Breaking free of the urban jungle towards the forest

When student couple Mike and Cathy Collard dropped out of Oxford University and travelled to West Cork to look for a house up a remote mountain between Glengarriff and Bantry, they were searching for a simpler life, as far away from the perils of nuclear power and American imperialism as they could get. Theirs was a love story that intertwined activism and free spirit with hardship and hope and was the impetus for the creation of Future Forests, today one of Ireland’s most successful plant and tree nurseries. Mike Collard, 72, shares with Mary O’Brien what it was like growing up, as the son of radicals, at the heart of London’s activist scene in the 1960s, his religious awakening, and what drew him and his late wife Cathy to create a life without modern conveniences in the wilds of West Cork.

While originating from very different backgrounds, Mike and Cathy felt somehow connected from the moment they first laid eyes on each other at Oxford University. Mike was a student of politics, philosophy and economics and Cathy of politics, philosophy and psychology. Both fiercely rebelled against the colonialist discourse prevalent at Oxford at the time.

The son of radicals – Elizabeth Collard, a political activist, well-known champion of Arab causes and noted economic analyst on the developing world; and William Dudley Collard, a left wing British barrister and writer – Mike was born right in the middle of London and enrolled at the private and very posh Westminster School, whereas country girl Cathy, the daughter of teachers, grew up in the heart of rural Devon.

Born in India of Irish descent – the family can trace its heritage back to an uncle of Clonakilty’s Michael Collins – Mike’s mother, Elizabeth Collard (nee Shields Collins) was the inspirational force behind the renowned Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), which she published in the wake of the Suez Crisis.

A secretary to the first World Youth Congress during World War II, later on her outrage at the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians led her to become a leading figure within the Arab community and the British Labour Party, and an advisor to Prime Minister Harold Wilson on Middle East affairs. In 1967 she helped to establish the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding (CAABU). “She was astonished by the lies that came out in the media during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab States,” shares Mike, adding sadly: “She would be spinning in her grave at what Israel is doing to Gaza today.”

A member of the Anglo-Soviet Law Association, Mike’s father, William Dudley Collard, was a lawyer for the Communist Party of Great Britain.

After WWII, both Elizabeth and William were very involved in the resettlement of displaced persons in London.

“My parents were card-carrying communists at one stage,” shares Mike, who is in the process of writing his memoirs. “My father became disillusioned with institutional communism, Stalin in particular, so he became more focused on social justice, whereas my mother channelled her fighting spirit into the Middle East.”

Mike’s first taste of activism came as a babe-in-arms marching with his parents and uncle in the Aldermaston marches, anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations, which took place in the 1950s and 1960s in the UK.

This set the backdrop to his teenage years and, on March 17, 1968, he was one of an estimated 10,000 people in London who demonstrated against the Vietnam War and Britain’s support for the United States, clashing with police outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. His activism saw him taking part in an occupation of the Hilton (just for a few hours) and he was part of the group that broke the story of the American bombing over Cambodia and Laos when the media ignored it.

“Then I went home to tea in Belgravia, so I was living this mad life of opposites,” he shares laughing.

“I was the sort of hippy who used to feed sugar lumps to the horses of the police officers,” he clarifies.

It was when Mike witnessed his fellow protestors breaking branches off trees and trying to stab these same horses, that he started to feel conflicted.

“I realised that when you protest and win, it’s possible to become what you’re thrown down.”

Struggling to find a political system he could live comfortably with, during his gap year before starting university, Mike travelled to Italy, where he instead found religion.

The son of Humanists, his first introduction to Catholicism was at the age of seven, when his Irish nanny brought him with her to Mass. Mike enjoyed the experience so much that he bought himself a wooden cross of St Francis of Assisi, which he held on to throughout school and university, before finally losing it much later on to a compost heap in West Cork.

His trip to Italy resulted in a profound spiritual experience around St. Catherine of Siena “She’s a great saint who believed we could have heaven on earth,” he shares. “The sky opened up for me outside her cathedral in Siena. There was this immense energy in the town, perhaps because of the annual festival, or perhaps, as with all great cathedrals, from the devotion that took place there over the years.”

This religious awakening proved a turning point in Mike’s life.

“I came to the realisation that the only answer to all the war in the world is to have a peaceful internal life,” he shrugs.

After passionately forswearing casual relationships, soon after, the young Mike, now 18, met his true love Cathy, who also felt drawn to a more spiritual way of life.

The couple made a pilgrimage to Glendalough where, after sharing another profound experience, the iconic St Finbarr’s Oratory in Gougane Barra, as well as Mike’s Irish heritage, focused their attention on West Cork.

Mike and Cathy leaving London for West Cork in 1972. Mike is on his Triumph 650 Thunderbird, the sidecar filled with wholefoods, and Cathy is on the far left.

