There is now a cheese shop on the main street of Ennistymon, Co Clare, and also in Doolin for the simple reason that at Christmas five years ago a cheesemaker got stuck on the roof of her car in the Burren and took it as a sign that she would have to rethink her life.
“I had been on my way to set up a cheese stall for the busiest market of the year in Kinvarra,” recalls Sinéad Ní Gháirbhith, but as the flood waters rose and she was forced to climb out her window and remain perched on the roof in the pelting rain, she realised that “market-life was just too dependent on weather. I needed a back-up plan.”
Ní Gháirbhith had been inducted into the world of cheese from an early age by her sister Siobhán who runs St Tola Goat Farm, maker of a range of soft and hard cheeses. In 1997 she set up a cheese stall in Ennis market which ran for a few years before she decided to head off travelling and then study to be a teacher. Upon her return to Ireland Kinvarra market was being established and she was asked to run a stall there.
“I had just given birth and couldn’t imagine running a stall with my baby on the boob, but at the same time I didn’t want to let them down and it turned out to be an amazing opportunity. Every Friday I’d bring the baby along, and I’d ask customers, ‘do you want to hold the baby or do you want to cut the cheese you want?’ and not once did anyone say ‘I want to cut the cheese.’ Isn’t that so beautiful? That was back in 2008. My daughter will be 12 this year.”
Her shop, The Cheese Press, opened in 2017, and was the first retailer to only sell Irish farmhouse cheeses. (Mark Murphy’s Little Cheese Shop in Dingle now also sells practically entirely Irish cheeses.) For Ní Gháirbhith it was a simple decision based on her belief that “Ireland produces the finest cheeses in the world”.
“We have more cheeses per capita than in the whole of France. In fact when French tourists come in I get them to taste the Crozier Blue from Tipperary, which I say is the best blue cheese in the world, and once they taste it they agree.”
Among the prize cheeses she mentions there’s Cáis na Tire, a sheep’s milk cheese also from Tipperary; Ballylisk’s Triple Rose, a triple cream brie from Armagh; and, of course, her sister’s aged, ash-covered St Tola ash log.
“It’s to do with the lushness of the grass in Ireland,” she says. “We have the best fed animals, hands down. You simply cannot get as good quality milk from the grain-fed animals they have on the continent.”
Her only bugbear is that Irish people don’t understand how to appreciate cheese properly and we eat it before it’s ready. “I’m always telling people they need to wait until after the sell-by date and only then might it be near to ripening. Only then is there some chance of tasting it at its best.”
An unusual aspect of her cheesemonger is that slippers are for sale alongside the cheeses. They represent another great interest in Ní Gháirbhith's life, which is the empowerment of disadvantaged women in developing countries. She is the chief voluntary fundraiser for MIM (Made in Mongolia, madeinmongolia.net/) a business venture run entirely by Mongolian women, nearly all of whom are single mothers. The business pays local women to use their ancient felt-making tradition to handcraft felt slippers, which are then sold in Europe. It's part of a charity called Asral that was founded by a Tibetan lama, Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama.
To find the connection between Ní Gháirbhith and the slippers one must go back to the autumn of 1999 when an urgent desire took hold of her to get a grasp on what she terms “the scariness that is my mind”.
“My thoughts were totally out of control, and I had heard that the Dali Lama knew some things about the mind. Someone told me there was a Tibetan lama living in Cavan, so I packed up my cheese stall in Ennis one Saturday and I drove up to Jampa Ling, the Tibetan Buddhist Centre near Bawnboy.”
When she got there she was too scared to enter, and so slept in her car outside overnight. “I had these fears about it being a cult and also a sense of Catholic guilt, but next morning someone knocked on my car window and asked would I like to come in for a cup of tea.”
She decided that drinking their tea would hardly amount to selling her soul to the devil and upon entering the kitchen she met Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, the Tibetan Lama, who was “swinging on the bar of the Aga like a child, with his two arms behind him.”
She explained about the confused state of her mind and that she needed practical techniques to control it and he agreed to help. “I also told him I wanted to do voluntary work with Tibetans, and he pointed on a map to one of the hottest parts of the India subcontinent and suggested that I consider working at a Tibetan refugee camp there. So not long after I headed out there with €3,000 in my pocket and plans to save the village.”
The Norgyeling Tibetan settlement in the state of Maharashtra in southern India was a place of penury, with people dying of TB and hepatitis from lack of medicine, and virtually no education opportunities beyond basic schooling. Ní Gháirbhith moved into the doctor’s house the night before his marriage. “His new wife was arriving the following day and fortunately she regarded my presence as auspicious. A fantastic omen. I told her that, ‘if this was in Ireland you’d hate me and try to kick me out, or the marriage would be off, but everything was different there”.
Over nine months Ní Gháirbhith observed the first faltering steps of this arranged marriage, which to her was a revelation. “There’s no big sense of self about Tibetan Buddhists so there was no hassle, no needing to respect my wishes or my space, or any of that. It didn’t exist. He had his role as the doctor, she was the homemaker. They didn’t have a big egotistical sense of themselves, so there was nothing to be protective about.”
Her time in the Tibetan settlement didn’t lead to any particular benefit for the village, though. “It’s a beautiful thing to think you can save people like that, but it is so innocent and naive, and maybe arrogant too. I quickly learnt that I didn’t possess any skills that they didn’t already have.”
She returned to Ireland and continued selling Irish cheeses at weekly markets in Co Clare while maintaining her links with the Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Cavan, and so she was aware that the Dalai Lama had asked Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche to help Mongolian Buddhists who were reviving their spiritual practises again after the Russians left Mongolia in 1991, and she knew of the hurdles he was facing: “Rinpoche realised there was no point preaching to them about Dharma if they are freezing and starving to death. So he founded Asral in 2001, a charity that runs educational, farming and relief projects in Mongolia.”
Her slipper-making business arose out of the charity’s work, and though the whole enterprise is very small, with an annual budget of just €70,000, she claims it has made a significant impact. A study by Emory University of Mongolian NGOs and charities in 2015 recommended Asral as a blueprint for all Mongolian NGOs because of the positive impact it had had on poverty relief in the region.
“It’s amazing what a small bit of money with the proper wisdom and compassion can achieve,” she says, and it has made her all the more determined to ensure the Cheese Press shops in Ennistymon and Doolin succeed, so she’ll continue to have a shopfront for her Mongolian items.
"It's been challenging to shift from selling 10 cheeses at a stall to now dealing with 50 cheese suppliers," she admits, but a new manager, Jirka Hanka, has helped her put systems in place, and over time customers have become more accustomed to the fact that she doesn't sell pre-packaged cheeses.
“Certainly the ‘no-plastic’ policy I had for the first few years definitely hit profits because people are afraid of cheese that isn’t pre-wrapped and priced. It’s because we’re afraid to ask the price of things in Ireland.
“I understand the feeling, but for many years I just was not willing to compromise on plastics. You can either put profit or the planet first, and if I can protect the planet and still manage to earn enough for me and my two kids then why not? Maybe I’m an eejit, but at least I’m an eejit with a clear conscience.”
Cheese Press: https://cheesepressennistymon.ie/(The Doolin shop opens on June 4th)
Made in Mongolia Slippers: madeinmongolia.net/Short film about Sinéad and her charity: youtu.be/Cj-Z_A3WQfg