Massage and relaxation therapist Sarah Louise Kernan and her husband Evan are building their own home and permaculture smallholding in Donegal without the need for a mortgage
‘Around the time I was nearing my 30th birthday, I began to take stock and reassess who I was, where I was in life and where I would like to be headed in my future.
I had moved away from my native Ireland to East Sussex, and was working a very unrewarding and under-stimulating office job. I began to think my younger self might feel somewhat disappointed at older me for not following her dreams.
I was born in Belfast, and as a family having experienced our own shares of the tumult, violence and traumas associated with the volatile nature of the 1980s and 1990s, we moved house a lot.
As I approached 30, I became aware of the 30+ house moves I had under my belt and began to think about putting down roots.
I had a long-held dream of continuing my childhood joys of building shelters, huts and dens and, as an adult, to build a simple, affordable, handmade home and to deepen my connection to nature, the seasons and to Ireland.
I began studying, learning about natural building, experimenting with growing vegetables and herbs in my small city garden in Brighton.
A chance encounter at a friend’s birthday led me to cross paths with a Canadian woodworker and fellow naturophile. We shared our individual dreams and goals, and realised they were rather similar and set about falling in love. Then, in 2016, we moved to the wilds of Donegal, my adopted homeland, the place of my Easter, summer and half-term holidays and where I had eventually moved with my family in my early teens.
We promptly sought out a wee patch of land on which we wanted to establish a permaculture smallholding, and in 2017 we found our 1.5-ish acre of soggy, rushy, denuded land and knew this was to be our paradise. We made a promise to this ancient patch of land to pour our love, respect and hard work into it, and while we were in the habit of making such vows, decided to get married the following year.
Once we had found our land, with its dry-stone walls dating back over 200 years, we set about observing it — mapping its contours, its wettest spots and dry areas. We scythed the rushes and managed to tame the worst of them to give us some arable growing space.
We watched where the sun rose and set, what direction the harshest of winds came from. We investigated where the frost pockets are and where the thinnest and deepest areas of soil lay. We began to learn the names of the wildflowers, butterflies, plants and bugs — in English, Gaeilge and, sometimes, in Latin.
We have, to date, planted upwards of 3,500 (mostly) native species of trees, shrubs and hedging, and happily this year, only two years after planting the quarter-acre ‘Forest Garden’, we have begun to harvest plums and apples, as well as lots of veggies, herbs, and berries.
When I returned to Ireland in 2016, I went to Carraig Dúlra in Co Wicklow, a demonstration and education farm run by Suzie and Mike Cahn, and immersed myself in studying and completing my Permaculture Design Certificate.
The skills, friends, connections and confidence I found there truly instilled my belief that the dream could become possible.
Between 2018 and 2020, I did a Level 5 QQI course in horticulture via distance learning with An t-Ionad Glás, The Organic College in Co Limerick, to fill in any gaps in my growing knowledge, and this has been very helpful in getting to grips with working with marginal land and learning how to grow food on it.
Next came the daunting task of designing a humble, affordable home, with minimal impact on the land and landscape, and applying for planning permission. After lots of learning, responding, back-and-forthing, further information requests, reports and learning some more, we were granted the permission to build our home.
While the pandemic, Brexit and the rise in the cost of materials have meant that our house has yet to be completed, we’re on track to do so in the next 18 months.
Covid and the associated lockdowns gave us the opportunity to work on some projects such as the combined chicken composting area, where our hens make us rich, beautiful compost in return for our weeds, food scraps and organic feed.
We also had the time to add the polytunnel — a mainstay of any Irish smallholding, and a must in the wild weather of Donegal. Our initial experiments with solar panels have been sufficient so far to keep some lights in our shed, our phones and a small 12-volt fridge charged during these last few months.
Between buying the land, legal fees, planting trees and putting in a road (there was a basic foot track which we had to update), we have spent about €40k over the last five years. To build our house to the point where it’s a basic, warm, dry, insulated shell, I’d say will cost another €40k.
We strongly feel, especially now, at a time when we are experiencing a huge housing shortage and rural depopulation, that models, methods or means to achieve a home without a mortgage or the weight of huge debt are hugely lacking in this country. New approaches to create an affordable, sustainable, consciously and ecologically-designed home are critically important.
I’ve never had a mortgage and I never will. I totally disagree with that model.
Yes, I still like having things but it’s about being satisfied with what you have. Do I need all the things that in a consumer society, we’re told we need? And, actually, can I make do with less? Am I happy if I buy all of those things or am I happier that this morning I got to stand outside and see that the whooper swans are arriving back? I get much more joy from that than I get from ‘buy, buy, buy’.
Permaculture is generally thought of in terms of designing gardens, but it reaches much deeper and further into all aspects of life. It is a set of principles or guidelines for design for working with nature rather than against it; sustainably and consciously using the resources around us whilst following and utilising patterns, nuances and concepts found in the natural world.
These range from our gardens, yes, but also apply to our livelihoods and businesses, our homes, our families and social frameworks.
I turn 39 this year, and am filled with gratitude that my own dream of taking this path before I turn 40 has turned into such an amazing adventure. It has its ups and its downs, but along with my husband Evan, deciding to enter into a partnership with this land has been the most life-affirming and beautiful journey so far.
We still have a long, long way to go but, as I like to remind myself, life isn’t a race. So, for now, we’ll keep enjoying this partnership with our land, and taking each day as it comes.”
Sarah Louise is on Instagram @sarahs.nadur
As told to Katie Byrne