Mike was also searching for an answer to a philosophical, political and economic question that had been troubling him for a while: ‘Is it possible for a person to live on his allotted share on this earth, which at the time was about an acre, without exploiting other people?’ “There was no literature available on stuff like that at the time,” says Mike. So the couple, who had dropped out of Oxford by now, packed their bags and, in the summer of 1971, set off to West Cork to put it to the test. “We came here to find out if, in fact, it was possible; it was an experiment as such,” explains Mike, adding that the first book on self-sufficiency came out around the same time.

They made a quick detour to the very first Glastonbury festival along the way. “Michael Eavis himself (the dairy farmer who founded the famous music festival) took our money and gave us free milk,” laughs Mike.

After landing in Ireland, Mike and Cathy hitched their way to Glengarriff in search of a house, the purchase of which would be made possible by an almost-forgotten-about inheritance from Cathy’s Irish grandmother. 

“Two months after leaving Uni, Cathy suddenly remembered that her grandmother had left her over £400 which, when we looked into it, turned out to be over £2,000 in ICI shares,” says Mike.

The plan was that Mike’s sister and his best friend Colin would join them in Glengarriff so they could use Colin’s motorbike in their property search.

By the end of the week, there was still no sign of their friends and the motorbike, so Mike consulted the I Ching or ‘I’ as it is known, an ancient system of Chinese symbols used for foretelling the future. “Taoism is my other strand of spirituality,” he explains.

“The ‘I’ told us to stay another day.”

Lo and behold, the motorbike did arrive the following day, and Mike and Cathy drove to meet the only other people they knew in the area, a couple from Oxford who had bought a house in Bantry. “They directed us to the nearest estate agent, where it felt almost like we were consulting a country doctor,” he laughs. “He was fascinated by us and our ‘disease’ of wanting to grow vegetables.”

The couple only had time to see one of the two properties available, so – after consulting a local shop lady, who reckoned, having taken stock of her customers, that Maugha was the place for them – that’s where they headed. “We found a big wide plain, a bit grey and featureless, in the Borlin valley,” remembers Mike.

Feeling uncertain now about West Cork, they made a quick trip to Kerry to check what the neighbouring county had to offer, before rushing back to sign the papers for the two-storied, three-chimneyed farmhouse in Maugha. It was August 1971.

“Just in time it turned out, as the Dutch owner had changed his mind about the sale,” shares Mike. “It really felt like we were being driven there.”

They returned briefly to London before moving permanently to West Cork in February 1972.

After the inheritance was divided up between the expense of the house, £1,400; a motorbike with sidecar and insurance, £200; and a supply of wholefoods £200; the couple had £200 left in their pocket to start their new life together.

Mike had spent six months after leaving university working in a walled garden in Oxford, so he quickly found a job as a gardener for the local vicar in Bantry, a position which paid £2 a day. “I think perhaps my Englishness and the fact that I read books is what really got me in the door,” he laughs. With Cathy selling her crocheted hats in local shops, together the young couple managed to make ends meet..

Fascinated with wildflowers since the age of eight when he was given a book by his mother’s good friend, the great Julian Huxley, a pioneer in the scientific field-study of animal behaviour and early advocate of conservation, Mike loved the natural world and working on the land. “Julian was the David Attenborough of his time,” he says. “Another great man in my life, he gave me a book on every birthday, taught me about orchids and inspired my lifelong interest in evolution and the natural world.”

The Collard’s new home was located in the Borlin Valley, reputedly the second last area in Ireland to be electrified, around 1975. Still determined to live a simple life, Mike and Cathy got the house wired for the bare minimum, a light socket, but soon afterwards decided to switch off the power completely. “It spoiled the magic, the soft light” explains Mike, adding “we were also very stubborn and trying to prove something.” It was nine years later – for the sake of their children’s schooling – before they relented to the ‘convenience’ of electricity.

Mike and Cathy had eight children together, six surviving. “Two babies were born with Edward Syndrome,” shares Mike sadly. “Edward Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 18, is a rare but serious condition that causes most babies to die before or shortly after being born.”

The family converted to Catholicism and travelled to mass on occasion by donkey and cart.

“We were drawn to the Catholic way of burial and the intimacy of the mountain community and the station Masses,” recalls Mike. “The Christianity of the stones.”

The family mostly drew water from a stream diverted over a rock near to the house, known as “the spout”. There was also a well on the property. Clothes were washed by hand in a big pot over the open fire and using an old clothes wringer machine. They kept animals and made blackpudding and sausages at home from their own pigs.

Strong and eager to learn firsthand the ways of old Ireland, Mike found work easily with local farmers – fixing roofs, saving hay, working with hand tools and cattle and learning the skills of basketmaking, thatching, stone quarrying and building as he went. He fell into a pattern: Three days working at home, three days outside the home and one day off. “It’s my experience that it’s the right pattern,” he says.

When the family’s pigs got sick and debt began building up, Mike was forced to find better paid employment, so he joined the Forestry Service for three years, where he learned the rudiments of tree handling and planting ‘mountains’ and became aware of the potential to plant a much wider range of species including native trees.

With the rest of Ireland embracing the new, Mick and Cathy continued to grab hold of the old with all of their might. Things weren’t easy but there was much joy.

