant fish shop and French Patisserie (2015). Otherwise the usual scatter of general shops, banks and trendy tourist shops. There is even a €2-Shop – which has its place in the scheme of things after all. There is no real art suppliers, Quirkes has very basic stationary, and a few school art supplies; it’s good for maps and books.

Staying there

It is a wonderful place to stay, really perfect for an retreat style artists residency, especially if you want to put your head down and work without distraction. When I was there there were a couple of cottages where the occupant never appeared. Equally, it is small enough that if people are inclined to be friendly the opportunity to bump into your neighbours is there too. The Rule is that no-one should be disturbed, and there are even signs on the doors saying as much (I did start to feel a wee bit like a rare zoo exhibit).

The Cottages

The cottages are divided into a main room, with the studio at one end, and a small kitchen and matching size bathroom. Upstairs above these is a mezzanine floor with the bed.

The kitchen has an under counter fridge with a cool box, a kettle and toaster. I even found a Cafetaire.  All the basic’s needed for self catering are there too.  The bathroom is fully tiled with a shower and a heater. Towels were provided, as is bedding.

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The main space is the height of the ceiling with excellent light, and a lot of electric sockets and artificial light as well. There is solid state central heating and where I was it was downright cosy. There is also a small wood burning stove for a bit of extra oomph (bring firelighters & matches).

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I rearranged a bit

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An easel was provided and as well as a few work tables. There was lots of space to spread out.  Each artist rearranged the interior to their own liking, which was a hoot, as each was so different!

Some of the cottages had a radio too. But if these were on, I  didn’t hear them.

The silence there was magnificent, only the occasional bleating of sheep to break it.



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