How this Cork woman went from plum office worker to head gardener after job loss

When she lost her job in the economic crash of 2008, Mags Coughlan decided to cycle from Canada to Mexico and re-evaluate life. The journey eventually led her to her dream job at home in Cork, writes CHRIS DUNNE
How this Cork woman went from plum office worker to head gardener after job loss

Mags Coughlan, Head gardener at Ballymaloe.

GRADUATING from UCC in 1995 with a BComm set Mags Coughlan up for great success.

Were her parents like my parents’ generation, where they advised you to get the ‘pensionable job?”

“They supported all three of us in our chosen careers,” says Mags.

“I was the first on my dad’s side of the family to go to university.”

Mags is the daughter of famous Cork hurler, Denis Coughlan.p

She landed a plum job in Dublin as an Operations Manager after majoring in Marketing and Management as part of her degree, and after doing the almost obligatory Australian adventure with best friend, Trisha, Mags experienced living and working in London for five years and travelling to South America. The world was her oyster. She had it all.

Mags Coughlan.
Mags Coughlan.

“Everybody was coming home,” says Mags, 47, who is now working in a very different field — as head gardener in Ballymaloe House.

“Ireland, full of opportunity, was the place to be back then in your thirties.”

Mags was managing a team of 20 people, providing print services to multi-nationals in different locations, meeting costs and targets as well as service levels; maintaining high standards for monthly reviews.

“I was based in City West, which is a great location. I bought an apartment in Kildare handy for work and handy for the road home to Cork,” says Mags.

Everything seemed rosy in the garden.

“My social life was good! My job was well paid during the boom. It was like London life. I had a wide circle of friends in Dublin.”

But was her life fulfilling, being constantly tied to her desk, beholden to her clients, always coming up with the goods, and being the go-to person if things went belly up?

“It could be stressful,” Mags admits.

But life was good. Until 2008, when the economic world came tumbling down and Mags lost her job.

“I was made redundant,” says Mags, stroking Jack, her rescue dog lying at her feet in the glass-house in the walled garden at Ballymaloe House.

Despite losing her job and her lifestyle back then, Mags, with a can-do attitude, wasn’t letting the grass grow under her feet.

“I took a notion to cycle the west coast of America!” she says. “I headed to Vancouver where I bought a bike and cycled off in the direction of Mexico.

“The three month trip was time-out, giving me a chance to re-evaluate where I was going next.”

Mags in the garden at Ballymaloe.
Mags in the garden at Ballymaloe.

Where was Mags going in a bid to overhaul her life as she knew it and start over?

“Living outdoors!” she says, laughing.

“On that cycling trip I felt so comfortable camping outdoors, eating outdoors and just being outdoors. At my desk at work, I had to schedule going out for run. Now I could just do it.”

Did the unfamiliar terrain or different climate worry her at all?

“Not in the least,” she says.

“I loved the coolness of Washington and the warmth of California.”

Things were luke-warm back home.

“Nobody was hiring,” recalls Mags. “There was a big fall-out from the recession.”

People were looking outside the boxes of commerce and corporate work.

“My sister’s husband, Joe, was interested in horticulture,” says Mags.

Having fallen in love with the great outdoors in America, she became interested too.

“I looked into a course in CIT, but most of it concentrated on the business side of things.”

Was Mags a gardener as a youngster?

“Climbing trees in our garden and trying to catch tadpoles in the stream was the extent of it!” she says.

When one door closes, another door opens.

Mags went to a slow food event in Ballymaloe and met the ‘Queen of Cuisine’, Darina Allen, who always has time for people willing to work and who put in the effort.

Mags wasn’t shy in either regard. And she was no wilting violet either.

“I thought I’d pull the finger out and I approached Darina to ask her about volunteering in the gardens at Ballymaloe.”

While Mags was willing and able, she wasn’t really cut out for her first day at work in the extensive impressive Ballymaloe estate.

“I arrived on my first day in June wearing a pair of Birkenstocks! I had no clue!”

