A new life among the Italian olive groves
Inspired by A Place in the Sun, Fionnuala McKenna bought a small olive farm in Italy and moved with her three children last year after she was made redundant.
I was director of a newly formed arts centre in Co Mayo when I was made redundant in 2008. The funding for the project was cut just one month after it opened to the public. I had worked on the project for three years, and suddenly, like so many others in Ireland, I found myself unemployed
Like most people who encounter redundancy, a feeling of hopelessness and insecurity soon followed. I was a single mother of three, in my mid-40s, and the harsh reality of unemployment was very difficult to bear.
I was in a state of shock for a number of months. I asked myself, what can I give the kids to replace the dance and swimming lessons, and other activities I was able to afford while I was working? What can I give them that will enrich their lives, and make me feel like I am doing something fulfilling?
The media was rife with tales of other unemployed people emigrating in search of a better life, to America, Canada and Australia, but they were too far away to contemplate. I had already done the American scene as a young single emigrant in the 1980s, when I lived in Boston for seven years, and I thought a Continental country would be much better for us as a family, as it is only a short hop from Ireland.
Every week I watched Amanda Lamb on A Place in the Sun for inspiration, and by June 2009 I had used my SSIA savings to buy a seven-acre olive farm in Puglia in the south of Italy.
I had no agricultural experience other than growing vegetables in my polytunnel and a stint at raising a few pigs for the home freezer, but after months of long nights researching olive-oil production on the internet, I naively thought I knew enough to bring the kids to Puglia to try my hand at it. I produced 400 litres, which I sold to friends and family and Cafe Rua in Mayo, and the success of the trip inspired me to move permanently.
When I arrived the second time, however, I encountered many difficulties. Life in Ceglie Messapica, a sleepy little town of 22,000 people, is reminiscent of life in the west of Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a world apart from anywhere else I know.
The strength of local traditions coupled with a long history of political and religious domination has led to a suspicion of change and of foreign influences. The Catholic church is very dominant, and as we don’t subscribe to any religion, we were viewed as unusual. There aren’t many single parents here either, so I stood out in that respect also. I am viewed as somewhat brave in having come on my own to a new country with kids – it is not something that many people here would ever consider doing.
The school situation was a challenge too. The teacher of my two boys was uncomfortable having English-speakers in her classroom, and I eventually had to find a new school for all three of them. That was upsetting, because they had already spent a month there and had begun to make friends.
Olive oil production does not bring in enough money to sustain us, as the maintenance of the land is very expensive and labour-intensive, and any returns go back into the land itself. But I love it, and at the moment I am trying to develop my company A Taste of Puglia (www.atasteofpuglia.com). I was fortunate to discover another olive-oil producer from Puglia who lives in Dublin, Lino Olivieri, who has helped with shipping the oil to Ireland.
Finding a paid job was always going to be tough as my Italian was very raw when I arrived, but mother-tongue English teachers are in demand, and I have recently started teaching a weekly class in art and drama through English to a bunch of eager young Italians.
I am also working to develop a cultural exchange between Irish and Italian musicians. The idea is to bring over a different musical group from Ireland every month for nine months. The Italian groups will then travel to Ireland. The aim is to develop an awareness of Irish culture and music down here, and to awaken in them another form of culture outside of their own, as there isn’t much ethnic diversity here, especially in the south.
Whether I am in the right place now, I can’t say. I will only know if I made the right decision when the kids are a little older, and feel their lives were improved by the move. My daughter Roadhan (10) and my twin boys Luke and Calum (eight) are all conversing in Italian with their friends and involved in local sports and dance and music, and I truly believe that this is the best gift I could give them while Ireland is going through a recession. I am excited we are all learning a new language and culture. Sure, they do miss our home, their friends and grandparents in Ireland, but we are not a million miles away.
I know the move was the right thing to do for myself, because I was beginning to fade, creatively, in Ireland. I felt lost. My sense of self-worth disappeared when I became unemployed. While I did go through a lot of anguish and loneliness and doubt here initially, and many sleepless nights wondering if I made the right choice, it takes time to adjust to life in a new place. But I can now happily say that I have found my feet. Now that I am working again, I feel I have a purpose outside the home, and that is wonderful.
– In conversation with Ciara Kenny