The Irish family whose farming holiday gave them a new way of life

Laila and Floyd with their Bantam hens by the pond. Photograph: Brian Farrell
The “what if?” dream about uprooting from Dublin and moving to rural Ireland for a simpler, more sustainable life seems to be more desirable and attainable after the coronavirus-imposed social experiment we’ve all been living through 

When you can work remotely from home, enduring the congested capital’s exorbitant cost of housing and air pollution for the sake of city convenience no longer seems the only option. The re-evaluating of lifestyles that has gone on during lockdown is reflected in the reported surge of inquiries to estate agents about rural properties.

Alan and Gayle Nagle spent years thinking about making the leap from middle-class Dublin suburbia to life up a boreen. What swung it for them was immersion in an activity more associated with free-roaming backpackers than a married couple with two small children. They signed up for “Wwoofing”.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (Wwoof) is a global movement with its own verb. Irish people might think sunshine is a non-negotiable part of offering your labour free to organic farmers in return for board and lodgings, but the Nagles did it here in Ireland, for a seven-month stretch down the west coast from Sligo to Cork.

Flyod keeps an eye on the tomatoes.
Floyd keeps an eye on the tomatoes

There was method in what some might view as their madness. Not only were they tasting an alternative lifestyle and accumulating knowledge in how to apply it in their own back yard, they were also sampling life in different parts of the country to help them decide where their new back yard might be.

They had Sligo in mind but were open to being won over by the charms of other Atlantic counties.

It is not that they were unhappy in Dublin, living in Sutton and close to family and friends. They both had full-time jobs; she is a teacher and Alan is an engineer.

We also wanted to live with a more like-minded community of people

“We loved Dublin and where we lived as well, which is probably why it took us so long to move,” says Gayle. “We had been growing our own food a little bit – we wanted a little more space and we wanted to have the capacity to learn to self-sustain and it wasn’t really possible to do that in the community we were living in.

“We also wanted to live with a more like-minded community of people who were into permaculture and self-sufficiency.”

It was about finding their tribe and “Wwoofing was such a bonus”, she says, in helping them do that.

However, they also highly recommend it as a holiday, even for people who are not thinking of making radical life changes like them.

Gayle in the greenhouse.
Gayle in the greenhouse.

“It’s a real missed opportunity for Irish families”, she says. “It is a gorgeous experience; it gives you a little eye into another world.”

But, at its core, is woofing not essentially unpaid farm labour?  

“You could take that slant on it but it’s a real exchange,” says Gayle. You work not only for bed and board but also for the learning.

With some hosts you might feel the trade is not as balanced as you would like, she continues, but that is usually because there hasn’t been enough communication between the two sides beforehand.

“No one is trying to pull a fast one, it’s just different expectations.”

Physical benefits

Conscious of the fact that they had two children who were not really working – although sometimes their company as playmates for resident children was most welcome – the Nagles never felt exploited.

“The meals being provided were so extensive; some of ours hosts were so welcoming, so much information was being passed on, they were sharing so much time, knowledge and wisdom, we didn’t come away from it feeling like that at all. It was very much a fair trade.”

As a holiday, it’s certainly no physical rest but the mental and physical benefits for desk-bound bodies are huge.

“I was sick of sitting in front of a screen for nearly eight hours a day; I was nearing burnout of sorts,” says Alan, who took a career break.

Nagle family at their home in Co Leitrim.
The Nagle family at their home in Co Leitrim.

“It was just amazing, like a holiday: outdoors in nature, eating mostly vegetarian and vegan meals, doing this physical work and, at the end of it all, I had shed a good few kilos and never felt better and mentally renewed.”

The relative rarity of them being an Irish couple travelling with two children, Laila and Floyd, then aged eight and six respectively, interested the prospective Wwoof Ireland hosts they contacted. Not all hosts can cater for families but as the Nagles opted to bring their own camper van from one farm to another, accommodation was not an issue.

So how did the children fare?

“Different hosts in different places threw up different challenges,” replies Gayle. For instance, one place was small and limited in terms of safe places to play and there were no other children, so they moved on quite quickly.

