Anam Mara, Part 1: Fireside
In March I headed off on retreat to a friend’s cottage in Donegal. It did have a TV, though I didn’t use it; and there was no internet access. It was just what the doctor ordered, and I hope it inspires some of you to take some very precious time out, and create your own little island of peace and bliss.
Last November I gave a talk at BizCamp Belfast about different kinds of burnout, how I’d experienced them and how I’d learned to cope with them. It was a packed room, the topic clearly a hot issue for the entrepreneurs and about-to-be entrepreneurs attending. Indeed, some people told me afterwards that it was refreshing to hear about ‘real ups and downs’ instead of some rose-tinted picture of self-employment. (I do love it tho’!) I spoke about how career burnout led eventually to depression – and then to the recovery and new sense of purpose that sparked the creation of Soul Ambition. I talked about financial burnout from an ill-advised property investment just before the market started to tank, and just after quitting my financially-secure job to start a business – and how even the penury of those worst times felt infinitely preferable to the misery of feeling trapped in the wrong job.
I talked about physical burnout, describing how a brilliant first half of 2010 gave way to a lengthy bout of tonsillitis and a chest infection that lasted from August to October, giving me a massive backlog of work to deal with at the end of the year. Not long after the talk, the tonsillitis/chest infection returned, lasting from December to mid-January and further increasing the workload. [Update: It turned out I had a deep-seated streptococcus infection, which thankfully cleared with one final, huge dose of antibiotics.]
So, after a busy January and February catching up, I decided I needed a proper break from client-facing work. I set up my auto-responder, changed my social media avatars to a picture of beach with ‘Offline ‘til 21/3’ splashed across it, loaded up the car with books, notebooks, my laptop and guitar, lots of healthy food (and a couple of bottles of wine) and a selection of yoga and exercise DVDs, and set off for lovely Donegal.
I was staying in lovely Anam Mara, a beautiful old stone cottage on the shores of Mulroy Bay, in Downings, Co. Donegal. Owned by my good friend Roisin, it’s been in her family for generations, and has been lovingly renovated and extended, with decking added to the back, overlooking the water. I arrived on a Thursday night, with snow on the roadsides, in rain and howling wind. Donegal at that time of year, in that sort of weather, is awesome in its wild, rugged beauty. My drive took me through the mountains and along dark shores, with cat’s eyes like glowing breadcrumbs dotted along the hairpin roads. I’d driven the route once in daytime, when Roisin brought me to see the cottage for the first time a couple of weeks before; now in the dark I could only make out the looming shapes of the mountain slopes and occasional glimmers on the water, but I knew how breathtaking the views awaiting me in the morning would be. Arriving at the cottage, I had a thrill of anticipation as I turned off the engine and was plunged into darkness, unable to see the bay at the bottom of the garden, and hearing nothing but the wind. This was switching off.
Having unloaded the car and made up the bed, I went for a browse of the bookcase Roisin uses for guests to borrow from and replenish with books they’ve already finished. I usually read non-fiction; books about business, psychology, self development, or Big Ideas of some sort, and I had a crate of them with me – but I had the urge for something frothy and undemanding. I grabbed a Maeve Binchy and curled up under the duvet with the wind assaulting the little window overlooking the bay. I was awake half the night with the noise, but I was lying there delighted by the drama of it all. It was bringing back memories of a family holiday to nearby Creeslough as a young child, staying in an old cottage with a turf fire, creaky windows and real peace and quiet in the spaces between nature’s crescendos.
