Life was one endless winter for former Irish surf champion Fergal Smith.
To survive as a professional surfer you need one thing: A constant supply of big waves. And, for Fergal, this meant years of hopping between hemispheres, living out of suitcases as he chased winter storms in every corner of the world.
Four years ago, Fergal decided enough was enough. After a decade wandering the planet, he chose to swap the waves of Hawaii and Tahiti for a simpler life on Ireland’s western seaboard.
The time had come to literally put down roots.
Fergal and a group of fellow surfers founded Moy Hill Community Garden.
Located in the tiny village of Moy near Lahinch, their 17-acre open garden has quickly become a key centre for the community, a great melting pot where locals and those new to the area can come together.
“I used to go away each summer,” he says. “I would go to Australia and Tahiti chasing waves and come back during the winter. As soon as the waves would slow down here [in Ireland], I would head off chasing waves.
“I spent a lot of time in Western Australia and Tahiti — they were the main places but I could be in Fiji or Indonesia or anywhere. It was an endless winter for about six or seven years, I had about 12 or 13 winters one after another. It was exciting but, after a while, you get browned off of it.
People enjoying the community garden, which is open to everyone,
says Fergal, whether it be for reading a book or growing veg.
“I had travelled a lot on my own and I felt like I needed to do something a little more grounded. I felt like I needed to be more involved in the community. As a surfer you are always on the fly, you are always moving here, there, and everywhere.
“The garden idea quickly snowballed into a massive collective in the community, not just for surfers; we get families and young people, and lots of older people who are into gardening.
“It’s really nice to have a connection to where you are living. I really enjoy it, it’s a lot nicer lifestyle than being on the go all the time.
“People [who use the garden] can do whatever they like. We’re don’t say that we know everything about running a garden like this.
“It is open it anyone — if they want to sit and read a book or do half an hour of weeding, or get stuck into proper vegetable growing.
“It’s amazing when a few people get together how ideas spark and they really get into it. It’s not our garden, the idea is that it is self-run by the community who have an interest in it.
“It’s great for the young families and the surfers who have moved to the area. A lot of those people come to the community garden just to meet people, to ask them about practical things like schools for their children and good places to eat.
“But we also get the locals as well. The people who walk that road [beside the garden], and have done for years. They pop in and have a look, they can tell you stories about how they used to grow food, they all have a fairly strong connection to the land. It’s great to have their input and they love to see young people doing a bit of work on the land.”
For more than 25 years, Clare-based charity Rural Resettlement Ireland has been working to keep alive rural communities, like the one in Moy, by helping people relocate from the city.
Despite losing all of its government funding during the recession, the group is still fighting on two fronts — hoping to reduce the homeless crisis in Dublin and the depopulation of the west with one elegant solution.
Over the past year, the charity’s founder, Jim Connolly, has help top-level talks with both Dublin City Council and the minister responsible for rural development, Ann Phelan. To date, no new form of funding has been approved.
“It really isn’t rocket science,” says Mr Connolly. “If people move to the country, the situation in Dublin would be helped but all of our appeals [for funding] have fallen on deaf ears.
“It is quite clear that rural Ireland is dying — it is more serious now than it ever was before.
“We are still assisting families. Last year, we managed to move a family into Labasheeda [in west Clare]. They had two children and those children helped saved a teacher’s job. Since then, more children have moved in and the school is in a healthy position but that teacher’s position was saved by just two extra children being enrolled.
“We still get inquires all the time and, lately, we are getting more and more enquires from homeless people. The scale of the problem of homelessness in Dublin is massive, and what we do can help a little. But it can also certainly have a massive impact on rural areas.”
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