When Brian Callinan was growing up, his grandparents had an apple orchard behind the family’s farmhouse in Co Clare.
After his grandparents died, the orchard died, too. Callinan’s family never replaced the trees.
Two weeks ago, he went to Clare and bought five Irish heritage apple trees from Irish Seed Savers in Scariff. One of them stayed in Clare.
“Myself and my dad … put it down as a tester,” said Callinan. “We put it back where the orchard was … We’ll try to add another tree next year and maybe have an orchard.”
He brought back the other four to his neighbourhood in Inchicore.
That’s how this group of neighbours came to plant four apple trees, two pear trees, and two unexpected plum trees on a Saturday afternoon, behind the CIÉ works, next to the enclosed football pitch, in a small, empty, Victorian walled garden.
They got the idea from artist Seoidín O’Sullivan and her wide-ranging art project Hard/Graft.
O’Sullivan, in partnership with arts organisation Common Ground, has been inviting communities around Dublin to grow their own orchards on public land, so they’re accessible to everyone.
Callinan and seven of his neighbours learned how to graft trees at one of her workshops recently. The workshops show people how to grow trees cheaply, using a branch cutting and €1 worth of root stock.
They each left the workshop with a tiny sapling. Callinan’s is in a pot out the back of his house. In a year, he can transfer it to a nursery. In another, it can go into the ground.
Siobhán Geoghegan, director of Common Ground, said one of the project’s goals is to establish orchards across Dublin 8. There’s already an orchard at Dolphin House. They’re planning on planting more trees at a school in Inchicore.
O’Sullivan thinks it’s great the project has reached its next stage – from grafting to planting.
The neighbours in Inchicore have bought the trees, gotten permission to use the land, and are putting trees in the ground.
“Communal space is under threat at the moment,” O’Sullivan says, and green space is an issue in Dublin 8.
There’s been a financial turn and there’s development happening. “Protecting these spaces is important during the [new] Celtic Tiger,” she says.
The next workshops she’ll run will be in orchard maintenance. So that people in neighbourhoods can learn how to take care of the trees they plant.
The idea of “graft” in O’Sullivan’s project isn’t just about roots – it’s a metaphor for the collective graft needed to repair landscapes, cities, and relationships in the current political climate, she says.
Callinan says they wanted to use Irish heritage apple trees because they nearly died out.
One of his neighbours, Patricia Baker, made a radio documentary called Bitter Sweet about it. Actually, Irish heritage apples nearly died out twice, she says.
In a nutshell, Ireland used to have many varieties of apple trees. They were suited to the climate and thrived in Irish weather, Baker says.
The British government incentivised Irish farmers to stop planting their own varieties and plant other kinds. That led to a monoculture.
The Irish horticulturalist J.G. Lamb cycled around the country in the 1940s, finding old heritage apple varieties. He collected scions and grew them on UCD-owned land in Glasnevin.
One night in the 1970s, bulldozers came in and flattened them all, says Baker. Through the work of the Irish Seed Savers Association, the Armagh Trust, and the department of horticulture at UCD, the collection was saved a second time. Now there’s a Lamb Clarke historical Irish apple collection at UCD.
Baker’s the person who set up the snack table at the tree planting. She says she wants her daughter to be able to rob apples and to know that apples don’t come from a plastic box in the supermarket.
The kids playing in the dirt today will remember planting those trees, she says.
“They’ll grow up to be 15- and 16-year-olds and they’ll go down and have an apple. And the fact that it’s community owned – it’s not your apple, it’s to be shared. They’re really important messages,” she says.
Baker says she remembers her dad planting potatoes and onions at the back of their house growing up. They lived in a housing estate.
He wasn’t a hippie, she says, that’s just what you did back then. Gardens weren’t for deck chairs and barbecues, they were for planting food.
“I remember the smell, I remember the feeling of digging around the ground and finding potatoes, and I was absolutely delighted finding another one. It was like a treasure hunt,” Baker says.
She remembers the smell of apples and eating peas from the pod. She remembers all that from her childhood.
“And I know I’m privileged. And it’s nothing to do with money. We didn’t have money. That’s all I want my daughter to have, a couple of those memories,” she says, “because I think you start respecting food a bit more.”
The group of neighbours in Inchicore got permission to use the walled garden from Irish Rail, which owns the land. Anyone can use it, says Callinan.
At first on Saturday, there were six people and a dog in the patch, debating where to start digging.
The trees need a lot of light, they can’t be too close to the wall. Someone gets out a measuring tape and starts marking the spots.
More people trickle into the garden. Someone sets up a folding table, and it collects things – two flasks of coffee, a bottle of sparkling wine.
People watch from outside the wall. Kids run around. Another dog shows up.
Three people start digging, hard. The soil is full of stones. Others take turns with the shovels. The air smells like earth.
They plant the six trees – four apple and two pear – spaced neatly, five metres apart and five metres away from the wall. A man keeps bees on the other side of the far wall. That’s not an accident, Callinan says.
Someone pops a cork, and there’s an “ooh”. There’s a crowd now, and they gather around the table.
Later, after some people had already left, a guy shows up with two plum trees. Into the ground they go, too.
Eventually, Callinan hopes, the garden will become a nursery for the saplings the neighbours grafted.
They’ll add more trees over time. They’ve got eight in the ground now, and eight trees make an orchard, he says.