Next day after a blissful lie-in, I went down to the kitchen overlooking the water, and cooked myself a healthy, brain-foodish breakfast (a variation on kedgeree with couscous instead of rice and Mediterranean flavours instead of Indian, if you’re interested). I made a start on organising my materials, and then wandered onto the decking to take in the view and the sea air. Anam Mara means ‘Soul of the Sea’ – I think I’ve got one of those. I never get tired of that sharp tang on the breeze, or of watching the water. A while after breakfast I stuck on a workout dvd* and pranced about the kitchen for a bit, as a black-faced sheep in the garden watched in that way that only a sheep can. At this point I decided that much as I was looking forward to getting stuck into some work-related reading in the peace and quiet, I was relishing not thinking about work for a while – I wanted a bit of a holiday. So, I lit the fire and curled up on the sofa with the Binchy for the afternoon. A few hours later I was feeling completely unplugged and chilled out, so I took out my beloved guitar and serenaded the sheep from earlier for an hour or two. Hungry from the sea air, I headed out to Carraigart’s only fish and chip shop, bringing the haul back to the fireside to be eaten from its paper, washed down with a glass or two of red wine. (Needless to say, there on the edge of the Atlantic, the fish was delicious.) And so to bed, and a deep, healing sleep.
Dhún na nGall
The following day I couldn’t wait to go explore Atlantic Drive; a famously scenic drive along the coast around Downings. The day was grey, wet and windy, but as I’ve said, Donegal wears that look well. I’m surprised I managed to keep the car on the road as each bend back towards the sea revealed another dramatic view of the grey-green surf and mountain slopes. Before completing the loop back to Anam Mara, I came across a graveyard, and stopped off to take a wander through the crumbling headstones and look out over the swirling sea. Cold and wet by now, I was delighted to see the Singing Pub on the other side of the road; I’d heard great things about its food, its staff and its music. Unfortunately I only got to enjoy one of that holy triumvirate of Irish welcomes on this particular occasion; Tony ruefully informed me that the usual live music was being replaced that night with a charity pub quiz as Gaeilge, of which I only know a couple of phrases. He even rang a nearby pub to check if they had any ceoil that evening, but as it was off-season, there was none to be had.
It was a shame to not hear a live tune or two here in the Gaeltacht, but I decided a home-cooked dinner and a glass of red by the fire with some Irish music in the background would be fair substitute. After dinner, I found something in the cutlery drawer just about long enough to skewer marshmallows with, and set about burning my fingers and my gob. I’d also found a promising paperback about a mysterious character with a penchant for the ‘red and rubicund’ who could see demons everywhere he went in London (which was mostly dark and mildly seedy pubs), holding them at bay whilst maintaining a secret career and writing his Memoirs of a Master Forger*. An odd and enjoyable book. Reading by the fire for another evening, I was as relaxed and happy as I had been in ages.
The next day, thirsty once more for the crashing surf along Atlantic Drive, I made the circuit again, and gasped and exclaimed the whole way round it again. It really is one of the most wildly beautiful stretches of coastline I’ve ever seen – I can’t recommend it enough. I didn’t get any video footage of it, but this YouTuber did – if you don’t mind shaky footage, this is the view from the car along the cliff roads:
I stopped off at The Singing Pub once more, where a turf fire was blazing, and sat as close to it as was polite with another group hovering nearby, also gently steaming. (From the rain, I mean; I’m not casting aspersions.) Striking up a conversation, I discovered that one of the group was a Belfast musician, Glenn Simpson, who kindly gave me a copy of his album Let The Feast Begin. (Speaking of which, my seafood basket was divine – if the first bite is with the eye, I’d it half eaten before I raised the first juicy morsel to my lips.)
Lunch devoured, I decided to do some more touring and headed west and north through Creeslough and Dunfanaghy, turning back as evening fell to pass by Mount Errigal. By this stage it was snowing, and there among the peaks it looked to me like some Tolkienesque wilderness. I parked and got out to try and take some photos, but lasted only a minute or two in the swirling snow before running back to the warmth of the car. Marvelling at such diversity and majesty of landscape, I headed for home and a blazing fire in the grate once more.
Thus ended a relaxing weekend by the fire. Little did I know I was about to be treated to some glorious sunshine and would be spending the next week mostly on the beach. (In a warm coat, like; this was March in Ireland.)
See the full set of photos on Flickr (just from my iPhone, unfortunately – I didn’t have my Canon back then)!
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