The Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival is now in its 23rd year, and has become one of the most renowned festivals in the world storytelling calendar. Each year they invite some of the most accomplished tellers from around the world, and also present the best Irish exponents of this most ancient of art forms to a world audience. The Festival has a simple premise – you gather some of the best storytellers from around Ireland and the world, you herd them all together onto a ferry and unload them onto a painfully picturesque island off the coast of West Cork. Cape Clear is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island situated 8 miles off the coast of Baltimore in West Cork. The stunning scenery, folklore and uniqueness of the island’s flora and fauna truly make Cape Clear a place apart. It is also a Gaeltacht area, an Irish speaking area which hosts two language schools each summer.
The Cape Clear ferry the Cailín Óir is busy transporting extra provisions in preparation for the West Cork island’s international storytelling festival this weekend. Visitors to the festival will travel over the 12km stretch of water, a 45-minute journey to Ireland’s most southerly inhabited region. Cape Clear is where American-born festival founder, writer Chuck Kruger and his wife Nell have chosen to live for the past 25 years. Or, as Chuck says, “Cape choose us”. Unfortunately, this year is likely to be their last in attendance as the couple are packing their bags in readiness to leave for good.
“This is home, we are leaving home,” says Chuck about the rocky island which both he and Nell felt a spiritual connection with at first sight. It was 1986 when they first saw Cape Clear and both fell instantaneously in love with the place. “Cape’s a poem I read every day, every night. It’s a point of reference, a metaphor by which I confirm my very being,” he wrote, and since then the island has continuously fed his creative imagination. I have two loves in my life, one is my wife Nell who I have been married to for over 50 years, the other one is Cape Clear,” he says.
— Cape Clear Bird Obs (@CCBOIE) September 2, 2017
The couple left America in 1966, partly in protest against the Vietnam War and also because they wanted to experience life in Europe. They moved to Switzerland where Chuck taught English literature, raised three children and ended up staying there for 26 years. They moved permanently to Cape Clear in 1992 where they purchased 60 acres of land. Now preparing their return to the USA in 2017, although Chuck admits to disagreeing with the currents in the maelstrom of present day American politics, his family are his top priority.
“I’ll miss the ocean for sure,” he says, “but I will have a forest to look out onto from the window of my retirement apartment in Pennsylvania. I’ll be near a hospital if anything were ever to happen to either myself or Nell, we have adult children and their families living close by. We’re both in our 70s now. Sometimes family is more important than land.” The legacy he leaves of his time on the island is not just the establishment of the storytelling festival, started in 1994, but he has also eloquently documented a time in a place through his copious writings about island life.
They depict the resourcefulness of its people and the glorious natural world that surrounds them. “I’ve written over ten books about the island. I feel really honoured to have shared my work,” he says. Kruger has won many awards for his stories including the Bryan Mc Mahon Short story competition in 2003 and the Dubliner Short story literary contest in 2002. He is also a poet and has taken over 22,000 photographs of Cape. Kruger’s stories provide snapshots into life as lived on Cape Clear and are a valuable contribution to the social history of the elemental little island cut off from the Irish mainland by severe storms five to eight days a year.
The island cottage where he later lived was hit by lightning in 1957, and as a child growing up in New York State his grandmother told him stories of a great grandfather John Perry who was killed by lightning in 1772. None of this deterred him from living in a place where the storms can be ferocious. “I’ll never forget a summer storm one year, around ’96 if I recall,” says Chuck. “We were in the field and the wind was so powerful that it knocked myself and Nell flat to the ground and we couldn’t move to do anything for over 20 minutes. That was a particularly bad one, huge waves were crashing way over the roof of the youth hostel. They say around here that ‘The windy day’s not for fastening the thatch’.” He describes the crashing waves as “synchronised multitudinous geysers” which can get so high that even the 180 foot tip of the Fastnet lighthouse, four miles west of Cape, can be obscured. “The ferry crews are our vital lifeline here, we depend on them for everything, they really understand the sea and I am so grateful to them,” he says.
— Cork Airport (@CorkAirport) August 20, 2017
The islanders taught Chuck many portents of approaching weather. A partial rainbow for example, is known as a ‘wind dog’ a sure sign that the wind’s velocity is going to pick up later. He got his first camera when he was 10 years old and has always carried one ever since, capturing the flights of seabirds such as the kittiwakes and fulmers, the occasional storm kestrel, the dolphins frolicking near the Fastnet lighthouse. A remark made by the late Paddy Burke, proprietor of ‘ Ireland’s most Southerly pub’ and his love of storytelling from all over the world inspired him to start the festival. “When the one -eyed man came and sat in the corner the people on the island stopped telling stories to one another,” mused Paddy.
The festival was born to defend this traditional art against the adversity of the ‘one –eyed man’. And so the parting glass will be lifted by the islanders for Chuck and Nell Kruger, who for a time were one of their own and who loved the island with all their hearts. “I have loved the freedom, peace, pace of life, the wonder of the natural world. I have never regretted a single moment of our decision to move to Cape, life has been wonderful here. I will certainly miss it,’ concludes Chuck.
CAPE OF GOOD TALES: Storytelling festival highlights
As the Cape Clear storytelling festival prepared to get under way, festival director Daphne Babington paid tribute to the Krugers. “‘We are going to miss Chuck and Nell so much. They were instrumental in establishing the festival, which is now in its 23rd year and has proven to be a great success,” said Babington.
Grand Concert, Coláiste Chiaráin, 8.30pm
Heritage Walk with Diarmud ÓDrisceoil and Geoff Oliver, from the Grotto at 1.30pm
Storytelling Boat Trip on Gaisceanán with Jack Lynch, 2pm
A Poem, A Song, A Story with
Cormac Lally, David Jackson and Jaff Jeffries, An Club, 6pm
When East Meets West: Senem Donatan (Turkey), Niall De Burca and Jaff Jaffries, 11am, Tir na nÓg
Grand Finale, Coláiste Chiaráin, with bean an tí Liz Weir
More info at: Facebook: Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival, and chuckkruger.net
Cape Clear / Oileán Chléire website in English and Irish