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Where I Work – Turtle in the Sunday Times, July 2021

Photo: Bryan Meade

A self-confessed hoarder, Turtle keeps an eclectic collection of curios in his Co Carlow garden studio. He spoke with Rose Costello for an interview published in the Sunday Times on 11 July 2021. (See here).


Where do you do your work?

Several decades of semi-nomadic writing came to an end in late February 2020 when I switched on the lights for the first time in my new studio, a dapper timber shed that had just been raised in our garden. Covid entered the island a few days later and within weeks, we were in lockdown. The timing couldn’t have been more immaculate – after nearly half a century on earth, I finally had a room of my own.

My commute now takes 60 seconds, wending through a bunch of raspberry canes, an embankment of beech, down some stone steps et voilà.

The entire studio was then painted, carpeted, kitted out and decorated by my wife, with a little help from our daughters, right down to the coffee machine and geranium plant that I keep forgetting to water. Sometimes I stand and gaze adoringly at my studio from afar. We painted it ash black because my brother-in-law Tom Sykes had just written a book about sheds with the motorbike fanatic Henry Cole, and one of their rules is that a shed must be black.

If it all feels a little Siberian, that’s because the timber came from 150-year-old Norway Spruce trees grown in Siberia. These were converted into the basics of a shed in Lithuania, before being shipped to Ireland and installed in our garden by Timber Living ( of Tullow.


Is it mainly writing and researching?

Most of my work is online research – trawling archives, reading books, theses, essays and so on, or communicating with people who know more than me about such and such a subject. My first objective is to pursue every possible lead to establish the facts. The next is to convert my findings into something that will keep the end-reader interested, whether it’s for a book, a podcast, a speech, a lecture or whatever.


Do you spend much time on the road?

I used to be a sort of travel writer, reporting on beautiful places to see, dine, drink, sleep all across Ireland, as well as overseas, so I got to know the 32 counties reasonably well. The Vanishing Ireland project brought me down a zillion boreens that I’d never have gone down otherwise. To this day, I love beetling off down an unexplored back road to see what I’ll find. Google Maps has given me faith that I won’t get too badly lost.

That said, I do miss the road trips I went on in my 20s, a clatter of pals, heading to some gorgeous spot in the west of Ireland for unbridled banter and merriment. I haven’t been on a road trip like that for a long time. They were very good for the soul.

On the other hand, our daughters are now 14 and 12, so family trips are entering a new dimension. We have close friends in Mayo and Cork, Ally’s mum lives in Monaghan and I have a brother in Down, so in the pre-Covidean world, we were spinning around the provinces quite regularly.


What is your house like? What does the building look like?

Ally and I conceived our house on our Sicilian honeymoon. Ally literally drew it on a napkin. We then showed it to Kilkenny architect Mark Kennedy, who tweaked it with earnest. We’ve fetched up with a sort of lovely old-fashioned farmhousey house with Bakelite switches, bright walls, mod-cons galore and fabulous vistas.


What do you see from your workspace?

I have a glorious view across our lithe young garden to the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, with knobbly Eagle Hill stage right and the pyramidical summit of Croghan Moira as a back marker. Also, in the frame is Lugnaquilla, the Lug, Ireland’s highest mountain outside Kerry, which I actually climbed with some pals during lockdown, largely because it kept winking at me in my office and asking me up.


How do you feel about your workspace?

I’m very much in love with it. But I appreciate that like any relationship, I’ll need to keep working on it. An annual exterior paint job, for starters. I’ve also just built a podcast studio inside the studio itself, which also requires a lick of paint.


Would you like to be based somewhere else?

Not as such, although when it comes to writing a book, there’s really nowhere better than a proper faraway retreat where you can live, breathe and eat your book. A home studio works a dream but the moment I step out of it, the focus tends to mist up a little.


Could you describe your desk?

My late aunt Rosebud left me a gorgeous 19th century desk which I was longing to use but it didn’t quite suit my computer and back posture, so I’m literally about to set up one of those utterly functional sit-stand desks. The idea is that I should remember to wind it up and down 2 or 3 times a day to vary my sit-stand posture and keep the old backbone limber.


Are there any special objects on it or around the place? What is the story attached to them? Anything of sentimental value?

The studio is a place where I can keep things that my wife and daughters might not tolerate. I’m a hoarder by nature – by profession too, I guess – but I’ve been as careful as possible to leave most of my truly beloved yet hideous possessions in the attic.    The walls are covered with art and photos – a couple of Vanishing Ireland photos from James Fennell, some Annie West etchings and a portrait of my No. 1 pin up, Lola Montez, a Sligo-born 19th century femme fatale who has been stalking me for decades.

There’s also a photo of my late grandmother’s family that has always fascinated me – the group shot includes Elizabeth Bowen’s mum, Ralph Fiennes’ great-granny and a boy called Eddie who was celebrating his 37th birthday on the Titanic when it sank with him on it. Worst. Birthday. Ever. But the photo reminds me that we just never know what’s a-coming so be kind, be wise and enjoy life as much as you can.

I must not forget my office companion. Her name is Dilly, her species is fluffy white dog, aged 11, and she has quarters in my office, as well as her main bed in the house kitchen. She is often snoozing by my feet as I write.


What do you see around you when working? What do you notice?

I notice almost nothing when I’m working. My brain delegates thought to my fingertips. My eyes are entirely fixed on the screen in front of me. The alphabet dances its 26-letter medley and produces word upon word until, finally, my phone rings or the notion of a coffee tickles my synapses or the unavoidable demands of human nature calls.

Of course, the biggest distraction is my inbox and I am constantly at war with it. I try hard to answer every email I receive but it’s like a never-ending game of Whack-a-mole. Every time I clobber one, two more rise up. I actually played a real game of Whack-a-mole not long ago and my daughters were truly astonished by the speed with which I bashed them all.


How long have you been working like this? 

I’ve been self-employed almost all of my working life, aside from an extraordinary year in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, when I worked for a colourful prince of humbugs who dispatched me on crazy assignments to Cambodia, Japan and London.


Do you enjoy it? Why?

I adore what I do. Every week is different. Last week, I was reading up on medieval tower houses in the Burren. This week, I’ve been turning a book I wrote about Maxol into podcasts. Next week, I’m producing a family history for a lady whose grandfather was in MI5. In fact, my only constant at the moment is the weekly recording and airing of our new Vanishing Ireland podcast series, a collaboration with SuperValu.


What is your background personally and professionally?

I grew up at Lisnavagh in County Carlow, which my family have farmed since the 17th century. My brother William and his wife Emily now run the main house as a yoga and wedding venue. It’s just a few fields away from us, which makes for a merry walk.

I went to a boarding school in Dublin at the age of eight, and then spent five years incarcerated at another one in Scotland. Left school at 18, backpacked the world for a year. Tried studying law at Trinity College, gave up after two years and switched to history instead. It was the right call. I went to Hong Kong, dabbled in writing about travel, interiors and politics, and then settled into the busy, ever-changing historian’s life that I lead today.


What is the best thing about your workspace?

The best thing about my space is knowing it’s there, that I have a room of my own. That gives me a sense, probably illusory, that I have some control over my life. And I love the way the saplings we planted around it are already becoming young trees. Next step is to get Ally one.


Anything you don’t like about being there?