I’ve been home seven years now – since October 2013. I was gone for 10 years, living in Toronto and London and working in hospitality.

I started off in Toronto and left in 2010. At that time, the plan was to come home. I was home for a month and it was just the absolute depths of the recession – things were so grim and I just couldn’t face being here.

I moved to London and stayed there for three years. I was working in a restaurant in Covent Garden. I also started studying nutrition.

Besides growing her own food, LIzzy is a wholefoods caterer, works at the Urban Co-op in Limerick and volunteers at a Co Clare vegetable farm.

In London I began an A-Level equivalency course (so I could apply for a nutrition degree) but then, in 2012, I realised my mom was sick.

She was in the early stages of dementia. I decided to come home – there was no point in applying for a four-year course and having to drop it halfway or something. I’m an only child and my dad was also unwell with diabetes, so I became my parents’ full-time carer.

Providing care

When I came home, it actually transpired that dad’s health issues got worse before mom’s. We had a few tough years with him and all the while mom’s dementia progressed until she had to go to a nursing home in 2018. Dad was heartbroken when she passed and didn’t last too much longer. They had a long happy marriage – 40 years together. Dad passed in December 2019.

Lizzy says gardening is like therapy to her.

I was glad to come home but it was tough in other ways. I’d been living in big cities and I’d had a really good community in Toronto. I was just getting used to London. For the first year, I didn’t have a car and felt I couldn’t do anything – it’s tough going in the countryside. My biggest problem, however, was that I couldn’t find the food I wanted. I was used to going to farmers’ markets any day of the week or to huge ethnic shops to get whatever I wanted. Here, if I missed the Milk Market (farmer’s market in Limerick city), I only had the main supermarkets available to me.

Food for health

My food preferences are health driven. When I was living in Toronto, I had a very lax lifestyle and wasn’t taking great care of myself. I started to feel the effects of that in my late 20s and my dad’s diabetes made me really conscious of the effects food was having on his life. I was working with a few girls who were studying nutrition and I was just so interested in the topic.

Lizzy O'Connell's family home is located outside of Caherconlish in Co Limerick.

I had started cooking at the Irish pub where I worked, doing private dinner parties and cooking Irish meals, so I just really got into food and nutrition.

In London, I started volunteering at a rooftop garden and got interested in growing food. I was signed up to a box scheme, getting my vegetables delivered every week – locally-grown, organic food was so accessible there.

Happy homecoming

Looking back now, in London I was going to parks on my days off – seeking out green areas and volunteering at gardens. I clearly wanted to go back home. I never thought of myself living in the city forever. As much as I miss aspects of the city, I was glad to move back to the countryside.

Lizzy O'Connell grows as much of her own food as possible on her Co Limerick plot.

When I came home, I started growing my own food. I had learned a lot through volunteering. My grandmother would have been very into gardening,and this was originally her house. She was widowed at 36 when she was pregnant with her sixth child. She raised all six of them here on this acre and grew their food along with rearing chickens and goats – she was so inspiring.

When I came home I studied organic horticulture through distance learning with the Organic College in Dromcollegher, Co Limerick. The garden was my therapy while caring for my parents. They gave me free reign over the space and it was a great way to bond with mom as she loved to spend time there.

There’s nothing like gardening, it clears my mind of all my worries. Hands in the soil, doing what you’re doing – it’s meditation to me. I thought, coming back from London, my career was finished – I also couldn’t work full time while caring for my parents – but really, over the years, I’ve had a slow build toward what I really want.

Community involvement

I was home, I would say, about six months when I heard about a group called Limerick Community Grocery who were trying to start a grocery cooperative. At that point, it was just a buyers’ club. They were connecting with farmers and producers around the area and sharing everything out on Fridays. I started volunteering with them and this group eventually turned into the Urban Co-op in Limerick. It’s been going about seven years now.

We went from our first location – a closed-down petrol station someone had donated for a year rent-free – to a huge warehouse space for the co-op. We have about 120 Irish producers from all over the country and a good few local Limerick farmers. I’m now working with Jim Cronin (in Bridgetown, Co Clare) one day a week, helping him with his vegetable farm. It’s been amazing to be out on the farm and see how everything happens. It makes you appreciate the price of organic food.

I’ve been on the board of the co-op for four years now. When the pandemic hit, some of the existing staff didn’t want to work because they have vulnerable people living with them. When that happened, I went off the board and started working there full-time. It’s been great. I’m really glad I got to work during the pandemic. If I had been here alone the whole time I’d have been going bonkers.

What is wholefoods catering?

As a wholefoods caterer, I only work with unprocessed foods and wholesome ingredients. I was doing catering part-time while caring for my parents. I would cater for yoga retreats, parties and I had started a freezer meal box scheme for new mums. I would particularly love to get back to the yoga retreats; they were such fun days and it’s such a nice opportunity to feed people and explore new recipes. Hopefully in the next few months, as things reopen, we can start again.