You see the wooden pods of Kilbane Glamping perched high above the farmyard as you meander your way toward the village of the same name in east Clare.
This is Brendan Sweeney’s family farm, his mum Tessie lives next door, his sister’s house is just below the yard, but his wife Áine is a “blow-in from Sligo”, she tells me.
We sit outside the pods, whose glass faces seem to smile at you, as my children are entertained by the animals and the Sweeney children – Padraig (11) and Aoife (eight).
Áine is a nurse but both were working in the construction industry in Kildare when they met.
Brendan explains: “I was always going to move back to Clare, but I stayed going up and down the road to Dublin for a long time, when the kids were small.
“I calved 32 sucklers here in 2012 working in Swords in Dublin. My dad was still here at that time, but it was just was crazy.”
The family only have six sucklers left now and will most likely exit altogether to focus on dairy beef finishing. Áine had never reared calves until this year and she loves it; “quieter stock and less labour intensive”.
This feeds into their diversification too, Brendan laments: “The amount of time you put into suckling for what you get out of it, it’s a labour of love. Did everything here, did AI for three years. Producing good animals, getting the odd big price but not on enough of them.”
As well as the farm, there were other work-life balance issues that encouraged the Sweeney’s to start looking at alternative enterprises.
“I left construction in 2016/17 and got a job locally in facilities. And both of us were working, I started at 7am which meant I was gone at 6.15am and Áine was staring at 8am so we were getting the kids out of bed at 6am to be at the childminder’s at 7am.”
The road to tourism
“A few years ago, we were in Top of the Rock in Cork. The Rosses are beef farmers in Drimoleague too and they have pods. It’s very well done, lovely place. If you saw what this place was like two years ago – it was a mass of briars, at that point. We were just trying to figure out what will we do with it,” Áine reflects.
Following their visit to Drimoleague, a seed was sown and they did the “start your own business” course with LEADER. This led to an application for LEADER funding, Áine resigning her nursing post and the drive to make Kilbane Glamping a reality beginning in earnest.
“We started the building in December 2019, clearing the site and then COVID hit in March 2020.”
Undeterred, the morning that the restrictions were lifted in early June, the Sweeney’s headed north to Pod Camping Ireland who were the chosen pod supplier. Brendan remembers the trip clearly “we took the kids out of school and headed off around 4am. We stopped to get coffee and the service station was like a ghost town at nine-ish in the morning but we were on our business trip to see those pods before we paid.”
The pods arrived on site in June 2020 and were lifted gently into place with a 100t crane. But the tribulations to open to the public were not over yet.
“The insurance we had did not cover fire. We could not believe it and we needed that to draw down our grants. We didn’t get insurance until October,” Áine says.
Áine found a solution through other people.
“A guy in Tramore who has pods on his pet farm helped by giving me the name of a lady in the crèche business. And it was her that gave me the contact for landmark insurance in Dublin. They got it for us. They actually ended up going back to our original insurers who eventually just quoted us extra for fire.”
The pods opened for business for the Halloween midterm but were shut again St Stephen’s Day, so in effect this is the Sweeney’s first real season.
Irish Country Living asks what it is that is attracting people to this part of Clare and their pods.
“You mean our USP (unique selling point)?” Áine laughs, clearly becoming au-fait with the marketing terminology of her new industry; “Peace and quiet, comfort, nature, getting away from it all. With COVID, not being in a hotel, no communal areas that’s been an attraction for some people.
“And some people have been fascinated by how dark it is here. How many stars they can see. Some people want to turn off the lights. One guy had a bucket on the light over there cause he wanted to see the stars.
Cleanliness is next to ….
Glamping is in England a long long time and it’s big on farms, she explains. “I attended the glamping expo in Stoneleigh where you’ll find absolutely everything for the glamping industry.
“I met this one lady and she said, ‘I much prefer the cows to the guests.’ She converted but admitted she wasn’t great with people. I was laughing but they had to get out of milking as it wasn’t paying them.
“My mum had a B&B in Strandhill (Sligo) so I was used to the hospitality side of things and understand the importance of that. The most important thing of all is cleanliness. We did the full COVID safety charter before we opened.”
