"Ladysbridge used to be a really thriving village with lots of different shops, like other rural villages, but that had died back significantly.
"While there still is a garage shop and a great hairdressers, there's no place where local produce is available. So I came up with this idea of holding a community market but never expected it to be what it is now," she said.
A core group of producers started meeting in the community hall between 10.30am and 1.30pm on Sundays. Since that first market in June 2014, it has been going ever since.
"New people are still contacting us so there's all this unearthed talent around the place which is just brilliant.
"I hadn't anticipated the type of community support it would get and now we've become a community within a community," she added."Clearly, homegrown food is at the heart of it. That's really important and the GIY group is also part of it.
"But it's a real mix with everything from vegetables, home baking, jams to pottery, knitwear and jewellery."
The Drogheda and Headford Cottage Markets run fortnightly and monthly.
Within weeks of starting that first market, Karen said people began to tell her about the difference it was making in their lives, especially to combat social isolation, an increasing problem in rural areas.
"I was benefiting from it myself, in that I had a renewed sense of purpose, it was helping me make friends and I was very much feeling part of my community," she said.
"Other people went on to develop their food business and others have gone back to college so it started to make a massive difference in people's lives. I just knew it had something."
With that conviction, Karen contacted Michael Kelly, who had founded GIY in Waterford in 2008 as a not-for-profit social enterprise that inspires, trains and supports people to grow and cook their own food at home, school, work and in the community.
She explained to him that she wanted to do for the country market what he had done for GIY and enlisted his help.
Karen was then offered a job as community manager with GIY but continued with the Cottage Market project also and with Kelly's mentoring, secured funding from the Department of Agriculture's CEDRA Rural Innovation and Development Fund.
"With that money I was able to pilot another two markets in Drogheda and Headford, using the community-orientated model catering for the hobbyist and amateur food producer, and test it at two very different locations and they've been very successful," she said.
She then submitted another application to the Ireland Fund and Ulster Bank's Skills and Opportunities fund, which enabled her to launch the Cottage Market as a national initiative with over 20 new markets coming on board in 2017.
Nearly 50 people participated in a training seminar at GIY's Grow HQ in Waterford, representing the new Cottage Markets. Each group will also receive funding towards marketing, insurance and set-up equipment costs.
The markets will be located at Ballyconnell in Cavan; Kildorey and Minane Bridge in Cork; Moville in Donegal; Raheny, Dublin; Portumna and Galway; Cahirciveen and Tralee in Kerry; Newbridge, Co Kildare; Callan, Co Kilkenny; Mountrath, Co Laois; Pallasgreen and Kilmallock in Limerick; Claremorris, Co Mayo; Coolshanagh, Co Monaghan; Birr, Co Offaly; Nenagh, Co Tipperary; and Waterford city.
"If you read the applications for funding, it would give you joy the passion all these people have for where they live and the potential of their communities and how they see the Cottage Market helping them achieve this," Karen added.
However, she warned although community was at its heart, the markets had to be financially viable and able to pay their insurance and rent.
'These creative plans will have an impact across the country'
A vegetable garden at the Irish Wheelchair Association's centre in Carlow and tools and seeds for Ballymun's Adult Read and Write Scheme are among projects that have received grant funding from GIY this year.
The Get Ireland Growing Fund run by GIY (Grow It Yourself) in partnership with Energia, has awarded grants ranging from €500 to €2,000 to 85 community groups.
The grants totalling €70,000 are being awarded to food growing projects planned by community groups, schools and not-for-profit organisations.
Other successful applicants include a community garden for residents of The Liberties, in Dublin, a food-growing project for Galway Simon's new residential service, 'Tuí Bhrian', and a vegetable patch for Youth Work Ireland in Clones, Co Monaghan.
Kerry's Recovery Haven Cancer Support unit also received funding towards an organic fruit and vegetable garden club.
GIY founder Michael Kelly said the number of applications received this year has been the highest ever.
"These motivating and creative plans will have a real impact for people in parishes, towns, villages and cities across 31 counties.
"These types of projects usually struggle to find support and we are pleased that GIY in partnership with Energia can support these groups to grow food in their own communities," he said.
For Stories Like This and More
Download the FarmIreland App