One day, a few years ago, Marion Kelly sat on a hill in Howth, milking a goat.
This was when she was working on a project re-integrating wild goats into the hills of Howth.
Children approached her to watch what she was doing, and more kids followed and started to ask questions. They had never seen an animal being milked before, she says.
“At one stage, we had 100 children out there,” says Kelly. “It was like The Sound of Music, they were coming over the hill.”
The experience showed her that children are naturally interested in animals, Kelly said, and it strengthened her resolve to set up a city farm in Dublin, something she’d long hoped to do.
It seems as if she’s finally getting close. Children from across Dublin could soon be mucking in to take care of a few goats, a couple of pigs, a flock of ducks, and a brood of hens.
Kelly and a group of community gardeners are now planning to set up Dublin’s first public city farm, with free access for all – hopefully on a patch of land at St Anne’s Park in Raheny.
They’re scheduled to present their plans to councillors for the North Central Area in September. If they get the green light, the city farm could be up and running by next spring, says Kelly.
City farms are well-established in Britain and Germany, says An Taisce’s green communities manager, Robert Moss.
Berlin got them before they got community gardens, Moss says. Disadvantaged families used them to help care for young teenagers after school.
In Ireland, many people might assume that there’s no need for city farms, because most people have relatives engaged in farming that they can visit, Moss says. But that’s not true these days.
Anyway, “Just being around animals is healthy for kids, it calms them down a bit,” he says. City farms have other benefits, too.
They often use traditional farming methods, so they help to preserve skills that are part of the country’s heritage. They are also a handy tool for advocating for animal welfare, says Moss.
“The time is right to have one in Dublin,” he says. “The decisions and the politics of modern life is decided in Dublin. So, it is important to have these kind of amenities within the capital city.”
A Public City Farm
There are privately run city farms in the Dublin area, but they cost money to visit. For example, getting into Airfield Estate in Dundrum, which has a farmyard, costs €10 for an adult and €5 for a child.
Kelly said that when she and her fellow aspiring city-farmers asked local schools if they would use a free farm, they got a phenomenal response.
It has taken a while to get to this stage, though. The idea of public city farm is something Kelly has spent the last five years negotiating with Dublin City Council, she says.
She is delighted with the location they have been offered by the council though: a small site beside the community gardens in St Anne’s Park in Raheny that the council has said it will let them use for free.
The location augurs well for the project’s future. The group visited city farms in London and found that the ones that had lasted for decades there were often located inside parks.
Kelly says their aim is that the project will cost the council nothing. “We don’t want to be a burden on the council,” she says.
The scheme is based on volunteers doing the work, and they are applying for funding from Clann Credo to get started, to buy animals and set up a community kitchen.
Gavin Kenny, another of the organisers behind the project, says they’re aiming for 80 percent self-sufficiency: they’ll grow most of the food for the animals in the community gardens.
That should help keep operating costs low, too. “You can’t talk about self-sufficiency and not do it yourself,” he says.
Where’s That From?
Kelly is involved in a community garden, and says she’s had children visit it who didn’t know potatoes came out of the dirt.
For Kelly, who grew up on a farm, this was shocking. “If you want to have children who understand food, you have to teach them how to grow it,” she says.
She and her colleagues have all kinds of courses planned for the city farm, from training in how to look after the animals, to cheese making, or even wool spinning – if they get an Angora goat.
“We can use the wool, we can spin, because it just shows you what your clothes are made of, all those things that are very simple, but for children are kind of mind-blowing,” she says.
One of the volunteers is trained in nature-based learning, and beside the farm is a wooded area where Kelly wants to run a forest school, or something similar.
“We want to get children out into the trees and learning about bush craft. The whole thing is get them out and get them loving nature,” she says.
In one respect, it won’t be a typical farm. “We will have a no-slaughter policy; we are not here to kill animals,” she says.
[Correction: This article originally stated that Kelly is involved in the community garden at St Anne’s Park. She is not involved in that community garden. We regret this error, which we corrected on 27/9/2017 at 1:40pm.]