Lizzie and I work together with whatever comes along; we do restoration work, build walls, design gardens, do community projects and give sculpture workshops. We started out in landscaping and horticulture. We had a small garden centre and craft shop in Holycross for a while, then, in around 1989, I started to carve stone and pieces of wood.
I had a fella working with me and when I’d go to collect him in the morning he’d be after carving something.
I got interested and started doing a bit myself.
We started to carve pieces and put pieces into gardens. Every so often, I’d go somewhere to do a course in carving and sculpture. I went to the Orton Trust in England a few times, and to Carrara in Italy. It was brilliant to see the Carrara Marble quarries and the beautiful work they do there.
We still do gardens, but probably not as many now. We do more public commissions. We recently did a big stone bull’s head on one of the roads into Cashel. He’s 8.76t. Liz gilded his horns and he has a brass ring in his nose. It’s to do with the Golden Vale.
We started doing workshops with mental health groups; doing stone carving, working with willow and wood. This led to other workshops with schools, special needs groups and two prisons. We got great support in doing the workshops from a lady called Ann Ryan (RIP). Ann worked in the county council and really encouraged us in this. There isn’t a day goes by that we don’t think of Ann, so much of our work reminds us of her. Her husband John Commins has Blackcastle Farm in Two Mile Borris. They have a lovely herd of Piedmontese cattle there.
We do a lot of restoration work on cathedrals and castles. I spent a good while in Lismore Castle (Co Waterford) working on restoring the towers. There were just two of us working up on the towers – up 135 rungs of a ladder. If you forgot something you’d have to walk back down and up again! It’s a beautiful place, looking out over the River Blackwater.
I’m originally from Killenaule (Co Tipperary), not too far from here. My mother was from Holycross and where we built our house used to be her father’s field. We have a story to tell about our house, but it’s all lies. The house looks old but it’s only here twenty years. I like to tell people that it was built by a French man – there was actually a French garrison not too far from here in the 1700s – and he lost it to my family in a game of cards. If I was to put that story on Wikipedia it would become a fact, eventually.
We have four children, all teenagers now, two girls and two boys. They fall in with us on all the types of work we do, like all family-run businesses.
The River Suir is at the bottom of our field and we made a walkway around the headland where we planted a lot of trees. Lots of people walk their dogs down to the river and around the field. A lot of people like to come to see our cattle. They’re Scottish Highlands and a herd of them is called a “fold”. We have five cows, a bull and two calves. We’ll sell the heifer calf later this year.
We castrated the bull calf and we’re going to keep him. We’re training him to the head-collar and lead and are thinking of using him as a therapy animal. He’s very friendly and loves a bit of affection. We’re getting great craic out of him. I’m just after having a hip operation and can’t move around much so to just sit in the evening and look out at them? It’s just beautiful; a really peaceful thing.
To see what the Highlands eat in comparison with other cattle; they’re real foragers and browsers. We have a good bit of comfrey growing around and they just love it. They’re also very protective. Flora is the matriarch of our fold. Two swans came into the field a while ago and Flora made sure to mind the two calves, even though neither of them are hers. She hunted the swans back down to the river.
A few months ago, we bought two heifers from the Queen’s Pedigree fold in Balmoral Castle in Scotland. We were lucky to get them; they very rarely sell any and these were among the first few to come to Ireland. If you look, they have a different appearance to the other Highlands. One of the heifers is black, which is rare enough. They’re usually red. We called them Dubh and Isla. We had to quarantine them when they came, in the top field. They were accepted very quickly into the fold. I’d say Flora just told them “I’m the boss” and that was that.
In the first few weeks after we got them we’d go down to the field and let them get used to us. They had only ever met the one man who looked after them in Balmoral. They’re well used to us now and will eat out of our hands along with the rest of them.
Howard is our bull, he’s the most laid-back looking fella, but the odd time you’d see him running and he can really move. One day, it had been raining and he got the smell of the fresh clay and started pawing the ground – it was very impressive but a bit intimidating, too. They are clever and can get in anywhere, despite the massive horns. We came out one morning and Howard had made his way up the hill at the back of the tree-house and in he went. We had to coax him out with a bucket of meal.
No two days are the same in our line of work. Because we work with a lot of different materials – stone, wood, metal – our name sometimes gets passed along in unlikely circles. We’re currently making props for an upcoming film for Element Pictures. There’s a great old buzz in it. I can’t move around much at the moment since the hip operation, so I’m doing lettering on slate for Cabragh Wetlands – a beautiful local wetlands conservation project. We did a sculpture trail – The Cosmic Walk – there a few years ago. I love this work; the variety, the materials and best of all – the interesting people we get to meet every day.