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Tuesday 11 December 2018

Falling For A Farmer: 'The first time I visited his farm, he delivered a calf in front of me'

After embarking on her American dream, Portstewart woman Maura McElhone 'un-emigrated' back to Ireland and while working in Dublin became a farmer's girlfriend. Now about to embark on an exciting new chapter as the farmer's wife, she tells Linda Stewart about the journey that inspired her first book

Animal farm: Maura McElhone with a new arrival and (left) with fiance Sean, who she's marrying in a few weeks
Animal farm: Maura McElhone with a new arrival and (left) with fiance Sean, who she's marrying in a few weeks

Writer Maura McElhone would be the first to admit she's done things a bit back to front. While everyone else was fleeing the big smoke to relax on the north coast or Donegal, as a child she would travel down from Portstewart every summer to spend two weeks with her granny in west Belfast.

I was probably doing what a lot of people were doing in reverse," she says.

Life went into reverse again years later when Maura 'un-emigrated' from the San Francisco Bay area back to Ireland after six years Stateside, and found herself falling in love with a Kildare farmer.

Maura's journey from the celeb-haunted glamour of sun-drenched California to the pragmatic delights of muck-drenched Kildare are chronicled in her new book, Falling For A Farmer, published by Mercier Press and based on her popular blog, which has been dubbed 'Bridget Jones's Diary meets All Creatures Great And Small'.

All the threads seem to have converged at a key turning point in her life, with Maura's first book being published as she counts down to the wedding to her farmer fiance, Sean, in a couple of weeks.

Maura was bitten by the writing bug early as she grew up in Portstewart with her siblings, Paul and Orla.

Maura with fiance Sean, who she's marrying in a few weeks
Maura with fiance Sean, who she's marrying in a few weeks

Her dad, Paul, was a pharmacist who built his own business, while her mum, Eimear, was the first female journalist to join the BBC Radio Foyle newsroom.

"I was not a sporty child - I would have done a lot of reading and writing, so I liked kind of nerdy things," Maura says.

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"Dominican College was a really good school for bringing out interests outside of just the academic.

"Mummy and Daddy had always said to us, 'Do what you enjoy', so when it came to picking a degree, I wasn't entirely sure - I thought I might want to go into screen-writing or film direction.

"I'd always had this fascination with America growing up, so I thought I would pick a college that would allow me to study abroad. I ended up going to Stirling, over in Scotland, to do English and film and media studies, and I did my year abroad in California."

After completing her degree, Maura moved to LA and worked in an Irish bar for 18 months while writing for one of the local Irish-American newspapers, then studied for a master's degree in writing in Galway.

A family holiday in 1997
A family holiday in 1997

"I'd say that was part of being out in LA as well - you get that sort of can-do attitude," she says.

Back in the US again, she settled in, to all appearances, working in an online events start-up before moving to the San Francisco Bay area to work for a magazine publishing company, buying a car and embarking on a relationship.

There were celebrity encounters from time to time - Hulk Hogan worked out at the same LA gym, and Maura laughs about going into a complete tizzy when she met her celebrity crush, Ben Affleck, in a coffee-shop queue and leaving her handbag and jacket behind. "I wasn't one of those people who are cool, calm and collected when they meet their idol," she recalls.

But that dream California lifestyle soon faded.

"Eventually I realised that America was brilliant for a holiday... the grass is always greener, but being out there, living there and working there is a different story from being on holidays and being in college," Maura says.

"I was missing a lot about home. I was in my late 20s, my friends were starting to settle down, I was looking at everything from a distance and I kind of realised then that home was where I wanted to be.

"After six years out there altogether, I decided to come back. I was in a relationship out there and we were starting to talk about where it was going and if we were going to take the next step and get engaged, all that sort of stuff, but it became more apparent that we saw very different futures. I could not imagine being out there long-term, and he could not imagine being in Ireland. Eventually, we had that conversation, and both of us were sticking to our guns.

Maura with wrestler Hulk Hogan in America
Maura with wrestler Hulk Hogan in America

"I'd just turned 30 a few months previously, and I was like, 'No, I definitely want to go home'. I suppose it was a big decision because I was coming back to nothing, starting from scratch. I was having to move in with my parents again, I didn't have a job and I'd sold my car, whereas a lot of my friends had settled down, got married at this stage, even had children."

