Acorn projects are springing up around the country, writes Trish Flanagan.
One of them is Moher Cottage at St Brigid’s Well near the Cliffs of Moher, originally a cowshed and pigsty, which has been transformed into a craft shop and café, with outdoor terrace, by Caitriona Considine and her husband Kevin.
The cottage is located on the family farm, which has 30 Simmental and Charolais suckler cows, and stunning views across the Clare countryside and Liscannor Bay. Kevin also runs the small family pub, Considine’s Bar, across the road, in the house where he grew up.
A Galway city girl, Caitriona has been absorbed into rural life. “Country life wasn’t new to me when I moved here in 2010. I spent my summers on an uncle’s farm near Ennis. I do standing in gaps very well, it makes me feel useful!” she laughs.
She studied engineering, did an MBA, and worked in IT and wind energy, commuting from St Brigid’s Well to Kildare and Galway over the years. “I was taking amazing shots of the sunrise, leaving so early, and then getting back late at night.
“I wanted to work where I lived.”
A meeting with programme manager Paula Fitzsimons, at the Acorns stand during the 2016 Ploughing Championships, confirmed her decision.Acorns stand during the 2016 Ploughing Championships, confirmed her decision.
“She was very impressive and dynamic, with a huge amount of experience, and she was interested in supporting female business.”
The Acorns programme helps early stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland.
Caitriona says it’s difficult to open a business in rural Ireland. “We were always talking about making something of where we are, on one of the busiest tourist trails in Ireland. The pub is in Kevin’s family since 1868, and we didn’t want to be the ones to close it. Kevin’s dad used to milk cows and keep pigs in the cabin. In recent times, Kevin was using it for storage.”
This cabin had become an eyesore on the Wild Atlantic Way. Kevin loved the building, and he had been minding the Liscannor stone and the roof for years. Caitriona credits him with the conversion idea.
She wanted to work for herself, and loved coffee shops and good design. “It was the perfect storm. I had the idea of a unique place, where people would drive out of their way to have a coffee and a treat. At the same time I read about the Acorns programme.”time I read about the Acorns programme.”herself, and loved coffee shops and good design. “It was the perfect storm. I had the idea of a unique place, where people would drive out of their way to have a coffee and a treat. At the same time I read about the Acorns programme.”
Caitriona was accepted on the Acorns 2 programme, under lead entrepreneur Alison Ritchie, MD of Polar Ice, Ireland’s leading manufacturer of dry ice products.
“There were eight in my group, and we had a two-day kick off session in Mullingar. It was hugely motivating and inspiring, hearing about the various lead entrepreneurs’ experiences.”
They received advice on how to move forward with their businesses, met once a month and reconvened for another two days in April.
“We’ve a Whatsapp group called ‘Alison’s A Team’. We’re honest with each other, bouncing ideas, and sharing successes as well as the challenges.”
Accustomed to discussing ideas in corporate environments, Caitriona says setting up business can be quite isolating on your own. But she feels she moved faster with Acorns than she would have on her own. “Every month we were meeting, setting goals with the group, and we’d have to report back. It was a friendly, nurturing environment. Everyone wanted their group members to succeed.”business can be quite isolating on your own. But she feels she moved faster with Acorns than she would have on her own. “Every month we were meeting, setting goals with the group, and we’d have to report back. It was a friendly, nurturing environment. Everyone wanted their group members to succeed.”
Financing it was challenging. Local bank manager Sheila Hanrahan in Bank of Ireland, Ennistymon, understood the project and appreciated its merits.
“We put all our savings into it so it’s a big investment, but we believe in it. It’s a lifetime job for me, and it will allow us to support the pub by bringing more people into the area.”
They employed an architect and engineer when applying for planning, to change it from farm to commercial use. The shop, terrace and car park are secured from the farm.
“We brought in a lot of specialist expertise for the renovation, to make sure the council were happy with the changes. We were also lucky to have the approval of neighbours for the project.”
Kevin’s support is invaluable to Caitriona. “He did a lot of work in the renovations last year, as well as keeping the farm and pub going. He’ll jump in and help wherever needed. It’s as much his business as mine”.
She also employs two local people on a part time basis.
Moher Cottage also sells Caitriona’s own artisan fudge. “It’s a little different, and a nice treat with a cup of coffee.”
Local bakers, Edie & Bibi, based in Ennistymon, supply the cakes. Mounted photos of Kevin’s cows, taken by Caitriona, an amateur photographer, are also on sale. Even their “very pampered golden retriever, Sadie” features in some of the pictures!
Caitriona has already received several accolades. Listeners to Alison Curtis’ programme on Today FM voted her the best coffee in Ireland. “I remember Darina Allen saying that you can be good at just one thing and be known because of that. We use Bristot Italian coffee supplied through Coffee.ie, a Galway company who are the sole distributor in Ireland.”
Moher Cottage was also shortlisted in the creative retail category in Bank of Ireland’s Start Up Awards 2017, one of only two shortlisted in Munster. “It was a vote of confidence that we were doing something right,” she says.
The Acorns programme is open to early stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland, which is defined as all areas outside of the city boundaries of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
Participants are mentored by voluntary lead entrepreneurs, all successful business women based in rural Ireland. Learning is facilitated through round table peer learning, in groups of eight. Areas include strategy, sales and marketing, and finance. Further support and workshops are available after completion of the programme.
The pilot scheme, which had 44 participants, ran from September 2015 to April 2016.
The second phase, in which Caitriona Considine participated, had 55 entrepreneurs.
Fifty six funded places are available through a competitive selection process, and the third programme is now accepting expressions of interest.
Applications will open at the end of Aug ust 2017.
Sponsored by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, through the CEDRA Rural Innovation and Development Fund, Acorns was developed by entrepreneurship expert Paula Fitzsimons. Its aim is to encourage start up rural female entrepreneurs to grow and develop their projects into sustainable businesses, by providing knowledge, support and networking opportunities.
Acorns exposed Caitriona Considine to new designers and product makers from other rural areas starting their journey with her.
Those stocked at Moher Cottage include Jo Brown Natural Solid perfume from Carlow, and Bean and Goose chocolate from Wexford.
Dúinn Designs by Bernadette McCullough in Louth supply aprons, tea towels and silk scarves based on heritage designs. Dúinn’s St Brigid’s Cross range is very popular, because of the shop’s location. “I’m hoping to stock jewellery from another Acorn entrepreneur. There are great options in the wider Acorns group,” says Caitriona.
Has she advice for others setting up a business? “Don’t be afraid. Do the prep work. Don’t do anything rash. Run it like a project, and look for opportunities like Acorns so you can leverage others in the same position as you. It takes a lot of work and some risk, but follow your heart, and don’t have regrets. Don’t wait for perfection. There is nothing more rewarding than opening the door to your own place.”
Awareness building is an ongoing challenge. She hopes to make it a year-round destination, and to move the business online. “If you can’t find it, create it” she recommends.
Caitriona has a very clear goal. “My mission is to become the best little shop in Ireland.”