Johanna McDonald Steenkist is working with her community group in Camross on creating new spaces for people to meet and work together. Many rural villages in Ireland share the challenges of Camross, you might have read our article about Mullan village in Co. Monaghan. Johanna gave us some insights into how they go about it in her village by building a community garden and more.
Tell us something about your Community. What is Camross like?
Camross is a fantastic community, with great community spirit. It’s sat in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. We have a church, a school, a pub, the community hall. Everything is within a tight centre and works together. Everything is connected. Under 200 people are living in the immediate area of the village, about 1,300 in Camross Parish. My next neighbour is living a few hundred meters from me.
What we are missing is our village shop and post office, which has been closed a few years ago. The post-office is a very important place especially for older people to meet. It’s where they go to get their weekly pension, do their banking, buy tokens towards purchasing television license, also do some shopping in the shop attached to it. Now the next shop is 10km away and people are really depending on others to go places. It’s really a big loss.
We are exploring solutions to this problem now in our village regeneration group (Camross Parish Development Association)
This group consists of representatives from all the local organisations, including GIY and Tidy Towns, the groups I’m mainly involved in. We are currently working very hard to complete our formal Village Plan and fundraise to start delivering the Village Park and developments it will involve.
What are the ideas you are working on right now?
A lot of my time has been going into the community garden. Over the last years, we have been doing a lot of work on the hard landscaping work in the garden. We’ve now started to invite groups to the garden regularly for therapeutic purposes.
I am a strong believer in the benefit of gardening as a therapeutic means, in the benefits for your physical and mental health, so we are currently developing the concept of therapeutic horticulture, using the garden as a therapeutic tool.
But the community garden is also at the centre of a couple of bigger ideas that we are working towards, recreating that space for people in our village to meet over a cuppa and hopefully combat rural isolation.
We are working on a co-operative shop, a meeting point for music events and tea rooms.
Another, a very different idea we are looking into, is a digital hub which can be used to encourage rural business, help students and also be a resource for farmers to complete their online work which sometimes may be a challenge with poor rural internet connections.
The ideas have all been gathered after public consultation and are in our village plan, we have big ideas and will make them happen.
What kicked all this off. Did you set a goal to realise all these ideas from the beginning?
It was a progression. I am involved in the Tidy Towns group and we started working on an Orchard in the village first that belonged to the church. The apple trees just needed some tree surgery and we facilitated that. We had help from Michael Buckley our local landscaper. He volunteered his skills and gave us a master class in pruning.
It all really just grew from that because we were then allowed to continue developing the area into a multipurpose recreational space which is now our Orchard Community Garden.
That’s what I see again and again. When you do one job it just quickly grows into something else.
I am a strong believer in the concept of working for your community when you can and then you will benefit when you are older. I am not originally from Camross and being involved in the Tidy Towns and GIY was a way of getting to know people and making a difference. You have to get involved and work hard to benefit your community and I don’t believe in sitting back and expecting others to do it for me.
Our Community Garden is a great example of what can be achieved through hard work and collaboration.
How many people have been involved in the project so far?
We are around 10 people working on the garden. As we were still installing the hard landscaping we had to limit the numbers of people involved for the start.
The Community Employment Scheme (CES) were the driving force behind the Garden, Francine Ashe while employed as the administrator designed the garden and shared her permaculture and garden design skills with the group. She then volunteered with the Tidy Towns and was a founding member of the GIY group. Some of the other trainees brought their specific skills, carpentry, stone masonry, DIY and then stayed to do extra work.
We also have a fantastic photographer on the team, Noelle Ryan who volunteers her skills and we use her photography on our grant applications and Facebook page.
That’s how it works, you arrive for one purpose and then find another interest. The garden is becoming a very important resource in our village and it is hoped that in the future it could even be used as a site for training courses but also to attract tourists.
You are working towards a big vision, don’t you need to secure a lot of funding to make it happen? How are you doing that?
Since we have started, I’ve written a lot of funding applications. We started the community garden with a few European grants from the so-called Local Agenda 21 Partnership fund, they are administered by the County Councils. We got granted three over the years, last year we got the highest amount in the county.
We also were gifted the GIY award, the Energia Get Ireland Growing Fund which is a fund that’s given out by GIY in cooperation with Energy every year in January when the growing season kicks off.
We have also just been granted some money to install a new gate and fencing that will shorten the path to the garden and make it a little easier to access the site. And we applied for a “Community Enhancement Grant” to address the road access and hopefully get funds to install a hard surface to enable vehicular access and parking so a wheelchair user could access the site or someone of limited mobility could be driven to the gate to access. Once this is installed we will be able to welcome a wider audience to benefit from the facilities.
Besides that, we are now also taking part in the Town and Village Renewal Scheme. So there are lots of ways.
Not to forget the donations, which always help. People are really great if you just ask. We have received numerous donations from our local sawmills; mulch, timber and gates, recycled items like sinks, gates and stone from our supporters and plants like, gooseberry bushes, rhubarb, and strawberries.
Our local Vintage Club have also been donating items of local heritage farm machinery to use in the vicinity; churns, ploughs and turnip machines, and we have been promised an old bicycle to use for display. A local window company provided the windows for our Potting shed.
Working on this project, was there something that surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support we got from Laois County Council, who have been supportive in many ways over the years.
Being involved with the Laois Federation of Tidy Towns which is facilitated by the Environment section of the County Council we have been provided with wonderful training opportunities in areas of environmental awareness, recycling, climate change and facilitated GIY programmes. Anne Marie, the Tidy Towns Co-Ordinator provides ongoing support above and beyond.
Then on a practical level the County Council workmen facilitate topsoil being delivered if they are working in the area and that is the equivalent to gold dust if you are a gardener.
This kind of support makes everything easier. If they see you are working hard, they want to support you. And it makes you want to do more because they are so helpful.
What else is it that drives you to put so much time and effort into this project?
As said, I’m a big believer in community and maybe it’s my background in mental health. I’ve just retired but I’ve been working in that area. In my family, we always would have seen the community as very important. If you give, you get it back. You can’t live in a bubble, you have to engage with people around you. You get it back tenfold and then it’s also good for your mental health.
What is a moment when you really feel like you get paid back in that way for your work?
When I go up to the community garden and I see someone sitting quietly in our circle enjoying the scenery, meditating or when I just look at the potting shed. I just love it. It’s my favorite thing in the whole world at the moment. It is not a big thing but it’s because so many people contributed to it. We got the grant to build it, we’ve got donated things in it, people from the Community Employment Scheme came and built it, someone else came and painted it, someone’s father made the sign for it, someone else gave us a sink.
So many people have contributed towards it. We were sharing what we needed on our Facebook page and it all unfolded there, people got on it and supported it, followed the progress. When it was done, they admired it. It is just a potting shed but it’s something tangible they can all see that we all worked on together. It just makes people feel happy. It’s a symbol of what you can do.
Thanks to Ard Eireann Photography and Johanna for allowing us to use the photos in this article.