Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

From being jobless and considering emigration to becoming Macra president

Macra na Feirme president James Healy on the family farm in Donoughmore, Co Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Macra na Feirme president James Healy on the family farm in Donoughmore, Co Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

For many of those around the 30 mark, the grim reality of emigration or dole queues was almost inescapable just seven or eight years ago.

And for James Healy, the new president of Macra na Feirme, the situation was no different.

After losing his job at an agricultural engineering company in Cork, James, from Kilmartin, Donoughmore, had to weigh up his future at home.

With tens of thousands of talented, highly-skilled young rural people boarding planes with one way tickets to Australia, Canada and the UK, James thought "maybe it's the only option".

James Healy, President elect of Macra na Feirme,with supporters following yesterday's election count at the Irish Farm Centre.
James Healy, President elect of Macra na Feirme,with supporters following yesterday's election count at the Irish Farm Centre.

But one thing stood in his way - his commitment to Donoughmore Macra.

Sitting down with the Farming Independent during his first week at Macra HQ in Bluebell, Dublin, the 32-year-old, says his local club has played a "invaluable role" in his personal development.

"I grew up in a strong beef and dairy community. My father worked with farm machinery, feeding pens, feeding systems, milking parlours. I spent my summers working with him and on my uncle Pat's dairy farm so I have a great appreciation for how important farming is to rural Ireland," said James whose family also run a small suckler farm.

Macra, a rural youth organisation with 9,000 members aged 17 to 35, was also a topic of discussion in the Healy household. As a child, James vividly remembers discovering a Macra sheaf tossing trophy won by his father, Bernard, in the attic.

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"From that day I started asking questions. My father was in Donoughmore club, it was very successful in the 80s and early 90s but then it went into decline and died out," he said.

His agricultural upbringing also attracted him towards a career in the industry.

"At school I was interested but at that point agriculture wasn't really seen as a viable career. You were more encouraged to go get your piece of paper and work in an office," said James who studied engineering at CIT.

While he was studying, a few young people in the parish were identified to lead the resurrection of local Macra club. James was one of them.

James Healy
James Healy

At their first meeting, the eldest of four was elected chair. The group started fundraising and James' interest in competitions flourished.

"Around that time I remember speaking to a former Cork inter county hurler Cathal Casey at a lecture and he told me when he was young it was either the GAA or Macra, they were your options. I played a little GAA but Macra was my passion.

"It had a huge variety on offer, there were competitions on the agri side, public speaking, debating, drama, all kinds of sports, I knew it was something that would allow me to broaden my horizons," he said.

The club's roots and reputation in the community helped bolster members. The close proximity to Cork City, just 30 mins away, was another advantage.

However, the dawn of the Celtic Tiger, slowed the pace.

"The boom brought a new multiculturalism to Dublin which soon spread out to the countryside. There were all these exotic hobbies like surfing. People took up a whole pile of other interests and Macra probably suffered in that maybe it didn't seem as relevant. It had to refocus itself to get members attention," he said.

But the economic crash brought an even bigger blow.

"I was the last in the door at my company so I was the first out. At that point I started thinking about emigrating but I had really settled into Macra and that's probably what stopped me. I was really tied in with the community and didn't want to let anyone down. It gave me a positivity that I wanted to stay," he said.

After holding various positions, winning multiple competition titles, running fundraisers and marketing the club, James knew he had developed key skills that would impress employers. He also completed a diploma in youth development and volunteered at a youth cafe in Greenmount, Cork.

Shortly after he landed a job at Wisetek IT company in Glanmire, where he moved up the chain of command to production supervisor. His swift professional elevation was mirrored in Macra. Roles he has held include: club chair, treasurer, club president, competition secretary, Cork county chair.

"I have a very strong knowledge of the ins and outs of the organisation and it gave me the confidence to step up and take on bigger challenges. You always want to keep moving because you always want to be bringing people on behind you," said James whose three sisters and girlfriend Marie are also Macra members.

After finishing his term as Munster vice president, James took a break from representative roles. He returned to Donoughmore as club member and could hardly contain his delight when they claimed the prestigious 'Macra club of the year' title in 2015 and 2016.

"To see something you had been so integral in starting out get to where it was now, from 15 members to 60, and what we have achieved together for our community, is really special. Macra gives us brand recognition," he said.

After 13 years in the organisation, James entered the race for 36th presidency which he comprehensively won last month.

Just days after his inauguration at the Macra agm in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim, James is feeling the weight of the organisation's 73 years of history on his shoulders and he is setting out his own stall.

"Macra was founded by a group of agri advisors, teachers, farmers and Stephen Cullinan. They went out with one vision that it would be member led. I think there has been a small bit of separation between a committed core group who are doing great work, and the rest of the membership and that's something I want to address.

He wants young farmers to drive Macra forward particularly as Brexit and CAP reform loom.

"Young farmers need very strong representatives but they also need to play their part. There is no reason why a young farmer shouldn't join Macra. We want them to come in and be part of our policy direction," said James who already has a personal connection with Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, who is a former member of his neighbouring Macra club in Macroom. James, whose mother works in Donoughmore post office, also believes Macra has the power to reboot ailing towns and villages.

"The most important thing is having people living in rural Ireland. In areas where Macra is not as strong people will say emigration or migration to Dublin and other cities is a huge problem. We need to give young people a reason to come back. Setting up Macra clubs can play a big part as members will feel that sense of responsibility that they don't want to walk away.

"Macra can work both sides of the coin pushing for infrastructure, spreading employment and bringing a vitality and strong bonds to communities. That potential needs to be harnessed," he concluded.

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