Meet the ultimate recycler
Using solar panels, a bicycle-powered washing machine and salvaged batteries, eco warrior Patrick O'Brien is improving the environment in novel and fascinating ways. David Looby visited his Kylemore Wood solar home
Anyone who has crossed the Ferry Bridge outside New Ross and driven towards Inistioge will know the gates at the entrance to Kylemore Wood Solar Home.
Hand carved by Patrick O'Brien, the gates feature two trees, a woodcutter and a truck in a nod to the 40 acre broad leaf forest within. The gates mark an entrance into an off-grid environmentally friendly space, which is open to the public to visit; a place unlike any most people will have ever encountered.
At Kylemore, which means The Big Wood, Patrick's aim is to bring the land back to the big wood.
He has planted thousands of trees over the past 16 years. As we arrive where we are greeted by the braying of four rescue donkeys who graze in a field. Patrick is trying to get them to eat fruit he grows. At his house, about a half mile up a wending lane, strawberry jam is cooking on a solar panel powered hob. An inventor at heart, Patrick created his own, unique central heating system.
It was on a journey of self discovery to Hawaii to find himself following the death of his father in 2003 that Patrick had a solar light-bulb moment, resolving to return to Kylemore and create a warmer, more environmentally friendly environment in which to live in harmony with nature and the seasons.
During a tour of his extensive farm, Patrick says: 'No one is doing what I'm doing.' And he's not wrong.
He has more than 150 solar panels, placed throughout the farm for maximum exposure to the sun's rays. 'The solar panels were expensive when I started off but now they are cheap. When I came back to Ireland from Hawaii I realised that the climate over there was absolutely fantastic, not this rain. Then I said I was going to try and see if these solar panels could work in Ireland. I was the first to do it with these flexi solar panels. I was on Nationwide and it snowballed then.'
Patrick drives an electric, solar powered Verdi van which can travel around 25km without a recharge. 'This was the first one that came in to Ireland from China. I have lead acid batteries so it makes it heavier so a lighter car will go further. That is 110 volts. The new cars will be 24 volts, with an inverter running it. You don't want too much electronics in a car for a 60, 70 year old. The Germans are very good on clean electricity, Ireland is not very good unfortunately. I can plug this one in to anyone's house sockets. I can also plug in a chainsaw to the side of her and cut timber,' he says with pride.
Everywhere you look at Kylemore you find evidence of recycling and invention. Chainsaws are oiled using recycled oil from a local nursing home; old scrapped batteries power tools, which cut pallets, making kindling.
Patrick supes up batteries which help run the various implements he needs to live and work. In his conservatory he grows grapes and a giant aloe vera plant which he uses for sun cream and as after-sun.
'I can put on a kettle, a heater for heating water and plug in an electric chainsaw and then I had enough power to run a business,' he said of his alternative power source lifestyle.
'Once I close my gates nothing costs me a penny here.'
He doesn't watch TV, devoting his every waking moment to keeping his eco home and wood farm going.
A self-described healer, who works with energy, Patrick said he is sensitive to energy. He believes DC electricity is the only way to go. 'It's a healthy way of living and I found DC electricity to be more healthy for my body. Why are so many people are sick and why are the hospitals full when these people should be far healthier. It's a lot to do with what kind of electricity you use, what you are eating every day. We are completely off grid since my Dad died in 2003. We have internet, wi-fi, laptops, everything. It is all run straight from DC electricity, or charges working off batteries. Every way that's possible I'm finding it.'
He claims to have cured a woman who had Fibromyalgia.
Having worked with aerials and on satellites, as well as farming after leaving school, Patrick found a way to use some of these skills at Kylemore. He bought cherry pickers which started his career cutting trees.
He has a transmitter working to Sliabh Coillte.
'I am an inventor all my life. My background comes from a family of the Lees, the most famous trailer makers in the south east. They were a family of great inventors. There is not one day in the last 20 years when I am not after inventing something different; like circular saws; things that when you buy they are not sufficient enough and will not do three things sufficiently enough. I tweak them and make them more sufficient.'
He says: 'I cooked my porridge and there's no sun out today. You don't need sun to run a hob.'
Using part of a branch Patrick cut that morning from an ash tree, his nephew Shane, who is visiting him, stirs the jam.
Patrick uses some plastics, saying it is difficult to avoid them. He is active on Facebook, where he posts videos from Kylemore, getting a reaction around the world.
'The big picture is I am 95 per cent green here. I am leaving the other 5 per cent to play around with diesel because I have a right as diesel is a sufficient energy source which has done the job for us on the planet. Unfortunately there are some tricks with it due to the molecules that come out of the exhaust and go up into the stratosphere that is heating the planet so we have to listen to the facts and the science.'
Patrick said he was beginning to lose interest as not many people were calling in to his farm, but he resolved to move on and develop the farm.
Drastic weather events in recent years have set alarm bells ringing for Patrick, who believes education is the key to getting people to change their habits.
'Here we are living in comfort. All this stuff stuck in my craw and then I could see things happening in Ireland. That girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg started it all off, then England kicked in and they had to protest in Ireland and then the elections came up and the Green Party got more votes so the Taoiseach started to do something.
