It was the summer of 1987.

Londoner Mary Bermingham was 19, had just finished her first year at Newcastle University “studying nothing in particular”, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself.

“I had some money saved from a part-time job in a chemist and every morning I would sit in the kitchen eating toast and spend the day in my pyjamas, making vague plans to go traveling,” she recalls.

“My mother soon got sick of this and decided I should go ‘around Connemara in a pony and cart like you said you wanted to.’

“She drove me to Victoria bus station with a change of jeans in a rucksack and put me on the bus to Ireland.”

Mary got as far as Kinvara – and never left.

And 30 years later, she and her family have transformed their small organic suckler farm into the award-winning Burren Nature Sanctuary, after the recession forced her hand to follow her heart.

But Mary’s own journey has been just as inspirational.


The daughter of a stockbroker and homemaker raised in Chelsea – when the Kings Road was full of punk rockers rather than privileged reality TV stars – Mary’s love affair with nature started on her first day at school, when she became best friends with a tomboy nicknamed “Spud”, whose family kept ponies at their country home.

Five years later, she succeeded in getting her own golden dun gelding, Barley, which was kept at her grandparents’ house outside London, taking the train by herself every Friday to spend the weekends hacking out.

“I was very, very, independent,” she acknowledges of her younger self.

Her interest in nature blossomed as a teenager, volunteering with Friends of the Earth after reading One Straw Revolution by the Japanese farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka, about sustainable agriculture.

However, it was in Kinvara that she would embark on her own farming journey; even if that was not exactly the plan.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was at,” she laughs.

While looking to hire a pony and cart for her trip, Mary was offered a job working with horses instead, and decided to defer her college course for a year.

In the end, she spent the next decade training and competing three day eventers at home and abroad, and also started her own small herd of suckler cows after moving to the farm of her then-partner, who was involved in horses.


She also became a mother with the arrival of Alice (now 28) and Arthur (23). However, after her relationship came to an end, Mary realised she needed to change careers for her young family, who stayed on the farm in Kinvara after the separation, while her former partner moved to his stables near his home town.

So at 30, she taught herself to type.

Though when it came to finding a job, she believes there was an element of divine intervention, thanks to a St Therese prayer card she inherited from her Irish-born great-grandfather, who had carried it with him in the trenches during WWI.

“After the separation I was sifting through all my paperwork and I came across the prayer card and I asked St Therese if she could help me get a job. The next card I picked up was the postcard from Irish Natural Stone Products, that I had kept for some reason,” she recalls.

“So I just took up a pen and paper and I wrote them a letter, asking them for a job – and I got it.”

Starting as a secretary just as the Celtic Tiger started to roar, Mary quickly settled into her new role and also met her future husband, Roy, who was working as a yard manager.

Eager to upskill, however, and having noticed the growing demand for engineers, she took her year’s credit from Newcastle University – and a leap of faith – and started a degree with the Open University.

“Four years, two more babies and a grandchild later, I qualified with a BEng. Hons,” surmises Mary, who immediately got a job as a student engineer designing houses and scheduling steel foundations, while raising Lorna (now 12) and Grace (11) and fulfilling granny duties to Zara (9).

She later progressed to business development manager for Envirocare, part of the Kingspan group, which saw her specialise in septic tank and waste water treatment systems, but when the downturn hit, Mary was made redundant.

Though her reaction may seem somewhat unexpected.

“I was like: ‘Oh, what a relief,’” she sighs, explaining that while the role was never her dream job, she might not have had the courage to leave it otherwise.

“And I think a lot of people get stuck into that, if they get a good pensionable job. How do you justify leaving?”


Such reprieve, however, was short-lived, when Roy also had to give up his job after he developed an allergy to engine oil. At the time, Mary still had her herd of 10 sucklers and had converted to organics, but with just 25 acres of limestone pasture and the remaining 25 of “rocks and wilderness”, farming more intensively was never going to be an option.

“So then we decided to make the best of what we had,” she says simply of the origins of the Burren Nature Sanctuary.

She explains how she and Roy were inspired on holidays in Cornwall by tourist attractions like the Eden Project, as well as smaller nature sanctuaries and farm parks, which allowed visitors to engage with nature in a fun, friendly and accessible way.

Identifying a “gaping need” for something similar in the Burren, a realisation suddenly dawned.

“That place was under our feet,” says Mary, who explains that the farm at Cloonasee (Meadow of the Fairies) had five of the Burren habitats – an orchid meadow, limestone pavement, ash woodland, hazel woodland and rare “disappearing” freshwater lake or turlough – all untouched by chemicals or pesticides.

“We realised that it was like a mini-taste of the Burren really,” she says.

Crucially, they also had the skills to make their dream a reality.

With her engineering experience, Mary drew up the plans to convert a former farm shed and plan the site, while Roy used his construction experience to manage the build through direct labour, with the backing of Galway Rural Development and LEADER.

“We would not have been able to open the Burren Nature Sanctuary without the support of LEADER,” says Mary, who explains that they received an initial grant of €150,000, which they had to match through a combination of savings and a loan for a total investment of €300,000, followed by a further €50,000 the first summer they opened, which they matched by €25,000.


Since launching in May 2013, the Burren Nature Sanctuary has had over 80,000 visitors, winning a series of enterprise, responsible tourism and even food awards along the way.

Visitors start with a meet and greet with the resident animals – Emelia the micro pig is the star – before following the nature trail along an ancient droving route through the five habitats, with lots to keep them engaged along the way, from a birdbox treasure hunt to a fairy trail.

There are also three nature-themed playgrounds – with a zip wire and a “mobilis” spinning seesaw assault course for older kids – leaving adults to enjoy the Burren botany bubble, which houses the national collection of Burren flora, including the cowslip, bloody crane’s bill, dog violet and orchids.

Meanwhile, the Sanctuary Café offers specials such as their signature savoury scone served with Burren Gold Cheese, seaweed salad garish and a homemade tomato relish, while an impressive “no fizz, no fryer” policy means healthy options for kids.

In addition, they run “Leave No Trace” school tours for primary school children and geography field trips for Leaving Cert students, as well as birthday parties and special interest events, such as herb walks as part of the Burren Food Trail.

And they are not finished yet, with current plans to add a new exhibition room, workshops and office space to the existing centre, cafe and shop.

“This was actually our farm shed, so we had turkeys and cows and things in here; and just imagine that local people are sitting in here having a cup of coffee,” smiles Mary, who credits Roy, their family and their “amazing team” for the success so far.

Her advice to anybody hoping to diversify or run an on-farm business is to start with a “very strong vision”.

“Draw it down, write it down, visualise it completely – and take one little step towards it,” she says. “That’s all it needs is a little step in that direction.”

And with 1 August recently marking the 30th anniversary of her arrival off the bus in Kinvara, Mary hopes the Burren Nature Sanctuary will leave a lasting legacy.

“Getting people to engage with nature and then they fall in love with it and have a reason to care for it: that is really what our mission is,” she smiles.CL