2 years ago, Karen O’Donohoe and her mother decided to buy a piece of land in the centre of Ladysbridge in County Cork. The area was partly covered in flat grass, partly overgrown, it was untouched for well over 70 years and mostly used as a dumping ground. In its middle sits an old stone cottage – an eyesore for most, but a place from which to grow a vision for Karen.
Karen, who is always wearing red lipstick and a bright smile had just returned home to Ireland with her 2 children after living in England for several years:
When I moved back to Ireland I needed to find a way to reconnect with my community and I wanted to bring my children up with a sense of belonging to this place.
There wasn’t a lot happening in Ladysbridge that would have allowed Karen to do that, so she took things into her own hands and decided to turn the piece of land into a new meeting space for the community.
What else would we do with it, build more houses? There is enough property development but not enough community development.
Her vision for this abandoned place was a community market and an allotment to grow food together. Today her vision has become a reality. The allotment has lots of regular members and is home to pumpkins, potatoes and strawberries. The â€œCottage Marketâ€ has established itself as the weekly get together for everyone in the area and beyond. In the warmer summer months the market is set up outside, when it’s raining or during the winter, they stay inside.
Along with these initiatives, Karen also joined GIY (Grow It Yourself), the international movement of food growers and started a monthly meetup to bring people together in the area who were interested in learning about or sharing their experience growing food. There are around 90 GIY groups all around Ireland run by volunteers. Joining GIY opened a whole new world for Karen:
I couldn’t grow my own nail before I got involved with GIY. Now I don’t just know how to grow potatoes and carrots, my commitment to growing and quality local food has increased. I would have considered myself environmentally conscious before but I was still guilty of buying Strawberries in November.
The GIY group, allotment and market were a blessing for people in Ladysbridge like Sonia, who was in a similar situation as her neighbour Karen. She had moved back to her home town from Cork City with her 4 year old daughter.
I always used to grow my own vegetables and potatoes, that’s how I grew up. So I already had the experience when I joined the GIY group here. My daughter didn’t, she was 3 at the time and i thought it would be great to get her involved. She loves watering and planting.
Bringing children to the allotment and giving them a sense of where our food comes from was one of the main reasons for Karen to start the allotment and seeing what the kids make of it fills her with joy:
Harvesting the first potatoes was more exiting for the kids than Christmas Day. Seeing them stand around a bed and pick beans form the plant, while having the craic, the excitement while they see the strawberries growing and wondering who will get the biggest one is just amazing.
These thing are the fuel for Karen to keep going and to always do more. Her very own creation, the â€œCottage Marketâ€ has become the new weekly meeting place in Ladysbridge, a fully community run initiative.
Every Sunday, Ladysbridge comes together to buy jewellery, home grown vegetables, homemade jam, bread or knitwear, whatever local talent has to offer.
Sometimes I can’t believe the talent that’s on our doorsteps. There are so many creative people who have set up their own micro-enterprises and come on a regular basis to showcase their things, it takes great courage to do that.
Sonia, who helps out on different stands on the market, starts every Sunday with a visit to the market:
It’s a great chance to go out and talk to everyone. We just have our breakfast here, get our coffees, chat to everyone. It’s always fun. Sometimes people even break out into a spontaneous dance. There’s always a great atmosphere.
Soon everyone in Ireland will be able to set up their own Cottage Market, putting â€˜homemade, homegrown and handcrafted’ back at the heart of our communities.
I just knew the Cottage Market had the potential to be something even greater than what I had set up locallyâ€, Karen tells.
When Michael Kelly, the GIY founder shared my vision, it was a huge step forward for me. Setting up a project like this alone can be very scary and overwhelming, and also lonely!
Now a GIY initiative and thanks to some extra funding from The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA), there are now 3 GIY Cottage Markets with two launched in March this year in Headford, Co Galway and Drogheda, Co Louth. Soon communities all over Ireland will be able to create their very own using the knowledge, concept and design developed in Ladysbridge.
Karen also plans to spread the idea through ChangeX, to make it even easier for people to find it and set up their own markets.
Eimear Cullen, the changemaker behind the market in Drogheda and member of GIY Drogheda saw this opportunity as a gift that was handed to her. Though she is working full-time as a teacher in New Cross College Finglas she jumped on it right away:
For me it was a dream come true to set up the market. It’s something I always wanted to do but having the support from Karen and the GIY brand name behind me gave me the confidence I needed to actually go ahead with it. They provided with materials at the start – flyers, banners and a few tables as a starter package to kick it all off but it was actually the enthusiasm from Karen that really pushed me to do it.
Often that’s what makes the difference, someone who shares your passion, reassures you that it’s possible and that you’re not alone with this crazy idea, someone who understands the fear of starting something new. Not everyone understands what drives people like Eimear and Karen:
I just feel so passionately that we need to go back to the grassroots and bring back lost skills. Every locality should have its own market to showcase the talent of its area. On a personal level, I’ve also made so many friends and the feeling of having connected people and having created something is hugely rewarding,
Eimear describes her motivation. Karen is taking her vision another step further:
I want to create the next generation of changemakers and social entrepreneurs. I think we need to introduce children to positive community initiatives now, teach them to support local businesses, if that becomes the norm, that would make a huge difference.
And she believes everyone can play a role in that:
If you really want to get something done, stop talking about it and get doing it. It can be hard with our busy lives, it may involve a lot of juggling but we can’t let that stop us. Everypbody can do something. All those somethings make a real difference. We are the solution.â€œ
If you’d like to join a Grow It Yourself group near you, please just find your closest chapter here. You can also start a new GIY group just as Karen did. We’ll give you all the support you need. Register your interest. If you’re interested in bringing the Cottage Market to your community, please just give us a shout: [email protected]