A PIONEERING farmer who played a key role in improving rights for farmers back in the 1960s is to be honoured with this year’s Hall of Fame award, which is sponsored by Ifac. The West Cork Farming Awards are run by The Southern Star in conjunction with the Celtic Ross Hotel.
Jack O’Sullivan has lived most of his life on Bere Island, off the West Cork coast, and has been a central figure in agricultural circles for decades. He was one of the legendary group of 16 farmers who marched from Bantry to Dublin in 1966 as part of a protest that ultimately saw 30,000 farmers converge on Dublin, with some of them staging a three-week sit-it on on the steps of Government buildings.
Ultimately, the actions of Jack and the group secured negotiating rights for farmers with the government, which saw their conditions improve over the coming years.
Jack is one of the few surviving members of the marchers and a lasting memory of it all is his father advising him to wear a good pair of shoes for the journey before he departed.
‘I remember I was wearing an old pair of high boots, but was given a good heavy pair that someone had sent to someone on the island from Australia for the journey!’ he remembers.
More seriously, he says it was ‘tough going,’ but he’s still proud of what they achieved.
Jack was born in 1939, the only child of Bere Island native Paddy, and Helena, from west of Castletown.
Aged nine, the family emigrated to New York, where they stayed until he was 13, and since then the island has been home.
Jack inherited his father’s farm, but as well as a strong agricultural acumen, he has an energy and drive that’s seen him involved in many other enterprises.
For over 10 years he worked at the Gulf Oil terminal on Whiddy Island. He wasn’t on duty that tragic night in 1979 when the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded in Bantry Bay, claiming the lives of 50 people, but was working the following morning and the memory has stayed with him.
With his wife Mary, and now daughter Marie, he has run one of the island’s two bars, The Hotel, for the past 39 years.
Covid-19 meant it’s been closed for long stretches of this year, which Jack laments, as he puts a strong emphasis on community and connectivity. He’s looking forward to being behind the bar again when restrictions are lifted.
Mary and himself are parents to Maria, Rita, Gerard, Brendan and Joe, who are all West Cork based with Maria, Brendan and Gerard living on the island. He has 17 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Brendan farms with his father, and Gerard has a dry dock boatyard where he repairs fishing and commercial vessels.
Jack feels strongly that fishing should offer a viable income to islanders, particularly scallop fishing, as was the case in yesteryear.
‘Not too long ago we had 30 boats, with three people on each, fishing from October to April for scallops and making a lovely income from it. It would be great to see that again.’
He feels that farming alone isn’t enough to provide a viable income on the island, regardless of the size of the holding. The cost of getting cattle to market, the lack of a creamery, the expense of getting supplies to the island and other challenges linked to their location, all add to the bottom line.
And, while he acknowledges that farmers can’t always be asking for help, he feels there needs to be some awareness of challenges posed by their location.
He is conscious of retaining as many of the 160 islanders as possible and is forward-thinking in his approach to generating ways of doing this.
With Mary, they ran an abalone (marine snails) hatchery for many years, which, for a time, was the only one in the country for many years. He also grows miscanthus, an Asian grass, which can be uses as biomass.
‘I’ve been looking for a gasifier for years, so I could use to to supply the farm as I feel we’ll suffer a lot more with storms in the future. We’re way behind in this area compared to other countries and I think this is something the government should be promoting,’ he said.
Jack has been a life-long member of the IFA and thinks nothing of making the crossing to meetings in Dunmanway to attend. He crosses in his boat, landing three miles east of Castletownbere, where he has a van. It’s often 1 or 2am before he’s home and he admits he’s had his share of hairy crossings.
If he had his time again he’d stick with farming despite its challenges.
‘It’s about always looking forward,’ he says.
Jack was nominated for the Hall of Fame award by Donal O’Donovan, West Cork IFA chair, who said he was a man held in huge regard who can be credited with igniting the beginning of the farmers’ movement.
The Southern Star and Celtic Ross Hotel West Cork Farming Awards live-streamed presentation ceremony, will take place as soon as Covid-19 restrictions allow. ‘The West Cork Farming Awards’ Hall of Fame award is sponsored by iFac.