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Will secluded 300-year-old former flour mill see the rise of a new generation of Northern Ireland writers?

Poet Paul Maddern who has created a writers' retreat which will open soon in Co Down, tells Laurence White about his life in the catering industry and trying to make it as a ballet dancer

As a published poet Paul Maddern knows the benefit of finding some solitude in which to compose his verse. Indeed it was a desire to leave behind the fast pace of life in London which led to him moving to Northern Ireland in 2000.

And now he is combining this quest for a peaceful environment with a business venture by creating a writers’ retreat in the Co Down countryside.

Last October, Paul (55) bought a restored 300-year-old flour mill in the Lecale area of south Down. The previous owners, Aidan and Theresa McAteer, had bought the ruined building in 2006 and turned it into a successful B&B before putting it on the market again.

For Paul it was the perfect opportunity. “I was looking to set up a writers’ retreat,” he says. “One of the main stipulations was that it had to be in the right location. When I saw these premises online I knew it was the one. It is full of character, in a remote location but still accessible from towns in the area and it had five en suite rooms. There is also a mezzanine area which will be a communal space for guests as well the living room and kitchen.

“The building has a great history and there is a large garden — which currently needs a lot of attention — and a stream running through it. It will be landscaped and a seating area provided where guests can relax if we ever get any good weather.”

For Paul it seems that his whole life has been working towards this venture which he plans to have up and running by mid-April.

Paul was born in Bermuda but has always had connections with Northern Ireland through his mother, Patricia. Originally from Bangor she met her future husband, Carey Maddern from Cornwall, when she went to London to train as a nurse.

Carey later got a teaching job in Bermuda and the couple moved to the Caribbean island. For Paul it was the idyllic spot to grow up. “It is 22 miles long and one and a half miles wide with pink sand and turquoise sea and has not been too commercialised. The atmosphere is very laid back and it was a wonderful place to grow up as a schoolboy,” he says.

But like many young men his horizons broadened when he left to study at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, where he obtained a degree in film studies. “Going to university made me think that there must be more out there for me to see”, he recalls.

An opportunity to explore new places came fairly quickly. “I have been what I call a living room dancer all of my life but took it a bit more seriously when I was at university. When I came back to Bermuda I was in a production of the comic ballet Coppelia and the ballet mistress was from Colorado Ballet company and she invited me to join as an apprentice.

“I stayed there for a season but I did not have much money and didn’t see any way of making some, so, at the suggestion of a friend, I decided to try my luck in San Francisco.

“I was there for about five years, all the time trying to make it as a dancer, but I eventually realised I had started too late and my dream would never be realised.

“That was when I fell into catering, which seems to be the fate of some many would-be dancers.”

This was the start of another enjoyable chapter in his life. Paul moved to London and quickly established himself in the industry holding managerial positions in the Branganza, the Limelight, the Groucho Club and 192 Kensington Park Road.

He was right in the heart of the bohemian Soho district and saw him hosting events for people like Stephen Fry, Shirley MacLaine, Damien Hirst and Saatchi and Saatchi as well as film launches and West End production parties.

He says: “It was a great fun place to be and very enjoyable, but London is a fast-paced city and there came a time when I decided to come to Northern Ireland to start afresh.”

His mum had returned to Groomsport — she and Carey, who died three years ago, had divorced — and Paul was able to continue his catering career as front of house manager at the Fontana restaurant in Holywood, one he rates as among the best in Ireland.

But his heart was not really in the catering industry — he had no desire to ever own a restaurant and simply was not enjoying the work in the way he used to. It was then that he decided to return to academia. A venture into the Open University rekindled the spark and he then headed for the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University — the mecca for many who want to fulfil their creative urges.

He was accepted for a MA in Creative Writing, an experience he remembers as “wonderful” and he is especially warm in his praise of award-winning poet Sinead Morrissey who facilitated the writers group. “She was an inspiration and her loss to Queen’s University when she moved to England was tremendous,” he says.

A PhD followed which involved Paul building the Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive which features poets reading their work in public. He says: “This is a resource which I hope people will visit to hear poets of the standing of Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson and Sinead Morrissey read their own work. It should give listeners a new appreciation of that work.”

This was the first time a digital submission — accompanied by some critical writing — was accepted for a PhD. It also led to Paul being offered a post teaching creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre and later a teaching fellowship in the School of English in Leeds for three years. “That was a wonderful experience. I fell in love with Leeds. It may not seem a very appealing city to many people but the activities going on there were fantastic,” he says.

His own writing was also taking off and to date he has published three books of his work, Kelpdings (2009), winner of the Templar Poetry pamphlet competition, The Beachcomber Report (2010), short listed for the Eithne and Rupert Strong Award for Best First Collection, and Pilgrimage (2017). Paul is a recipient of an Arts Council of Northern Ireland ACEs award and he is currently completing a huge piece of work which has run to 55 pages. It started out as a short poem for the son of a friend who is leaving to study drama at the Julliard School of performing arts in New York.

Paul says: “I had written a poem for his sister when she went to England to study law and this was supposed to be something similar for a young man on the cusp of a new adventure, but it has developed to include themes as diverse as World War One and Frankenstein — both of which are marked by important anniversaries this year, the former ended 100 years ago and the novel was written 200 years ago.”

Paul is hopeful that his own new adventure will prove a boon to writers. “I have been three times to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre is Monaghan which is a marvellous facility and found it a very productive environment. I am not setting up in competition but rather offering a different facility. There is a great culture in Northern Ireland of assisting emerging writers. For example the Queen’s University writers group has been running from the time Seamus Heaney was a student there and leading writers have been responsible for facilitating that group.

“There’s a good support system within certain groups of writers in the province and there is a very exciting group of writers who have just graduated from the Seamus Heaney Centre and are having commercial success already.

“In many ways the physical nature of Northern Ireland makes it like one large writers’ retreat and our universities play an important part in generating and encouraging writers and helping them hone their craft to become better writers.”

That is what he hopes his facility can also achieve as those who book stays there will enjoy mentoring from established writers as well as the opportunity to work on their own or exchange ideas with the rest of the occupants.

“The small number of people I can accommodate at any one time means that they get more attention from the mentors than would be possible in a bigger facility,” Paul adds.

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