How a heart-shaped island at the bottom of the world became home

Working Abroad Q&A: Grace Walsh on leaving her urban life in Dublin to run a farm in Tasmania, and work in community development

Grace Walsh on the farm in Springfield, Tasmania. ‘I grow many of our vegetables, bake bread, preserve, collect fresh eggs. In a time of climate disruption it’s both a privilege and enormous responsibility to be stewarding this pocket of land.’

Grace Walsh on the farm in Springfield, Tasmania. ‘I grow many of our vegetables, bake bread, preserve, collect fresh eggs. In a time of climate disruption it’s both a privilege and enormous responsibility to be stewarding this pocket of land.’

 

Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Grace Walsh, who is originally from Shankill, Co Dublin, but now lives in Springfield, Tasmania, on running a farm and working in community development.

Why did you go to Tasmania?

Tasmania, or “Trowunna” as it is known by some Tasmanian Aboriginals, is the southern-most state of Australia. It means “heart-shaped island home” and I have been living here, on a 117 hectare farm in the Northeast, for the past four years. I live in an old weatherboard house, which is my partner’s childhood home. It came on the back of a truck from an abandoned hydro-electric town 40 years ago and now it is nestled at the foot of the Sideling Range. Our home is flanked by rugged hills and is a temperate rainforest home to wallabies, wombats, platypus, bandicoots, frogs, wedgetail eagles and yellow tailed black cockatoos. The lush rolling green rural landscapes stand in contrast to the wild forests.

How have Europeans made their mark in Tasmania?

The European presence in this landscape is relatively short. Just five or six generations ago, Northeast Tasmania was traversed by the people of the Leenerrerter, Pinterrairer, Pyemmairrenerpairrener and Trawlwoolway tribes.

Why did you end up on the other side of the world from Ireland?

I grew up in Shankill, Co Dublin and my large, extended family are sprawled from Dún Laoghaire to Bray. I came to Tasmania in 2015 originally for a holiday, to visit a new place and get to know my partner’s home and family. When we met he was an academic living in Egypt and I was living in north Tipperary, so our long-term destination was unknown. After six months, we made the decision to give life in Tasmania a go, taking on his family farm in the process.

Tell us about your work in Tasmania

Since then I’ve worked in a number of community development and youth work roles allowing me to get to know different communities across Tasmania, build connections and develop deeper insights into the challenges and opportunities facing this island state. My roles have included working on multicultural policy with local and state government, coordinating statewide events that promote intercultural awareness, facilitating an arts-based domestic violence prevention programme and, most recently, coordinating a number of programmes for the University of Tasmania, with a youth arts focus.

Living here has given me the opportunity to build my skills and become more self-sufficient

How do you mix community work and farming?

Apart from my community development work, I am working on the farm with my partner and his family. It was formerly a dairy farm and now we manage 250 head of dairy stock for neighbouring farms. We are exploring the next phase for the farm, aiming to build on existing regenerative practices and make a direct contribution to a local, sustainable food system.

Living here has given me the opportunity to build my skills and become more self-sufficient. I grow many of our vegetables, bake bread, preserve, collect fresh eggs and grow a variety of fruit and nut trees. In a time of climate disruption it’s both a privilege and enormous responsibility to be stewarding this pocket of land.

Grace Walsh on the farm in Springfield, Tasmania
Grace Walsh on the farm in Springfield, Tasmania

The combination of my community work roles, and life on the farm has meant lots of growth and a very different lifestyle compared to what I had at home. Coming from a non-farming background there have been steep learning curves. It’s definitely given me a better understanding and appreciation of the challenges faced by rural dwellers and food producers, and I think I have found a new passion. I appreciate the diversity that exists in starting the day feeding calves, and ending it at a meeting at the university discussing an Artist in Residency programme.

Tasmania offers an easier migration route, but you have to be prepared for the fact that there are also fewer opportunities outside of the main population hubs

Tell us about Tasmania

I regularly sing the praises of life in Tasmania to friends and family. Tasmania is working hard to attract skilled migrants as it has a stagnant population and skills shortages in many areas including community development. It offers an easier migration route, but you have to be prepared for the fact that there are also fewer opportunities outside of the main population hubs, and comparatively lower wages than the mainland.

On the flip side, living here offers a very different experience to the more popular choices of Sydney or Melbourne. There’s a much lower population, a better quality of life, constant access to stunning wilderness and natural areas, a thriving local food culture and an exciting and emerging arts and cultural scene.

How has being from Ireland affected you in Tasmania?

I have found my sense of my national identity and appreciation of my culture has really grown since living here. Tasmania is a post-colonial landscape, so you see place names from England, Scotland and Ireland everywhere, and get a sense of the oddness of these in such a far-flung landscape.

I am really drawn to the story of loss and cultural displacement that so many Tasmanian aboriginal people have experienced, and must have been shared by those who were transported here from Ireland in the 1800s.

Is retaining a connection with Ireland important to you?

I have found connecting with the small Irish community here, as well as the culture from back home, the best way to overcome the sense of distance. We have been lucky to host Irish musicians Liam Ó Maonlai, Wallis Bird and Áine Tyrell at the farm, and organised gigs for them locally, and if I really need a dose of home I go into the trad session in the nearest city, where you get some of the old timers playing tunes and retaining their accents after decades out this way.

What do you miss about Ireland?

It’s definitely a challenge to be so far from family and friends, but the threads of culture and history that link the two islands ease that somewhat, and for now, home is this heart-shaped island at the bottom of the world.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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