moy hill community garden
We visit Moy Hill, the organic community garden collective in Clare, and chat with former pro-surfer, Fergal Smith.
Arguably the best surfer these shores have ever produced, Fergal Smith was sponsored to travel the globe catching waves on coral-filled bays in Indonesia and the white sandy shores of the Galápagos Islands. But several years away from home left him devoid of community, wary of his ecological footprint, and craving a homegrown, square meal.
“I grew up with good food but when you travel, you are at the mercy of buying food – and I really missed real food,” he recalls. “For me, the only way I could be sure if it was real, healthy food is if I did it myself.”
Fergal got his love of land and sea from his father, an organic farmer and surf enthusiast. “My dad left an engineering job in Dublin to move to the West of Ireland to grow organic vegetables,” he says. “He had no experience and made it work in a time when people didn’t know what ‘organic’ meant. He believed in it 30 years ago – and still believes in it now.”
This connection between a love for growing and surfing is a strong theme among the group of friends who run a not-for-profit community garden in Lahinch. They are joined by a good chunk of the community of West Clare – home to some of the most sought-after waves in the world.
Fergal says, “Members of the surfing community make great gardeners; they love being outside and have free time, as they build their life around the tides.” One thing’s for sure, the work ethic of this group is phenomenal; not many can say they spend their day digging out beds and building shelters in between good swells.
So, where do they get their energy? Fergal is unequivocal: “I instantly felt so much healthier and more full of life when I started growing my own food.” Keenly aware of the high price of organic food in supermarkets, the group has a donation system, making chemical-free fruit and vegetables available to all budgets.
“There is no reason why people can’t eat local healthfood. We do not need massive farms to grow our food; we just need to encourage more people to get back on the land.” Work started on the original half-acre garden in September 2013. “I acquired the land through a local businessman who owned the land and had no use for it,” Fergal says.
“He knew I was interested in growing food and said ‘fire away’.” It had lain vacant for decades, completely covered in brambles and rushes; now it has been transformed into a naturalist haven.
Although deceptively haphazard-looking on first sight, this space has been carefully considered and cultivated: a truly organic community plot, down to the eco-friendly wooden welcome sign at the entrance with twine lettering. An antique table sits inside the gate, perfectly paint-chipped and ready to share the spoils of harvested goods to all around.
To the right, you are caught by the views over Liscannor Bay and the inviting smells of the herb beds. In front lies the natural amphitheatre, a place to enjoy musical performances, film screenings and talks on clear days.
Turning left, you pass by saplings of beech, hazel and oak, grown from seeds collected from a nearby forest. These lead to the central “hearth” – a circular dining area complete with a blue cast-iron water pump, where volunteers share their Friday evening cook-ups. An S-shaped stream meanders the garden towards a pond, mini bridges appearing where the stream meets the walkways.
Either side of the hearth are green patches, one devoted to colourful flowers during the summer – soft hues of violet, lavender, rouge-tinted borage and sweet pea, and vibrant golden sunflowers and tangerine calendulas. The other patch is lined with raised beds housing hardy veg.
Most popular and plentiful in the last harvest were the broad beans, beetroot and tomatoes. Beside this is the shed, a clubhouse containing a compact kitchen and compost toilet. Inside are salvaged six-pane windows, strings of fabric bunting and a to-do list to give direction to those looking to lend a hand.
The team took on a second plot two years ago: a crop field with burrows that have been dug by horse power, not machinery. Just one field separates it from the Atlantic, so alley cropping had to be incorporated into their strategy to combat the wind.
It’s clear Moy Hill has integrated successfully into its rural Clare setting: a meeting point for young and old, offering therapeutic exercise for those wanting a break from modern society and offering them fresh, organic vegetables for their trouble. One of the lasting feelings to take away from here is a sense of friendship and fun, a compelling contrast to the stereotype of isolated rural farming. Moy Hill yields not only food for the body, but sustenance for the soul.
Moy Hill Community Garden operates an open-door policy with farm days every Tuesday and community cook-ups every Friday, from March to November. Moy, Lahinch, Co. Clare. To find out more, call 087 130 1937 or head to growing.ie.