WE’VE all thought about it: ditching the nine to five everyday slog for an idyllic gaff in the country, near the sea, close to nature. An oasis where the sound of birdsong blots out the tick-tock of the clock and the whirr of the computer.
“I spent so much time at the office,” says Anna Hogan. “I was in partnership with a very gracious man; a darling man.”
She is now in seventh heaven doing what she loves most, growing a wealth of home-grown floral beauties. She is part of a tribe of flower farmers across the country producing seasonal, scented cut blooms for farmers’ markets, occasions and events.
“Fresh, local, home-grown flowers are so special,” says Anna. “Look at those magnificent Astemeria, all home-grown in east Cork, she says, pointing to the bucket of splendid flowers.”
Anna is living the dream. The Douglas woman gave up her successful career that she had forged in law and now resides in her country house, ‘Seekings’, in east Cork.
“I am creating a new garden from a boggy field!” she says.
Anna spends her days pottering and working in the garden and her three tunnels, growing seeds, fruit and seasonal flowers.
She grew up growing fruit and vegetables, sowing seeds, and tending flower beds.
“It was a time in Ireland when everybody did something hands-on,” says Anna.
“My earliest memories are of kneeling on a cushion, learning to weed outside in the garden. We all had little jobs tending our own section of the garden. Often we’d bring shells from the beach to decorate our own patch.”
People spent their leisure time indulging in the great outdoors.
“People gardened, they grew their own vegetables and potatoes; they mended, they sewed,” says Anna.
She inherited her green fingers.
“My mother, Rose, was a brilliant gardener and she grew magnificent roses,” says Anna.
After studying law in UCC, Anna worked in the city as a practising solicitor until 2014.
“My area was taxation and property,” she says. “I loved law. During the boom I put in long hours and then of course the recession happened. There was a huge commercial fall off.”
Anna and her partner, Seamus, who works as an accountant in the Artisan Food industry, had already found a retreat to spend precious time away from the daily grind.
“We had a summer house in Rockchapel, overlooking the Kerry Mountains,” says Anna. “It was a getaway where we loved to retreat to. We grew our own fruit and vegetables there. It provided a massive interest for us.”
‘Seekings’ in East Cork was a new venture. And it offered new beginnings.
“My first grandchild arrived and I suppose that was a catalyst to making the decision to move to the country. It was time to slow down, take stock and take a step back.
“In 2011 and 2012, we thought long and hard about taking the decision to move. We began to put the plan in motion.”
Anna enrolled in a part-time course in the Organic Horticultural College, Ant-lonad- Glas, in Limerick.
“We learned about sustainability in an organic environment. I commuted from our holiday home, across the Kerry Mountains. It took about 40 minutes.”
The rural retreat in Rockchapel didn’t lend itself to rapid results from the land.
“No,” says Anna. “It was too high up, too far north, and it was an awkward commute from Douglas. I wanted a more structured, permanent home.”
In 2014, Anna gave up law completely. Did she miss the buzz, her colleagues, or the world of law?
“Law never defined me,” says Anna. “I spent a lot of time with clients and in meetings. It was time for a change. The kids were living independently.”
“Yes, he was all for it,” says Anna. “He had a good knowledge of growing home-grown produce and he has a diploma in speciality food production from UCC.”
It was time to go shopping.
“We always liked east Cork,” says Anna. “It had the beach, the beautiful countryside. The area is peaceful and calming. I met a lot of like-minded people there.”
The couple got the keys to ‘Seekings’ in 2015.
“It was perfect,” says Anna. “Set in almost two acres, surrounded by old apple trees. The house was just what we were looking for. The former garage, ‘The White Palace’, became my workshop. It could easily have been the White Elephant if things didn’t work out!
“Being a flower farmer, you are dependent on the climate and we all realise the vagaries of the Irish climate and the unpredictability of it.”
‘The White Palace’ is every artist’s or writer’s dream. Bright and cheerful, the delights of the great outdoors almost reach inside.
