People often ask what brought me to Ireland. And I explain that twenty years ago, I came to ghost-write the autobiography of an artist who lived in The Black Valley in Kerry. Her name was Lily van Oost; she was Flemish. I tell them that during the time I worked with her, I met a man and stayed. And though these are the cold facts, when I trace everything back to exactly what brought me here, I realise it was a coat.
A wool coat on a stranger’s back in London, in winter. It was no ordinary coat, but a piece of living sculpture, woven and knitted and crocheted by Lily van Oost deep in the Kerry hills. She had used raw wool, carded it and spun it, and taken up knitting needles and a crochet hook to create spiders’ webs, dreadlocks, three-dimensional appendages that might have been mountains or running water or human forms. Into the fabric of that coat she sewed the bleat of sheep, and the sound of the wind blown over black lakes. The coat held the spirit of a place, and captured an indefinable spirit of art that I reached toward, longed for.
I had never seen such a thing. When I asked the stranger who wore it, where it had come from, he told me it had been made by an amazing artist who lived in a cave without electricity. And the coat, combined with his story, led me to come to Ireland, to meet Lily. I worked in television then and Lily van Oost seemed a perfect subject for a documentary. As it turned out, she did not live in a cave, though her dark cottage with its one main-room draped in fabric sculptures and sheep skulls had all the appearance of one. And she no longer lived without electricity, though she had done so for many years, because the Black Valley was one of the last places in Ireland to be connected to the grid.
After our first meeting the idea of a documentary began to metamorphose into the ghost-writing of an autobiography. In October I came to stay. I slept on a bunk beside Lily’s stove, I lived out of my rucksack. It rained almost ceaselessly. Looking through the cottage’s three windows, one on each gable end, one in the centre of the house, you could simultaneously see three types of rain: driven, pelted, misting. The elements came down and we were two women marooned on the ship of Lily’s life. She began with her childhood in occupied Antwerp during the Second World War. She wept over a neighbour torn from her house to be tarred and feathered in the street for colluding with the Germans. Day after day, as the rain fell, Lily told me her stories. I wrote them down. But I was too slow for her, my voice dry, she could not bear my style. Lily began to edit my manuscripts, to invade them. It wasn’t long before she became her own ghost-writer, and I her typist.
She rose at four am to work. She could work a 15-hour day. She was draconian, dictatorial, impossible. A previous biographer had packed his bag one afternoon and left without a word. Many times I would have done the same, but I chose to stay for everything I had seen in the coat, that spirit of place, that ineffable spirit of craft and art, hung about Lily like a harvest I could reap.
It was April when we finished. The Black Valley filled with new light; the russet bracken glowed red. Leaves opened on the birches. We had clocked up 80,000 words. They would never be published, but I had heard and held the story of Lily’s life. The last time I left the valley in the spring of 1992, was the last time I saw her alive. She would die a decade later, by which time I had two young children, I was living in a house high on the side of Sliabh na mBan, a house not unlike a cave. When the letter came telling me of her death, I had just published my first book, a story full of Sliabh na mBan and its spirit of place.
I’ve come to realise that twenty years ago there must have been a moment when that London stranger stood at the door of his house, deciding which jacket or coat to wear, his hand passing over denim and leather and nylon. What sorcery leapt from Lily’s wool? Had he made a different choice, everything of my life would have been unwound. I doubt I would have come to Ireland, or met Lily, or learned how spells are woven into the things we make, our crafts having their own lives, working their own magic, long after they leave our hands.
This piece was first written for Sunday Miscellany and broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 as part of Kilkenny Arts Week, August 2011.