With 95 suckler cows, 120 sheep and three sons, you’d think Claire Hennessy has enough to be getting on with on her farm in Kilkenny without adding to her load by fostering children – but you’d be wrong.
“I love it. I love the company – I’ve always loved having children around the place. I love the house being busy,” says Claire, who has provided fostering support to more than 30 children since taking in her first child back in 2002.
“I was a farmer’s wife, cooking dinner, baking with the wellingtons on–– you never know when you might have to do something on the farm,” says Claire, laughing. “I was in my element.”
She and her husband, Dick, took in their first full-time, long-term foster child in May 2007, but then tragedy struck when Dick died from a heart attack just two months later, aged 56.
With three children of her own to raise and a farm to keep afloat – not to mention the grief of bereavement - Claire put fostering aside for a couple of years.
But she has no regrets returning to fostering, and the children she has supported over the years have found life on the farm quite idyllic. She recalls picnics with the children down by a stream that runs through the farm and bringing ducks down there for a swim in the water.
“Nothing is ever the same in this house – there could be ewes lambing or baby lambs to feed, or calves being born,” says Claire, who at age 67 shows no signs of slowing down and currently has two children in her care, aged 17 and nine.
“I’d outrun any child,” she says. “My sisters often say they don’t know how I do it.”
How have her own children (twins, now aged 30, and a 26-year-old) reacted to all these new arrivals – especially the longer-term stays, when children were with her for three or four years?
“There was never any jealousy,” she states. “I always discussed things with them. All the children were raised as if they were my own.”
Claire works the farm with her youngest son and her brother-in-law, Seamus, who she says has been a great influence on her boys especially, as well as the children who have stayed with her.
Advice for others
The reality of fostering is that it isn’t always easy. Claire says patience and diplomacy are key to making things work.
“You need to build trust with the child and come down to their level and be able to empathise with them over their problems,” Claire says.
“Children can read body language and you have to be firm, so they know the boundaries. It depends how you say things, and you have to make time for them and be there when they want to talk to you. Security and love is what they need, and to know that you’re there for them,” she adds.
Claire has been supported on her fostering journey by social workers and link workers from Tusla, who she can contact if she has any concerns - whether a child isn’t eating, or is just being unusually quiet.
“They’re great – they’ll talk to the child and to me and we’ll solve the issues together,” she explains.
And when children do move on, many of them still stay in touch.
“It’s lovely; they visit, or you get a phone call. They’ll visit for the weekend.
“Also, one lovely young lad who stayed with me came back and did work experience.”
World of fostering
For those who might be thinking of stepping into the world of fostering, Claire has this to say: “If you have a fondness for children and you don’t mind them running around the house, it’s the best thing you can ever do. If it’s on your mind at all, I’d say give it a go.”
Principal social worker in Fostering and Aftercare for Carlow, Kilkenny and South Tipperary, Brid Kiely, says that Claire has been a tremendous support to children down the years.
“We are so fortunate to have Claire as a carer in our area and so pleased to have so many carers to offer such great support.
“I only hope that Claire’s lovely words will resonate with the public, and I urge anyone with even the smallest interest to pick up the phone and let us help guide you to start your fostering journey.”
“I’ll take children at any time. They are happy here and feel settled. I keep fit and go to the gym, so I can’t see myself ever stopping. The only thing is I can never get a chance to use my free travel pass because of all these school runs,” Claire laughs.