Moving home was political
GENERATION EMIGRATION: FERGAL ANDERSON
THE IRELAND I emerged into after graduation was radically different from the one I grew up in as a child. It was 2002, and the Celtic Tiger was gaining pace. New shops were opening, houses were popping up all over the countryside, and people seemed to have less time for each other, even in rural Galway where I’m from. I knew there was an alternative out there somewhere. I left Ireland in search of a different way of life.
Apart from a year at home in 2007 to do an MA, I spent most of the decade travelling, living and working abroad. I spent some time in Latin America, three years teaching English in Spain, and another three working in advocacy in Brussels. I had a great time, but above all, my eyes were opened to alternative political and social models to the ones I was used to in Ireland, and to the potential for change here. I also met my Italian partner Emanuela along the way.
But at the back of my mind, I always knew I would come back to Ireland, eventually.
Via Campesina, an international organisation for peasant farmers that I worked with in Brussels, favours sustainable, small-scale farming over the industrial agriculture model that has emerged across the world in recent decades. Large-scale farming has flooded the market with cheap goods and put enormous pressure on small farmers. Emanuela and I had been thinking for a while about moving somewhere rural to help to rebuild old community traditions and make a living growing food for local people.
We began to hear the word “crisis” being uttered in Brussels about the European economy, and about Ireland. For everyone else, it had negative connotations, but in the downturn we saw opportunity. The word comes from the Greek word “krisis”, which can have a positive meaning as a turning point or a time for assessing alternative solutions.
My parents had some land in east Galway that wasn’t being used, and in September last year we decided to move back. The plan was to turn the two fields into a small farm, producing food to sell directly to the local community.
We both had some savings, which we invested in a polytunnel and materials for the farm. The first seeds were sown in April, and since then we have harvested more than 30 types of vegetables, from artichokes to runner beans and everything in-between.
Both of us volunteered on an urban farm just outside Brussels while we were living there, which was set up to help people learn about agriculture.
Apart from that, we are novices. We had a lot to learn about scheduling planting and harvesting to ensure there’s a continuity of supply from month to month.
This year was a test run to see if we could do it. Despite the terrible weather over the summer, production has been good, and we’re feeling very positive that we can turn the farm into a viable business next year.
The community in Loughrea has been supportive and enthusiastic about our return. They seem interested in what we are trying to achieve on the farm, and generally, are very happy to see younger people moving back into a rural area when so many are leaving for the big cities or going abroad for work. We still have old friends in the area and we have met others around us with similar ideas.
Overall, I am very happy to be home. People have more time on their hands again, and the pace of life has slowed down noticeably. Dublin is more relaxed and friendly, and all around the country, people stop to have a chat and pass the time of day. That’s what I love most about Ireland, that people are so willing and able to have conversations with complete strangers. You don’t get that anywhere else. There’s a great openness to the people here, and that’s coming to the fore again.
I was very active in the community in 2007 when I came back to do my MA in Galway, but there was very little appetite for change at that time when everything was going so well. Attitudes turned around really quickly when the crisis hit; it was like the country woke up from being in a trance. There is more openness to alternative ways of doing things now.
We are moving in the opposite direction to everyone else. That is the problem in this country, that there’s a great exodus every time there’s a crisis. But the young and ambitious people who are leaving Ireland are the ones who could be helping to build a strong country for the future. The government uses emigration as a safety valve, which is sad – we are never going to get out of the cycle of bad governance unless people stick around and try to create an alternative.
Moving back here was almost a political decision for us. We want to promote a different way of making a living for people in rural areas, to take the experience and knowledge we gained working in other countries and apply what we learned here. There’s a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm in Ireland now, and I want to be here for that and contribute to the social transformation of the country. We don’t expect it to be easy. All we can do is give it our best shot.
In conversation with CIARA KENNY
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