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An Interview with Leonie Byrne

July 27, 2017

​Some time ago, I was asked to give an interview to a colleague who was gathering research about farming women in Ireland. I was happy to chat to her (- I always love to talk!) and also, it gave me an opportunity to answer some questions that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have asked of myself.

 

The setting was a modern hotel in Carlow, over a steaming pot of tea and a generous helping of oven-warm scones.

 

We settled in and got down to business.

 

Lorna:

Tell me a bit about yourself.

 

Leonie:                

Right so, I’m based in Carnew, County Wicklow, though am originally from suburban Dublin. I moved from Dublin 6 to Carnew in 2005 and got married in 2007. Imagine the cheek of us young ones… we lived together out of wedlock! What is the world coming to?! [Cheeky grin]

Following the downturn in the economy, my husband lost his job as an electrician in 2008. He turned to farming: he had grown up on his parent’s farm though they had not been farming for at least 10 years previous to that and the land, sheds etc had been leased out. He studied for and achieved his Green Cert and took over the original family farm in 2009.

Our son Luke was born in 2010. He’s a hell of a live wire, argumentative and noisy. Boys are I suppose, aren’t they? He is obsessed with machinery though he isn’t always so keen at helping out on the farm. I cannot believe he’s going into second class in September… where has this year gone?

 

Lorna:                  

It has definitely flown. Farming is hard work. Do you have animals or tillage….?

 

Leonie:                

No, we don’t have tillage… that’s crops right? [Lorna nods reassuringly] We have a 70 acre farm and solely deal in sheep. Last year we lambed about 260 ewes and 100 hoggets. I’ll tell you that was plenty of sheep come lambing time!

 

Lorna:                  

It certainly was! So you farm together with your husband?

 

Leonie:                

Yes and no. My husband is currently working full time as an electrician and I hold the fort at home with Luke.

 

Lorna:                  

With that many sheep it must keep you busy! You mentioned you come from Dublin. Did you have a background in farming there? Surely not…

 

Leonie:                

Absolutely not. Very sheltered upbringing in a nice affluent area of south county Dublin. As a child, I had the usual notion of wanting to become a vet, until I understood the results I’d need to get in the Leaving Cert. I have always loved animals, but something like being a farmer was never on my radar.

My contact with animals prior to 2009 had been scant. Living in Dublin, we had a dog or two and even dabbled in breeding and showing Labradors. We have had sheep dogs for the past number of years and have had small flocks of hens in the back garden at different times. The homestead guardian feline is obviously necessary too: we have a neutered tom cat called Axel on the prowl now keeping the mice and rats at bay!

 

Lorna:                  

So how did you come to be the one at home on the farm?

 

Leonie:                

Well, up until about December of 2014, I was working full time at a Wicklow based bespoke furniture manufacturing company. This involved leaving home at 8am and arriving back home at 6pm Monday to Friday.

 

Lorna:                  

That’s a long work week.

 

Leonie:                

Yes, and I was driving to and from Rathnew every day which didn’t help. Thats roughly and hours drive morning and evening.

 

Lorna:                  

That is quite a trek.

 

Leonie:                

My husband did the school runs and tended farm while I was off earning money for us. Then in the August (of 2014) my husband was approached by his previous employer who wanted him to return to work in Dublin. He’s a fully qualified electrician but had been made redundant in the recession.

 

He accepted the offer -money is money after all - and started working anywhere from 2 to 5 days a week in Dublin. This was a wonderful opportunity for us.

 

Lorna:                  

So you were then both out working. How did that work out with the farm?

 

Leonie:                

Well, for a few weeks we managed on the patience and generosity of our neighbours and family but as you said, Stephen (my husband) and I were both gone pretty much all week.

 

It wasn’t long before it became clearly evident that something had to change. When we weighed up the options, it was obvious that it was more worthwhile him working than me, so we planned for me to give up work after Christmas.

 

Lorna:                  

Give up working completely?

 

Leonie:                

Yes. So that I would be the full time farmer.

 

Lorna:                  

Wow, that must have been a serious life change for you!

