The Good Life: One couple’s success at writing their way back to nature

Thirty-five years ago Christine Breen and Niall Williams left Manhattan to cultivate a creative haven in Co Clare – which inspired a successful artistic career for both.

A young New York couple walk into a dilapidated cottage in deepest, darkest Co Clare. The year is 1985, and Ireland is a grey place inside and out. There is a blackbird living inside the old four-room farmhouse and a hearth that opens to the sky. Out front, the short lawn between the hall door and the narrow back road skirting the hill of Kiltumper is a jungle of briars, with a small garden gate lost somewhere within it.

Thirty-six eventful years later, the same smallholding outside Ennis is a miniature Arcadia.

Carefully tended flower beds skirt the garden path. A bountiful vegetable garden and polytunnel lie at the far end, past the roses, Japanese anemones and delphiniums, and the air is filled with birdsong and butterflies. The 200-year-old cottage now beaming in the sunshine is a more substantial and polished prospect.

And there are books, not just on shelves indoors but in the soil and the brickwork. Husband and wife Niall Williams and Christine Breen call this place home, and it is where the latter’s grandfather lived until emigrating to the US as a teenager in 1910. As writers, this environ has fed into the 20 or so books, plays and screenplays they have co-authored or written separately during their time here. In turn, the successes from these have been reinvested into this living space.

“Every word came from this house and this garden,” Niall says. “And the reason the house is the way it is, with this room added, then that room added, is because a bit of money came from this book or that book. You can almost say which book made what room.”

Niall and Christine welcome me on one of the few magical days of August. A lunch of homegrown salads and local cheese is served up as we sit near flowerbeds filled with poppies, while a jolly retriever called Finn bounds across the lawn.

After co-writing four memoirs charting the early years of their west coast adventure, the couple have written In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden, an intimate, meditative garden memoir of 2019 – a year that had many challenges. Breen was undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, while wind turbines were being erected 500m from their back door.

Rinsing through everything, however, is a deep connection to the small patch of land, its haven of mindfulness, and the small sense of control it could afford. Williams, a south Dubliner by birth and the dreamer of the pair, riffs on the zen of gardening as well as reflecting on ecological and health dilemmas. Between her extensive floral knowledge and pen and ink illustrations, Breen, a native New Yorker, is more practical, with a dry wit that can bring her husband back down to earth.

“Chris is my first reader in fiction,” Niall says, “and my first editor and my first everything. She knows me better than anybody. In this case, the book has evolved out of both of our perspectives. One might be a male perspective, one a female, on the same piece of ground.”

“He’s a typical male,” Christine says on the subject of their differing approaches to the garden. “Niall just focuses on one job, and this is what we’re doing today.”

“Or I’m doing today – it’s impossible to control you,” Williams shoots back.

“That’s what I was getting at! I could be on my way to do one thing and end up doing something else. But it was really nice for me that Niall was spending more time in the garden [that year], so he could actually see all the work I was doing.”

“Different people approach gardening in different ways,” he continues, turning to his wife of 40 years. “You’re an artist, so you’re seeing colours and layout. There are eight ‘gardens’ over the course of the year. And in Chris’s way of making them, they all have different palettes. So it might begin as yellows, and then, by start of May, this garden is full of poppies, all red, peonies, delphiniums, and gradually it gets bluer.

“The skill of it is making those transitions. I’m usually sitting inside at a table writing, and I’m seeing it gradually changing. I don’t have that ability to see beyond what will come. Chris has that.”

Change and the finite nature of things is fundamental in such a setting. With their adult children both married and living in New York, the couple – both now aged in their 60s – were not only writing to deepen their understanding of their long devotion to the soil, they wanted their children and grandchildren to have a document of
that devotion

A serving of ‘can-do’ arrived here along with the couple all those years ago. Christine published her well-received debut novel Her Name is Rose in 2015 at the age of 60. She has written non-fiction and sold artwork, not to mention raising two children and cultivating an exquisite garden and household.

Niall’s most recent novel was This is Happiness, a gently sublime piece of nostalgia set in fictional rural Ireland amid the advent of electrification. It was among the Washington Post’s 50 best novels of 2019, and a steady favourite of book clubs up and down the US, where he and Christine have fostered a devoted audience over their careers. Preceding it was the Booker-longlisted History of the Rain.

