Being from the locality, with a passion for the culture, nature and landscape of Conamara, we, Dearbhaill Standún and Charlie Troy have a combined background in the Irish (Gaelic) language, music and entertainment, Botany, Geology, horticulture and education..
Since we started on this journey some 16 years ago, the creation and development of Cnoc Suain has been a labour of love inspired by our own interests, and sustained by the encouragement of family and friends and the excellent tutors and guides who deliver with such expertise and enthusiasm.
I, Dearbhaill was born and reared in the Conamara Gaeltacht where, from an early age I was steeped in the language and traditions of the area. A native Irish speaker and musician. As a teacher have endeavoured to pass on my love and knowledge of the music and culture to the next generation.
I am a founder member of the acclaimed music group Dordán, which also includes Mary Bergin - tin whistle & flute - and Kathleen Loughnane - harp. We perform a distinctive and exciting mix of traditional Irish and European Music. The diversity of our musical interests is reflected in our wide repertoire which includes the liveliest of Irish reels, jigs and haunting slow airs as well as work by the European Baroque composers. All our music is arranged and adapted by the group members and emerges with a very exciting sound and a distinctly Irish feel.
Charlie, a teacher and graduate of the University of Ireland, Dublin majoring in Geology with Botany. He is deeply interested in Natural History and has been an organic grower - of herbs in particular - for 20 years.
" A tireless disciple of natural Connemara - animal, vegetable or mineral." - according to naturalist and Irish Times columnist Michael Viney. The sensitive and imaginative restoration of the thatched cottages and other buildings at Cnoc Suain is a testimony to his creativity, vision and painstaking work.
Cnoc Suain's guiding principle.....
"Presenting Irish Culture, Nature and Heritage with the sophistication and high standard which befits it, without compromising its integrity and authenticity."
Our aim is to establish Cnoc Suain hill-village as a Cultural Campus where Irish culture - traditional & contemporary is celebrated, creativity is nurtured, an awareness of the natural world is fostered and the beauty of the wild Conamara landscape is appreciated.
Our wish is to make Irish culture & nature accessible, and where both Day visitors and Residential guests leaving Cnoc Suain feel enriched by an enjoyable learning experience.
From our experience as teachers, we are guided by the words ....
Living the Dream in a Timeless Wilderness
When husband and wife team Charlie Troy and Dearbhaill Standún first came up with the notion of establishing a nature and heritage centre in Spiddal almost 20 years ago, they had no idea that it would become a project that would dominate their existence, bringing frustration and fulfilment in equal measure.
They ploughed their energy, their savings and their lives into it, until their dream of a place that would promote the cultural and natural wealth of Connemara finally became a reality.
Cnoc Suain, "a historic hill-village on 200 acres of pristine wilderness" situated off the Mountain road between Spiddal and Moycullen began operating a couple of years ago and, since then has steadily begun to make its mark on Ireland's tourism landscape.
It offers activities and programmes for people who are interested in Irish culture and the natural environment, with music, dancing, language, history, folklore and natural history courses for groups and individuals throughout the year. Many of these are residential courses, with accommodation being provided in painstakingly restored cottages, some of which date from the late 1600s.
They have also set up a field-studies room, to explain the natural history and the unique ecosystem of the blanket bog that surrounds them. Their ultimate aim is to develop Cnoc Suain as a place of education about Irish culture and landscape.
It seems that an increasing number of people approve of this objective as Cnoc Suain has just won a prestigious Ethical Travel Award from the Guardian newspaper in the UK, coming in third place after an eco-retreat in Gambia and a safari lodge in South Africa. It is further acknowledgement that Dearbhaill and Charlie weren't mad to pursue their dream - although there were occasions when they felt they were.
It's easy see why this centre was a contender for an ethical award - standing on the hill outside one of the cottages, with bogland to the rear, Galway Bay to the front, and the wind in your face, you feel as though you are stepping outside your normal world into a place removed from time. Cnoc Suain isn't a sterile interpretative centre - it's a living place which is home to Dearbhaill, Charlie and their grown-up daughters when the three girls are at home.
Dearbhaill is a musician and is a member of the group Dordán, while Charlie is a retired science teacher with a degree in Botany and Geology. They are passionate about this place and about its role in promoting what is best about Irish culture.
Cnoc Suain's cottages, which currently accommodate 12 or 13 - that will be increased to 22 next year - have been restored discreetly; the stonework is superb, the windows are small and the houses cosy. Most of the furniture and fittings have been gathered over the years, from antique shops and salvage yards. The cosy atmosphere is provided by geo-thermal underfloor heating, which is powered by a heat pump system from the nearby river.
Dearbhaill and Charlie first moved to Cnoc Suain 14 years ago with their daughters, but the idea of this centre goes back much further.