 

Leonie:                

It really was! It was a huge decision for me on a number of levels. I had always worked and contributed financially to the family and I would also be giving up my own financial independence. While I was working, I knew when the next pay cheque was coming in and could go do a grocery shop, pay bills, buy shoes etc for Luke without consulting Stephen or having to ask for money.

 


This change would mean that I would be ‘holding the fort’ while himself was off working, and ‘minding’ our 300-strong flock of sheep. It would mean that I would be doing the day to day stuff that he usually did and that I knew nothing about.

 

To be honest, up until that point I had bowed out of the whole farming lark. I don’t know how I managed it, but I could always come up with a good excuse for why I needed to be at home: cleaning the house, catching up on washing, spending time with Luke etc. After all, I was gone most of the week.
 

Lorna:                  

But you working full time, and at that point Luke was much younger too wasn’t he? The change must have been great for you to be able spend time with him.

 

Leonie:                

Yes, that was a huge advantage of the new arrangement. I would be able to bring our little boy to school, collect him, do his homework with him and basically be a mum to him.

 

Being out at work I hadn’t been able to do this since he started in Junior Infants.

Actually, as a matter of interest, I had gone back to work  out of necessity when Luke was just 5 months old. My mother in law looked after him and when he was a little bigger, the local day care centre. He had been attending the day care centre up until 2 weeks before he started ‘big school’ because I was out at work.

 

Lorna:                  

So it would be a big change for him too.

 

Leonie:                

Yes, indeed. He was very excited. As was I!

 

Lorna:                  

So how was the farming when you took over the reins? It was after the Christmas holidays, isn’t that right?

 

Leonie:                

Yes. Deep down I think I knew that I was in for some seriously hard work, but I have no idea how I survived those first weeks. I had been doing a desk job up until that time which was entirely sedentary so the shock to my system was considerable. The gruellingly hard work of feeding all of the sheep in the sheds daily made me ache to my very core. I survived it and have most certainly grown from it, but I don’t really have any idea how! Blood sweat and will power I suspect!

 

Also, did I mention that I’m clumsy? I am perpetually covered in bruises!

 

Lorna:                  

[laughs]

Leonie:                

Actually, you know, credit should go to farmers for how hard the work they do is. Long hours in the worst weather. My body was very out of condition and was punished severely for this. ‘Spronging’ silage is not a task to take on lightly!

Lorna:                  

But at this stage, more than 2 years on, are you more settled?

 

Leonie:                

Oh gosh, yes!! Definitely.

 

Lambing time is difficult, but I am becoming more familiar every day with what needs to be done and how to do it! It’s such a learning curve farming, don’t you think? I had no real prior experience, so just learning about setting up electric fencing, grass growth and how to spot a sick looking sheep have taken time. I suppose it’s to be expected… I’m not wonder woman!

 

Lorna:                  

Don’t worry, none of us are! We can only do our best. So, how did country life suit you, and being at home instead of out at work?

 

Leonie:                

Initially it was all very new to me as. I loved the change of pace from having work deadlines, to just having my chores to do during the day. I’d set an alarm on my phone so I wasn’t late for collecting Luke from school.

 

Lorna:                  

And how were you with the sheep? Can you manage them easily?

 

Leonie:                

For the most part yes, I can turn them etc. but not the rams… they are just too big for me. Usually Stephen is around whenever we do and of the hands on stuff but now I am always involved! Actually, I was surprised how very fond of the sheep I have become. Also working on the farm, I feel like I’m more connected with nature and the seasons. I didn’t really experience that before. And the lambs, ah, I adore them! [smiles]

 

Lorna:                  

And when Stephen is at work, is there anybody around to help you? He works full time, isn’t that right?

 

Leonie:                

Yes. I am so lucky. I have wonderful neighbours, friends and family. They have been so patient and helpful. Because my husband took over the farm, his family are not involved officially, but his mom and dad are always there to lend a hand, give advice, feed, check sheep etc and babysit. They are a godsend. And the rest of the inlaws, nieces and nephews are great for standing in gaps!

 

Lorna:                  

Do you see the neighbours much? What do they think of you being there and not him?