A film adaptation of 1997 debut Four Letters of Love is in pre-production with Mark Rylance set to star. After many false starts – Stanley Tucci and John Hurt have each visited Kiltumper seeking to make the film – this is the closest they’ve ever been. If it all goes smoothly, it could, Christine says, allow them the financial room to spend a chunk of winter in New York where a grandchild is expected any day now.

Growing up in Westchester as the oldest of six, Breen took her junior year in Boston College abroad 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 longed to get back to Ireland. Enrolling in a Masters in Anglo-Irish Literature at UCD, a mutual friend introduced her and Williams at the UCD cafeteria.

“Chris was the most beautiful person I had ever met,” Niall says across the table to a visibly charmed Breen. “Still is. I was just lucky to be at the same table as her. Then I found out she was staying 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, conversation flowed. After a year teaching in Normandy, they married in America and worked in New York City. Both would end up in the publishing world – but Williams had an early foray in the Fox and Sutherland bookstore in Westchester where his customers included Frank Sinatra (“it was a real ‘welcome to America’ moment”).

Romantic natures led both to bond quickly and wholesale – and that tendency would also see them through tough times ahead. But it was also what prevented them from accepting the rat race of Manhattan work life, which left neither time nor headspace for writing or painting.

An escape route existed. When Breen happened to be studying in Ireland, her mother’s first cousin, the previous resident of Kiltumper, passed away. After the funeral, she got wind that the house was up for sale and urged her father to secure it. It was sitting empty, just as she and Williams were growing weary of New York life.

“When you’re on the commuter train,” Niall says, “you quickly realise that people’s lives were their work. You’d see the most beautiful people about to commute into Manhattan. It was like Mad Men. On the train home in the evening, those same people looked shattered and smudged. The sense I had was that I was on a train and couldn’t get off.

“I’d 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’d stay forever,” Christine says of the big move. “We’d just see if we could develop our skills.”

Their daughter Deirdre was born in 1987, and Joseph followed three years later. Roots deepened, and any notions of turning back vanished.

Deirdre went to the village school where Niall was teaching 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’s ever met”), and after schooling at Glenstal he studied law at Trinity and the London School of Economics.

At one stage, fed up with the weather, the couple took both children out of schooling for a nine-month round-the-world trip – in order to do a year without winter, a bonding experience that all four cherish to this day.

During a weekend visit to London in early 2015 to see Joseph, Christine began to feel unwell. Joseph’s boyfriend (now-husband) was an oncologist, and immediately sent her to hospital. A few days later, a large tumour and 10 inches of colon were removed. The following months and years would be a shattering 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,” Niall says, “then February, you were in the emergency room. Because you have this invisible sense something went wrong inside you, that makes it extra difficult. So, for Chris, her time in the garden still is healing in a most obvious way. You can see a notable change in how she is when she goes out to it. She’s lost there, in the best possible way.”

Breen’s own recovery was a success, but it is another example of how difficulty can find you anywhere – something they would encourage everybody who dreams of country life to consider.

Their newest challenge is the wind turbines behind the house – the building of which creates a tension in the book. Both are keen to emphasise that they merely set out to record the lived reality of life under the turbines, including the inescapable visual and auditory imposition.

“If I didn’t mention it, we could be accused of being idyllic in our view of our life here,” Niall says. “In a way, it makes the space inside the garden more precious.”

“We’re getting more and more used to it,” Christine adds. “Let’s see how the
winter goes.”

Making a garden and writing novel are more or less the same thing, the couple agree – both are attempts to make a world in which you can live. And each day is a chance to fix something, or plant something – to make it a tiny bit better, regardless of what is going on in the world.

“Before we moved,” Niall says, “we had this running theme of Chris saying: ‘Tell me how it’s going to be.’ And I would invent it, having never been here. So really, we were moving into a story. I’d say we’ll be doing this and it’ll be like that eventually…

“Some of those things maybe took 30 years to materialise, but they were all there in the original story.”

“And like a draft of any story,” Christine adds, “you’re continually redrafting it.”

‘In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden’ is published by Bloomsbury, €20.99

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