A couple started a new chapter in their lives when they moved to West Cork and set up a writer's centre for people who love to learn, enjoy cake and don't want homework, writes Aisling Meath
Facing an uncertain future in employment during the recession, one couple took a novel approach by moving to West Cork and setting up a literary hub in a period house.
Dr. Emma Bidwell and Dr. Bernie McCarthy relocated here in 2014 and are the driving force behind the West Cork College.
Based in the impressive Killeena House, between Skibbereen anad Baltimore, this Dutch colonial style house set on 15 acres was once the residence of Daniel J. O’ Coneell, who was a clerk of the crown and nephew of the great Liberator himself, Daniel O’ Connell.
It was burned down by the IRA during the 1920’s but later compensation was paid to O’ Connell by Westminister and the house was rebuilt using stone from Lough Hyne and native oak.
It’s now the home of Emma and Bernie who are both English professors and who host bespoke literary courses amidst the elegance of the beautiful drawing rooms at Killeena.
The West Cork College courses run during the Spring and Autumn and cover a wide range of topics which are often discussed over essentials: tea and cake.
Emma explained: ‘Both myself and Bernie were awarded our doctorates in the teeth of the recession and no universities were hiring. ‘We decided to move from Cork city to set up our own college in beautiful West Cork, and that’s how West Cork College began.
‘We became estate managers of Killeena House in May 2014 and live in the main house. The owner was looking for a ‘mature couple’ to run the estate and rental properties. We were a couple if not that mature!’ she laughs.
‘There are 12 self-catering houses that we rent out and this keeps us busy when we are not teaching and preparing our courses. Bernie does the administration and accounts and I do the maintenance and grounds work,’ she said.
In between their tasks at Killeena House the women also find time to teach at the University of Limerick and Emma teaches part of the Masters in Women’s studies in UCC.
Emma is also the director of ‘Screening Ireland’ in UL while Bernie is a specialist in Irish Literature and director of Irish Myths and Legends, a programme offered by the University of Limerick’s International summer school.
Emma and Bernie’s literary interests are widespread and Emma’s doctorate was on Women Writers of the American South and Bernie’s was on Yeats. They often find that their students ask them for particular courses and are also open to suggestions for new ones.
‘We often find a good audience for the classics such as the Brontes. Often our loyal and enthusiastic band of students suggests something and then we decide whether we can provide it or not,’ said Emma
Bernie explains that their courses appeal to all.
‘Our courses are certainly not only for people who have studied English, we are deliberately accessible and you need to have had no previous higher education at all.
‘They are often people who want to learn more about arts and humanities but who don’t want the homework and exams or to have to travel to the cities. And also like a nice cup of tea halfway through class! We laugh a lot and there is a warm exchange of life experiences and opinions.’
Barbara McGuirk from Clonakilty is a dedicated life long learner.
‘I have done courses at West Cork College on Women in Irish Society and Politics, the Irish on the London Stage and Southern American women writers which I really enjoyed, but it was the one on the Brontes that really appealed to me the most. The delivery of the course was excellent including all the background information about the environment in which they were living, the relationships within the family; all of which influenced their writing.’
Jennifer Russsell found that the courses were so engaging that it was worth her while to make the journey from the Beara peninsula.
‘There are several pleasures in these sessions including good conversation, meeting new people and tea served in china cups in the beautiful drawing room. And it’s really good fun!’
Emma added: ‘In the past we have had courses on Jane Austin, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Yeats, Shakespeare’s sonnets, to name just a few. We also have visiting lecturers such as Emma Jervis teaching photography and Brenda Moriarty from Deep Maps offering ‘Nature of West Cork.’
They have also taught courses on the works of the stars of the West Cork Literary tradition Sommerville and Ross; who continue to be of major interest for people, and indeed the renowned writers themselves also visited Killeena house back in the day.
Another fan is Eilish O’ Carroll (aka Winnie from Mrs. Browns Boys), who inspired life long learners everywhere with her performance on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’
‘I’m looking forward to finding time to do one of Bernie and Emma’s courses. They are great educators with a passionate love of literature,’ she said.
Jo Killeen from Skibbereen recalls a happy time she spent with her friend Monica Stephens who sadly passed away at the end of 2018.
‘There are lots of amazing places around Skibbereen and West Cork College is one of them. I was introduced to it by my friend Monica Stephens who was interested in the Jane Austin course and she persuaded me to go. Thebeautiful house and gardens helped set the atmosphere. Monica and I went to further courses but unfortunately she had become ill finding it difficult to get herself and her oxygen into the house and Bernie and Emma were so discreetly helpful. Monica passed away toward the end of 2018 but the time we spent together at Killeena House is one of my lasting happy memories of her,’ she said.