Writers and their ghosts

DSCN1488Last year I discovered a brilliant writers’ and artists’ retreat – so special, in fact, that I am tempted to keep it secret, but then I wouldn’t be able to write about it, so…

I have been on numerous Arvon Foundation courses and retreats over the years, and went to the Hurst in January 2012 where I met a wonderful Irish man, who told me a story. There is a place, he said, in Monaghan, Ireland: a beautiful period home with a forest and a lake, that once belonged to a theatre director called Tyrone Guthrie. On Guthrie’s death he left the house to the State for the sole purpose of the arts: it welcomes artists, writers, dancers and musicians to use the house and the gardens, to be inspired, or to finish a project. The only obligation is that residents come together each evening to share the delicious food, wine and company. He told me that it’s populated by Ireland’s creatives, that people lose themselves within its grounds: they write their masterpieces, they fall in love, make life-long friendships. He also told me about the ghost. Residents have woken to feel her weight at the end of the bed, or a strange pressure on their chest. A ghost, I thought. How brilliant.

The Tyrone Guthrie Centre takes artists on merit, so you have to go through a formal application process. People generally stay for a week, sometimes more. It’s a magical place, quirky and atmospheric, with a wild creative energy that inspires and surprises. I ended up going twice last year, and am due to visit again this April. Each visit, I’ve leapt forward with my novel. This time, I intend to finish it and send it finally to my agent.

The first time I visited was Spring 2012, and although it rained for the whole coach journey from Dubin airport to Monaghan, the sun shone on the house and continued to shine each of the seven days that I was there. I didn’t have the best room tucked within slanted eaves with not much of a view, but it was cosy and quiet, and I was away from my usual distractions. I worked most hours of the day and I read Colm Tóibín in the evening. I enjoyed the other guests. There was a jazz band, whose members played live for us. There were other writers: an American Berliner on her first screenplay, a successful Irish playwright, an Irish Crime Writer. I am still in contact with most of them; some have become friends.

There was much talk about the ghost. One resident, on visiting previously, had woken to hear a child talking outside his bedroom, and he saw a vision of a man in a big black hat, sitting at the end of his bed. Another resident experienced a terrible chill in his bones. The stories were relayed in a jokey way around the table, and no one took it too seriously.

But then one night I heard her.

There was a terrible storm, the wind whistled around the house, up and through the fire escape outside my attic window. I managed to go to sleep, but in the dead of night I woke suddenly to the brass doorknob turning. It was a loud decisive sound and it forced me to sit upright in bed. There, again. I turned on the light and stood by the door wondering if it was an intruder, but there was no one in the corridor. I pushed the door to hear what the wind would do, but it was not the same determined twist of the handle. The next day I relayed the story and one of the guests said that she’d had a sensation of someone moving their hands either side of her body as if they were tucking her in. We agreed that we’d had a visitation. Other residents laughed at us and blamed it on our vivid imagination. ‘They’re all made up stories, someone was probably trying to get into your room,’ they said.

Over dinner that night another resident told me that she’d stayed in the attic room years before, and had woken to the door banging. She’d pulled the covers tight beneath her chin and listened through the dark, only what she then heard was a satisfied groan, followed by laughter, from two voices, not one, and the banging started up again: bang bang bang.

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