The visit to the garden at Scoil Bhride primary school in Shantalla in Galway went so well that I ended up not leaving the city until close to 12 noon. I had 100km to cover
up to Crossmolina in North Mayo and, seen as I had been averaging under 20km per hour and I’d definitely need two short breaks, I feared some moonlight cycling might be on the agenda for later in the day. I took the Headford Road out of Galway and the scenic route close to the banks of Lough Corrib and Lough Mask.
The road was bumpy and slow but the scenery across the lakes and out towards Connemara was spectacular. The weather was good to me again and once I got past Ballinrobe I made good time on up to Castlebar. Some locals there told me it was only 1o miles ‘or so’ to Crossmolina but when I spoke to Arlene, my host, she said that it was an hour’s drive! The sun was already setting when I got on to the lakeside road along the banks of Lough Conn and I cycled for the last hour or two in the dark. The sun set over the lake was only gorgeous and I was really starting to take to this night-cycling lark.
However, the temperature drops so quickly when the sun goes down that my toes were freezing off me (the holes in runners didn’t help) and I was only too glad to finish, meet Arlene, get a warm shower and a hot meal and leave the garden visit for the next morning
One of the unique things about the garden in Crossmolina is its size. It’s a lot bigger than any other garden I’d visited and so lends itself to the combined allotments and community
garden structure that’s been put in place. The garden is on the grounds of Enniscoe House, a private estate that has been owned by the same family, the Pratts, since the 16th century. The space is actually where the old walled garden of the house was once located. The family has a good reputation locally and the estate is also home to a heritage centre and tea rooms. These initiatives are part of recent efforts to make the estate more open to the local community and the garden project is another step in that direction.
Initially only allotments were planned for the site and the large plots were divided between two or three people to make them manageable.
This structure also meant that, although the plots are allotments, the people involved still work together and share skills and knowledge making the allotments a more social experience. Many local people have a certain amount of knowledge from growing food either in their own gardens or in family gardens or farms in the past, so this is a way for that well of expertise to be drawn upon for the benefit of the community.
This year for the first time a section of the garden was given over for a collective community space on a trial basis. Most people who got involved were beginners and the experience seems to have been largely positive. It was hoped that novices would join the community garden rather than take an allotment so that they would learn from each other and be encouraged to stay involved by the social benefits of being part of the group.
The gardener was available to give people advice and guidance. And I’m told the members did a great job maintaining the garden and keeping the weeds under control. There is talk of a charge being introduced for the community garden group if it is to continue on an ongoing basis from next year but no final decision has been made. The numbers are expected to grow significantly this year and, as in other gardens, the social aspect of the garden group was highly valued by members. The allotments cost 50Euro per year, per allotment (sometimes between 3 people) and this, and any future charge for the communal space goes towards garden expenses such as hoses, petrol, organic manures.
The garden has two Rural and Social Scheme workers who spend 1 1/2 days maintaining the garden every week. The scheme is an initiative of Pobal and the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs that allows farmers and fishermen on social welfare payments to earn some extra income while contributing to their community. More here
While the gardener, Noelle, is on a CE scheme which allows her to work 19 1/2 hours per week. – Coincidentally, Noelle is also a LASC friend who has spent a lot of time in Colombia doing human rights accompaniment and other work so it was particularly interesting for me to meet and chat to her about her experiences
Noelle has undertaken some outreach projects to get the local schools involved. It’s hoped that she will be able to extend this work in the coming year. Visits are planned to the schools in order to show the kids how to germinate seeds in the classroom and then the children will be brought to the garden to plant and learn more. There are no toilet facilities at the garden currently so regular school visits can’t take place until they are installed. An application for Leader funding for toilet facilities has been submitted. One-off visits by schools and special needs groups have taken place already and more regular school involvement is expected.
An informal gardening course ran this year to assist novice members of the community garden and allotment holders. That proved popular and there are plans for this year to develop a more structured course with some assistance from The Organic Centre in Leitrim.
Although the gardeners are paid for by their respective community employment schemes, some other sources of income,
on top of the membership charges, have been developed to contribute to garden maintenance and development. One such source of revenue is the willow that’s grown there. Some of it is used for weaving and making structures to be used in the garden but the excess is then sold locally. Some veg from the garden is sold to the estate house and teas and coffees are also sold in the heritage centre. The income provided has so far been used to buy other necessary inputs like wood-chips, stakes and green manure.
Noelle, while showing Arlene and I around the garden last week, told me that activity has intensified hugely at the garden this year and the number of local people involved in the different projects there has doubled.
These effort will continue this year and she hopes that getting the children to come to the garden with their schools will encourage their parents to come along, see what’s going on and hopefully get involved. One fear that she has at the moment is that the CE schemes which pay for her time there and that of the rural social scheme workers may be at risk in the current economic climate.
Despite that, Noelle, Arlene and the other garden members will plough on and try to build on past successes. The hopes for this year are to extend the membership generally, get more people involved in the community garden and continue to build an educational resource for the local area and a vibrant community space.
Contacts and other news from Mayo:
Following on from the example at Crossmolina, another community garden is being planned for Ballina at the moment. There is also a strong GIY group in Ballina of which Arlene, my host, is a key member. Two other GIY groups also exist in the county.
For information regarding the Crossmolina walled garden, the nascent community garden projects in Ballina and GIY initiatives in the area, contact Arlene Walshe: firstname.lastname@example.org
Another interesting project around Ballina is the Karen community garden. The Karen are Burmese programme refugees who have been relocated to Ireland and are growing their own traditional foods at the garden.
The Mayo Sustainability Forum -Transition Town group is based in Westport and more information is available here.
There is also very interesting work happening in a village called Mayo Abbey; The Organic Centre there runs FETAC and VEC accredited training courses in organic gardening. They provide employment to local CE scheme workers and their food is used for cookery and nutrition classes with a local Age action group. The promotion of integrated sustainable local food systems in South West Mayo is a big part of what they are trying to do.