The garden behind the Weavers Cottages in Colegal hadn't looked as good in hundreds of years as it did this summer when a group of European judges came to the village in July.
The beautiful village was chosen as Ireland's entry in the Etente Florale competition, a sort of pan-European tidy towns affair. The village was fill of gems for the judges to see and savour, not least a garden that dated back to the 17th century at the Weaver's Cottages.
In July, the garden was in such good health it was as if Mother Nature was showing off, bragging about what she could come up with. But behind this veritable cornucopia was hours of back-straining work by John Halpin, this month's Local Hero.
Born and bred just outside Clonegal, John is a self-taught gardener who worked on the Weaver's Cottages until his retirement some 8 years ago. The garden had fallen into disrepair over the years, so when the village was chosen to represent Ireland in the Entente Florale, there was only one man for the job.
John built the stone and raised the beds himself, so he knew the amount of work it would take to fill them with leeks, cabbages, chard, parsnips, flower of all varieties and any berry that you'd care to mention. Undaunted by the task, the 73 year old got down to work and didn't dream of stopping until everything was in place and flourishing.
"Good heavens, there was a lot of work put into it!2, he laughed, looking back. Having grown up in the village, John remembers the time when the cottages were functioning as family homes back in the 195os so it was particularly satisfying for him to restore the gardens.
"It was very satisfying to see that everything was growing properly", he said, modestly.
Described by many of his friends as an unassuming and modest man, John admitted that he was just a little apprehensive when the judges came to see his work in July. "I was nervous because I didn't really know what they were looking for, but they seemed to be impressed", he recalled.
Indeed, the visitors were so impressed that one of them was moved to write a poem about the gardener! "John leaves an impression on all who have the good fortune to meet him, and always had a kind work and a friendly smile for all who visit the weaver's cottages.", said Janette O'Brien from Carlow County Council, who worked with the community of Clonegal for the competition. "The European Entente Florale judges were so impressed with John and his voluntary work that one of them wrote a poem about him, and during the awards presentation in Belgium he was the first and last community member that the judges mentioned and passed on their good wishes to."
Now that the winter months are upon us, John is still bust maintaining the cottage garden as well as pursuing his own interests.
"John is an expert in many walks of life, apart from his gardening", said John McCabe, a former chair of the local tidy towns group and chair of the Clonegal Heritage Society, who nominated John. "He is an excellent cook and could compete with any housewife that I know. He rears many species of poultry as a hobby and for commercial purposes. In my opinion, John Halpin is one of Carlow's Local Heroes, if not one of Ireland's Local Heroes," John rightly concluded.