The Good Life: the success of a couple to write their return to nature
A young New York couple walk into a run down cottage in County Clare’s deepest, darkest place. It’s 1985 and Ireland is a gray place inside and out. There is a blackbird living inside the old four-room farmhouse and a fire pit that opens to the sky. Out front, the short lawn between the lobby gate and the narrow side road along Kiltumper Hill is a jungle of brambles, with a small garden gate lost somewhere inside.
Thirty-six eventful years later, the same small property outside of Ennis is a miniature Arcadia.
Carefully maintained flower beds run along the garden path. A lush vegetable patch and polytunnel lie at the back, beyond roses, Japanese anemones and delphiniums, and the air is filled with songs of birds and butterflies. The 200 year old chalet now beaming in the sun is a more substantial and polished prospect.
And there are books, not just on shelves inside but in the floor and masonry. Husband and wife Niall Williams and Christine Breen live here, and it is here that the latter’s grandfather lived until he immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1910. As a writers, this environment has fueled the twenty or so books, plays and screenplays they co-wrote or wrote separately during their stay here. In turn, their success has been reinvested in this living space.
“Every word has come from this house and this garden,” says Niall. “And the reason the house is the way it is, with this room added, then this room added, is because a little money came from that book or that book. You can almost tell which book made which play.
Niall and Christine welcome me during one of the rare magical days in August. A lunch of house salads and local cheese is served as we sit by the flower beds filled with poppies, as a cheerful retriever called Finn storms through the lawn.
After co-authoring four memoirs retracing the early years of their West Coast adventure, the couple wrote At Kiltumper: a year in an Irish garden, an intimate and meditative garden dissertation from 2019 – a year that has seen many challenges. Breen was undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, while wind turbines were erected 500 m from their back door.
Flushing Everything, however, is a deep connection to the tiny patch of land, his haven of mindfulness and the little sense of control he could afford. Williams, a native of South Dublin and the couple’s dreamer, discusses the zen of gardening and reflects on ecological and health dilemmas. Between her vast floral knowledge and her pen and ink illustrations, New York native Breen is more practical, with a dry mind that can bring her husband back to earth.
“Chris is my first fiction reader,” says Niall, “and my first editor and my first everything. She knows me better than anyone. In this case, the book has evolved from our two perspectives. One could be one male point of view, the other a female perspective, on the same ground. ”
“He’s a typical male,” Christine says of their different approaches to the garden. “Niall is focused on one job, and that’s what we do today. “
“Or I am do today – it’s impossible to control yourself, ”Williams retorts.
“That’s what I wanted to get to! I could be about to do one thing and end up doing something else. But it was really good for me that Niall spent more time in the garden [that year], so he could see all the work I was doing.
“Different people approach gardening in different ways,” he continues, turning to his wife for 40 years. “You’re an artist, so you see the colors and the layout. There are eight “gardens” during the year. And in the way Chris makes them, they all have different palettes. So it can start like yellows, and then, at the beginning of May, this garden is full of poppies, all red, peonies, delphiniums, and little by little it becomes bluer.
“His competence is to make these transitions. I’m usually sitting inside at a table writing, and I see it gradually changing. I don’t have this ability to see past what’s to come. Chris has this.
Change and the finite nature of things are fundamental in such a framework. With their adult children both married and living in New York City, the couple – both now in their sixties – not only wrote to deepen their understanding of their long devotion to the land, they wanted their children and grandchildren have a
A portion of “I can do” happened here with the couple all these years ago. Christine published her first well-received novel Her name is Rose in 2015 at the age of 60. She wrote non-fiction and sold works of art, not to mention raising two children and cultivating an exquisite garden and home.
Niall’s most recent novel was This is happiness, a softly sublime piece of nostalgia set in a fictional rural Ireland in the midst of the advent of electrification. It was among the Washington post‘s 50 Best Novels of 2019, and a constant favorite of book clubs in the United States, where he and Christine have fostered a dedicated following during their careers. Previous it was the Booker-longlisted Rain story.
A film adaptation from the early days of 1997 Four love letters is in pre-production with Mark Rylance as the star. After many false starts – Stanley Tucci and John Hurt each visited Kiltumper seeking to make the movie – this is the closest they’ve ever been. If all goes well, it could, Christine says, allow them to spend a good part of the winter in New York, where a grandchild is expected any day.