Mike trained their donkey, a small stallion, and in the summer months raced him at the donkey derbys that took place north of Bandon. “That was great fun, some great memories” he says, recalling the time the local Sergeant in Enniskeane, a man with a big moustache, won the veteran sulky race and joined them in the pub afterwards, where he played the accordion for two hours.

Traditional Irish music is an important thread running through the Collard family tale. Just across the bog, according to Mike, was the best music household in West Cork at the time, the O’Flynns, where so many of the famous Borlin Wren Balls took place, more-often-than- not on New Year’s Eve. Mike and Cathy both joined the Borlin Wren.

“I’d be called on to go out on Christmas evening, much to Cathy’s consternation, to gather promises from local musicians to join the Wren the following morning at 10am,” he remembers. “Starting at Coomhola, travelling all along the Borlin valley, there would have been a crew of about 15 of us, three carloads on the day, all dressed up in women’s clothing, blowing whistles and trumpets and gazoos on the way up to all the houses before visiting the pubs in the local towns. That first year, we even blackened ourselves with boot polish!

“There was a king and a jester and I often played the role of captain,” he adds. “I’d love to see the tradition of the Wren revived locally.”

‘Scoraíochts’ were a part of the fabric of life. Mike used to regularly visit a neighbour, a great storyteller, whose memory stretched back as far as throwing eggs at the redcoats accompanying bailiffs up the valley in 1907. 

“I listened to the old people and learned as much as I could from them,” he says. “I used to say ‘I was 18 months in the university of Oxford and 18 years in the university of West Cork’, but now, it’s 52 years!”

In 1979, Mike’s mother Elizabeth Collard died and the family business, the Middle East Economic Digest, was sold. Mike used his share of the sale to start a small business up the side of the mountain in West Cork selling plants, as well as renting some land near Kealkil from a local farmer where he built a sawmill. Today this is where Future Forests, run by the second generation of Collards, now stands. “It was the beginnings of Future Forests,” says Mike.

He smiles remembering the little nursery at their home. “The kids would be running around barefoot with customers calling in to Cathy for tea. It was an extension of our daily lives.”

“I could see the future in planting trees,” he continues. “Shelter, fuel and jobs… I felt that for my children to live in this landscape, the most important thing I could do for them would be to create employment.”

The rented land was in poor condition. “It was a bad piece of land, all springs and bog; the neighbour down the road said it wouldn’t feed a snipe!” laughs Mike.

Mike started working the land, eventually getting it in good enough shape to grow trees on, while at the same time importing hardwood trees like lime. “I was more of a tree planter than a nursery man so the business was mostly about sourcing rather than planting at the beginning,” he admits.

Throughout the ‘80s, Mike was producing the cheapest timber around, with six months of the year focused on planting and six on cutting and processing the timber, which mostly serviced the shed building needs of farmers.

Mike’s first office was a stake in the ground with an ammunition box placed on top.

For the next ten years, while Cathy ran the nursery from home, Mike drove between 20,000 and 30,000 miles a year, building up the business. “I was hardly home a day in the spring,” he recalls sadly. “I do regret that now, that I didn’t spend more time with my family in those years, but at the same time, this, Future Forests, wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifice.”

Cathy passed away in 2000, age 50, when their youngest child was just ten.

“Cathy taught me how to be happy at night in the country, with the hawthorns and the rustlings,” reflects Mike quietly.

The arrival of garden designer Mary Reynolds at Future Forests the following year proved a welcome distraction from his immense grief.

“She wanted us to help her build a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002,” explains Mike. Between the jigs and the reels – “I left my son Christy in front of the fire with her and they fell for each other,” says Mike smiling – Mike, Christy and the crew at Future Forests came to Mary’s rescue and helped her build the gold medal Chelsea garden that launched her career and established Future Forest’s reputation as one of Ireland’s finest plant and tree nurseries, the story of which was later made into a movie called ‘Dare to be Wild’. “In which Christy and I are badly portrayed…thank God,” he adds laughing.

When Mike pulled back from the business after this, his daughter Maria and her husband Matt came on board and, following Mike’s retirement 10 years ago, they now run the show. “With great panache,” adds Mike. His son Christy runs a timber construction business on the land, as well as taking responsibility for the infrastructure at Future Forests.

Today Mike has come full circle: He has returned to a slower pace of life – basket making, keeping animals, growing veg, occasionally attending Mass, reading and now writing his memoirs. He still loves music and dancing, on one occasion even out-dancing Liam Ó Maonlaí up on stage at a local venue, to the delight of the audience and Mike’s later embarrassment. “I got swept up in the moment,” he admits bashfully.

He travels now and then and locally has given in to the convenience of an electric bicycle, on which he’s often to be seen sailing down the mountain, waving or sometimes stopping for a chat – he is well known and liked in the locality – on the way to Future Forests.

“It’s interesting,” he muses. “I think most of the blow-ins remember us having a hard life and the locals remember us being full of fun. I’d say both are true. We wouldn’t have had as much fun if we hadn’t undertaken the hardship lightly.”

Mary O'Brien

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