From Urban New York to Pastoral Ireland, Part II


WHEN SUMMER'S IN THE MEADOW by Niall Williams and Christine Breen, New York: Soho. 224 pp., $17.95

WRITERS Niall Williams and Christine Breen think of themselves as keepers of a dream - the dream of a simpler life far from urban clatter, where nature's rhythms govern and neighbors are trusted helpers, not strangers.

They've found their piece of this dream in the west of Ireland, County Clare. In an earlier volume, ``O Come Ye Back to Ireland,'' the husband and wife recorded their first year in Kiltumper, a rural district near the village of Kilmihil. That book was full of the wonder of it all - the fact they'd actually left advertising careers in Manhattan to reinhabit a tiny stone cottage that Breen's grandfather had been reared in.

This second work carries the saga of ancient Kiltumper's newcomers forward. Williams does most of the writing, while Breen contributes prose vignettes of country life and crisp pen-and-ink drawings. ``When Summer's in the Meadow'' is intended to answer the question, ``How is it all going, then?'' It's a question friends and visitors (many of them readers of the first book) never stop asking.

The answer appears to be ``quite well.'' But not smooth or easy. The life these two have chosen - she a native of suburban New York and he a Dubliner - abounds with predictable hard work and unpredictable tricks of nature.

Planting, calving, haying, harvesting, bringing the turf in for fuel - these cycles of the countryside form the backdrop for their lives. And then the unexpected: a hurricane-force wind off the Atlantic in the dead of night; a goat that persists in jumping fences and showing otherwise docile cows the way to freedom; an embarrassing mishap when it comes time to slaughter the turkeys.

Williams and Breen weather the squalls, draw the humor from them, and emerge ever more wedded to their life in Kiltumper and, one feels, to each other. This special relationship between two people - now three, with the addition of their adopted daughter, Dierdre - and a warm-hearted land gives the book breath and pulse.

Woven throughout this installment from County Clare is the experience of adopting little Dierdre. The apprehensions and exhilarations are those familiar to all first-time parents, but they are given unique twists in the context of Ireland and Kiltumper. The state adoption system requires a face-to-face meeting with Dierdre's natural mother, then a trial period of half a year during which her mother can reclaim the child, no questions asked.

It could easily become overly sentimental, or even a bit sociological. But Williams and Breen blend their account of new parenthood into the daily cares of farm and village - from sprucing and tightening the old cottage to the christening in their farmstead kitchen, with the neighbors who've shared their hopes and happiness looking on. Though intensely personal, the writing never becomes self-absorbed.

This is a story well told - episodic, diarylike, but of a piece. Williams's love of his subject, and of language, comes through in every word picture of muddied boots and stubborn beasts. Some may cast the life he and Breen are nurturing in the west of Ireland as an escape. Not so. They set off for this land of their ancestors to find something - ``a spirit of place and community informing every day,'' as Williams puts it.

Clearly they've largely succeeded in that quest. And it's good of them to share with others who may hold similar dreams, but lack the opportunity - or the commitment - to pursue them.

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