“We used to come and go at first, painting the house and working in the garden,” says Anna.
“We got immersed in it. There was a lot of pulling and hauling involved. And we got in machinery to level the grounds.”
The dream didn’t materialise overnight.
“No, our first tunnel was up and running in May that year,” says Anna. “Then the rains came. Our whole garden was flooded. In 2016 we had to start over, draining off the excess water, conserving it. The machines had to come in again.”
Then the garden grew.
“I grew salad, edible flowers, a variety of fruit, strawberries, blackberries, and gooseberries,” says Anna.
“I made preserves from the fruit. The process was a learning curve for me as well, dealing with pestal diseases for example. But the joys are incredible; once you see the seeds come up.”
Anna also makes organic lip balms and skin creams. Her ruby red grapefruit marmalade is delicious.
“The organic balms and creams are beautiful for the skin. I grow everything organically, without pesticides or weedkillers,” says Anna.
“I’ve always been hands-on. And I’m passionate about pursuing things that I have an important interest in. Our grandchildren love coming here too. They have the makings of great gardeners, observing and imitating me.”
Seamus mucks in.
“Yes, he is very keen” says Anna. “But I do a lot of it myself. I like it.”
Anna doesn’t miss the chats at the water-cooler, or colleagues to bounce ideas off. She has plenty of ideas herself.
“A group of us, Flower Farmers of Ireland, are getting together to form an association to launch this year,” says Anna.
“We promote the cultivation, marketing, and sale of Irish cut flowers and foliage in a sustainable manner, with respect for the environment and the people working in the industry. The group is a natural voice for the development of this industry in Ireland, offering people support and advice.”
CAFE owner Sharon McCarthy was speaking from the heart when she told the pupils of her former alma Mater, St Brogan’s Bandon; “You may have a dream. Fulfil it. You won’t be held back if you believe in that dream strong enough.” Sharon, from Bandon, who is a mother of three grown-up children, gave up her pensionable civil service job after 23 years to open The Parlour in Cornmarket Street, Cork. The New England style cafe opened in September 2015 and a pipe dream became a reality.
“My mother said; ‘Are you mad to give up your safe job? Aren’t you grand the way you are?’” recalled Sharon, smiling.
“I left the HSE with no bundle, no pension. I decided to just go for it. I wasn’t fulfilled and I felt I needed more.” What possessed her?
“I woke up one morning, and thought: Is this it? I’m not doing this anymore. I felt that I had lost my spirit. And then, I thought — I’m going for it. A new path and a new venture. I left the health board against all advice from family and friends. But today I can say; I’m the one that got out.
“I liked my job,” adds Sharon, 49, who completed a secretarial course when she left St Brogan’s Presentation Convent.
“I worked as a secretary for the plastic surgery team in CUH, then, after the birth of my first baby, I joined the South Lee Mental Health Department, working in administration. I worked in the psychiatry department for seven years which I really enjoyed.
“Then, within the same department, I had the responsibility of reporting to between eight and ten psychologists. I made great friends there and I enjoyed my job for many years. I thought I would never leave it. But then it became like a prison sentence.” Sharon honed her people skills over the years.
“I discovered I had a way with people. I learnt coping and problem-solving skills. And how to make important decisions quickly.” And she had an opportunity to use another skill.
“Yes. I was asked; could I paint? I had a great interest in painting and art. Growing up, I was surrounded by woods and wild flowers. I work with oil acrylics, painting landscapes and seascapes. So it came about that I got the job of painting the lounge window every year on the GF mental health unit located at CUH since 1979! It gave me the opportunity of more interaction with the residents there. And I made very happy memories.” Sharon’s paintings decorate her new place of work. As you sip your morning coffee or enjoy good New England chowder at lunchtime, you can view her landscapes adorning the walls of The Parlour.
Her husband John has an input too, he supplies all the Bord Biá approved beef for the cafe’s beef-burgers. Did he think she had lost the plot when she ditched the safe job?