Some days were boring for their children, she concedes, but overall “it was a great experience for them to be outdoors all the time, to be in nature, to be with these other people who tend to be caring and respectful”. She thinks it was valuable for them to see how others live.

Nagle family at their home in Co Leitrim.

“Of course, they had their moments, there were tears and bickering but, overall, I think they look back on it as a really interesting and fun time.”

Ana Moreno and Angel Fernandez, who heard about Wwoofing from a friend, decided it was just the type of break they wanted to take two summers ago with their daughter, Ariadna, who is now aged 11. They travelled from Greece to west Cork to do it.

“We wanted to have a different experience as a family; we did not want to lie in the sun and get bored doing nothing,” says Ana. “We also thought it would be a great experience for our daughter, who is growing up in the big city of Athens, to see other ways of living more in touch with nature.

Ana Moreno and Angel Fernandez with their daughter Ariadna (who are all on left of photo) with fellow wwoofers Andrew Kenward (Ireland), Shannon Leigh Chambers (US) and (on right) Erin Snell (US) at the 2018 Townlands festival in West Cork.
Ana Moreno and Angel Fernandez with their daughter Ariadna (who are all on left of photo) with fellow wwoofers Andrew Kenward (Ireland), Shannon Leigh Chambers (US) and (on right) Erin Snell (US) at the 2018 Townlands festival in West Cork.

“We chose Ireland because I had lived and worked in Dublin for a number of years before I came to live in Athens, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I felt at home from the beginning and I was sure that my husband and my daughter were going to feel the same way.”

Beautiful experiences

They joined Wwoof Ireland and trawled through the 200-plus hosts on its website, searching for a listing that not only accepted families with young children and didn’t expect too many hours of work, but also where they felt inspired by the philosophy of the place and the surroundings. They plumped for Annie King’s Milbeg Arts outside Bantry.

“We must say that it was one of the most beautiful experiences for the three of us. I will never forget the first thing our daughter said when we arrived at the place, ‘Mummy, I feel free here!’ and she started to run and jump,” Ana recalls.

The family stayed in one of the five caravans on the farm. They shared two compost toilets with two other women woofers from the US who started at the same time, and for showers they went to the main house.

Before assigning any work, Annie showed them around, explaining her ethos of recycling and sustainability and projects she had planned. Then she asked them what they would like to do.

Laila with a Bantam chick. Photograph: Brian Farrell
Laila with a Bantam chick. Photograph: Brian Farrell

“We told her that we were interested in building a stone wall in the traditional way,” says Ana. The couple were given a few books on the subject and they started on it the next day.

“For people like us, who work in front of a computer for most of the time without doing any physical work, it was a life lesson; action and movement in a natural environment is the key to putting away your worries and the stress of the cities.”

All their food was supplied.

“Annie always cooked delicious soups for lunch and most of the main meals in the evening, and other times the Wwoofers were in charge of it.”

A typical week day, Ana explains, was getting up at 8am, preparing breakfast in a communal kitchen before working from 9am to 1pm. After lunch and a rest, they usually did another two hours from 3pm to 5pm, but the hours were very flexible.

“Our daughter had a responsibility as well, of course: she had to feed the cats and the hens and bring them to the hen house in the evening and pick the eggs that hens had laid.” 

In their free time, the family used to swim in a nearby river or go for a walk “in the astonishing surroundings”, says Ana. At the weekends they liked to listen to live music in the pubs of Glengarriff.

Birthday party

“We had barbecues and parties with people from all ages and all nationalities.  I will never forget the birthday party that Annie organised for me, I felt I knew those people for all my life.”

She recommends Wwoofing as a family holiday.

“But you have to be open-minded and be prepared to do all sorts of jobs like collecting cow shit when it is pouring rain and things like that,” she warns. However, “these are the types of things that you remember later on and feel good for having gone through it”.

During their stay, they not only learnt how to grow vegetables and look after animals but also how, in a small, farming community, everybody depends on each other. “We think greener after coming back from Milbeg,” Ana adds.  The experience “helps children learn the value of tap water, electricity, recycling and become more aware of consumerism”.

