UL Winter School 2019: return of the Dooligans

The absolute highlight of my writing year in 2018 was getting to attend the inaugural five-day Creative Writing Winter School held by the University of Limerick in Doolin, Co Clare. I may have mentioned it once or twice. I was so blown away by the experience that I blogged about it. Daily. With extensive references to the outstanding food. You might like to read about that food and other, more writerly topics in Part 1 here.

This year, I was lucky enough to return, older, wiser and still in search of a novel – a different one this time. My goal was to try plotting something from the beginning instead of my usual approach (run screaming at the page and then run screaming away from it).

I also attempted to do a daily blog post again, but frankly I was too exhausted for that and the Wifi was surprisingly uncooperative in the rooms, so I decided that a round-up afterwards would be better.

Post-match analysis – sort of

But how to sum up such an experience? UL Winter School 2019 once again exceeded all expectations. Prior to going, I intended to use the week differently, skipping the workshops I’d already attended and using that time to write. Knowing how comfortable Hotel Doolin is, I was looking forward to settling into cosy nooks and immersing myself in the words.

Many words were written by this foyer foyre

I did do a fair bit of that – more than last year, certainly – but also ended up attending most of those workshops again. The thing is, the quality of information being shared by the stellar group of facilitators – UL Creative Writing department’s Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, novelist and lecturer Donal Ryan and poet-in-residence Martin Dyar, as well as visiting author and legend Kit de Waal, agent Jo Unwin and editor Helen Thomas – is extraordinary. Everything is valuable, whether it’s brand new information or something you know but need to have reiterated. You sit and absorb and are rewarded with a way forward for your work.

There were some new elements as well – Martin’s lecture ‘Poems as Narrative Templates’ providing a surprisingly emotional session for many of us.

On offer too were optional meditation sessions with Helen, who, as well as being an editor is a qualified psychotherapist; and yoga sessions with PhD candidate Paula McGrath. This reinforced one of the chief messages of the winter school: the importance of self-care. The romantic notion of the tortured artist is an unnecessary and damaging one.

Dooligans assembled

Separate from all of this wonderfulness, there was another gift – the chance to spend time with some of the previous participants. Close bonds were formed last year with this lot, as well as many others who were unable to return. Nine of us were reunited, and it was good for the soul to hang out again with Annie Syed, Niall McArdle, Cat Hogan, Aisling Keogh, Declan Dempsey, Sam Windrim, Olivia Fitzsimons and Amy Gaffney. We even managed to recreate last year’s ‘band photo’, with five of the original six Uncorrected Proofs present (2018 left, 2019 right):

And here is the gang minus Sam, who was behind the camera (though above, far right). We were almost run over by two tour buses for these shots, a small price to pay:

l-r: Shorty McWordherding, Cat, Declan, Niall, Aisling, Amy, Annie and Olivia

A different class

Over the week, I got to speak to most of the participants. Many expressed surprise at how holistic this whole experience was. I don’t have much to compare it with, but from what I gather Doolin Winter School is something special – a writing retreat that focuses as much on the writer’s wellbeing and community-building as their ability to craft beautiful, accomplished work. In an early session, Sarah and Donal spoke about holding on to the joyfulness of writing – because surely that’s why we put ourselves through this madness to begin with? Yet it’s easy to forget, easy to get bogged down with fretting about competitions not won, agents not found, publishing deals not acquired.

The importance of a tribe was also frequently mentioned, finding like-minded people to share work with as well as providing each other with moral support in an agenda-free way. This is worth its weight in gold, and was clearly demonstrated by the obvious fondness and mutual respect among the facilitators.

On-tap beverages – oh, Hotel Doolin, you know me so well

This post is much longer than I intended it to be, and I could elaborate further. Suffice it to say, I am so grateful to Sarah for allowing me to be a part of the gang again. I’m thankful to co-organiser Professor Eoin Devereux, a calming presence and the person responsible for the #moreofit hashtag that has become one of the WS slogans; Dr Paula McGrath for the soothing yoga sessions; the time, wisdom and extreme generosity of Donal, Kit, Martin, Jo and Helen, and the gentle shepherding of our mentors Cat, Aisling, Niall and Amy. I have left Co Clare this year with very clear focus about what I’m doing, and renewed confidence in my ability to do it

Next year?

If this sounds like something you would like to experience, I would advise you to get in contact with Winter School organiser Sarah Moore Fitzgerald regarding next year sooner rather than later (details can be found here). I believe there’s already a waiting list of writers who are champing at the bit to experience the Doolin magic. I don’t blame them – I’m already wondering if I could disguise myself as a waitress or a local fisherman in order to infiltrate the class of 2020. Shh, tell no one of my cunning plan…

Most of UL Winter School class of 2019

Photos: Aisling Keogh, Shane Stokes


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