But despite the sluggish economy back in Ireland at the time, Maura was hired as a social media and community manager with a Dublin start-up company - in what is still her day job - and she soon settled into city life.

"When I first moved back, I was living with two girls in Ballsbridge, and they were single as well. So, just for a laugh, we'd all go on Tinder and have the craic, swiping and all the rest of it," Maura says.

Following a string of disappointing Tinder 'duds', her fateful first date with Sean at a nightspot in Temple Bar went very differently than she had expected.

"I was so disillusioned by that stage that I hadn't worn any make-up into work. I was wearing jeans and runners and I was not dressed up for it at all. I immediately regretted it on seeing him because he was very good-looking," Maura laughs.

"It was at Porterhouse in Temple Bar, which is actually where we got engaged last September. We met that night and got on really well and chatted really easily.

"I was fascinated with his lifestyle and the farming thing, and I think he was fascinated with the fact that I was from Derry first of all, and I'd travelled and spent time in Scotland and the States and away from Ireland. We were both interested in how we had got to where we were.

"I had never really met a young farmer, so I was interested in that side of him as well.

"He was working full-time in banking, so Monday to Friday he was a banker, but his parents are both farmers and at weekends he was working on the family farm. Because he was living in Kildare, he could do the commute to Dublin, Monday to Friday, on a daily basis."

Maura's mum and dad visiting her in San Francisco
Maura's mum and dad visiting her in San Francisco

What happened in the months that followed became the raw material for Maura's Falling for a Farmer blog, which then opened the door to more writing.

Her work has since appeared in the Irish Times and on RTE Radio 1's CountryWide.

"I'd never been on a real working farm that people lived on before, so I had all these images in my head of stuff that you'd see on TV like on Emmerdale - rolling green hills, very picturesque and tranquil, all that kind of stuff," Maura says.

"The first time I was on the farm, he delivered a live calf in front of me, which I was not emotionally or mentally prepared for. I think it was a pretty good test for me, as well as for him, that I didn't just like the idea of a farmer - I was happy enough to go over there and see the workings of a real farm and potentially be a part of things.

"I think probably the only clashes that we had were our ideas of holidays - farmers aren't great at going on holidays or the general notion of time away from the farm, whereas I'd be a big believer in working hard and then getting a lovely, long relaxing holiday and break from work.

"The first time we went on holiday, we ended up bringing a bag of soaking wet clothes because Sean had been doing farm stuff all day and was only putting his load of laundry on to bring stuff on holiday hours before the flight went.

"Our honeymoon is coming up, and I was saying, 'How long should we go away for a honeymoon?'. His response was, 'I think 10 days would be long enough', which isn't exactly the response I was looking for. You want, 'Oh three weeks, for sure - I can't get enough time with you', and all this kind of stuff."

Now poised to embark on a new life as a farmer's wife, Maura still hasn't delivered a calf herself, but she is proud to have "pulled a lamb" (from a ewe).

"I think that was my rite of passage," she says. "The amount of times whenever I've said about going out with a farmer and people have said, 'Have you pulled a lamb yet? You're not a farmer's girlfriend until you've pulled a lamb'. I think I was waiting to be rewarded with a medal or something along those lines.

"When I was younger, I went through a phase of wanting to be a vet, and I think farmers have to be vets as well - I've seen that now - so for me being able to go in there and pull a lamb or help Sean when he is giving medication to a sickly calf is a wee bit of that childhood dream."

The hen weekend in Carlingford is just over, and it's only a few weeks until the wedding in Portstewart, followed by the reception at the Beechill Hotel - so it's a chaotic time to be publishing a debut book.

"I feel like I don't have enough hours in the day at the minute," says Maura.

"I'm still working full-time, so I've used some of my annual leave to finish the book, then obviously the wedding-planning.

"I wouldn't even say it's a balancing act - I'm not balancing it, I'm just trying to shove everything in at the minute.

"But I can't complain. I'm so lucky to be in this situation with a series of things that I've waited my whole life for, and now they're all happening at the same time."

Falling For A Farmer by Maura McElhone is published by Mercier Press, £12.49

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