INTERVIEW Ciara Cullen, Macalla Farm, Clare Island


Ciara Cullen, who runs Macalla Farm on Clare Island with her partner Christophe Mouze.
?Ciara Cullen, who runs Macalla Farm on Clare Island with her partner Christophe Mouze.

Island oasis for a colourful caravan of visitors

Macalla Farm and yoga centre offers an escape to mindful meditation and organic food

Áine Ryan

Irish-American, Ciara Cullen first moved to Clare Island in 1981 and lived with the renowned island philosopher Michael Joe O’Malley until his death in 1988. She still celebrates his unique ethos with her partner Christophe Mouze and their children Maud and Theo at Macalla Farm, a retreat centre that specialises in yoga, mindfulness and organic food.

AR Macalla Farm offers an oasis from all the pressures and stresses of the world, it would seem. What is its special magic?
CC I would say that it is its authenticity – we truly believe in and, most importantly, enjoy what we are doing. There was never a ‘master plan’ of what we were going to do here, but the various elements – the growing of our food and creative use of the farm, the type of yoga that we teach and practise, the work with the horses, the practice of mindfulness, our earnest attempt at living a sustainable life – have evolved along surprisingly parallel lines. There is a deep connection between all these strands.
It is amusing to learn that aspects of what we have been doing for so long are now ‘on trend’. It should be said, of course, that those of us living and working here experience our own pressures and stresses – part and parcel of being human.
There is also something very special about being on an island. When our guests take the boat, they leave more than just their cars on the mainland. They also leave behind some of their worries, the rush of their daily lives, to step into another world with slightly different rules, a world where life is a little slower, less noisy, more spacious than across the water.
The island, with its wild beauty, creates a geographical imperative that helps to focus the mind and for our guests it creates the opportunity and space in which to temporarily leave their ‘normal’ world aside. But we feel very strongly that the retreats that we offer must offer people insights and practical methods (we like to think of them as ‘survival tools’), whether it be in relationship with food and eating, or to the connection with one’s body and breath, which can be incorporated in to one’s normal life and put to use as a means of dealing with the pressures and stresses you mention.
In terms of yoga, we have emphasised over the years the importance of establishing one’s own practice, and we work very closely with students to help them establish a practice they can take home with them

AR You and Christophe have been running yoga retreats since 2001. Have you observed any significant differences in what your guests need? What is the most frequent response to their experience of a residential course with you?
CC It was all a bit makeshift at the start – the yoga classes were held in the local school, and accommodation was in island cottages we rented for the occasion. But the feedback was extremely positive, people just loved island experience, so we decided to continue.
During the Celtic Tiger, we were aware of some people coming on courses simply to be doing something – it was a bit frantic. Those who come now seem to have put a lot more thought and consideration into their choice. More and more, people cite stress and the wish to learn how to deal with it better as being one of the major factors in their motivation for coming here. There is an acknowledgement that the pace and nature of many people’s lives is unsustainable and that there needs to be a better way of dealing with it, or if possible, making changes.
One of the most frequent responses that we get from people has been their enjoyment of the food. Most people who come here are not vegetarians and they are delighted to discover how delicious and relatively easy it is to prepare healthy, nutritious and extremely satisfying food. With the growing awareness of the craziness of the industrial food industry and what type of food is on offer generally, many people are genuinely trying to change their approach to eating.
We offer something that is simple and accessible: a way of connecting to real food and thus an innate sense of how to nourish ourselves without reliance on outside experts or special (and expensive) gimmicks and products.
People also appreciate that they are in essence spending time in our home rather than an impersonal residential centre. The genuine welcome that people receive from us and the volunteers who are helping us here is deeply appreciated.

AR You have an evocative tribute to the late Michael Joe O’Malley on your new website. Tell us more about your impressions, as a young Irish-American woman, of him and life on the island back in the early 1980s.
CC I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to live on Clare Island in the early ’80s. It was a place apart. To say that it was different to what I was used to growing up in the Midwest in the US would be an understatement. I had the opportunity to participate in a way of life that was closely attuned to the natural rhythms of nature.
There was no electricity when I first arrived. When electricity did come a few years later it marked, for me, the start of a new epoch – and even at that time I was aware (wearing my sociologist’s hat) of what an amazing opportunity it was to live through such a profound transition. The communitarian, traditional, agrarian-based life began evolving into a cash economy and opened outwards to the larger world.
When I first arrived, islanders were highly self-sufficient, but it was out of necessity rather than choice (to opt out was to emigrate). As the necessity lessened, so did the self-sufficiency. The association of extremely hard work and poverty with being self-sufficient is real and tangible. I have been grateful to this insight – something is often overlooked by predominately middle class ecological and sustainable movements.
In the midst of this, Michael Joe was unique. Despite being so rooted to the island, having a deep sense of belonging to a place, his mind was truly open to people and ideas from all over the world. He was an autodidact, and his programme of learning and self-development was as impressive as his extensive library.
This juxtaposition of a local narrative with a sophisticated expert discourse was fascinating. His analytical powers provided him with an uncanny ability of foreseeing the crucial issues of modern life, even though his own life was so much on the edge of what was the common experience. He understood the malaise and ennui that results from separating ourselves from meaningful work (and for Michael this meant both physical and mental) and the natural world. Hard physical effort was valued in exactly the same way as mental and creative effort, and all three were considered necessary to lead a full life.

AR It seems that Macalla Farm honours his memory and continues an ethos that welcomes a colourful caravan of people – ‘writers, travellers, hippies, lost souls and seekers of truth’ – that he accommodated from the 1960s. Where do your woofers and guests hail from and is their quest still the same?
CC We certainly do honour his memory, and believe that he would approve of what we are doing with the place he left us. He was himself a seeker of truth, and through his farm he provided an open place for learning to the diverse group of people who came here. I often reflect how this legacy of his has influenced what has evolved: I grew up in a very closed home which did not get many visitors, so my own upbringing was not much of a preparation for how Macalla Farm has developed.
Since 2004, we have welcomed more than 80 volunteers. They have come, at last count, from 23 different countries. Last year alone, we had ten different people staying here at different periods, from two weeks to seven months. They were Irish, English, American, Australian, German, Swiss, Canadian and Argentinian.
The nationalities of our guests would add a few extra countries to that total. Both volunteers and guests hail from a diverse range of backgrounds, including the same mix as back in the 1970s with Michael Joe: writers/artists (recently a high trapeze circus performer), but also highly qualified professionals who find themselves at a cross-roads in their lives and careers.
Is the quest the same? As I arrived at the end of the Michael Joe era, I can’t speak for them. But I think people of all backgrounds appreciate involvement in attempts at living sustainably. There are more and more places like ours in Ireland and throughout the world, of course, but the experiencing of authenticity is what rings true for all of us.

AR What is the future of such outposts as Clare Island, in your opinion?
CC Small offshore islands will always be on the edge both literally and metaphorically. This is their strength as much as their weakness. Their future lies in maintaining and making good use of this special position, though the challenge is and will be to maintain population numbers.
We believe that it is necessary to encourage young islanders who have moved away to return but also to welcome others who wish to explore the opportunities that small islands afford, be it through organic and artisan food production or sustainable tourism. It requires a lot of unconventional and lateral thinking, however, and then later, lots of hard work.

A Macalla Farm Mindful Eating and Meditation Workshop will be held at The Quay Community Centre, Westport, on Saturday, of March 7, from 11.15am to 4.30pm. (See also West Mayo notes in Local Notes.)

For more information on Macalla Farm visit