It’s pouring rain. I don’t mean “grand soft day” rain. I mean it is pelting down with extreme force; pummelling the beautiful flower gardens and creating minor tsunamis in the pond in Eoin Houlihan and James Byrne’s expansive Kilcullen, Co Kildare, backyard.
Not an ideal day for a photoshoot, but these two bravely stand out in the rain for shot after shot (I watch from inside the kitchen with their cat). You see, James and Eoin’s backyard is a reflection of themselves. It features a few works-in-progress (a gorgeous DIY hand-tiled hot tub), completed masterpieces (the aforementioned pond) and the piece de resistance: faerly.ie headquarters.
Faerly is an online business dedicated to eco-home and body products. Eoin, who works as a teacher and a guidance counsellor in Clondalkin, has long been passionate about sustainable living and, over the years, his ways have “rubbed off” on husband James.
“The interest in sustainable living started years ago when I moved to London,” Eoin explains. “I was staying with my brother and his girlfriend and they were using eco-products. Then James and I met in 2006 and I was using some of those products. I bought a lot online because in the past it was hard to source everything. Now, thankfully, there are Irish businesses making things [like natural deodorants and shampoo bars].”
Agri to eco
James was working in e-commerce and retail for Glanbia when the idea for Faerly was first formed.
“We had a fantasy that we’d be able to operate Faerly evenings and weekends and slot it around our life,” he recalls. “So we launched in October 2020 and got through Christmas and realised it wasn’t going to be manageable alongside full-time work. I moved to part-time with Glanbia who – luckily for me – were really supportive. Then I went into consultancy for them, so it was kind of a soft exit while Faerly was building up. Then in June I jumped in full time with Faerly.”
“I grew up in retail, my parents had a bookshop and I would have worked in that business for years,” he continues. “I think the books are similar to what I’m doing now. Booksellers are a different breed of retailer because they just love books. It’s a little bit like that with what I do now. I like being surrounded by the products and I knew I didn’t want to be a big warehouse-type business.”
How it all works
As alluded to earlier, Faerly has a dedicated space in James and Eoin’s backyard where they store, package and ship their stock. It’s like Willie Wonka’s factory, but for people who love candles, diffusers and essential oils. And thanks to a combination of these three things, the entire space smells like a wildflower meadow.
There are refillable water bottles, eco period products, conditioner bars and laundry detergents, among many other things. I also see familiar Irish brands – some we have featured in Irish Country Living and others have been involved in the Irish Country Magazine Irish Made Awards. James says sourcing products as locally as possible is a core part of what they do.
“I don’t want to say we’re ‘curating’ a shopping experience, but essentially we are taking the work out of shopping sustainably and locally for eco-conscious Irish consumers,” he explains as we wander the stalls. “Obviously there are some items which can’t be sourced locally, but if there is an Irish version of the product and if it’s a good and reliable product then we will sell it at Faerly.”
Making Kilcullen home
Prior to moving to Co Kildare in 2011, James and Eoin were living in Dublin. It was the recession and James had been made redundant. The couple say they didn’t realise, at the time, how lucky they were to find a house like theirs and a community like Kilcullen.
“We’re here 10 years now and we weren’t even looking for it; we found it by accident,” Eoin says.
“It was the recession, it was tough, but we managed to buy a house,” James adds. “We were only going to stay here for a year and then go back to Dublin. This is an older estate so we were like aliens coming in here!”
“Things were a bit awkward, initially, and then we went to a neighbours’ wake. My mother said: ‘You may go to that wake! Take some biscuits over,’” Eoin smiles. “We didn’t even know the people. But we went and we were like celebrities. We were being asked all these questions.
“In terms of welcome, then, there was no problem. There was no real LGBTI+ community here, but [us being gay] is a non-issue. Bar the occasional thing – the novelty factor of it, or some initial awkwardness.”
Soon after moving to Kilcullen, James and Eoin were “roped” into the Tidy Towns committee when their neighbour asked them if they’d like to come to a meeting for a free meal. While they joke about being part of the committee, they can’t hide their great sense of pride in the role they play within their locality.
“I remember, I went to a meeting and James said: ‘Do not come back with a job,” Eoin says.
“Of course he came back as PRO,” James laughs.
Tidy Towns has changed over the years, from being about litter and planting flowers to now being more environmentally conscious as a community.
“There is a fine line, though, between letting things grow and weeds getting into and onto the footpath; accessibility still has to be considered,” Eoin says. “You actually get very few points for flowers and way more points for biodiversity [in the Tidy Towns system], so now we’re all using peat-free compost, for example, and sourcing native species to plant.”
Marriage and equality
James and Eoin were married in 2016 and were active in the lead-up to the marriage equality referendum in 2015.
“When the referendum was happening that was a big thing because we were kind of forcing our neighbours to talk about it on their own doorstep,” James says.
“And we got a great reception,” adds Eoin, “but then we realised we had to talk to so many more people [outside our own estate].”
“There were days that were amazing – there was one day a little girl answered the door and shouted, ‘Mammy, Mammy, it’s the nice people,’” laughs James. “But there were also people who just slammed the door in our faces and were just really rude. It was a difficult thing to have to do; to go out and just be vulnerable.”
They say, to them, Pride now means not being afraid to be completely and wholeheartedly themselves.
“It’s taken us years to undo feelings of stigma and shame from growing up gay in Ireland,” James says. “Being able to get married in Ireland healed so much of this hurt; it felt like the whole country supported us and we were so proud to be Irish. These days, Pride for us is about showing up for the rest of our community who are still fighting for equality - especially trans and non-binary people, who need our support.”
The future of Faerly
James and Eoin hope to grow their business gradually and sustainably, which suits both their brand and their lifestyle.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to promote a network of smaller Irish makers and eco brands while also making a sustainable living for ourselves,” says James. “We’re not after world domination!” CL
Fore more information, visit www.faerly.ie