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'Insufferable Odds' inspired by guest song writer at writing retreat on the Wild Atlantic Wa

As part of the cultural immersion process during the week-long writing retreat, participants enjoy activities such as boat trips to the offshore islands, leisurely walks in the mountains with experts in Celtic mythology and anthropology, Irish language and dance classes as well as heart-warming, foot-tapping traditional Irish music concerts.

Special events are also organized with artists such as songwriters who not only talk about the background stories that inspired their songs, but also impart some of the secrets of lyric writing.

Illustrating the kind of assignments given during the retreat, here is a short story entitled ‘Insufferable Odds’ by Phyllis McKenna, a long-time librarian at an agricultural college and a participant at last year’s retreat, after such a songwriter event.

Enjoy reading it and feel free to send in your comments on our Blog or Facebookpage.


Stuck under my arm, thrown over my shoulder, cradled like an infant in my slippery, shaky hands, nothing worked. The magical piece of carpentry and strings would not stay in place. How was I supposed to learn to play this thing if I couldn’t even carry it in the proper manner? My first guitar lesson - and probably my last, after the poor, defenseless tutor I had chosen was subjected to my first few notes.

If he had witnessed my approach at all, it would be a safe bet he’d now be heading for the hills. My journey down his wet slippery path was a feat of strength and endurance and I almost made it without mishap. My downfall came in the shape of a slightly raised paving stone midway between the gate and the slowly opening front door. As the driveway was on a slight incline, I tripped and attempted to rectify the situation by pin-wheeling my free arm and paddling furiously with the guitar. This pantomime exercise propelled me forward and I flew pell-mell towards the front door. Luckily for me, unluckily for my host, he chose that very moment to welcome me personally and my runaway self connected squarely with his solar plexus.

Issuing forth a cry of distress he folded over, fell backwards and landed heavily on the hall floor. Unintended intimacy occurred as I floated gracelessly on top of him. Now ordinarily this would have been a very comfortable position to find myself in, as Ian was quite pleasing to the eye, but as a first impression it certainly lacked finesse. My host gently extricated himself from beneath me and chivalrously helped me to my feet.

“Hello, Phyllis. You sure can make an impression. I was warned about your liking for the opposite sex but really, I’m married, so a formal introduction would have sufficed. I’m Ian by the way,” and he smiled mischievously. There I stood, water streaming down my face, pooling round my feet, staining the beautiful varnished mahogany floor, a complete novice and a complete disaster. My glasses immediately fogged up, so following the sound of his voice I stuck out my hand for shaking and encountered a softness that was indeed a part of Ian, but definitely not for shaking.

“Oh, Jesus, he’ll think I’m a pervert.”

I actually whimpered softly as he removed my glasses, wiping them clean and replaced them on my head. All then became clear.

I had met Ian, my potential coach at an open-air concert in Donegal, noting at once the unmistakable resemblance to a popular Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly. Curly grey hair and beard, perched nonchalantly on a stage chair, he oozed personality and hospitality. Not knowing what to expect at a lone guitarist gig, I was swept away by his skilful manipulation of the instrument and his open, friendly rapport with the gathered crowd. He captivated his audience, drawing them in with witty stories and true anecdotes about his life. His appreciative listeners were held spellbound by this man’s supreme talent.

Born in the wilds of Scotland, he married and moved to the wilds of Donegal, settling there for over thirty years. Ian is an unassuming person, humble of spirit, light of heart and full of the simple joys of life. Extensively travelled, and having worked alongside the best musicians in the world, his feet remain firmly on the ground and his head will never reach the clouds.

His guitar becomes a part of him when he plays, a fretful child calmed into sweet submission by this gentle master of vocal and instrumental harmony. His love of music extends to his talent for song writing, producing soulful, insightful, thought provoking lyrics combined with the sweetest music ever heard.

Poor man! Only as a favour to my brother was he doing this, attempting to teach this age-challenged person the basic rudiments of playing his baby, his heart and soul, to be made to listen to the cacophony of sound emanating from the precious instrument. He kept in mind my brother’s parting words: “Don’t worry, she’ll tire of it in a few weeks. You’ll be off the hook.”

But I clung on and Ian’s patience and tolerance shone through for all the horrendous hours he spent with me, his head forever in his hands or covering his ears, a pained expression on his face. His neck was metaphorically bitten in quite a few places as hope died in his soul and despair took over his psyche. On the final day of his imprisonment and torture I turned to him in all innocence and remarked: “Maybe I’ll play with you next year!”

The poor man had had enough, the excruciating look on his face was my silent answer. With deep sadness and heartfelt regret, not forgetting the most blatant show of relief I have ever seen on a human face, he answered: “What calendar year would we be talking about?”

Needless to say, I have shifted my attentions to skydiving!

Caption: Imagination at play! Phyllis (front left) already internally composing her prose as Ian speaks.

When you are ready to book your participation for next year's writing retreat, check out the various options we have.

And remember, only one week left to benefit of the special discount available to Friends of the retreat.

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