Initially, they hoped to buy five acres around Spiddal for a project involving culture and nature. But the nature of the field patterns locally meant that buying such a parcel of land wasn't possible.
"It didn't happen, but we kept the notion at the back of our heads. around the same time, we passed the gate here and saw a sign, ‘house for sale on 190 acres'," says Dearbhaill.
The location was ideal, but the farm was too large and, again, the land wasn't suitable for division, so they put the idea to one side.
A few years later, Dearbhaill's parents and Charlie's mother died within a few months of each other and they inherited some money, which allowed them to look at the project again.
"Charlie remembered this place, which hadn't been sold. It had been taken off the auctioneers' books but was still available," recalls Dearbhaill. It was perfect and they met the owner who was home from America on holidays. Their next job was to persuade their three daughters, then aged 13, nine and seven, that the move was a good one. They did this by telling them it would be farm, which would have animals.
"We waited so long for a place like this and, although it was bigger than we originally wanted, we knew it was right," says Dearbhaill. Buildings on the farm at the time included their own house, which was a modern bungalow, as well as the ruin of "The Sean Teach", the original family home that had been lived in until 1978, and a few outhouses and sheds. At the time, they didn't realise that there were older buildings on the land.
"About a month later, we were looking at a map that came with the property and saw that there were fields with squiggly marks. some of these looked significant," says Dearbhaill. The local postman and avid historian Peadar Clancy, told them the marks looked like old houses and so, one morning Charlie went to that particular field, hacking his way through briars and scrub until he found the outline of a cottage and sheds built on the hill.
Another neighbour Michael Hehir - a first cousin of the man who had sold them the farm - is a local historian and told them that the cottage dated from 1691. After the Battle of Aughrim when St Ruth's army were defeated, a soldier named Hehir was among those who fled the battle site, finding his way to this mountain area where he built a house. There were outhouses alongside it and, in time, Charlie and Dearbhaill converted cottage and outhouses into accommodation.
Close by, at the top of the hill, is a standing stone that archaeologist Michael Gibbons informed them was 3,000 years old. but, although it was a place steeped in history and legend, there were practical issues to be dealt with, too. The first year the family spent there, they depended on a concrete tank for their water before they reopened an old well. They bought the property just before the Celtic Tiger boom began, and so weren't charged an inflated price. But when it came to getting workers, most people were employed on big construction sites, and Dearbhaill and Charlie's project seemed out of step with the time.
They did have local input from Tom and Pat Molloy, builders from Moycullen who were great and a couple of Connemara men also came on board, which worked well. Eventually, however, they moved on, and for a year and a half Charlie worked on the restoration by himself. It was a huge job. In addition to the cottages, paths had to be laid around the place and the creative aspect was also vital.
Eventually two Romanians, Serban and Dan, who worked in a local joinery came on board, bringing an enormous range of skills. The four of them worked nonstop, planning and designing and choosing the materials.
Sometimes it was tough going, says Charlie, adding that had it not been for the support of family and friends, they might have given up on the project and put a ‘for sale' sign on the gate.
They had a couple of aims starting out and these have remained constant. "We felt that a lot of the time local culture wasn't accessible to visitors and a place like Cnoc Suain could address that," says Dearbhaill. "Then, by making the culture accessible, that would help sustain it, because people would be more aware of its value.
"We also wanted to present work of a very high standard. By showcasing the young talent and giving them a platform (for music, song and dance), you give them encouragement."
Originally they envisaged that they would attract people from abroad, and are pleasantly surprised by the level of interest from Irish people.
Cnoc Suain is a world away from the generic hotels with spas that sprung up in every town during the boom years, and in many ways it offers hope for Irish tourism - a quality product that isn't twee, where you can have fun and a laugh in the company of good hosts.
A recent conference in Farmleigh House concluded that Irish culture "provides us with a significant competitive advantage" and it seems that Dearbhaill and Charlie were ahead of the posse on that front.
"We have something unique in the country and we can capitalise on it. That doesn't mean that we exploit it, but it will benefit people," says Charlie.
The two funded practically all of this work themselves and stress that they aren't looking for sympathy; after all it was their dream.
But it would have been easier to get state support if they had been developing a golf course or spa hotel - the powers-that-be simply couldn't grasp their concept.
The two would like to see the policy towards tourism, particularly rural tourism, change. Rather than people getting grants, it would be good to look at other incentives such as tax breaks, says Charlie.
Right now, they are focusing on their future and have a range of courses planned for the next few months. People can book a place on a course or can come as a member of a private group, but advance booking is needed, because of the nature of the place.
Judy Murphy, journalist, November 2009.
Cnoc Suain ( pronounced Kunnuck Soo-in ) meaning "Restful Hill" in Gaelic/Irish . (Cnoc = Hill ; Suain = Restful )