Growing up in Westchester as the oldest of six children, Breen spent her freshman year at Boston College overseas in Dublin, studying with Benedict Kiely, Eavan Boland and Mary Lavin. She returned to Boston and graduated from the School of Irish Studies, but always dreamed of returning to Ireland. Enrolling in an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature at UCD, a mutual friend introduced her with Williams in the UCD cafeteria.
“Chris was the most beautiful person I have ever met,” Niall said from across the table to a visibly charmed Breen. “Is still. I just got lucky to be at the same table as her. Then I found out that she lived with two trumpeters in a rented house across from my house near Lower Kilmacud Road.
“They were strange! ” she laughs.
With each studying the literature of the other’s homeland, the conversation flowed. After a year of teaching in Normandy, they got married in America and worked in New York. The two would end up in the publishing world – but Williams made their first foray into the Fox and Sutherland bookstore in Westchester where his customers included Frank Sinatra (“it was a real ‘welcome to America’ moment).
Romantic natures led to both bonding quickly and wholesale – and this trend would see them through some tough times ahead as well. But it was also what kept them from accepting the mad rush of Manhattan professional life, which left neither the time nor the free space to write or paint.
An emergency exit existed. When Breen was studying in Ireland, his mother’s first cousin, the former Kiltumper resident, died. After the funeral she learned the house was for sale and urged her father to secure it. It was empty, as she and Williams began to tire of New York life.
“When you’re on the commuter train,” says Niall, “you quickly realize that people’s lives are their jobs. You would see the most beautiful people about to make it to Manhattan. It was like Mad Men. On the train home in the evening, these same people looked broken and smeared. I felt like I was on a train and couldn’t get off.
“I would never know the answer to the question ‘could I write a book?’ – because I always had the excuse that I never had time.
“I don’t think we really thought we would stay forever,” Christine says of the big move. “We would just like to see if we can develop our skills. “
Their daughter Deirdre was born in 1987, and Joseph followed three years later. The roots have deepened and all idea of going back has disappeared.
Deirdre attended the village school where Niall taught English and French, before going to NCAD to study fashion design. Joseph turned out to be a gifted child (“Niall will tell you Joseph is the smartest person he has ever met”), and after graduating from Glenstal, he studied law at Trinity and at London School. of Economics.
At one point, fed up with the weather, the couple pulled the two children out of school for a nine-month trip around the world – in order to make a year without winter, a bonding experience the four of us cherish to this day.
During a weekend visit to London in early 2015 to see Joseph, Christine started to feel bad. Joseph’s boyfriend (now her husband) was an oncologist and immediately sent her to the hospital. A few days later, a large tumor and 10 inches of colon were removed. The following months and years would be an upsetting routine of long drives to Galway Regional Hospital for waiting rooms, more tests, chemotherapy.
Their garden would never seem so important.
“She was dancing at a party in January,” said Niall, “then February, you were in the ER. Because you have that invisible sense, something went wrong in you, that makes it even harder. So, for Chris, her time in the garden always heals in the most obvious way. You can see a noticeable change in the way she is when she goes there. She’s lost out there, in the best possible way.
Breen’s recovery was successful, but it’s another example of how hardship can find you anywhere – something they would encourage anyone who dreams of country living to consider.
Their most recent challenge is the wind turbines behind the house – the construction of which creates tension in the book. Both wish to emphasize that they are content to record the reality experienced under the turbines, including the inevitable visual and auditory imposition.
“If I didn’t mention it, we could be accused of being idyllic in our outlook on our life here,” says Niall. “In a way, it makes the space inside the garden more valuable.”
“You get used to it more and more,” adds Christine. “Let’s see how the
winter is going away.
Growing a garden and writing a novel are more or less the same thing, the couple agree – both are attempts to create a world you can live in. And every day is a chance to fix something, or to crash something – to make it just a little bit better, regardless of what’s going on in the world.
“Before we moved,” says Niall, “we had this recurring theme of Chris saying, ‘Tell me how it’s gonna be. And I would make it up, having never been here. So really, we were getting into a story. I would say we’re gonna do that and it’ll be like that eventually …
“Some of these things may have taken 30 years to materialize, but they were all present in the original story.”
“And like a rough draft of any story,” Christine adds, “you keep rephrasing it.”
‘In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden’ is published by Bloomsbury, € 20.99