Holly Corfield Carr – author, Spike Associate and 2013 writer-in-residence at Spike Island – was the first to take up residence in the tower. She has just returned to Bristol after three weeks in Cushendall, and here shares some of the impressions and encounters that informed her time there:
Even the ferry sloshing across the Irish Sea — or my arrival into Cushendall — even being given the keys didn’t make it feel real. I’ve spent the past three weeks living and writing in the Curfew Tower and now I’m home and looking through my work, it feels like I made the whole thing up.
I am back in Bristol wondering what it was like to actually live in the tower, what it felt like to range over its five floors, work amongst its amassed artwork, negotiate pathways through the pebbles, pamphlets, maps; the absently curated detritus of years of brief weeks spent amongst its strange walls.
There are limpets glued to the tower’s ceilings, encrusting nooks and turning points on the staircase, over the fire place. Texts have been applied directly to the wall. A colossal ledger and collection of artworks in the dungeon collates all the residents' experiences. I was amazed to find a beautiful page of watercolour notes from Spike Island studio holder Yvonne Buchheim dated 2000. As it turns out, I am now in her studio working as writer-in-residence at Spike Island. A strange, touching coincidence.
The bedroom steps have been labelled ‘Giant’s Causeway’ and someone has had a fine time with some glow-in-the-dark paint. I woke up in the middle of the night and, without my glasses on, saw luminous green figures floating around my bed. Adding a complementary soundtrack, the January storms rattled the window frames and on the first Friday night, I witnessed a solemn convoy of cars towing a trailer of men lying on their backs, spattered in tar and feathers. Turns out it was a stag do. Not a visitation from Childe Roland to his Dark Tower. This is not, I told the green ghosts, a B movie. I did learn to sleep soundly in the tower, but it took a few terrifying nights.
Instead, the tower was a stronghold, full of character. A stack of postcards in the kitchen document another artist’s year of tender correspondence with the tower itself. The tower’s replies are not there but it is, after all, a shy soul. It keeps its secrets well.
There is a hatch at the bottom of the second floor window that leads to a chute for pouring boiling oil onto idlers and miscreants in the doorway below. Villagers would pause and gossip about the girl in the tower, unaware I could hear their stories rattling up through the chute, directly under my desk. There was always some argument about why the tower was built, who lived in it. It was a folly, they said, a defence built too late for the Napoleonic Wars, a prison, a landmark, a bit of fashionable Chinoiserie built by a nineteenth-century businessman. This much no one can agree on.
Before I left I found the idea of this residency’s remote isolation almost too enormous to look at. And bigger still were my own expectations for myself and my projects. I had high hopes, five stories high; they towered over. In the tower there is no internet — only a single bed, a table, a stool, a pair of awkward chairs, an open fire, a bath in an old cell. And the limpets, of course. Zero distractions. In the tower I’d have to retrain myself. I’d have to work with what I had. I was grimly thrilled about my brief career as an anchorite.
A short-haired Rapunzel. No escape route planned.
But as soon as I arrived I realised the tower is not nearly hermetic and I was never left alone for long. Cushendallers arrived daily, bearing cakes and turf to keep me fed and warm in the tower. Discovering that I played violin at high school, one woman insisted on lending me her mother’s fiddle and another delivered a booklet of session tunes. I was expected at Johnny Joe’s pub every Thursday, Friday and Sunday to demonstrate my progress.
I was driven to waterfalls, beaches, caves and cromlichs, shown how to find wild garlic and puffballs, taught songs and taken to fairy trees and taught the Irish: sceach. The villagers were astonishingly generous with their time and knowledge.
An artist who keeps bees and is building a traditional currach in his back garden introduced me to the mountain Tievebulliagh, famous for a Neolithic axe factory whose porcellanite axe heads have been found throughout the British Isles.
An ex-Blue Badge guide took me to see the ruddy, globular outcrops of puddingstone rocks at Cushendun during a storm.
An elderly gentleman brought round trifle and tried to scare the local kids by wailing like a ghost at the tower gates.
A neighbour gave me a pelican’s foot shell from Waterfoot beach.
The organiser of the local Comhaltas (a group teaching and promoting traditional Irish music) who’s family once actually, really, not-just-briefly, lived in the tower gave me a CD of his session group playing together so I can learn songs “properly” by ear. I had been taking sheet music into the sessions with me. Imagine it. They thought I was one of those gentle English eccentrics.
And I still managed to glean information and internet in the regular, compulsive modes: I maxed out my borrowing limits at the local library and the butcher let me into his shop to borrow internet, delighted with his new project to convert the English vegetarian. I did not achieve my life as a hermit.
Instead of closing myself in, I started to look out of the tower, working through its small cell windows to the coordinated points I could see from my squat station in the centre of town.
Lurigethan. Tievebulliagh. Rain. Johnny Joe’s. The ghosts.
I started to write poems for the people I met, for the things they showed me. I made a series of tiny plastic poems, little guides for looking at Cushendall and gave these to the villagers to take to specified locations. They were instructed to read the poems through the square windows, look through them. When it was my time to leave, they asked if they could keep the things I’d made and I felt like I couldn’t refuse. The tower belongs to Cushendall and, for a while, so did I.
This experience has been difficult to transport back with me, but I will be making copies of my little guide poems and looking through them here in Bristol, hoping, once in a while, to catch sight of something similar.