“He was a bit nervous. And I did sacrifice my home life and time with family and friends. But at the same time, John didn’t want to see my spirit dying. He was very encouraging.” Once Sharon decided to paddle her own canoe, she took the plunge to invest in her ambition.
“I always had an interest in food,” she says. “There was always cooking going on in our house. I was the eldest with four brothers. My favourite job was cooking dinner for the family. It was my favourite job when I got married and had a family of my own.
“My dad grew and tended his own vegetables in the garden and he used to take me and my brothers fishing and we’d go on holidays camping every summer.
“I had aunts who worked in the Great Houses and guest houses in West Cork, Dunmanway and Clonakilty, They were great women. We had relations who were publicans. Hard grafting was in us,” said Sharon.
A welcome on the mat was always part of family life.
“The Parlour was traditionally the place where visitors and neighbours chatted over a cuppa and home-made cake,” says Sharon. “That room in country houses was a lovely comfortable spot to socialise. The Stations, when people gathered to the house for Mass followed by refreshments, were always held in the parlour.” Sharon didn’t have to think long or hard about a name for her new cafe.
“I wanted it to be welcoming and homely, just like the parlour at home,” she says.
It was a tough start.
“There were many struggles in my first year,” she admits. “And a bit of pressure too. When I found the ideal premises on Cornmarket Street, it had no food or restaurant licence. It was previously a shop that sold knick-knacks. I had to meet safety regulations. There were financial challenges for sure.
“I remained persistent and family and friends rowed in behind me. I stayed positive and focused.” Sharon did her homework to get good advice about opening her new venture.
“Micro-finance Ireland played a big part financially. And Enterprise Ireland supporting small businesses were a great help to help me get up and running.” Also, at the beginning, staffing was a big issue. “Finding and keeping good chefs was difficult at first.” Then Luciano arrived.
“We do Tapas at night and Luciano is an expert at them,” says Sharon. “Our regulars look forward to tapas night with a glass of good red wine. Therese, our day chef, is a gem. Now we have a team of 10.” Word soon spread about the home-farmed succulent beef, the excellent sandwiches, the earthy, wholesome soup served in The Parlour. Brunches and lunches in the cosy, chatty atmosphere enticed people to meet and greet or just shoot the breeze.
The cafe became a welcome addition on the historic Cornmarket Street.
“It wasn’t long before all loans and a short-term debt were paid off,” says Sharon.
“In year two, I began to see a profit. We turned the corner. Our regular customers came back again and again. More followed. I often see familiar faces from my previous job which is lovely. It’s wonderful to see the street thriving. The hustle and bustle with the street traders and the Saturday markets create a wonderful atmosphere.” Sharon loves her job and loves the street. “I remember coming here with my dad, shopping. He was a city man.” She is up for promoting it.
“Last summer we started Cornmarket Street Business Group and we consistently liaise with the city council to encourage them not to forget this wonderful historic street, the oldest in Cork, I believe,” says Sharon.
“Lighting, traffic control and bringing back regular open markets to the street is what we’d like. On a Saturday it comes alive, offering fresh produce, artesian foods, arts and crafts. They are all available for the eager health enthusiast consumer. We need this to happen more than once a week. Three or four times a week at least.
“The paths are spacious and can facilitate a lot of activity, events and family days, with many talented Cork entertainers on the spot. City Council is taking notice of Cornmarket Business Group and I’m sure they won’t disappoint on this occasion to continue to grow the street and encourage more activity and life. I look forward to seeing Cornmarket and neighbouring North Main Street grow and flourish.” Is Sharon glad she took the gamble to give up her secure pensionable job to follow her dream against the advice of her mother and her family?
“She nods. “Big time. Even with all the stresses and uncertainty, I have to say it was the best thing I ever did.” The Parlour Cafe, 51 Cornmarket St, Cork, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-6pm Sunday: 10am-4pm