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Saturday 17 November 2018

This farmer proposed a week after meeting his wife, with two black eyes and a broken nose

Romance and marriage can blossom from the unlikeliest of circumstances as dairy farmer PJ Irish and his artist wife Marlay can testify

PJ and Marlay Irish on the family farm near Slieverue in south Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones
PJ and Marlay Irish on the family farm near Slieverue in south Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones
Marlay at work in the studio and gallery space which also serves as a community resource. Photo: Roger Jones

Ken Whelan

Dairy farmer PJ Irish and Marlay Brennan met for the first time in the casualty ward of the old Ardkeen hospital in Waterford in the mid 1980s. Both were getting patched up after an eventful day on the hurling fields of Kilkenny.

"He was in getting his nose straightened after being flattened in a hurling match in Kilkenny and I was sporting two black eyes and seven stitches on my forehead after being clattered in a camogie match in Castlecomer," Marlay recalls.

"PJ asked me to marry him a week later and I accepted. I was 22 and he was 26. It was meant to be and we have never regretted a moment since."

Fast forward three decades and the couple, who have reared five children, are running a thriving dairy farm in Slieverue in South Kilkenny.

Marlay at work in the studio and gallery space which also serves as a community resource. Photo: Roger Jones
Marlay at work in the studio and gallery space which also serves as a community resource. Photo: Roger Jones

And it's not just any dairy farm. Adjoining the Irish homestead is a painter's studio and gallery where Marlay exhibits her artwork; the space also plays host to the local Éigse drama and music group.

Despite the demands of a nursing career and family life, Marlay still found time to pursue her passion for art.

"I was always interested in art at school and had hoped to go to the College of Art after getting seven honours in my Leaving Cert but I didn't manage to get in so I changed and went nursing. I still work 20 hours a week at the job to this day. But I kept up painting throughout my nursing career, especially the GAA and animal scenes. I do an annual exhibition of my stuff at the Kilkenny Arts festival every year," adds Marlay who comes from a dairy farming background further up the county in Castlecomer.

"With five children coming along and running about it was just not practical to continue with the paintings in the house.

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"So we decided to build the gallery beside the house and today that's where I do my paintings and hold exhibitions.

"The building is 1,400 sq feet and is also used as a rehearsal and reading rooms for the local Éigse dramatic group. Myself and PJ are members of the group. I do some of the organising of the annual Éigse production and PJ sings. His comedy version of the 'Galway Girl' went down well last year," she says.

"We call the gallery St Ives after the name of the stonework from Cornwall which was used in the original farmhouse where PJ's mother Kitty lives.

"The gallery has become a community facility for everyone in the area and everyone is surprised when they come across it. They don't expect a gallery and drama centre to be in the middle of the countryside.

Inspectors

"Recently four fellows arrived out of nowhere and we thought they were inspectors from the Department [of Agriculture]so we were rushing around wondering what they were up to. They were inspectors but they were looking for a different farm. We invited them in to the gallery for a cup of tea and they were amazed that such a facility could exist in the countryside."

PJ describes his singing style as country and western with some traditional influences thrown in. His current claim to fame on the singing front is his send up of the 'Galway Girl' which he wrote for last year's musical offering from Éigse.

The singing is a welcome break from the daily grind of dairying on a farm the Irish family has been working since 1717.

PJ produces 500,000 litres of milk from his herd of 92 Holsteins, British Friesians and crosses on 140 acres of what he describes as "slightly hilly but dry grazing land" in Slieverue.

He also finishes up to 100 head of cattle, for sale mainly to Dawn Meats. PJ says it's time the big co-ops started co-operating with each other to establish a unique and national dairy brand to protect the Irish dairy sector from the inevitable international trading competition it will face in coming years. He also says increased diversification of products from the milk production chain is essential, and believes this would generate another 2c/l to 4c/l for farmers.

Meanwhile, the farming tradition looks set to continue on the Irish holding with David (20) already working full time on the farm having completed his Green Cert and Hannah (19) currently at UCD doing a Dairy Business degree.

The other Irish siblings have chosen slightly differing career routes. Kelly (28) is a graphic artist in Los Angeles but the farming flame stills burns bright as she just got engaged to her long-term boyfriend who comes from a big wheat farm in Oregon. The two eldest boys have opted for business orientated careers - Patrick (26) is working in the IT sector and Joe (23) is currently completing a degree in international business at the University of Limerick.


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