THERE are places in the world – like Alaska and West Cork – that offer a refuge for people who are looking for something different out of life, something light years away from ‘the norm.’
That, at least, is the case with Fiona Dunckley who moved here in April 2017; bought what was effectively a shed; put in running water and a loo; and festooned every square inch with plants, wicker baskets, curios that were collected over the last 60-plus years.
Then there’s also all the paraphernalia that usually comes with owning two ponies, six dogs, seven cats, and the latest additions – two donkeys from a sanctuary in Mallow.
Fiona said: ‘I came there through bereavement. I was the sole carer of my mother for almost 17 years. When she died, I was drowning in grief, and I realised it was a case of either drown or pick myself up.’
Fiona, who grew up in the UK and worked there for 16 years as a nurse, initially relocated to Bandon to be with her mother. But when she passed away, Fiona decided to move further West because she was drawn to the wildness and the beauty of West Cork.
Now living in Clashmore, between Ballydehob and Schull, Fiona has found a place that indeed looks as if it could be Alaska, such is the rawness of the countryside and its remove from town or city life.
‘It’s a little piece of heaven,’ said Fiona, who invested a lot of her time, money and motion into cleaning the site, planting flowers, cutting hedges and painting walls. She even built a stone wall herself, but what she has ended up with is still intentionally primitive.
‘I am quite a loner, quite private, I need my space. And the safety of my animals is paramount.’ She said. But contained within that sentence is a very large BUT.
Fiona initially contacted The Southern Star to ask if the local newpaper would run an article about people who find themselves slightly out of step with the world around them – people that don’t necessarily fit the mould but still ‘yearn to belong.’
She said: ‘I have found a beautiful place in which to live but I haven’t found a sense of belonging.’
Fiona is speaking as someone who has had a diverse career, and a very interesting life. For example, she trained as an artist before completing her training as a nurse, and even lived in the splendour of rural France for five-years.
A brutal assault 30 years ago changed Fiona’s life forever. It left her with an horrific spinal injury. And it was her parents, Anne and Frank, who helped her to learn how to walk again.
The injury sustained as a result of the assault not only meant the end of her nursing career at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, it also left her with chronic arthritis, which in turn has affected her mobility.
For a time, Fiona helped the writer, Anthony Summers, with research for his book “The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover”; and she also worked at a horticulture college. She even read for her degree in English literature before taking on the role of headmistress at a boarding school in Dublin.
In April 2002, the Irish Times ran a full-page article about the ‘unlikely matron’ and described her as being ‘far removed from the traditional image of a strapping no-nonsense matron.’
In keeping with another Irish Times article – namely ‘New to the Parish’ – Fiona would like people in West Cork to see her in a different light and not just ‘the woman with the dogs.’
‘When you don’t have kids and don’t get to meet mothers at the school gate, and when your career is gone, the question remains how do you get to meet people?’ she asked.
One or two forays into public life left Fiona feeling isolated, rejected even. She observed: ‘There can be clicks in communities.’
By featuring in her local newspaper, Fiona said she knows she is, in a way, putting herself ‘on display,’ but she reckons that a newspaper, like The Southern Star, that covers all aspects of life in West Cork might just have room for her.
For now, life goes on. It revolves around Fiona’s love for her animals, but she does admit: ‘I would like a role in life, a purpose. This is not a lonely-hearts ad,’ she said. ‘I just want to belong.’