Sisters are doing it for themselves: Meet Waterford's farming nuns
In June 1980, an All-Ireland winning camoige player and youth worker from Antrim, pulled up outside the gates of St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn, Co Waterford.
Lily Scullion had driven more than 250 miles from the bloody streets of The Troubles where she worked at a community centre in Ballymurphy, Belfast.
The then 36-year-old had convinced a few girlfriends to go on a road trip south of the border. But once they arrived in Dublin, her pals jumped out.
Although Lily had no clue how to find the Cistercian monastery, located in the heart of the Blackwater Valley, she hit the road solo.
Nobody knew of her plans to spend the weekend with an enclosed order of nuns.
"I couldn't believe I was driving to a convent. Me? Oh my God, I hadn't a clue, I was as green as green could be. I got to the avenue but I didn't drive in," she says.
The former GAA star, who played full forward for Antrim for a decade and won an All-Ireland against Dublin in Croke Park in 1967, drove on to Cahir, Co Tipperary, when she decided to ignore her cold feet and go back.
The University of Ulster graduate, made her way down the long avenue through vast meadows of barley and wheat and pastures filled with dairy herds, and stopped outside the front door.
"I thought it was a haunted house, I saw nobody around, there was a big dairy parlour at the back. I thought I was in the wrong place," she says.
But then, a familiar voice popped into her head.
Growing up on a small family vegetable farm in the parish of Ahoghill, Lily's main career ambition was to work in agriculture.
"Even when I was at school I was more interested in farming than books, I liked nature, the animals, there is a certain sense of freedom in farming.
"But when my mother died my father felt farming wasn't a job for a girl so I was like a rolling stone moving from one job to another. Eventually I settled in youth work, I thought that was my vocation," she says.
Although she wasn't particularly religious, one night she had an "experience of the Lord" calling her to enclosed life.
At the time, Lily was working with up to 400 children and teenagers caught up in the northern conflict. She kept them occupied through sport, arts, crafts, and gardening.
She became fixated on the idea on making pressed flower cards and through her research got in touch with Sr Agnes, a Cistercian Sister at St Mary's in Glencarin, where they specialised in pressed flower cards in their card department.
As Lily sat in her car outside the Abbey, home to 42 sisters at that time, the Lord's voice returned.
"God this is not the place you brought me? What are you talking about? Here? I was a very outgoing person I'd nearly 30,000 miles on my car from looking after young people in the north and I was an All-Ireland camogie player. It never entered my head that I would be coming here to enter," she says.
She stayed the weekend, helped with chores, gardening, examined the cards and interacted with the community.
On Sunday, she made her way back Belfast. Along the way she visited her friend and colleague Sr Eleanor, a Mercy Sister, in Newry.
"I told her I'm going to join Glencairn. I was on auto pilot, the spirit was at work. I couldn't really explain it but being in Glencairn felt like home".
Lily resigned from her job, and after a big parish shindig to say goodbye, she returned to St Mary's Abbey that September and has remained there ever since.
Sr Lily is now 72 and relishes in her decision to enter religious life. Although she never flinched at thoughts of being enclosed, the silence was a challenge in the early days.
"I had lived in a place full of guns and bombs and the hum of army helicopters in the skies so the peace, tranquillity and beauty of this place was such a contradiction. The first time I heard our morning bell ring at 3.50am I dove onto the floor thinking I was under attack," she chuckles.
When she entered, the 200 acre dairy and tillage farm at the Abbey was run by the Cistercian monks of Mount Melleray, Co Waterford, who originally bought Glencairn Abbey for the nuns in 1932.
Both Cistercian communities still maintain a strong relationship today. "The land was ideal for dairy and it was run by four monks from Melleray. The Sisters weren't allowed into the yard. There was a man working on the farm as well and he brought in the cows. The enclosures were so strict back then," she said.
Harvest was the only exemption. "The Sisters would go out in a line, in single file in spring time and again in May and June for a couple of days. They'd pick potatoes, pick stones and work with the bales, they were a lot younger then. They'd have tea out in the fields, it was a lovely scene," she said.
As the years passed the monks gradually withdrew and the enclosure boundary rules were loosened allowing the Sisters to take charge.