'I believe it needs to start in school. Children need to have a curriculum in school, like maths and English; this needs to be there and they should visit places like mine. We are a small country. Individual people need to learn more about doing it themselves.
'It's all about making a little change and then it can snowball. That's what happened to me when I came back with Hawaii.'
A tour of his farm reveals surprises around every turn. Grapes are grown in the conservatory fronting his house. Solar panels that are smashed up - Patrick finds a home for them.
He dries sticks in a greenhouse, using solar-powered fans.
In the conservatory two fans blow air through windows, whose glass has been removed. An opening over the door enables the warm air to blow upstairs, heating the bedrooms. When it gets colder the glass is restored to the window frames and Patrick lives in the house, unless it's freezing and then he moves into a wooden 'Lithuanian house', which is better at storing heat and is warmed by a stove he built,
'It gets up to 34 degrees in here and it can be 10 below zero outside. The two fans speed up, suck in air, shoving it upstairs. I have the whole house heated. The windows get knocked out for the summer and go back in for the winter. She is drying out the whole house. I have central heating the whole year round. I spend most of my life working things out. I only look at a problem 1 per cent and as a solution, 99 per cent.'
Patrick also has an e-scooter and a little buggy for scooting around his forest - with its neat rows of trees spanning out in numerous directions, to collect wood.
He said the cost of solar panels can be expensive. 'I couldn't get a solar panel that could go on DC electricity. I regulate my equipment and adjust the speed by adding more battery acid. It's all about maximising power.'
He has solar panels for over 20 years and believes they have raised the temperature in Kylemore.
'When the sun comes out the temperature is so warm here because there is so much sun hitting off the panels. I am making a change in the south east as there is so much of an intensity of sun bouncing. If the whole of Ireland was at my level I'd say we'd be living in a tropical climate by now.'
He said people with solar panels on their roofs are not getting the best out of them. 'Ireland is an ideal country for solar panels, moreso than wind turbines. If there's no wind you've no power but I can make my porridge here every morning using solar power. I helped a woman by installing an inverter so she knew power going to certain appliances, like the shower, was coming directly from the sun. People need to invest a bit more to get up to the level where they start saving money and start getting their money back on their investment in the solar panels. I have checked my panels and they are still performing to the level they did then.'
Patrick welcomes the solar farm planned for Foulksmills and Clongeen, which will be the largest in Ireland if Highfield Solar Ltd get the green light for it to be built next year.
He shows me batteries he used to increase the voltage on one of his vehicles from 20 volts to 160. 'Now I can store into the batteries I got in the scrapyard.'
Solar-powered buoys used on the river have been recycled and help power tools.
'She is renewable then. I love giving something a second life.'
He runs chainsaws off the recycled batteries. Sticks cut with the chainsaw are stacked in dryers he has built, which are warmed by solar and battery powered fans. 'They are dried naturally in here where temperatures reach 50 degrees. This baby will run off of solar panels.'
As a way to make some extra income in a sustainable way, Patrick supplies his brother John's camp-site River Hollow in nearby Tintine.
'He has a place where families can come and light an open fire beside their tent, with stones all around it. You have a canopy of trees over you. My brother is playing his part over in Tintine.'
When his 40ft shed burned to the ground he salvaged metal frames and built a shed to dry his wood.
'My whole life was destroyed a year and a half ago. Something sparked and the €40,000 shed went up in flames. I had a few tragedies but that didn't stop me. I dug myself out through positive focus. All my machines got burned; all my gadgets, my block for splitting sticks.'
Nearby, in his milling parlour he shows us an exercise bike hooked up to a washing machine.
'I love multitasking, not many men do, but I love it. People are going in to gyms trying to break down the food they are eating. If they only had a washing machine in the garage and they can exercise and clean their clothes in one.'
He is in no rush getting his clothes clean and it can take him a week to wash them, although he has a DC motor powered washing machine running on solar power which he can use if he wants a break from the frantic pedalling. Another invention of Patrick's, by reverse pedalling the water exits the washing machine through a hose.
He receives EU grant funding for forestry and plans to leave the forest filled with beech, oak, Scots pine, elm, Dutch elm - 40 acres of broad leaves - thin away out.
'It will always have to be left as a forest and I have to make a living by cutting the timbre.'
He uses battery operated chainsaws to cut his wood and a battery-operated vehicle and has a scissors lift for grabbing timber before cutting the wood in lengths and cuts pallets into kindling.
At his main shed he collects rainwater and detoxes oranges with them. 'They taste a lot better he declares, before showing us grapes he is growing in the corner of his conservatory.'
He also grows rhubarb, strawberries, potatoes and other vegetables using compost and even his own urine. 'All the leaves we gather from the half mile avenue, we gather them and spread them around the place where we are going to grow our potatoes. I have been doing this for three years, we have found the worm levels it come up massively. My human pee never goes into the toilet, it goes back into the ground to make the ph right.'
From farm to fork and from sky to land, this is every inch an eco farm.