Living Leeside: Heather McDougall says the best life ingredients are all in Cork 

Róisín Burke talks to American Heather McDougall about what first drew her to Cork and what holds her in her adopted home county. 
Living Leeside: Heather McDougall says the best life ingredients are all in Cork 

When she is not working, Heather, who is an accomplished cellist, said her world revolves around music, books, and buildings.

LIVING in the hinterland of Bantry, far from the bright lights of Stateside cities, Philadelphia native Heather McDougall now calls Cork home.

With a masters degree from Trinity College Dublin and a stint in Limerick, Heather well knew the lay of the land when she moved to West Cork for work with West Cork Music, but the beauty of her surroundings continues to impress.

“The opportunity to work with West Cork Music brought me here, first in 2011 and again this year,” she said. 

“I like new challenges.

“Arriving here nine years ago, it was the opportunity to develop an online archive to make the West Cork Chamber Music Festival’s treasure trove of recordings publicly accessible. This second time around, the opportunity to realise the dreams of a dedicated venue in Bantry was irresistible.

“Bringing this to fruition — a purpose-built performance space and a hub for education and community life in the town centre is an incredibly exciting, and important, responsibility. It will be a key addition to the beloved venues we already use and will continue to use, like Bantry House.

“It is vital that we get this right for the people of Bantry, the visiting artists we’re so privileged to host every year, and for our audiences from near and far, all of whom have been wonderfully supportive throughout West Cork Music’s 26-year history.”

'The best life ingredients are here'

Heather said Cork boasts a whole host of attractions.

“It’s the wealth of what’s at your fingertips,” she said.

“The best life ingredients are all here: the hillwalking, the coast and the islands, the small towns full of colour, character, and honest food, a vibrant city that loves the arts, an enviable array of festivals, and people who live their values. See how I left out the wet winters?”

When she is not working, Heather, who is an accomplished cellist, said her world revolves around music, books, and buildings.

“I’m a steady reader, though it’s never the fiction that always seems to be lighting other people up,” she said, adding that she is reading “a string of biographies these days, a who’s who of 20th century creative women — Ina Boyle, Peggy Guggenheim, Alice Neel, Marion Mahony Griffin, Elizabeth Bishop.

One of Heather’s favourite things to do is take a walk on Long Strand followed by fish and chips from The Fish Basket.
One of Heather’s favourite things to do is take a walk on Long Strand followed by fish and chips from The Fish Basket.

“[Having] trained as a cellist and having worked in public radio in Ireland and the US, I also spend a lot of time listening and going to gigs — classical and jazz mostly. RTÉ lyric FM is often on the wireless — a total pleasure to hear my masterful former colleagues on the air.

“Architectural history is another love. I was introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work as a teenager by my architect father and was hooked,” she said.

“Years of giving walking tours in Chicago ensued — on everything from art deco to the evolution of tall buildings. You could say I fell down a rabbit hole and never came out. Though admittedly, tall building trivia doesn’t travel well across the Atlantic — not much traction for that in Cork!”

One of Heather’s favourite things to do is take a walk on Long Strand followed by fish and chips from The Fish Basket, but the experience is closely followed by the climb up to Lady Bantry’s Lookout at the Glengarriff Nature Reserve “because when you’re short on time, it’s the best panoramic satisfaction possible”.

Pride of place 

Talking about the native people of Cork, Heather said pride of place is a common theme and bond.

“The pride of Cork people, it’s simple, unadorned, effortless, impenetrable — a beautiful thing. I mean, many kinds of people from many parts of the world have pride of place, but at some point or another it tends to falter. None of that here —it’s another level.”

With family in Philadelphia and a sister in New Mexico, along with many years of wandering the globe, Heather said missing home is something that occurs in fleeting moments.

“A number of places now seem like a form of home. Many year-stints in different towns and cities will do that to you. I don’t tend to think of it as missing them per se, but there are moments when I’m struck by a detail, a memory, and, yes, there’s a kind of yearning. The smell of the orchard pressing apples near my parents’ house, the triumphant sight of bridge-raising over the Chicago River, the taste of a 99 from Teddy’s in Dún Laoghaire. It’s the small things.”

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