First up was Sr Kathleen, a woman of dairy stock.
"The monks all withdrew and they employed different people but it didn't work out. The milk price dropped and they started getting rid of the cows around 2006," she said.
The farm then diversified into dry stock and a man was employed to work it.
"The farm wasn't making any money, it was actually losing money because you were paying out big wages and there was no income so he was made redundant," she says.
In 2007 Sr Lily was appointed farm manager.
"I used to go out to farms and buy the cattle. I bought in beef but margins were still poor."
Although the Sisters started farm sharing with the Mount Melleray monks for a three year period, it just wasn't sustainable. With an ageing population of Sisters (29 in total today) and a labour intensive enterprise, it was decided to switch again into sheep, expand the tillage side and lease out some lands.
Today the holding consists of a flock of 23 ewes, 39 lambs, a ram and 13 hoggets for breeding for next year. The flock is a mixture of Texel, Charollais and Suffolks.
Every spring the Abbess, Sr Marie, assists Sr Lily to deliver new born lambs. It is the busiest time of the year on the farm.
"It's exhausting. You'd be up three or four times during the night. Mother Marie delivers the lambs, I'm no good at it, she is great that way. There are not many Abbesses doing that. She talks to the little lambs and encourages them to come out saying 'come on, come on, come on' she is brilliant at it," she says. Around 65 acres of winter wheat, barley and beans are grown at Glencairn where they also harvest 25 acres of miscanthus.
Sr Lily rents extra fields to dairy farmers looking for silage and last year started leasing for bed and breakfast for 50 suckler cows in a field down near the River Blackwater. There's also 40acs of woodland where the Sisters go for walks and there are some wetlands.
The Abbey's latest addition is a Shetland pony named 'Bob' who the Sisters offered to take in as former owners were unable to care for him. He grazes in a field beside the chapel.
Other Sisters also help Sr Lily clean out sheds and tend to crops when needed.
"We're very busy, nearly too busy, there is a lot of labour needed on the farm, particularly with the miscanthus. Today I have a postulant (someone beginning formation in a community) and a junior (professed and preparing for her final commitment) helping me to get the sheds ready for clipping the sheep, I don't want any straw catching in their wool. I get them for an hour when I can," she says.
Sr Lily also works hard to balance farming with her prayer life the community gathers seven times throughout the day for prayer in the chapel.
"My future plans are to keep the farm going for the community and to keep it viable. I found my place in life, here on the farm I have that inner peace that everyone is striving for," she concludes.
'The heat nearly blasted me out of it'
"I won't shake your hand, my hands are not very clean," said Sr Lily after hopping down from the farmyard Deutz Fahr tractor.
With her veil floating in the wind, Sr Lily strolls to the shed housing bales of miscanthus - an energy crop the nuns started growing in 2010. "We were told there was a great market for it, it would make money for farmers and there was a 50pc grant. But there was no market for it when we grew it. We didn't even get the single farm payment on it for the two or three years.
"We were told it would grow on any land, that it didn't need fertiliser but that's absolute nonsense, it needs good ground to grow," she says.
In 2014 as others gave up on the crop, Sr Lily realised it was profitable to grow for heating. "I kept onto it to explore the idea of heating the Abbey," she says. Last October, a miscanthus boiler from Poland, worth €120,000, was installed at the Abbey, paid for through special fundraising events. "It's a massive, old building. The first day it was lit the heat blasted me out of it. I'm near 37 years in Glencairn and I've never felt heat like it," she says adding that the Abbey is making roughly a 50pc saving on their oil bill by using the miscanthus boiler.
Contractors were hired to harvest the miscanthus last Easter Friday. "I put three bales in every two days with the tractor and loader. 320 bales will heat the house for the year - we also need to use some wood to heat the water," she says.
The crop will heat the Sisters' new wing of 24 en-suite bedrooms. A new guest/retreat house is also in the pipeline. Meanwhile, they are fundraising to replace 120,000 broken slates on the roof of the old guesthouse. "I need 12,000 people to sponsor a slate at €10 each. People are very good, we're very thankful for the €5,000 we received so far," she says.
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