Alan Murdoch finds a deserted Kerry village becoming an artistic haven. Photographs by Brian Harris
AGAINST the Ring of Kerry's epic landscape of slate-grey cliffs and vast sweeping valleys, scattered cottages crouch low against blasting gales on steep slopes. This is not conventional beauty, but something more invigorating, wilder, resonant of Atlantic power. Small wonder then that this stark scenery should so forcefully grip the imaginations of artists.

Since its foundation stone was laid in 1991 by then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey over 180 have now visited, living and working in the embryonic community of Cill Rialaig on the western tip of the Ring, close to the haunting triangular Skelligs.

Cill Rialaig had been in steady decline since the potato famine 150 years ago. Now there are plans for half of the settlement's original 14 ruined cottages to be renovated, with the two already completed available free to visiting artists. Painters, enraptured by the unique morning light, work beneath a glass roof. Yards from the cliff edge, the dwellings face directly out into the Atlantic.

Anne Kampmann, currently visiting from Norway, paints moody abstract works. Walking the nearby headlands, she feels "the pressure of history here. I think the spirit is here in a very heavy way."

The project was the brainchild of Dublin publisher Noelle Campbell-Sharp, a regular visitor down the years. A busy socialite and sometime rock band manager, she traces the origins of the project to an unlikely celebrity.

"If it hadn't been for Robert Maxwell nothing would have happened," she confesses. Campbell-Sharp, an energetic super-saleswoman became known as the only person ever to make money out of the bouncing Czech, after selling him her stable of up-market womens' glossy magazines, among them Irish Tatler and Social And Personal. Dublin wits promptly renamed her "Razor-Sharp Noelle".

Maxwell went to his grave before her payment was completed. She retreated to Kerry "to lick my wounds". It was then she conceived her rejuvenation plan.

She admits many were initially wary of "this mad woman from Dublin". She, after all, used to promote her coffee-table reading for the hunting classes, while her elegant vintage Bentley was a familiar sight double- parked outside the Shelbourne Hotel, prime watering hole of the tiara set. She did manage to squeeze Irish high-society for donations through golf-classics and auctions. Rebuilding the first two cottages cost pounds 50,000 each.

The artists come from as far afield as Argentina, Russia, and Italy. A tradition has arisen at Cill Rialaig of leaving behind a work of art produced there, which is sold to raise funds. Italy's 1996 painter of the year, Aurelio Caminati, left an entire summer's output. The outward influence is visible in Irish-related exhibitions now running in Milan, Genoa, Glasgow and Cornwall.

The last, most ambitious venture is a large international art gallery planned for Waterville, five miles across Ballinskelligs Bay, parallelling the Tate at St Ives.

Last Saturday, a mile from the village in the project's impressive new gallery-restaurant with adjacent workshops, Campbell-Sharp brought her contrasting metropolitan and country circles together. To open a group show, amid intense local interest, she lured down a real celebrity in the form of Terry Keane, Dublin's principal gossip writer and "close friend" of Charles Haughey ("Sweetie" in her weekly newspaper column). Last week a Dublin magazine named her "the sexiest woman in Ireland".

The retinue also included the scarlet-clad Vi Lawlor, 75 year-old good- time girl and wealthy widow with a liking for vintage "shampoo", dancing on tables, who resorts to a Rolls-Royce for race meetings when the helicopter is booked up.

With Campbell-Sharp in Dublin (running a gallery and planning a cigar- and-wine club) a board involving Kerry business and professional figures run the art project. Local people have warmed to it. Tom Horgan, the owner of a small caravan park, says, "We want quality tourism, not to destroy the place", while GP Derry Gibson says "Psychologically, it is important to have such wonderful art here, to show there is something happening".

Inquiries to : The Cill Rialaig Project, Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, Ireland. Fax: 00353 66 79324.