"Brilliant but useless, like a lighthouse in a bog," appeared at number 88 in a history of Ireland in 100 insults written by the Irish Times diarist Frank McNally almost 10 years ago. He could scarcely have imagined it would be one day inspire a man to put a lighthouse in a bog – or at least in the heartland of Ireland's peatlands.
The lighthouse in the bog is actually a lightbox on top of a couple of disused and distinctly rusty shipping containers, and it sits on an otherwise nondescript piece of land in an industrial estate just outside Portarlington, in Co Laois. There to act as a beacon of hope and regeneration, it is the brainchild of a local environmentalist and entrepreneur, David Maher, and his horticulturist business partner, John Carey.
On an unexpectedly glorious afternoon, Maher is all smiles as he points to the tower, which has become one of the focal points of a cluster of heavy metal shipping containers that he has bolted together to create what he says is Ireland’s first entirely eco-friendly garden centre.
He hopes a €2 million investment will pay off and help his shopping and food complex become a symbol of environmental awareness and a magnet for people looking for ways to pass a pleasant couple of hours in the company of plants.
Solas Eco Garden Centre sprawls over two hectares – that's five acres – and all the steel, plastic, cardboard and stone at the centre is 100 per cent recycled, modelled on a project in Amsterdam.
Maher was in the market for a project that would help create employment and activity in his home town while maintaining a sharp focus on sustainability when he got a call from a friend who had been wowed by the Pllek development in the Dutch city. Set in an industrial wasteland, Pllek is essentially an urban beach, with restaurants and shops all built out of disused shipping containers.
“I was literally bowled over by it,” Maher says. “It was leading the way in extending the life of materials that otherwise might have gone to landfill, with all the associated negative consequences for the environment. It was totally unlike anything I had seen before, and I was determined to bring the concept to Ireland in a bid to promote a decarbonised economy and lifestyle.”
So he set about sourcing disused shipping containers and working out a way to make them all fit together in a way that would turn heads but not stomachs.
Aware that a planning application for a shopping complex built out of ugly metal boxes that would otherwise have been bound for the scrap heap might be viewed with some suspicion by the local county council, as well as by locals, Maher enlisted the Dutch architects behind Pllek to design the complex and present it to the planning authorities.
It worked. Not one of the 120 homeowners who live close to the site objected to the 40 steel shipping containers being bolted together to create a street-food market with 15 food and craft stalls, and at least one teenage boy selling chickens and coops he built himself.
The giant warehouse adjacent to the shipping containers, which stretches to 3,700sq m, or 40,000sq ft, and is home to a cavernous garden shop that sells only organic and natural weedkillers and a large volume of stock sourced locally.
“Our designs are energy efficient, our car park is the first 100 per cent ‘green’ car park in the country, and we have used an off-the-grid water supply for all nonpotable water,” Maher says. “We’re outdoors-ready, and we’re determined to make Solas Eco Garden Centre a beacon of light for sustainability and creativity.”
Given Portarlington’s geographical position, he is optimistic Solas will become a destination for people throughout the country, providing a much-needed boost to the town’s economy and wider community.
“We are in a prime geographical location, with over 1.2 million people living within 50 minutes of our centre,” he explains. “It’s going to attract people into the town, and the other hard-working indigenous businesses will get a spin-off boost.”
Solas sits on a site that has long been a landmark in the town. Before the eco-warriors arrived with their plants and their food trucks selling “black forest ham and brie crossandwiches”, it served as a steel yard. Instead of steel there are now seats for 200 outdoors and 50 indoors.
Carey says the best way to get people to care about the environment – as well as feeding them fancy-dan sandwiches – is by involving them in the discussion in a meaningful way.
“When people are considered and made to feel part of something, they are far more likely to take ownership and responsibility for it and their part in helping the environment and reducing their carbon footprint.”
So Solas is also running Eco Warrior Back Garden workshops. Lasting an hour, the courses are designed for children, which he hopes will “sow the seeds for a lifetime appreciation for the environment”.
There are rustic hanging-basket courses, plus classes on growing your own vegetables, composting, wild flowers and sustainable energy. “It’s all about knowledge and fun through education and engagement,” he says.