Marian Dempsey at part of her Skerrig forest outside of Cootehill.

Forest School plans take root

RE-FIRED Former teacher wins in Student of the Year Awards

“I didn’t retire, I re-fired,” says Marian Demspey defiantly, as she shows us around her Skerrig Forest School. “I insist people use that term.”

Marian is strimming knee high grass at the entry point to the Dempseys’ woodland when the Celt arrives to discuss her success at the Teagasc Student of the Year Awards, winning the ‘Other Enterprise’ category. She’s certainly fired up, as ideas spark and glow at every turn of the interview. Along with her husband Packie she has countless projects on the go: walking tours of the major historic sites nearby, a water turbine to generate electricity, a reed bed for sewerage, new ponds, a funky range of functional farmwear made from natural materials, and of course her forest school.

That Marian had time, energy or inclination to undertake the Level 5 and 6 Forestry courses in Ballyhaise in the last couple of years is remarkable. She had already completed a Forest School Leader Level 3 course in Wicklow through the Open College Network, and also the Outdoor Activity Instructor training course at Tanagh, near Cootehill in 2017.

“I needed to do the tough stuff first. And survive it. And I did. It was amazing, brilliant. Tanagh needs full marks for the type of training you get and the staff there.”

The forestry course armed Marian with the knowledge required to maintain and nurture the forest.

Aside from a narrow path it’s densely packed. Alternate lines of gangly teenage oak and scots pine are crammed together like a school assembly. The modest holding was too small for a viable beef or dairy farm, so the forest was Packie’s idea back in 2006. At that stage Marian was teaching and Packie had his hands full with the family business, DSH Surveyors and Building Contractors, which he continues to run.

“His instruction was hard wood – broadleaf and as many as could be put in,” recalls Marian. “Packie always wanted to create a sanctuary for birds, animals and people.”

A trio of trail cameras have shown he’s succeeded. A heron was recently spotted peering into the lens at one of their two man-made lakes, a hare was also caught on camera, and “most exciting” of all, a pair of red squirrels have taken to visiting feeding boxes in their garden.

The forest will really begin to take shape after the first thinning in October.

“The pines are going to be coming out and the oaks will have to fight for themselves and the strongest will win out.

“They will fight their own battle. Once they die off they are going to put nutrition back in the ground.”

The farm has two more oak plots like this one, another one solely of alder in the wettest area, and a final one which is a mix of sitka and scots pine. The thinning will be led by her Ballyhaise tutors and a new intake of students, to sharpen their practical knowledge on the scots pine.

“It will be different looking when the leaves are off and the trees are starting to make a go for it,” says Marian with delight.

“They’re going to be shocked for a while when the thinning happens. ‘What’s going on here?’ they’ll be saying. But they’ll be grand – they’ll make their own way.”

Not far in there’s a pair of leather shoes placed on the ground in Charlie Chaplin stance to shield an oak sapling emerging from the undergrowth.

“When I have visitors, someone will say, why have you shoes in the forest? Then I tell them about the carbon footprint, and carbon sequestration going on. Every tree in the forest is holding carbon, and it is also the lungs of our family, our community, Ireland and the world, because it’s giving out the oxygen. The story is here – you don’t have to go to a school book to get it.”

Around a corner we come to a makeshift communal area with a tarpaulin for a roof. It’s a tranquil setting where she gets to know her Forest School participants. As Marian proudly explains she cut the logs for the benches’ legs for her chainsaw practical exam, it’s clear these woods are much more than simply an enterprise.

“It’s the fulfilment of Packie’s vision for the preservation of the Dempsey homestead going back 400 years, and going forward for our own family Loretta, Mary, Liam, and his partner Elaine, grandchildren Joshua and Liam Og. It is my playground now, an artist’s palette, a solace, and a place of healing for those who come here.”

Marian credits an old neighbour, Annie Nelson from her homeplace in Lecks, Shercock, for her love of nature, fascination in the potential of wild flowers and plants for remedies, and her passion for home crafts. And her parents - who reared 12 of them - for her resourcefulness and spirituality. The have-a-go spirit Marian exudes sounds like an extension of the ethos in St Patrick’s NS in Shercock where she taught for 33 years. She fondly recalls her former principal Peadar Mohan for encouraging innovative teaching.

“We did out of the box stuff. We were the first school in the whole county - primary or secondary - to get the Green Flag. ”

Now as we sit over a cup of coffee at her cabin base Marian is clearly stoked to have won this Teagasc national award.

“It supports what I’ve been saying for years as a teacher - that nature is the real teacher. Learning should happen outdoors. To use land, whether it’s a corner of the school yard, or the village green or the local forest, schools should be out there with their pupils – that should be on the curriculum for every subject, giving them a holistic education, a spiritual experience especially, in the outdoors.”

She laments that some educators can be fixate on the risk of outdoor activities.

“Entrepreneurs – you have to grow them from infants. Nowadays small businesses are the backbone of this country: people who took a risk by doing something different, thinking outside the box. How do you think outside the box? You get outside the box. Get outside!”