We really fell in love with it and made the decision then we were going to do this thing

The Nagles not only thought greener after their stint of Wwoofing, they embraced it as a way of life. Their last placement with an organic grower, in the early summer of 2016, was on Inishturk off the Mayo coast. On their way back to Dublin they diverted to look at a house, on the Leitrim side of the Sligo border, near Mullaghmore, that they had seen for sale before but the asking price had dropped significantly.

“We really fell in love with it and made the decision then we were going to do this thing,” says Alan. After talking about it for nearly 10 years, “everything lined up” he says. They put in an offer on the house, which was accepted within weeks, and their own house in Dublin sold very quickly.

Meanwhile, Gayle’s eldest daughter, Kirsten, had finished secondary school and opted to stay in Dublin. But the two younger children were being homeschooled, so the move didn’t disrupt their education.

“We haven’t looked back,” say the Nagles, who have nearly three acres to cultivate, on which there is a polytunnel, a glasshouse, chickens and ducks. Another eight acres of bog come with the property, where people cut turf.

The couple both have full-time jobs, so have limited time to put into the land, but from early summer to December they have plenty of food from the garden. They don’t eat meat but enjoy eggs from the hens and ducks.

Laila, now aged 12, and Floyd (10), who attend Sligo Sudbury School, love being outdoors. Alan surfs, Gayle swims and the children do a bit of both.

They are lucky, Gayle acknowledges, that as Alan now works remotely for the same employer as before the move, there is an adult in the house with a “Dublin job”, which “enables the lifestyle quite a bit”.

The coronavirus crisis has not really directly affected them, Gayle adds, and maybe it has presented an opportunity for people to reinvent their lives the way they did.

WWOOF IRLEAND

Forgoing a “non-essential” sun holiday and taking a working, educational break on an Irish farm instead is not as outlandish a notion for the times we live in as it might have once seemed.

If it piques your interest, go to the Wwoof Ireland website (wwoof.ie) and through the short profiles of the 200-plus organic farmers and gardeners offering placements you’ll get a glimpse of another world. And it’s one where helping hands are undoubtedly badly needed.

US student and wwoofing (WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organis Farms) volunteer Sarah MacClellan from Richmond, Virginia, in a hothouse on a farm at Gourin, western France. Photograph: Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty
US student and Wwoofing volunteer Sarah MacClellan from Richmond, Virginia, in a hothouse on a farm at Gourin, western France. Photograph: Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty

Normally, more than 80 per cent of people who do Wwoofing in this country come from abroad. Not this year, obviously.

While there is “immediate availability” in many beguiling-sounding spots around Ireland, you may have to travel way outside your comfort zone on arrival. If considering trading your labour for free bed and board and training in organic growing, you need to be realistic about whether you’re really cut out for it.

With the increased interest in gardening and self-sufficiency, Irish people staying at home to Wwoof makes a lot of sense, says Annie King, who has just retired as director of Wwoof Ireland.

Volunteer hours should be around 25 hours a week and Wwoof Ireland reminds hosts not to expect too much of Wwoofers, she says. If any volunteer feels they are facing unreasonable demands, the organisation will look into it.

Annie King. Photograph: Susy Greaves
Annie King. Photograph: Susy Greaves

You could dip your toe in it by doing it just for the weekend, as some hosts are open to that. In fact, she says, when the organisation was first founded in the UK in 1971, the WW used to stand for “weekend workers”.

King “loves” being a host at her Milbeg Arts farm outside Bantry, Co Cork, where her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren also live on the property. She bought the place in 1990 but didn’t move from England to live there full-time until her children had finished school just over 20 years ago.

She had a very serious car accident, after which she had to convalesce in England for three years. When she returned to Bantry, “I had five-and-a-half acres and I was on my own and I wasn’t a well person and somebody said ‘why don’t you get some Wwoofers?’ So Wwoofers enabled me to remain here.”

That’s why she is so devoted to the movement, building up Wwoof Ireland to be recognised as an educational charity. A former teacher, she’s always happy to host families with children.

It’s “quite vital” to find out everything you need to know about your host, she stresses. Both sides need to be very clear about their expectations for a successful match.

“It is really getting involved in the lifestyle,” she adds. “A lot of people come in, see a different way of life and change their lives.”