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From Allotment to Smallholding

2015 was a very busy year for us. We finalised the purchase of our (very) smallholding, an acre of land near the Irish Sea. We bought a house near the land, after renting houses in Ireland for the prior three years. We also started the process of moving all our plants from two allotments to our smallholding, while still growing as much as we could on the allotments.

Transition to Smallholding

Our houses in America always had a sizeable “yard” (back garden) where we could grow as much food as we had time for. Moving to Ireland forced us to re-assess whether having a large garden was economically feasible. In the end, we decided to split our property between a house in the village with almost no garden, and a smallholding nearby. I would have loved a larger property, but very little comes up for sale in this area, and we were delighted when an acre of land was offered within our budget, not 200 metres from the Irish Sea.

We were lucky on several counts with this land. Firstly, the price was somewhere between what I would call “site prices” (astronomical due to potential to build a house) and “agricultural prices” (reasonable). In other words, we could afford to buy the land for its intended purpose. The site has a very remote possibility of being buildable, but is actually zoned agriculture, despite being surrounded on three sides with residential houses built before Wicklow’s planning enforcement become more restrictive. I also think that the listing agent did a poor job advertising the property, and we only had to briefly bid against one other party before the purchaser agreed to sell to us.

The condition and position of the land also helped keep other interested purchasers away. It is a small triangular piece of ground, situated at a low spot probably not very far above sea level. There is a very small watercourse running down the west side of the triangle, leading to what we thought was a swamp at the back of the property, complete with a few small refrigerators bobbing in a sea of green duckweed. The land was very overgrown with brambles and nettles, so much so that before I arrived, I doubt anyone else had really been able to survey the land. All in all, it appeared to be a wet, swampy place with little site potential and no agricultural potential due to the poor drainage.

An interesting feature of the property is its trees. Most land that would come up for sale would be agricultural (pasture or tillage), perhaps with a hedgerow around the edges. Our property is more than half covered by sizeable trees: mainly alder, but with some willow, sycamore, hazel and a couple of oaks. The land slopes down toward the water and this area was thick with trees and brambles. Nearer the road in the southeast corner was a small meadow rampant with nettles, willow herb, and horsetail. A beautiful feature of the land is the mature wild hedgerow in the front, complete with several sizeable hawthorn and ash trees. On the east is a mature but well tended dogwood hedge planted by a neighbour. So the land is surrounded on two sides of the triangle by hedgerow, and on the third side by somewhat open woodland.

One of my first forays into the brambles was to find out the nature of the swamp in the back. I didn’t fully explore this area until after we had agreed to purchase the land. Once we cleared away the floating garbage, fallen trees, and thick duckweed, what we found was a beautiful pond about 60 feet around, with a maximum depth of something like 12 feet. There are shallow sloped sides to the west and south which allow for reeds and other marginal plants to grow, and then two steeper sides to the north and east. This pond is at least 200 years old (see the map below) and was probably dug to provide clay for a nearby brick works.

The earliest map of the property – completed in the 1830s. Our acre was attached to a nearby “big house” and is shown as only partially wooded. The pond and outflow are clearly visible, as is the gate positioned exactly where it still is today. There is no trace left of the path that led to the house.
OSI early 1800s map
A map from the early 1900s. The boundaries of our land are now clearly visible and the land is shown as being wooded. The path has disappeared and it seems the land is now owned separately from the house, which has been renamed.

OSI early 1900s map


A current map of the property, showing the subdivision of many of the fields and the building of bungalows in the area during the 1990s and 2000’s. The big house is gone, though the outbuildings remain. Despite the woodland iconography, the southeast corner of the site was a meadow when we arrived.

OSI early 2000s map

Showing the property boundaries.

Property boundary


Despite the significant evolution of this area over the last two hundred years, our little corner seems to have been left wild for much of that time. I doubt whether it has ever been cultivated – there are too many other good tillage lands nearby, and our plot would have been left to flood in winter and provide a source of wood perhaps for fuel.

And so it was that were left with a beautiful acre of land in a wild state, waiting for our imagination to reshape it.