Mags loves life outdoors, now that she knows how to dress for the Irish weather.
Mags loves life outdoors, now that she knows how to dress for the Irish weather.

So she was very green?

Mags laughs.

“Luckily, I got to work with Susan Turner that first day, who is a very experienced professional gardener.”

Mags found her feet.

“I worked away in the garden and one day a week in the cookery school as well,” says Mags.

“The variety was fantastic and the opportunity was brilliant.”

No doubt the grub was good too?

“Absolutely,” says Mags.

“I’m a vegetarian. Everything for the cookery school and for the hotel kitchen is grown here in the Ballymaloe gardens from scratch.”

After six months on site, Mags signed up with the Job-Bridge scheme, becoming an apprentice gardener and a resident on the Ballymaloe estate.

“I literally learned on the job,” says Mags.

Summertime and the living was easy. The work was very physical and the great outdoors where nature is kind and giving, could be unforgiving too.

“The weather took it out of me,” says Mags. 

“I learned how to dress every day with layers and layers of clothes and outdoor wear. Putting the clothes on and taking them off was a full-time job. It was hard work!

“The cold was the only daunting part of the job. I was fortunate that I was physically fit from running and cycling.”

Mags, challenged to change careers, is up for all sorts of challenges.

“Staying warm is a challenge!”

In the bracing spring-time weather, in the depth of the countryside. High heels and executive business suit are faraway memories for Mags.

“I have three pairs of trousers and three hats on most days!”

She is seasoned to the elements.

“I am a member of the Ballycotton swimmers group that swim in the sea,” says Mags.

“I haven’t gone in the sea yet this year, but I will take the plunge soon.”

Mags, rewarded by the fruits of her labour, was experiencing job satisfaction.

“I slept like a baby!” she says.

And she got promoted.

“When the head gardener left, I was given his job,” says Mags.

Life, always so busy and hectic in the capital, began to find an easy pace. The seasons now dictated Mags’ work shifts.

“Two acres might seem a lot for one person,” says Mags.

“But I find it very manageable. 

"Life is at a different pace now, seed sowing, ploughing, fertilising. Hired contractors do the heavy machinery ground work.

“We keep the kitchens supplied with seasonal fruit and vegetables. Everything is grown from seed; cabbages, broccoli, asparagus. Right now we are prioritising pruning the trees in the orchard.

“When the hotel was closed during Covid last year, we supplied Neighbourfood with fresh food boxes for people in the locality.”

Mags is a woman for all seasons.

“Summer is always buzzing,” she says. 

“Harvesting in the morning; getting the fresh produce over to the busy kitchens in time every day can be challenging. The day-to-day work must get done.”

What should would-be gardeners like me be doing now, and what are avid gardeners like Mags doing?

“We should be setting our salads now,” she says.

“It is easier than you think. Soil is king. Feeding your soil and fertilising it will yield good results. Seaweed or well-rolled manure works well.

“Keep a tidy garden to keep out pests. Gardening organically is key.

“Hardening of plants, getting them used to the weather before they go into the ground, will keep them protected from pests. Slugs like succulent juicy leaves!”

Mags, having taken the plunge living a new way of life, enjoying new beginnings in her own little piece of paradise, is living the dream for real.

“I enjoy a good social life here and I like the way of life here.”

There are perks to the job.

“I’m my own boss!”

She found happiness and she found romance.

“My partner Mossie and I are very happy.”

Any regrets?

“I have no regrets,” says Mags.

“It was financially tough in the beginning. It was risky. I had a mortgage like lots of other people. Working for a multi-national company, I was used to my foreign holidays twice a year.”

She always had a lot going for her.

“My parents were always very supportive in whatever I chose to do,” says Mags.

“Darina and Hazel Allen were instrumental in giving me a chance.”

Mags, armed with her tools, her faithful dog by her side, and wearing her three overcoats, heads outside to her own little idyllic world. All two acres of it.

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