Reporter David Medcalf went to Dunlavin to speak to Paul Grace. The maverick publican turned cattle farmer spoke of respecting tradition but also of being prepared to break free of old conventions, using versatile Continental breeds to produce not only good milk but also the best of beef
Perhaps, dear reader, you have a preconceived, photo-fit, central casting image in your head of what a typical male farmer should look like. Maybe this man of your stereotype is ageing a bit. He likely has a stoop or a limp as reminder of all the toil he has performed in the fields. Chances are he wears a flat cap and is a man of few words.
Now ditch all those pre-set notions and meet Paul Grace with his burly, energetic presence and the makings of a ponytail. At 49 years of age he is no spring chicken, but the Dunlavin man appears to be anything but beaten down by decades of physical labour. When he talks – and he talks quite a bit – the voice could as well be that of a salesman or a businessman rather as that of a son of the soil.
And there is good reason for this. Though he can fairly claim to represent the eighth generation of his family to farm the territory hereabouts, he is also a businessman and a salesman. Agriculture may be often bound by long-established custom and ingrained practice but Paul is a farmer who takes delight in doing things differently.
The herd of cattle at Grace’s is composed in the main of breeds that most Irish people have never heard of. He speaks with enthusiasm of Aubracs and Fleckviehs and heaven knows what other unusual pedigrees. Yet, he also takes pride in having been raised in the family tradition which stretches back over those eight generations.
The son of Tommy and Nuala Grace, he grew up here with sisters Patricia, Mary and Fionnuala, and with brother Tom. He remembers as a boy helping to bring churns of milk the few miles to a collection point on the N81. When he was small, he had to stand on an oil drum to assist with the milking, and he claims that he was able to run the parlour on his own from the age of around 10, when required.
At that time in the eighties, dairying was big business in West Wicklow: “Everyone was milking cows,” he says. Most of what they produced made its way to the Hughes Brothers plant at Hazelbrook in Rathfarnham to quench the thirst of consumers across Dublin City. His father, Tommy, had a herd of 80 cows, recalled by Paul as being “black and whites” - the staple stock of Ireland’s dairy industry.
Yet even as a teenager, Paul was looking beyond black and white to explore various shades of red and brown. Out of curiosity, he acquired his first Fleckvieh, exotic representative of a breed associated with the Austrian Alps rather than the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.
After sitting his Leaving Cert, it made sense for him to take the agricultural science course at UCD. His qualification earned him a job with a livestock feed mill, sent out on the road as a sales representative. He lasted about six months in the post before his dislike of collecting the money due from often reluctant customers propelled him into life assurance.
He had completed a computer course and the skills he had gained made him the perfect recruit for Norwich Union. Around that time, Norwich was floated on the Stock Exchange and policy holders were entitled to shares. So Paul and his workmates were charged with tracking down customers who had taken out home insurance, pension plans or life assurance to tell them in strictest confidence the good news.
“I was quite good at that craic,” he laughs at the memory of the secret assignment, “but for two years I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing.” After the two years, another radical shift of career came along, from confidential tracing of policy holders to running public houses. The Grace clan, which had long had a watering hole in Dunlavin was poised to make wider waves on the pub scene, acquiring premises in the bustling town of Naas.
With the family name over the door, they began pulling the pints there in 1998 and the drink continued to flow merrily throughout the Celtic Tiger years. There was money to be made and fun to be had and VIP’s to entertain. Paul is at pains to point out that he showed willing whenever there were tables to be cleared, toilets to unblock or bouncers required on the door.
But those heady days also provided him with a host of stories about the banter, the antics and the celebrities. He rubbed shoulders with, or served food and drink to, the likes of movie stars John Hurt and Pierce Brosnan, not to mention singer Mary Black. Ronnie Wood of Rolling Stones fame was also part of the mix, known to send word from his home on The Curragh down to the pub that he needed an occasional bottle of tequila. A taxi would be summoned to make a special delivery to the door of the bass guitarist.
“It was a great time and a lot of money around,” muses Paul Grace. “It was also simpler - no cocktails.” But times change. Ronnie now prefers painting to hellraising. The economic crash prompted the family to sell off the business in Naas and a second pub they had in Kildare Town.
Throughout all the joyous madness, he had maintained a foothold in farming, helping Tommy out occasionally and running a few cattle of his own. The older man had never been tempted by bar work and, though he got out of dairying in 2002, he continued full time in agriculture.
“I like to do things different,” confirms his son and ‘different’ in this case meant buying Aubracs, sturdy all-purpose cattle developed in the high-altitude wilderness of France’s Massif Central. Paul first came across them in 1998 at the Athy Show where Kim McCall (“the most honest man I ever met”) had a couple of Aubrac cows tethered to a Massey Ferguson tractor.
He bought two – called them Phaedra and Prassada - and came back the following year to purchase 10 more, then 20 more after that. He also dabbled in other out of the way breeds like Montbeliarde and Rotbunt to the amusement of neighbours – ‘the zoo farmer they called me’. But when he decided to devote himself seriously to the business as Tommy eased off, it was to the Fleckviehs that he turned in 2015.
The name is Austrian and they are common in Austria, while there are millions of them in Germany too, and they well known across Europe under various other names from France to Russia. But not in Ireland – at least not yet, though the maverick from Dunlavin is doing his best to win over hearts and minds. They are handsome enough, with their red and white hides, and he hails their commercial versatility, capable of producing plenty of milk and the best of beef.
What’s not to like? To his intense frustration, Irish farmers have a notion that the cows are prone to dry up inconveniently. He rails against the slur, pointing to his own dairy production figures and to results achieved on the Continent. A recent open day on the farm attracted not only the Austrian ambassador but cattle folk from all around Ireland, north and south.
His message to them was along these lines: “You can produce milk with the Fleckviehs and you can produce beef. It all makes sense when you look at it but people are very slow to change.”
The progeny of the ‘black and whites’ which continue to predominate in Irish dairying tend in his eyes to be gaunt bags of bones, just like their mothers. A Fleckvieh bull calf, on the other hand, has the makings of a top grade beast which will earn good money at the meat factory.
Paul reckons that Teagasc, the State agency which advises farmers, was for too long in thrall to New Zealand methods, lauding the black and whites. He believes that alternative European practices are every bit as instructive and that his 222-cow enterprise proves the point. And there are landholders around the country who are beginning to follow suit – which is where Paul Grace the entrepreneurial salesman comes in.
Fleckvieh IRL, the company he runs with a colleague in Kilkenny, imports stock from Austria and the pace of sales is picking up. They not only have takers in Ireland but also find buyers in the UK.
Paul is a one-man fount of ideas, his mind constantly working away at ways of improving his enterprise in particular and agriculture in general. He frets for instance at his inability so far to persuade Irish gourmets to view mature Fleckvieh cow beef as a delicacy rather than dog food.
He contemplates restoring the old stone-built farmhouse where his ancestors lived while his parents reside in a modern house nearby. He reports that efforts to reduce the amount of artificial fertiliser being spread on his fields seem to be going well. And he champions insect life by allowing the ditches grow rather than cutting them back to stumps.
“I came back here by choice,” he says of his attitude to the farming life. “Find something you like and make it your job.”