FERGUS FINLAY: With special enterpreneurialism like this we are sure to survive

Weddings are one of the few places now wheere generations come together, says Fergus Finlay.

THROUGHOUT my life I’ve lived, or spent time in, a number of towns and villages throughout Ireland that have one thing in common. Cobh was one of them, Shillelagh another, and Ballydehob. The thing they have in common is that they’re sort of on the road to nowhere. You don’t go there unless you’re going there.

Towns like that can struggle, or they can thrive. They have to have a strong sense of identity, a community that’s used to dealing with a bit of isolation. In Ireland they typically don’t get a lot of help. The internet and broadband, sometimes ever phone reception — things we live and breathe and take for granted in urban Ireland — can take a generation to arrive in the towns nobody remembers.

I just spent the weekend in a town like that, and it was a revelation. You may have heard of it, but I never had, despite the length of its name. It’s called Castletown Geoghegan, and it’s in the heart of Westmeath. Sort of come off the motorway to Galway at Junction 5, find a sign for Kilbeggan Racecourse, and keep going for about 10 miles.

You’ll find the aforementioned Castletown Geoghegan eventually. It’s a crossroads really — a church that seemed reasonably well-attended for Saturday night Mass, a friendly shop, three nice pubs, and of course a GAA pitch.

Oh, and Mount Druid. Just turn left at the crossroads and you’ll find it. One of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been in.

It’s a wedding venue, but not like any other wedding venue you’ve ever seen. One hundred acres of sprawling grassland, it was at one stage, back in the good old days, intended to be a ghost estate. Well, I’m sure that’s not how the original developer saw it. He just saw the opportunity to build a couple of hundred houses for families who couldn’t afford to live in Dublin, but might have been prepared to commute for 90 minutes each way to work.

There are plenty of communities like that in the midlands, and further out. Housing estates with families and no childcare facilities. On the edges of towns and villages that were never designed for them, with no schools, poor communications, the nearest bank or pharmacy a dozen or more miles away. Two-car families with no family life.

The developer’s dream didn’t work out. Instead Adrian and Deirdre Murphy got hold of the land. They planted thousands of trees all around it, to make development difficult. Then they thought they might do nature weekends, and they began dotting bits and pieces of accommodation around the place.

Not just any old accommodation. There’s a lovely old house, and a gate lodge. But hidden in the trees there are yurts, with little stoves and a flu jutting up through a hole in the roof. Turn a corner and you’ll find a Father Ted caravan. There’s a shepherd’s cottage. I even found work going on on the conversion of a double-decker bus into a suite.

Their idea was glamping. But a few years ago, a visitor fell in love with the place and asked if her wedding could happen there. So they built her a little tin church, close to a boathouse by the lake. As demand for weddings grew — fuelled essentially by word of mouth — they added a barn for atmospheric dinner and dancing.

They’ve furnished everything from auction rooms, so the furniture is old, and quirky, and beautiful (I tried my best to persuade Deirdre to sell me one of the old leather armchairs, but she was charmingly implacable).

And last year 15,000 people attended weddings in Mount Druid — I’m guessing the vast majority of them fell madly in love with the place. In a small town on the road to nowhere.

Somewhere around now I have to apologise. I’ve been telling people for weeks that my daughter Sarah had decided to have a vegan wedding in a field near Mullingar. It seemed like a weird thing to do. But Sarah and the love of her life, Ger, have always been a bit like that. A bit alternative, a bit bohemian. Actually in some ways a bit out of their time – despite their taste in music (not my kind of thing) they really belong in a Victorian romance novel.

So I was dreading the field, and (yes I admit it) the veganism. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There was a moving, emotional ceremony in the tin chapel, led with his usual charm and warmth by the Humanist celebrant Brian Whiteside. Followed by drinks and finger food — I ate noodles for the first time in my life and loved them (I’ll tell you sometime why I can’t eat pasta or noodles). Then a wonderful vegan dinner in the barn. I may not be quite a convert, but I’ll never dread stuffed peppers and couscous again.

I’m not going to write about Sarah here – I’m utterly confident that you’ll find out all about her in due course. She’s a theatre director, Ger’s an actor and writer. They and their friends (especially the girl who was her bridesmaid, Nessa Mathews), do astonishing work together — the kind that can take your breath away sometimes. But they do it in tiny theatres, and they haven’t yet had the break their talents deserve. It will happen, because genuine talent always gets the break it deserves in the end.

Sarah nearly died when she was a baby, from bacterial meningitis. I’ve always believed that that experience, and the trauma she had to endure during the treatment (from which she made a full recovery) helped to form a hardy spirit. She also (thank goodness) inherited a lot of her mother’s creativity and talent (although not when it comes to the making of a wedding dress, but that’s another story).

But one of the things about the wedding, and the amazing weekend it gave us all, was the discovery of a very special kind of entrepreneurialism, if that’s a word.

A young Irish couple hated the thought that a beautiful piece of land could end up dotted with houses, as if it were a suburb in a large town — something it could never be, something that has been tried and failed elsewhere on the roads and motorways out of Dublin. So they created something different, something that protected the community, yet still provided 30 jobs and added real value to the town.

One of the other things about a wedding is that it’s one of the few places nowadays where generations come together. There’s a lot of letting the hair down, to be sure, but there’s also time to chat and even have an argument or two. One of the things you always discover, when you get to see the next generation at close quarters, is how brilliant they are.

We did our best in my generation to build, and then to make a mess of, our little country, but it survived us somehow. And as long as the next generation — the actors, the directors, the young lawyers, the dreamers and the entrepreneurs like the Murphys, are around, we’ll survive — and thrive — for a while yet.


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