April 2021 Alumnae Voices: The search for one thing leads to another

Amidst publishing five books, Betsy Cornwell MFA ‘12 navigated an abusive marriage. Read Cornwell’s reflection on the strength her community provided that allowed her to begin a project transforming an old knitting factory in Connemara, Ireland into an arts residency for single mothers and their children.
Content Warning: Domestic Abuse 

Alumnae Voices: The search for one thing leads to another

by Betsy Cornwell MFA ‘12

My MFA thesis project at Notre Dame was my first novel: a retelling of the Celtic story “The Selkie Bride” set in modern-day New England. Shortly after graduating in 2012, I travelled to Ireland to learn more about the old stories that inspired my writing. The trip was supposed to last for two months, but almost nine years later I’m still here -- and I’m working on a very different project, but one that fills me with just as much passion as my first novel did back in graduate school. I’m living in an old knitting factory in Connemara with my young son, and I’m running a crowdfund to renovate it into a childcare-inclusive arts residency for single mothers.

I feel so lucky to live in this historic, eccentric building, and to have the chance to remake it into a space for single moms to make art. My journey to get here, though -- both to the knitting factory itself and to a place of confidence and peace as a single mother -- has been long and fraught with painful transformations.  

I thought I’d come to Ireland to work on a book; soon after arriving, I met my future husband. I thought I’d stumbled into a romantic fairy tale, a beautiful story like the one I’d come here to write. But our marriage ultimately curdled into domestic abuse and coercive control. After I became a mother, I realized I couldn’t bear to see my child grow up in an abusive home. 

Betsy Cornwell and her son

Like many Notre Dame alumni, I was raised in a religious family that counted divorce as a profound failure. It was actually a Notre Dame classmate of mine, a dear friend and devout Catholic, who helped me release that shame. I called her, weeping, shortly after my husband and I stopped living together. I felt physically sick, nauseous with shame. I was forcing myself to eat half a piece of dry bread each morning so I wouldn’t pass out in the middle of changing my baby’s diapers, but I couldn’t manage another bite besides. I didn’t think I deserved it.

“No one can keep their marriage vows alone, honey,” she told me. “Do you think this is what my God would want, for someone to treat you this way?”
It was just a video call, but I could still feel her holding me. 

It was truly the communities around me, mostly women, who saw me through the harrowing early days of single motherhood. My son’s godmother lent me the money I needed to make rent in those first months, and the alumni networks at Notre Dame and my undergraduate college, Smith, helped me find the freelance and remote work I needed to keep my little family going.

I also had the good fortune to join a single mothers’ group at my local domestic violence center. The women I met there, their strength and resilience, inspired me and restored so much of my lost faith in myself. I saw through them that single mothers are worthy of being celebrated, not stigmatised.

I’d had a blessedly brief brush with homelessness when my marriage ended, and home ownership had become a fiercely longed-for dream of mine ever since. But the other single mothers I met made my dream expand into something more: the childcare-inclusive residency space I’m creating now. I wanted to value the mothers who had shown me that I had value, to hold the mothers who held me.

It’s taken a long time to find a space that would work for both aspects of my dream. But in March 2020 I found it: a long white-and-yellow house nestled on the rugged, overgrown shore of a Connemara lake. The Old Knitting Factory was built in 1906 to teach rural women knitting skills that they could use to support themselves financially. The building had been reincarnated several times already: as the first Irish-language cinema in the 1970s, and later as a jewelry-making studio. For the last several years, it had been a little-used vacation home, and parts of it were well nigh falling down.

It was certainly a fixer-upper, but so was I: my broken marriage, my exhausted new-mom body, my hollowed and leaking heart. I still carried a soul-deep longing to find a haven for myself and my baby, as well as a place to offer the beauty and peace of Ireland to the families who would come to my residency.

The author in front of the Old Knitting Factory hearth

I wrote to the owner, explaining my plans and offering to rent the building while I crowdfunded and saved for a down payment. My son and I moved in on the summer solstice.

The crowdfund has already surpassed €16,000, largely due to the support of those same alumni communities: almost enough for a full down payment on a mortgage on its own. Buying the building, of course, is just step one: after that, I need to complete renovations so that I can begin welcoming artist-mothers as well as the Airbnb guests who I hope will stay here between residencies and help fund the project. This journey isn’t over, but I’m so proud of how far I’ve come.

When I first came to Ireland, I heard an old saying that’s stuck with me ever since: faigheann iarraidh, iarraidh eile. In English: the search for one thing leads to another. I travelled to Ireland searching for a story. The stories of our lives, however, never lead quite where we expect; mine certainly hasn’t. Still, the thread that has remained constant through every unexpected twist has been my friends, the communities around me that I found at Notre Dame, at Smith, in all the stages of my life. Their care and support have seen me through to the beautiful life that I’ve found now, so different from the dreams I nurtured as a student. That’s why I want to offer that care and support to other single moms. I hope you, too, can know the joy of giving and receiving that same care.


*If you or someone you know might be experiencing an abusive relationship, check out the free, confidential, 24/7 assistance available in the U.S. from the National Domestic Violence Hotline at https://www.thehotline.org/

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