Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Silverbridge social enterprise scheme – An Tobar –  to feature on BBC

By Diarmúid Pepper

Finnegan’s Nursery and Garden Centre in Silverbridge is set to be profiled on an upcoming edition of BBC Newsline, due to its exciting social enterprise called “An Tobar”.

Ahead of the screening , Margaret Finnegan spoke to The Examiner on behalf of the family-run institution, which has been going strong in the heart of south Armagh for the past 30 years.

“We started social farming in January and set up our new social enterprise called ‘An Tobar’, which means ‘The Well’ in April last year,” Margaret explained.

“We also do some work with residents in nursing homes, doing horticultural therapy. So the BBC Newsline cameras were down filming all the exciting things that are going on around Finnegan’s.”

Margaret says that social farming is about “social inclusion” for those who are too often left adrift. 

“Social farming is a relatively new thing in Ireland but it is as a very positive way for people who are not involved in the community to get involved.

“We work with people who have learning disabilities and mental health problems. We do that three days a week and it is all about taking the lads out on to the farm to do real work. It is not made-up work, they do meaningful work that is worth something. 

“They are farming every week and they are involved in all sorts of activities in the farm and in the garden centre and even in the tea rooms. So they are out there and getting involved and it has improved their self-esteem no end.”

In this sense, it is seen as a win-win for both the farm owners and the participants, providing a vital lifeline for both in rural Ireland.

As well as working with those who have learning disabilities, An Tobar is also a vital aid for those in the community who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

“We also work a lot with people with dementia to get them into a social setting to do stuff that is going to get their senses engaged and get them to chat with each other,” said Margaret of the scheme.

“The social inclusion element of it is important. They can talk to each other about their lives and what they are doing. They get a lot out of it that way and whilst they might have issues with their memory, talking to one another about their experiences really improves their mood. It makes them more socially involved with each other.”

It’s a new chapter for Finnegan’s and one that Margaret is relishing as it gives the family-run business an opportunity to give back in such a big way.

“We made the changes last April when we set up the company. We are going to keep the garden centre on a more compact scale. We also do school gardens as well, so through the schools and nursing homes and social farming we are making that transition into more nature based interventions rather than just retail.”

“It is really lovely to be able to give back in this manner. In a lot of ways, it is not work at all because we are enjoying it so much. 

“We also planted 30 acres of woodland this year as well, which we will be using for nature therapy, doing nature walks with people. 

“It is great to be at this end of things where you are giving back to the community and you are using your knowledge from your past work to improve the lives of others and help their self-esteem and social inclusion.”

While there is no exact date on the BBC Newsline segment as of yet, it will air at some stage in the next fortnight.

Margaret says that “everyone is looking forward to seeing it on the news” and that it is great to see the social enterprise scheme get recognition in this way.

She added: “During filming, we had all of our social farming participants together in the one place. Usually they come on different days. We were all together and the participants from the nursing home were also there and there was a great atmosphere. 

“When the cameramen were out, we all had great fun and the guy who was doing the filming remarked on how we are such a happy bunch of people. He said these are the happiest farmers he ever seen. Some people give out about farmers apparently not being happy, but our farmers are very happy!”

The social farming enterprise has been incredibly well received by the participants, with Margaret saying that you “have to witness it to get a sense of just how great it is”.

“Speaking to the parents of some of the participants, they just love getting out of bed in the morning to come here. It is not like a regular day care centre at all, it is normal life and they are given real and valuable skills.”