As Cill Rialaig—the artist’s retreat on the beautiful and rugged Ballinskelligs Peninsula―celebrates twenty-years in existence I can’t help thinking about my lamb. We first became acquainted when I arrived for a fortnight’s stay in what was once an Irish famine village but has become a favourite haunt for artists and the occasional writer, like myself. Tiny and orphaned, standing on skinny, determined legs, my lamb greeted me with a bleat when I pulled up outside my allocated cottage. He trotted behind me as I unloaded my luggage, a ball of white wool with a blue splodge on his back. His bleating was piteous and petulant. I refused to listen. I’ve been a mother three times over. That sound is embedded in my maternal psyche. It signals responsibility. You go to Cill Rialaig to cast off those chains. The only one demanding attention is The Muse …well…that’s how it’s supposed to work.
‘Go find your own mother. This one’s not for turning.’ I advised him and closed the door on his pleading bleat.
Atlantic waves lulled me to sleep but in the dawn I was awakened by what, in my befuddled state, I believed to be a banshee competing outside my window for the X Factor. In the hazy dawn I recognised my forlorn and hungry Nemesis. He had obviously never watched The Silence of the Lambs and in the words once immortalised by Greta Garbo, I bleated back, “I want to be left alone.”
It’s not a good idea to look into the eyes of an orphan lamb. Before the morning was over I was sitting beside the gorse bush where he had made his home, baby bottle in hand. It was the beginning of the end. Five feeds a day, that’s what it took to keep him happy; breakfast, elevenses, lunchtime, dinner and supper.
I called him Blue Boy – and, without fail, he called me every dawn. I’d heat his milk and stagger from the cottage into the teeth of an Atlantic gale. In my dressing gown, anorak and shawl I could have been mistaken for the old woman of the road. But at six o’clock in the morning I didn’t have to worry about the paparazzi.
Blue Boy was a voracious feeder, tugging at the teat until his tiny belly swelled into a fat, taut ball. As my resolve weakened he became bolder, slithering into the cottage as soon as I opened the door. He followed me when I went walking. Believe me, Mary’s little lamb is non-fiction. When I drove to the local supermarket to stock up on his milk supply he ran after my car until he collapsed exhausted on the edge of the road, leaving me anxious and guilt-ridden until I returned.
One night, as a storm raged outside, I took pity on him shivering under his bush and allowed him inside. Bad mistake. I spent the following morning with a mop, a bucket and a bottle of disinfectant while he, forcibly ejected, sat on the doorstep uttering what sounded remarkably like four letter bleats.
We compromised. I allowed him inside for an hour every afternoon. As I worked on my book, he stretched beneath my wood burning stove, his eyes slitting with contentment as he listened to my favourite CD of Emmylou Harris. I watched, as proudly as any ambitious Hollywood mother, when the artists and sculptors in the neighbouring cottages photographed him. I imagined his image adorning the walls of international galleries, becoming a byword for a new artistic movement, Lambism, perhaps, or the Blue Boy Revolution.
When it was time to return home, I purchased five baby bottles and asked the remaining artists to form a feeding cooperative. Distraught by the thought that I might, unwittingly, some Sunday afternoon, actually emulate Hannibal Lector and eat my lamb for lunch, I contemplated becoming a vegetarian or adopting him as a lawn mower for my suburban garden. But reality prevailed and I drove away with tears in my eyes and an album of lamb photographs. My last memory is of Blue Boy following my car until I rounded a corner and he was lost from view forever.