Leaving California to work the land in Kildare

I moved home to rediscover Ireland. But I discovered a whole new world: farming

Maura McElhone working on the farm: “It’s a world away from my life in California, where flip- flops and T-shirts were the order of the day”

Maura McElhone working on the farm: “It’s a world away from my life in California, where flip- flops and T-shirts were the order of the day”

 

I perched on the heavy gate, the soles of borrowed wellies slipping on the rain-slicked steel. I shone the torch into the shed so that he could see what he was doing while he fed the tube down the calf’s throat. Not for the first time since moving back, I found myself thinking: what a difference a year makes.

At the end of 2013, after nearly a decade living in the US, I made the decision to come home to Ireland. I was ready to put down roots, and I wanted to do that in the only place I knew they would take.

In early 2014, I made the move. Several months later, I met him. A “banker/farmer” was how Jack described himself at the time. Still in his suit having come straight from work, he explained how, Monday to Friday, he commuted from Kildare to Dublin, where he worked as an accountant.

At the weekends, he helped out on the family farm. Farming was in his blood and, with land of his own, it was where he saw his future.

I was born and reared on Derry’s north coast, a daughter of a pharmacist and a journalist-cum-author. What I knew about farming would have fit on the back of a postage stamp.

But one date turned into two, and then into many. When we met, Jack had just entered into what he had decided would be his final year of a decade-long stint in banking. His parents were getting older and it was becoming more difficult for them to manage the demands of a thriving farm alone.

So, in February of this year he made the leap, trading in the pressed shirts and daily commute for wellies and tractors. The change has ushered in a new way of life for me as well.

With lambing season kicking off, and the first batch of this year’s calves making their entrances into the world at the same time, nights out together soon became few and far between. For a while, even quiet nights in were a tall order.

I realised that if we were to spend time together, I needed to be on the farm too.

So now, after a day’s work for a technology startup in Dublin, I head out to Kildare and step into someone else’s overalls and boots – so that I can keep him company while he herds his cattle or administers antibiotics to a sick calf.

It’s a world away from my life in California, where flip-flops and T-shirts were the order of the day and public holidays meant drinks by the pool, wine tasting, or trips to San Diego for a long weekend.

The life of a full-time farmer isn’t easy, but it offers rich rewards. There’s the appeal of being your own boss, and the feeling of pride and attachment to this country that comes with having a piece of land to call your own.

And then there are the little things – things that farmers themselves may take for granted but that to an outsider elevate farming to something more than just a job.

In August, when my almost 18-year- old dog died suddenly, Jack invited me out to the farm to keep him company while he watched over cow that was due to calf. It was a way of distracting me from my sadness, and a wonderful way to smooth over the disruption of death, with a ringside seat to the start of a new life.

This time last year, I barely knew what a heifer was. I hadn’t bottle-fed a days-old lamb, and I certainly hadn’t stood at the “action” end of a cow as she gave birth.

I was mostly oblivious to this essential way of Irish life, the gifts it offers and the sacrifices it requires of those who live it. I came back home looking to reconnect and rediscover the joys of living in Ireland. I could never have imagined that an introduction to farming would be the catalyst to that reconnection.

As I prepare to leave the hustle and noise of Dublin behind me and head out to the quiet of Kildare, I’m struck by just how many reasons I have to be grateful for my return home, and my invitation into this new world.

Read Maura McElhone's previous pieces for Generation Emigration: Single, jobless and 30 I returned to Ireland after a decade in the US and Saying goodbye to my American life.

The Irish Times has published a new Returning to Ireland guide, with information on jobs, housing, health and education, and advice from Irish emigrants who’ve already moved home.

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