 

Leonie:                

At this stage, they’re used to me and know me well. Because Stephen grew up where we live, he knows everybody and I’m getting there too. We are there to lend them a hand too when they need. It’s a symbiotic relationship with them.
 

Even in the early days while I was on my own at the far, I had a number of visits to make sure that I was ok or offers to move bales. I didn’t drive our old tractor as it was terrifying! I found them helpful, patient and supportive. We’re so lucky.

 

Lorna:                  

Do you see other farm women much? 

 

Leonie:                

I see lots of my inlaws daily as we all live close together and there are a couple of neighbours I see regularly. Its always nice to stop for a chat or a cuppa.


Lorna:                  

If someone asks you for your profession, what do you say it is?

 

Leonie:                

I am a farmer; unqualified, but that is my role. I hasten to add, I never describe myself as ‘Farmer’s Wife’. Its demeaning I think to label yourself as part of your husband. Also, I don’t think that it gives farming women their due credit. I am a farmer, a farming woman and the wife of a farmer, but not so sure I like the label of ‘farmers-wife.  Sorry to go on…

 

Lorna:                  

Fair enough. So as farmer, what roles do you perform on the farm:

 

Leonie:                

I help out as required while my husband is about: foot bathing, re fencing, injecting, dosing, bedding, handing him power tools etc. During the week while he is away, I have do the mucking out, feeding, bedding, moving sheep, electric fencing, trips to the grainyard to get meal for the sheep, bringing water.. [sigh] the list goes on. Oh, and on occasion, retrieving errant sheep from neighbours fields! [rolls eyes and smiles]

 

Lorna:                  

Do you think there is a difference between the role of women on farms now as opposed to in the past?

 

Leonie:                

That’s a hard one to answer because I’m not from a farming background. Also I’m only a young one! [winks]

 

It does seem to me though that women now, especially from rural backgrounds and not necessarily farmers, have more freedom and more personal control of their own destiny. A young lady doesn’t look for ‘a good farmer’ but may want to travel or take on some career. Staying in the farming life is not a given for them. In 2017, as women, we can have our own thoughts and interests and our role whether as wives, girlfriends or farmer’s wives is not merely to wait on our man hand and foot. Have you identified a successor for your farm?

 

Lorna:                  

Does your husband share the household chores?

 

Leonie:                

Not really. Between farm and electrical work, he works about a 60 – 80 hour week… he doesn’t have time! He helps out when he can.

 

Lorna:                  

And do you get on well together?

 

Leonie:                

Now that we are really sharing the workload, yes.

As with any couple, we have had our ups and downs and particularly in relation to the farm, finances are tight. Money tends to be the main cause for any problems. Also, my father died in June 2014 after a long and slow illness: this put strain on both of us.

 

Lorna:                  

If you were to give one piece of advice to someone marrying a farmer, what would it be?

 

Leonie:                

Don’t!! [laughs] Just kidding! Spend lots of time with them on the farm. Know what you are getting yourself in for. Also, make sure that you have a good support network around you… have friends who also live the farming lifestyle. Know that with the ebb and flow of the year, there are times that are lonely if you’re not involved… like lambing time, which can mean months of living in single parent mode.

 

Lorna:                  

What is your favourite thing about farming?

 

Leonie:                

Hmm, good question. Let’s see, I love living a normal ‘mom’ role. I can take part in my son’s life again. Also not answering to anybody. I love that I know when I go out to feed the sheep, I’m not doing it for anybody else but us. If our sheep don’t get fed, they will lose condition which is bad for us. I work for me; I work for my husband and my son. I love the calm I feel from being around the animals. I also enjoy working with my other half, side by side.

 

Lorna:                  

Ok, last question, what is your least favourite thing about farming?

 

Leonie:                

That I still have so much to learn. Also injuries. Did I mention my legs are covered in enormous bruises? I’m forever falling over stuff, getting nettle stings tangled up in gorse or briars. Horse flies too, ugh. Also I ache all over and move like a geriatric old fart who is riddled with arthritis?! This time of year though, there’s the occasional day of slurry spreading, that’s a foul smell…. But it goes away right?

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