Ireland… tall tales, joyous songs and lots of apples

My arms are elbow-deep in a sticky mush created by the juicing machine as it devours countless apples. Taking a break to taste the thick, sweet syrup, I listen to Sean, who has decided it’s time to convince me of his story-telling prowess. His tall tales are of murder, bombings, inside information about the IRA, and his intention of robbing Fort Knox.


I’m at Ballytobin in County Kilkenny taking a break from my travels around Ireland to participate on a short-term voluntary workcamp. Ballytobin is a Camphill community providing a sheltered environment for children and adults in need of special care – and our job is making enough apple juice to last the community the next 10 months.

Founded by Dr Karl Koenig in 1939, the International Camphill Movement has grown from its humble beginnings in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to about 100 schools, homes and villages in 22 countries. Koenig’s vision was “that in later years Camphill might become a place where the true destiny of the handicapped child will always be known”.

Ballytobin cottage

Ballytobin is government funded but in many ways self-sufficient and the community is run by a group of dedicated volunteers, mostly from abroad. Initially recruited for a year many have stayed longer – drawn by the peace and tranquillity of this place and the sense of belonging you feel even after a few days.

This particular workcamp was organised by Service Civil International (SCI), whose mission is promoting peace and intercultural understanding through volunteering. I was actually placed by their Australian contact, International Volunteers for Peace (IVP) and I’m joined by other participants from the US, Spain and Switzerland.

The juicing machineApple juice Our job involves collecting apples from the orchard, washing them, cutting away the rotten parts, crushing and squeezing them, boiling the juice, sterilizing the bottles and finally bottling the juice.

We also help with chores around the house, including cooking and cleaning. The long-term volunteers, who have various qualifications: therapists, teachers, farmers and caregivers, also cook and clean, as no one is more important than another. Everyone job-shares and those in care are accepted and treated as equals. Without formal hierarchy there is a sense of community, providing an environment very much like family. This is a unique organisation doing incredible work and I was fortunate to find them.

Many of the children living at Ballytobin are on school holidays during our visit, as the workcamp focuses on environment sustainability, rather than social issues. However we get to know the few children and young adults who are spending their holidays at Ballytobin, those with no other family.

Eighteen-year-old Aidan cannot speak. He communicates by vocalising sounds and using a basic sign language. Often his expressions tell us more than spoken words. His face lights with joy as he helps us make apple juice, especially when he sees we trust him.

In the beginning this is not easy and I am unnerved when he picks up a saucepan of boiling juice (70°C) and begins to pour it into the equally hot bottles. Fortunately he doesn’t spill a drop and at the end of the day gives me a big hug and laughs, his happiness infectious. It teaches me about trust, and most importantly, not to let my own fears influence Aidan’s experience.


Sean, who spent his childhood here, calls himself a ‘Traveller’, part of a minority community indigenous to Ireland. Occasionally he disappears, but always returns as if there is a magnet drawing him back. During the day he joins us at the juicing machine, not wanting to help, but intent on airing his opinion about world events. One day he bursts into song. “And the band played Waltzing Matilda…” which he’d chosen just for me. I was impressed as he sang every verse, and knew the words better than me.

Seven-year-old Kevin is obsessed with Mr Men storybooks. Every day he says to us, “Mr Topsy Turvy is funny isn’t he?” or “I like Mr Happy. He’s funny isn’t he?”

Some of the children are disabled, others abandoned by parents and many have experienced tragedy. But at Ballytobin they are accepted and workers help develop the self-esteem of those in care, through living in peace and co-operation.

We only have a glimpse of life at Ballytobin but often the moments are priceless. On a night out, the entire community files into the local pub. In traditional Irish fashion everyone joins in with the singing, but Sean steals the show, keeping everyone amused with his unique brand of storytelling and singing.

Once the workcamp is over I spend two weeks exploring the rest of Ireland. I kiss the Blarney Stone, hoping to inherit the gift of the gab, wander along the Cliffs of Dover and climb Croagh Patrick, where St. Patrick expelled all the snakes from Ireland.

Dan Foley's Pub

As I check out the murals in Northern Ireland that depict ‘The Troubles’, I think of Sean with his warped tales of the IRA and I realise Ballytobin is the highlight of my travels in Ireland. One image stays with me more than most. It is on our day off from making apple juice, when we hike up Slievenamon, a mountain overlooking a rural patchwork stretching down to the ocean.

Aidan is carrying his violin up the mountain. He leaves the trail, skipping and dancing across the meadows, a silly grin adorning his face. We don’t know why he has the violin with him; perhaps it’s a sense of security for him because he can’t bring his piano, which is very important to him. Or maybe it’s something else. Aidan can’t tell me, but I know he is happy, at that moment. We all are. We’ve reached the top of the mountain and it’s time to share a refreshing bottle of apple juice.


Have you participated on a voluntary workcamp? What did you do and what are some of your memories? Please share your stories in the comments below.

Please note: This experience happened several years ago and the names have been changed to respect the privacy of the children in care at Ballytobin.


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