The names “Fox” and “Deer” are carved into the wood around the glass faces of the pods. The names picked because of another USP of the business, an abundance of nature.
Brendan picks up the mantle here: “Hares, badgers, foxes, buzzards; there is a lot of birds of prey, deer too, tourists might want to see them, not necessarily farmers though. Yesterday morning we woke up and we were watching two buzzards and a sparrow hawk circling outside our house.”
How are people finding you?
A new website has been developed and they are on Instagram but Áine admits:“I didn’t have a Facebook account until a year and a half ago. We decided because we are both not that savvy on social media that we would go with an intermediary, a company called TravelNest.”
Scottish based, TravelNest take a commission (15% + what they charge for placing on other sites, according to the Sweeneys) but manage the booking process across the various booking sites.
Numerous plans are afoot; a walking route around the perimeter of the farm, which would take approximately 45 minutes and finish at their waterfall. The waterfall itself presents some opportunities not only for the Sweeneys but for the village as it was once used in energy generation and Brendan believes that it could find itself used for this purpose once again.
Although there is planning for two more pods, Áine will not be happy to get the next one until she sees how they work and make money. A sauna, however, is more imminent.
Recently signed up as members, the Sweeneys call out “Visit East Clare” as important. Áine tells us: “They are a local group that were set up and I really feel that things are starting to move here. There are a lot of plans for this area with the Shannon Development plan linking in the blue ways, waterways Ireland, the canoeing and the mountain climbing.
“Kayaking is big here. We are trying to create something around the river so it’s not all diverted to the Atlantic. I am from the Atlantic and I love it but, the river is just a different way of enjoying the water.”
How was it financed?
Áine is the sole trader, with the pods a separate enterprise to the farm. The Sweeneys received €33,000 from LEADER and used their own savings to fund the other 50% which is a requirement of funding. A night at Kilbane glamping will cost you €100 per night or €85 mid-week and comfortably will sleep two adults and two kids.
“This has to work or we have to pay that back. It’s five years to make the business viable.”
A major learning for the new business was in relation to insurance and the difficulty with securing it. “We were advised to talk to our politicians about it, but it was people that helped us.”
“Nothing major. We haven’t put in our own electricity supply, it’s connected to the farm, and we’ll be doing that if we put in more pods.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not hard work. Áine tells us: “I grew up in a B&B but it was certainly an eye opener for Brendan. He’d be great at covering a silage pit but didn’t know what a fitted sheet was – same principle yeah, tuck it in at the sides, but it does take time. It’s two hours per pod, particularly with the COVID standards.”
Post interview, we received a follow-up email from Aine and Brendan which we felt was important to include as the nature of the Making Our Family Farms Work series is to show the struggles associated with making a business viable. I want to thank Áine for her honesty and I am sure many of our readers will identify with the sentiments expressed.
I have been meaning to get in touch since your visit to Kilbane Glamping. We really appreciate you taking the time to come and chat with us and we hope you and your girls enjoyed your stay.
We have been very busy and the fine weather is really adding to peoples experience.
Brendan and I were discussing the interview and some of the items we discussed with you. We were reflecting on how we said it was hard work. I would just like to elaborate on that. As someone who grew up in a non farming background I really appreciate the security having a farm gives our family. In saying that we still have to make it financially viable. I am also aware of how people say “farmers giving out again” I feel we are in a very lucky position to be able to do this and to create something going forward on the farm for our children.
As you are aware I resigned my position but that was for personal reasons also, as I have a history of depression, anxiety and OCD that required hospitalisations in the past. I felt after my last episode in 2019, when I had to take time off work, I had to make changes and it really has been the right decision for me and our family. It is for this reason that I feel very blessed because not all people in my situation would have an alternative.
I hope you don't mind me sending you these details at this stage but I just wanted to give you a little more background. I don't expect you to make changes in light of this email but didn't know how to discuss it when you visited. We had a lovely day with the photographer and the kids were sick from smiling.
We look forward to seeing the article. We had a marriage proposal last week and also a couple who stayed as part of their honeymoon so plenty of love in the air at Kilbane Glamping.
Thanks once again,
Áine and Brendan Sweeney