Getting back up when life knocks you down

In 1989, Annie King, age 35, hopped on her bike after the breakdown of her marriage and, on a whim, caught the ferry from the UK to Ireland for a two week cycling holiday. It was the first time she had ever travelled anywhere on her own. This impulsive action, which was to change the course of the young teacher’s life, led to a career in street theatre and the purchase of a rundown cottage on five acres of land in Coomhola, which friends, family and wwoofers, joining together in the true spirit of ‘Meitheal’, helped her to transform. Just turned 70, the previous Director of Wwoof Ireland, who today volunteers with the West Cork Sudbury School, chats to Mary O’Brien about how her sustainable lifestyle in West Cork came about and why retirement doesn’t really exist in her vocabulary.

Annie is a veritable force of nature. As a young separated mother in 1980s Britain, having secured bursaries for her two daughters to attend boarding school, she held down three jobs to make ends meet, working part-time in her local pub and delivering takeaways, as well as a full-time teaching position.

In 1989, a cycling holiday in Ireland marked the beginning of her passion for street theatre – after she experienced Clonakilty’s famous busking festival and witnessed the energy and creativity of celebrated street theatre group Craic na Coillte – and, with the purchase of a derelict house between Bantry and Glengarriff, the start of a new life in West Cork.

The following year she left teaching – reacting to the introduction of the National Curriculum in the UK, which she felt put too much emphasis on goal orientation. 

While travelling back and forth renovating the cottage herself, Annie continued to work and study in the UK, completing an arts and administration degree before pursuing a career organising street theatre festivals all over the UK.

Built in the 1700s for the manager of the local iron smelting works, Annie’s house in Coomhola was a shell when she bought it, without electricity or running water. But there was a wildness and hope in the land and the people that drew Annie in. Inspired by the building knowledge she had picked up from her dad, a builder and quantity surveyor – “I was mixing cement at the age of five,” laughs Annie – and with the help of a community of able and willing friends, fellow students, and family, over a three year period Annie breathed new life into the old house.

During the first year, a friend studying electronics took on the task of wiring the house. However, after he fell through the rotten roof on the second day and refused to continue with the electrics until a new roof was in place, Annie took on the roofing task, as well as lining the chimney.

The toilet was a trench dug outside and the house had no windows and more holes than boards in the floors but the group worked and played hard, with evenings spent happily around the fire in the old kitchen  “The girls camped upstairs and we used to pass hot milk up to them through a hole in the floor,” she remembers smiling.

Aside from a dresser passed on from her grandfather and the appliances, the kitchen, built by volunteers, cost Annie the grand sum of £150, with all the wood salvaged from the local dump. “My brother and sister were born during WWII and growing up we always mended everything and grew our own vegetables. We never had money to spare so it was nothing new to me,” shares Annie.

Still working in the UK, Annie managed to secure a small mortgage to finish the renovations. However in 1996, age 42, and just three months after moving permanently to West Cork, she was involved in a bad car accident in Bantry. This brought work at the property to a standstill while she put everything into rebuilding her health, spending over a year recuperating at her brother’s home.

Eventually back on her feet and back in West Cork but, with her health unreliable since the accident, managing a renovation and maintaining a five-acre property became quite daunting. That was until the arrival of the first wwoofer on the property, in the midst of a millennium party, on New Year’s Eve, 1999. “l didn’t know who the wwoofer was until everyone else had gone home and she was the last one left – with an American accent!” laughs Annie. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (Wwoof) is a global movement where people stay on organic farms to learn about organic growing and sustainable living through hands on experience. Annie still grows her own veg and, over the years, a constant flow of wwoofers have helped to clear the land and plant hundreds of native trees on the five acres.

With her daughters grown, Annie was able to settle full-time into the community in Coomhola. She formed her own company ‘K2arts’, which ran summer camps teaching environmental education through arts and drama and, as well as working on art projects including producing the pageant for the opening of Carriganass Castle in Kealkil in 2003, she undertook an MA in art therapy and started training to become an emergency foster carer.

Then, in 2004, life came to a standstill yet again, as she suffered another setback in the form of a stroke. “I felt this sudden pain behind my right eye,” she recalls. “I thought it was a migraine – just another symptom of menopause!” Annie lost all feeling in the right hand side of her body. While fortunately the damage wasn’t permanent, she developed agoraphobia. Not the type of person to take things lying down, Annie tackled the condition head-on by going off travelling for eight months.

While in South America she went on an Antarctic cruise and fell in love with penguins, met some more in the Falklands, before eventually ending up in New Zealand where she spent time wwoofing herself. It was here that the wheels were put in motion for her restarting Wwoof Ireland: While the organisation had been in existence since the early 70s, it had just been tagged on to the UK’s Wwoof Independents. Within a year of Annie heading up the lrish organisation, host numbers jumped from 100 up to 400. She set the organisation up as an educational charity and employed personnel to help her run it. “At the time people were looking for a cheaper way to holiday but also a sustainable way of doing it,” she says. Annie became a director of Fowo, the international organisation that supports national wwoof groups, travelling all over the world to attend meetings. In 2019, she was nominated for a Volunteer Ireland Volunteer of the Year award in the Animals and Environment section.

While the dynamo did hang up her Wwoof Ireland administration gloves on turning 66, it certainly didn’t mean she sat back in life. Annie has since completed a Level 5 art qualification, become a proud Irish citizen and is very involved in the West Cork Sudbury School, a democratic school of self-directed learning, co-founded by her daughter Jessica Mason to foster creative thinking in children. “She’s fulfilling an education system that would have always been my dream. I’m very proud of both my children and of my grandchildren,” shares Annie, who is the Chair of the Board of Management, as well as volunteering as a tutor at the school. “I can see the benefits my own grandchildren are gaining through the school.”

If anything it should be said that Annie King epitomises the quote “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” When she’s not tackling her garden, or an art or community project, she can be found working at festivals, or planning another trip. Her hope is to drive a little camper van across to Glastonbury this summer where she has made films for the Greencrafts Village for the last decade, before heading off for a holiday in the lake district.

“There isn’t enough time in the day….but I do think I should do a chainsaw course!” she adds laughing.

Mary O'Brien

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