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Island profile: Louise Clark — Ireland, the Island and the definition of home

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO |  Louise Clark runs her graphic design business out of her upstairs home office on St. Mary’s Road.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Louise Clark runs her graphic design business out of her upstairs home office on St. Mary’s Road.

Louise Clark has lived and worked on Shelter Island for over three decades.

Today she’s a garden-growing, bee-keeping, firewood-stacking American citizen, who won’t eat mutton.

But growing up in Dublin she was Louise O’Regan, daughter of Joan and Mick, a city girl who loved to play “camogie,” a high-contact stick and ball sport. Even her husband of 20 years, Shelter Island builder and fisherman Keith Clark, is not sure when this profound transition happened.

“For years, when she went to Ireland, she was ‘going home,’” he said. “Now she’s going home when she’s going to Shelter Island.”

The 1928 bungalow on St. Mary’s Road that Louise and Keith share has a backyard with fruit trees and a wall of freshly split hardwood from five enormous maple trees recently felled. Keith split the wood and Louise carried every log to the back where she stacked them into a wall that lines the edge of the property like a fortress. Their work will fuel the stove for at least three years.

Louise grew up in Clontarf on the north side of Dublin, with four brothers Seán, Leo, Paul and Kevin. Their father was in the airline business and the kids were confident and enthusiastic travelers. “Dad called us gypsies,” Louise said. “When we’d go somewhere, mum and dad wouldn’t be at the airport crying. They’d just drop us and go.”

Louise attended the all-girls Holy Faith Secondary School Clontarf, a convent school. The nuns were strict; Louise wore a uniform with her shirt buttoned right up to her neck. Her brothers were down the road at St. Paul’s, and she got in trouble for hanging out with the boys too much playing football. “I was a bit of a tomboy,” she said.

Interested in fine art, Louise studied sculpture at the Regional Technical College in Galway, graduating in 1993. She created a large, rotating metal and leather sculpture called “Monster” that nearly crushed her brother Leo’s small car when Louise enlisted his help transporting it around town to photograph as part of her final exhibit.

After high school and during her college years, Louise traveled back and forth between Ireland and New England. Once, when she and a boyfriend were staying with his uncle in Hartford, Connecticut, he suggested they might like Shelter Island or Newport. They flipped a coin and headed for Shelter Island in a $200 car with two working gears — first and fourth.

Moments after driving off the North Ferry, the car with the challenged transmission gave up the ghost in front of the Chequit. Louise and the boyfriend got out, found work at the Clamdiggers, the Chequit’s restaurant, and a place to live across the street, all within minutes.

“Everyone was really friendly. We fit right in,” she remembered. “There were a bunch of Irish people from Dublin, but I didn’t know them until we got here.”

Louise had been leaving Ireland to spend summers working on Shelter Island for years, when, in the summer of 1992, she was working for Kathy and Jamie Cogan at the gone-but-not-forgotten Cogan’s Country Restaurant when Keith came in to have a cocktail at the bar.

He was living in a houseboat in Dering Harbor with his sailboat moored nearby. “It was a real novelty,” Louise said.

Cogan’s was closed on Wednesdays, in part so the staff could join the Wednesday sailing races (that continue to this day.) Louise organized Cogan’s female staff to crew for Keith. “I had a half a dozen good looking Irish girls on the boat,” said Keith. “We didn’t have the fastest boat out there but everyone was always jealous.”

When Louise got to know Keith, the draw of Shelter Island became irresistible. Back in Ireland, getting regular mail from Keith, “My mother would leave the letters by my bed,” she said. “She knew something was happening.”

Louise’s first winter on Shelter Island in 1994, when the bay froze over, was a stark reminder that this wasn’t Ireland. Louise had landed a job in Greenport doing graphic design for North Fork Press and she and Keith had a good relationship going. They married in 1996 and eventually relocated the houseboat to the backyard of their St. Mary’s Road home.

For 10 years, Louise worked with Rita and Mike Hagerman at North Fork Press, doing design and layout work for print and then went to Ariel Studio in Southampton doing web design for two years. Her graphics business is now based in her home office, where she builds responsive websites that work seamlessly on the many devices in use today.

She’s currently working on projects for the Shelter Island Chamber of Commerce, including its new website and an interactive map. “I’m building up my graphics work, so this fellow can go fishing more,” she said with a nod to Keith.

The process of becoming an American citizen, which Louise accomplished in 2001, was unexpectedly difficult and at times an emotional process for Keith as well as Louise. “It wasn’t easy in the 1800s, and it’s not easy today,” Keith said. “People think you married an American, so you are an American. Not so.”

Louise had to produce six years of tax returns, have no legal issues, take a series of tests and complete reams of paperwork. Keith watched as she and 1,300 other people entered a large room at Brooklyn College and swore to uphold the Constitution. “I was crying,” Keith said. “These are the people that really respect America.”

“It was a really big deal,” said Louise, “Very emotional.”

She’s a member of the Shelter Island 5K Committee, a major fundraiser to benefit people living with breast cancer. Always an enthusiastic walker, in 2006 she began to walk competitively with some coaching from Keith’s cousin, Ann Clark. Louise was a natural and has been the first-place walker in every Shelter Island 5K since 2007.

In November of 2012, Louise was herself diagnosed with breast cancer when a lump showed up on a mammogram. She immediately had surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. “That was a bit upsetting,” she said. “I wasn’t too sick. We worked. It’s the only way I could have gotten through.”

Louise’s hair has grown back abundantly. She’s feeling and looking strong. Besides, she’s got animals to feed, soil to tend. “I’ve turned into a country gal,” she said.

Her parents are frequent visitors, making one or two trips a year, including an annual visit timed to help Louise and Keith put in their vegetables. “My Dad fell in love with the place,” Louise said. He calls it “the other parish,”

Louise is even thinking of going back to metal sculpture. Keith bought Louise a welder for her birthday and her dad threw in a set of torch heads.

“I’ll get back into fine art,” she said. “It was a lot of years ago, I’m getting a bit rusty.”