Louise Byrne

Branching Out

Creating community in a Dublin garden

Click on the link below to listen to a radio report on the project broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland programme.

(Pictured: Darragh Jones)

Maria Kennedy comes to the centre every few days to tend to her plot and says there is always someone on hand with a watering can or offering advice on whether plants require trimming. "Gardening tends to be a very solitary activity. But up here you always have someone to chat to. It’s a lovely way to share the experience," she explains.

There are 25 service users at the Cintra centre with a broad range of disabilities including Downs syndrome and autism. Robert Mangan's face lights up when he is asked about the garden. He lists off the vegetables growing in the plots: “mushrooms, cucumbers, tomatoes…” and is emphatic on his favourite – “potatoes!”

Robert is a tall and imposing guy. It is fair to presume that with his level of verbal skills he might not have too many opportunities for casual conversation with members of his local community. But the garden is a leveler. This is his patch, and he’s happy to share it.
“This is not set up, this is real. I share an interest with the guys and we have a fantastic relationship.”

Maria Kennedy was cycling past the Cintra horticulture centre at St John of God, Carmona Services in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin when she spotted a notice outside. The long-running service for adults with an intellectual disability was opening its gates and its gardens, offering small allotment plots to members of the public. Maria signed up earlier this year and she and her vegetables haven't looked back.
(Pictured L to R - Robert Mangan, Maria Kennedy and Warren Tate)

The service users at Cintra are chatty and curious, particularly when they spot the RTÉ radio microphone. Do I know Derek Mooney? Will Derek Mooney hear this interview? Where does Derek Mooney live?

The Derek Mooney inquisition aside, the centre is an easy place to be and it is not hard to see why locals have been keen to get involved in the initiative. There are 12 allotments created on an under-utilised piece of ground at the front of the two-acre site. Land was cleared, plots were dug, and a shed was put in place as a lock-up. A notice was pinned to the gate and Maria and her fellow plot-holders arrived.
(Pictured L to R: Robert Mangan, Sinead Carey and Emma Phillips)

The service users have particular roles around the centre. Some are interested in putting a formal structure on their work, with one eye perhaps on supported self-employment. Others are happy to sit on the sun-lit benches adjoining the allotments and to take in the surroundings. There are laughs and squeals when the spray of a water hose goes awry and much interest in the new radishes being pulled from one of the plots. The easy engagement with plot holders is something the centre is hoping to continue to foster.

“We want to open it up and provide a platform for the individuals here to meet likeminded people who are based in their local community,” Sinead explains. "For the plot holders who are novice gardeners, the service users are advising them. It’s nice to be able to share your knowledge.”
(Pictured: Warren Tate)

Warren Tate has plenty of knowledge to share (he is also the Derek Mooney fan). He mows the lawn, blows the leaves and keeps a close eye on whether the soil requires watering. Wearing a pair of ear defenders he is methodical as he negotiates his lawn mower between each of the vegetable plots. The routine of maintaining a public space is something the centre is keen to encourage among service users like Warren. He beams as he tells me: “Gardening is my life and the garden centre is like a family to me.”

Enthusiasm goes a long way towards a successful garden and Warren and his fellow gardeners are reaping what they sow.
(Pictured L to R: Ruth Brennan, Emma Phillips, Maria Kennedy, Eithne Griffen)

Cintra has a long history of horticulture in the Dún Laoghaire area, selling plants and Christmas trees to the public. Staff see the allotments as a way of expanding community engagement as well as creating the opportunity for some service users to work towards supported self-employment.

The initiative is also about responding to a community need. Dún Laoghaire Rathdown’s public allotment scheme is oversubscribed and the waiting list for a plot is up to three years. "The service users have relied on the community for employment, social engagement or the use of local amenities. So the allotments posed an opportunity for our individuals to give something back,” Supervisor Sinead Carey explains.

“The individuals here have a vast experience of horticulture. The allotments have acted as a platform for them to meet other people who have the same interests and live in their local community.”