Morning sunlight streams through Kate Gleeson’s kitchen window in Co Mayo as she reflects on a life-changing 12 months.
The 32-year-old was Groupon’s head of international media in Dublin, living with friends in Ranelagh, and in the process of buying her first home – a penthouse apartment in Rathmines – with her boyfriend, Kevin Duffy, when the country went into lockdown last March.
After a few weeks of fairly cramped remote working (with Gleeson and three housemates converting their shared sitting room into an office), she and Duffy decided to decamp, temporarily, to his childhood home in Crossmolina.
The six-bedroom dormer bungalow had been vacant for a decade after Duffy’s parents moved to nearby Castlebar, but was well-maintained and fully furnished.
A four-minute walk from the town, it offered the couple plenty of extra space for homeworking, decent wifi, panoramic views of the majestic Nephin mountain, and welcome parcels of fresh scones from Duffy’s aunts and uncles, who live on the same road.
'I began to adjust more and more to the countryside and open spaces'
The initial plan was to stay for a couple of weeks until their property purchase in Dublin went through, but as the process began to take longer than expected, Gleeson was surprised to find herself growing accustomed to country living.
“I’m from Ennis, I grew up in a town. It would have been crazy, the thought of living somewhere like this,” Gleeson says over Zoom, gesturing to the expansive garden and fields outside. “But I began to adjust more and more to the countryside and open spaces.”
Those early months of lockdown weren’t completely idyllic, however. As businesses began to feel the effects of the pandemic, Gleeson and her team were plunged into a redundancy process lasting several months.
“Suddenly I had to think, do I really want this big mortgage [in Rathmines]?” says Gleeson. “It was a huge commitment in a life that wasn’t very certain. Even though I had this great job, all of that rug was pulled out from under me; it was pulled under everyone. I’d put so much work into it but all these external factors had influenced it.
“If you ever felt sad, you’d always feel really guilty because people [around the country] were going through such hard stuff.”
The couple decided to pull out of the apartment purchase and “rethink what the future looked like for us”. The Crossmolina bungalow, once a stopgap solution, was becoming an increasingly attractive option.
“To be honest, we probably didn’t really talk about [living there long-term] until maybe around Christmas-time when I said, ‘We need to start making our own stamp and planning, buying art and things for this house.’ We probably knew then that this was us for a while,” says Gleeson.
Her eventual redundancy from Groupon also gave Gleeson the impetus to pursue a project she’d been considering for some time.
Interested in sustainability, and frustrated by “greenwashing” by some multinational manufacturers, who she felt paid only lip service to it, Gleeson decided to launch a website specialising in ‘earth conscious’ lifestyle products.
She teamed up with a Dublin-based friend who works in buying to source local, ethical makers who share a sustainable ethos and are “100 per cent committed [to sustainability] from production to delivery”. The resulting site, Tús (“to start” as Gaeilge) was launched in summer 2020.
'Once you set something up somewhere small, it all spirals in a positive way'
The response, says Gleeson, has been fantastic. Christmas was a particularly busy period, with customers treating loved ones in need of self-care to Sustainable Yoga Sets and Calm Sets including Calm Balm from Dublin’s Bodhi Blends.
Gleeson reaches past her laptop to grab some of the Tús homeware she uses herself – placemats handmade in Zambia using the wild Makenge plant, handrolled Irish beeswax candles, and mugs from Loaf pottery in Co Down, a social enterprise supporting people with learning difficulties and autism into work.
Being based in a smaller town has worked to her advantage.
“I’ve got to meet people locally here that I wouldn’t have in Dublin, even down to the couriers. Once you set something up somewhere small, it all spirals in a positive way. For instance I got invited to the business network here, where they then connected me with more local makers,” Gleeson says.
The community also shared the couple’s joy when, on a stormy day in October, Duffy proposed to Gleeson at the lake (“the ring was hidden in a medical face mask, it was very 2020,” says the bride-to-be.)
“A week later I was walking down the street and people I’d never seen before in my life were saying congratulations. It was so sweet.”
With so much extra space to play with, Gleeson has been able to create a “fulfilment room” for her Tús orders in a bedroom once belonging to one of Duffy’s three siblings. In keeping with the sustainable philosophy, she’s used existing built-in shelving to help house the products.
Elsewhere, the pair plan to make relatively minor changes to modernise the bungalow and turn it into their home: repainting rooms, upcycling some of the existing furniture, spraying the wooden kitchen cabinets in a Farrow & Ball sage green, and installing a new range and kitchen island.
Both are keen to hold on to the 1980s building’s warm, rustic charm and the memories it houses – from lamp bases carved by a teenage Duffy in woodwork class (now refreshed with new lampshades), and little footprints made decades ago by his younger brother while the hallway was being varnished.
'... this has allowed me see that nature does positively impact how I feel every day'
For Duffy, the return to his birthplace has been “a dream come true”, says Gleeson. She only recently managed to persuade him to clear out his old bedroom for remote working space. “He didn’t want to touch it. He’s very sentimental,” she says, smiling.
In the garden and greenhouse, the pair are working towards “becoming self-sufficient-ish”; growing a wide variety of vegetables and fruit including apples, carrots, beetroot, and onions.
The past year, as for many people, has been filled with change and challenges for Gleeson. But her newfound love of the countryside has helped her remain calm.
“The city will always be there, it’s never going away,” she says. “I always wanted to go towards the noise, but this has allowed me see that nature does positively impact how I feel every day.”