First Encounters: Michael Kelly and Paul Sweetman

‘I’m the vulgar salesman; Mick’s earthy, passionate’


Michael Kelly founded GIY (Grow It Yourself) International, a non-profit network of people around the world who grow some of their own food . He previously worked in IT and as a journalist . He lives in Dunmore East, Co Waterford, with his wife Eilish and two children

I was working as a freelance writer in the summer of 2008, and as a way to make a few bob, I ran five or six courses to show beginners how to keep hens. Paul and his wife Jules came down from Wicklow to do one. That’s the first time I met him. Anyone who has met Paul will know he’s a classic salesperson, a very outgoing, confident guy. He has his own business. We kept in touch after the course and the friendship developed.

I’d had the idea for GIY groups out of running those courses: after them, we’d have a home-grown lunch, sit around chatting with like-minded people. In autumn of 2008, we set up the first GIY group in Waterford and in spring 2009, Paul set up a GIY group in Bray. He went one better than us and got Diarmuid Gavin to launch his group. That’s Paul all over, he’ll always pull out all the stops. We had 100 people at our first meeting, he had 130; he’s always getting one up on me.

The GIY groups started to form almost virally. When we had eight or 10 groups, we realised we were on to something and I set up GIY as an organisation. Paul came on board as a paid part-time employee for three or four years, as our fundraising co-ordinator, to bring in money to fund our work. We employ three people full-time and a couple of part-timers to support around 800 GIY groups around the country. We also run campaigns and programmes in schools. Paul has been crucial in helping to put us on a professional footing. He’s a director of GIY now that he’s not a paid employee.

Paul and I have very different motivations for being interested in GIY: mine was the moment I found Chinese garlic in the supermarket, and couldn’t understand why we were importing it, thinking about the effect of food miles on the nutrition in our food. I think the driver for Paul was getting great ingredients for the meals he’s creating. Paul is quite chef-y, fancies himself as a wizard in the kitchen.

Paul and I are both very interested in keeping fit – I’m training for the Waterford marathon, he does a lot of running and cycling. But we’re different. My wife and I made a call to give up the rat race completely; Paul’s a businessman at heart, would wear that as a badge of honour. We both have very strong views that lead to blazing rows on the phone; the flip side of that is that we’ve never fallen out, we always make up five minutes later.

We’re a great combination: I’m a bit more idealistic, Paul’s a bit more hard-headed. I see myself as the ethical core of what we’re doing in GIY. There’s always that tension – I don’t want to over-commercialise, Paul knows the reality of needing the money to come in. We always end up finding a nice balance.

Paul Sweetman is a businessman who owns a print company . He worked part-time for GIY after taking one of Michael Kelly’s hen-keeping courses and is now one of its directors. Originally from Blackrock, Co Dublin, he lives in Bray, Co Wicklow, with his wife Julia and two-year-old twins Conor and Ellie-Mae

My wife bought me a hen-keeping course for my birthday. We went down to Dunmore East for a couple of nights, did the course on a Saturday, and got talking to Mick over lunch. We heard about how he’d packed in life in the fast lane of IT sales to live the good life. He’d just set up GIY and was looking for people to set up groups in their area. I set up the Bray group.

I thought Mick had made a bold move, had achieved what a lot of people aspire to but wouldn’t have the guts to take forward. It’s not for everybody – it’s not something I would necessarily want to do, but I admired him for making that decision.

I’m a typical GIY person – I live in a housing estate with a big back garden, have two kids, my wife works. One thing I learnt at the very start is, grow what you like to eat. I’m proudest of growing garlic, the easiest thing to grow. Have you heard Mick’s garlic story? I always laugh when I hear it, and say, ‘oh, here we go again, Mick’s garlic story’. That was his lightbulb moment

Mick would have inspired me to start growing. I was between projects in 2008, had a bit of time and bought a greenhouse, but didn’t quite know where to start. I’d bought lots of books, but the GIY groups were a great idea, you get stuff that you don’t find in books. The groups have a mix of experienced people who know a lot and love to share, and people who suck it up. When I started, I wouldn’t have known how to plant a seed.

I loved cooking, and had been on an RTÉ programme, Heat, where amateur cooks were pitted against each other. But I wasn’t always very conscious of where my food came from. As my palate developed, it became a bit more important to learn about growing your own. This summer hopefully our twins Conor and Ellie-Mae, who have just turned two, will be out in the garden helping me: I really want them to know where food comes from.

GIY had passionate people like Mick but lacked business acumen. The question was, how do we fund the organisation? I tried to set out a strategy to develop consistent revenue streams, worked with GIY part-time for a couple of years. I’m the vulgar salesman, don’t mind talking money. Mick and I are a good mix: he’s the earthy, passionate person, I would challenge him sometimes on the bottom line. When we go to meet potential partners, funders, I turn up in my suit, he turns up in his lumberjack shirt and his jeans – and it works.

Mick and I both like our glass of wine, socialising, and have grown to be good friends. We’re not afraid to speak our minds but like each other’s company. I’m now a director of GIY – as I said to Mick, it’s to keep him on his toes.

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