An Gaírdín celebrates 25 years a-growing

Noreen Lyons at the Gaírdín, Portumna.
Noreen Lyons at the Gaírdín, Portumna.

Lifestyle – An organic and ecology centre set up in Portumna in 1994 by a small group of Mercy nuns, is now a focal point in the community. Rooted in its own area, this garden is also part of a bigger environmental movement. JUDY MURPHY hears how it’s evolving.

When the Mercy order of nuns allowed Noreen Lyons and three other Sisters from the Clonfert Diocese, “to follow our dream” back in 1994, they gave the green light to a project that was way ahead of its time.

The vision involved a small group of nuns – former teachers – opting to live in harmony with the land and the seasons, cherishing the Earth and all its inhabitants. They developed a centre in Portumna on two-and-a half-acres of land belonging to the Mercy order, where people could live and work with nature.

“It was to rediscover our relationship to the land and the earth,” explains Noreen, a woman with a warm nature, a quiet spirituality and the air of someone who gets things done.

Their site had formerly been the garden of Portumna’s Domestic Economy School, an institute the Mercy nuns had set up in the late 1800s, to teach women crafts and agricultural skills that would help them earn their living as farmers’ wives.

The school closed down in the late 1980s after almost a century of providing this service. Its building now houses apartments, while its gardens are home to An Gáirdín Organic and Ecology Centre. It plays a vital role in Portumna, where it’s used by groups from schoolchildren to creative writers, while produce from the organic garden is sold locally.

When Noreen and other members of the fledgling Centre ran their first organic gardening course in 1993, they struggled to find tutors who had any knowledge of organic gardening. She recallst his as she, her fellow Sister Anne Mills, gardener Des and several volunteers give the Connacht Tribune a guided tour of An Gáirdín.

That’s not a problem today, thanks in large part to their work. An Gáirdín has become a hub for educational courses including organic production, bee-keeping, cooking, composting, cosmology and more besides.

For 25 years, it has played a vital role in educating people about making choices that benefit the Earth and all its inhabitants – including human beings. This is done in a hands-on, positive way that encourages and engages people. Children, especially those from the local primary school, love coming here, foraging and enjoying a variety of teas made with herbs from the garden, says Róisín, one of the volunteers who helps out with the comprehensive Schools Education Programme.

Recent warnings from the United Nations about global warming have focused on the urgent need to care for the natural world.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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