Monaghan’s Dermot McNally was interested in discovering people who have found interesting ways of living more simply and sustainably. He writes about his visit last autumn to the inspirational Bealtaine Cottage in Co Roscommon where he met Colette O’Neill. Colette left the city behind to embrace the ‘good life’ in rural Ireland.
Colette O’Neill’s Bealtaine Cottage in Co Roscommon
Colette O’Neill, a sixty something Omagh native, is the friendly and informative owner of Bealtaine Cottage, located just outside Keadue in North Roscommon. In 2004 Colette was tired of the pace of London life and took the brave decision to move back to Ireland to pursue the ‘Good Life’ – to live as she puts it, as “lightly and sustainably” as possible. In doing so Colette set herself an immense challenge; to take a derelict cottage on a north facing slope of three acres of wet, rushy land and create (without the help of friends or any family nearby) a self-sustaining smallholding designed and constructed on permaculture principles. Having had my curiosity aroused after I stumbled across her informative website, I visited Colette in early October to see firsthand what she had created.
Colette is a gracious host, offering tea and homemade flap jacks on arrival to her cosy cottage. She explained her philosophy for living in simple terms and she was soon pointing out many of the simple but clever ways she lives lightly; for instance she uses a ‘compost toilet’ within her home; all toilet waste simply falls down into a bed of shredded Red Cedar leaves and the toilet user sprinkles an additional handful down after each visit. Normal toilet paper is used and the toilet bucket, which is housed within a very dainty looking wooden frame, topped with normal toilet seat, is emptied regularly. The sweet scent of red cedar smothers all smells or odours. This waste is disposed of outside into large domestic bins lined with a thick bed of red cedar mulch and over the course of 12 months composts nicely into a mulch for weed suppression and young saplings.
Bealtaine Cottage is a treasure trove of re-loved items of furniture and homeware. For instance, floors are covered in a vibrant mosaic; the tiles are the offcuts destined for the bin that her friendly local tile fitter gives her. A further note to all home enthusiasts out there – Colette fits the tile herself and is a great advocate of learning by doing! Her home is heated through a wooden stove with back boiler and Colette gets all her fuel from her trees so no purchase of oil or coal. She also embraces all and any practical technology; she’s a dab hand at e-commerce and sells seeds and other farm produce online.
Now, to say the land was initially wet and rushy may sound like an exaggeration but the before and after pictures on her website prove otherwise. Equally, when I visited and stood within her site looking out into the adjoining fields, the difference couldn’t have been more apparent. The adjoining fields were wet, barren and rushy – growth in hedgerows was stunted and there was a muted silence hanging over the land with little sign of life. In comparison, her 3 acres were an oasis of lush green growth and thriving with the sounds of birds, bees and all the insects you’d associate with a rich flowering garden. Bealtaine is the quintessential ‘forest garden’ with a host of edible and useful plants and trees.
If tidy, pristine gardens are your ‘thing’, then a ‘forest garden’ may not be for you – Colette uses the chop and drop method to keep her garden in shape. Pathways through the forested area, which were maintained in the early years using a traditional lawnmower, are now bedded in a thick mound of moss and humus from the fallen leaves above. Within the confines of the 3 acres she excavated two ponds, the first to act as a repository for silt and light earth which moves down from the hills behind her home, and the second to receive the run-off water from the first; drains which follow the contours of the land are used to channel the flow of the water. The first pond is boggy and reedy, the second is clear and wide and each facilitates different but complimentary biodiversity.
Her immense labour of love has included planting over 1,000 deciduous trees including two large orchards, as well as many perennials and bushes. As part of the improvements she added a 20ft polytunnel which allows her to extend the growing season. She also tries to minimise labour input where possible and she follows the ‘no-dig’ method of growing vegetables and planting where possible. In a nutshell this involves covering an area for six to twelve months to kill down all weeds and then plants directly on top with no digging – the planted area is then covered with some of the compost from her cold compost piles.
Colette clearly enjoys the work involved and maintains that it’s a path that anyone can follow, if they truly want a simple, wholesome life spent in large parts outdoors. To conclude then, a visit to her wonderful website is mandatory and a visit to the meet Colette in person is highly recommended. See: http://www.bealtainecottage.com