Thank you to Conor Pope for calling to to see us last week & writing up this excellent piece
First Look: New five-acre eco-friendly garden centre and retail complex
''Solas Eco Garden Centre’s owners have modelled it on Amsterdam’s Pllek project''
You can see the full article here
“Brilliant but useless, like a lighthouse in a bog,” appeared at number 88 in a history of Ireland in 100 insults written by the Irish Times diarist Frank McNally almost 10 years ago. He could scarcely have imagined it would be one day inspire a man to put a lighthouse in a bog – or at least in the heartland of Ireland’s peatlands.
The lighthouse in the bog is actually a lightbox on top of a couple of disused and distinctly rusty shipping containers, and it sits on an otherwise nondescript piece of land in an industrial estate just outside Portarlington, in Co Laois. There to act as a beacon of hope and regeneration, it is the brainchild of a local environmentalist and entrepreneur, David Maher, and his horticulturist business partner, John Carey.
On an unexpectedly glorious afternoon, Maher is all smiles as he points to the tower, which has become one of the focal points of a cluster of heavy metal shipping containers that he has bolted together to create what he says is Ireland’s first entirely eco-friendly garden centre.
He hopes a €2 million investment will pay off and help his shopping and food complex become a symbol of environmental awareness and a magnet for people looking for ways to pass a pleasant couple of hours in the company of plants.
Solas Eco Garden Centre sprawls over two hectares – that’s five acres – and all the steel, plastic, cardboard and stone at the centre is 100 per cent recycled, modelled on a project in Amsterdam.
Maher was in the market for a project that would help create employment and activity in his home town while maintaining a sharp focus on sustainability when he got a call from a friend who had been wowed by the Pllek development in the Dutch city. Set in an industrial wasteland, Pllek is essentially an urban beach, with restaurants and shops all built out of disused shipping containers.
“I was literally bowled over by it,” Maher says. “It was leading the way in extending the life of materials that otherwise might have gone to landfill, with all the associated negative consequences for the environment. It was totally unlike anything I had seen before, and I was determined to bring the concept to Ireland in a bid to promote a decarbonised economy and lifestyle.”
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So he set about sourcing disused shipping containers and working out a way to make them all fit together in a way that would turn heads but not stomachs.
Aware that a planning application for a shopping complex built out of ugly metal boxes that would otherwise have been bound for the scrap heap might be viewed with some suspicion by the local county council, as well as by locals, Maher enlisted the Dutch architects behind Pllek to design the complex and present it to the planning authorities.
It worked. Not one of the 120 homeowners who live close to the site objected to the 40 steel shipping containers being bolted together to create a street-food market with 15 food and craft stalls, and at least one teenage boy selling chickens and coops he built himself.
The giant warehouse adjacent to the shipping containers, which stretches to 3,700sq m, or 40,000sq ft, and is home to a cavernous garden shop that sells only organic and natural weedkillers and a large volume of stock sourced locally.
“Our designs are energy efficient, our car park is the first 100 per cent ‘green’ car park in the country, and we have used an off-the-grid water supply for all nonpotable water,” Maher says. “We’re outdoors-ready, and we’re determined to make Solas Eco Garden Centre a beacon of light for sustainability and creativity.”
Given Portarlington’s geographical position, he is optimistic Solas will become a destination for people throughout the country, providing a much-needed boost to the town’s economy and wider community.
“We are in a prime geographical location, with over 1.2 million people living within 50 minutes of our centre,” he explains. “It’s going to attract people into the town, and the other hard-working indigenous businesses will get a spin-off boost.”
Solas sits on a site that has long been a landmark in the town. Before the eco-warriors arrived with their plants and their food trucks selling “black forest ham and brie crossandwiches”, it served as a steel yard. Instead of steel there are now seats for 200 outdoors and 50 indoors.
Carey says the best way to get people to care about the environment – as well as feeding them fancy-dan sandwiches – is by involving them in the discussion in a meaningful way.
“When people are considered and made to feel part of something, they are far more likely to take ownership and responsibility for it and their part in helping the environment and reducing their carbon footprint.”
So Solas is also running Eco Warrior Back Garden workshops. Lasting an hour, the courses are designed for children, which he hopes will “sow the seeds for a lifetime appreciation for the environment”.
There are rustic hanging-basket courses, plus classes on growing your own vegetables, composting, wild flowers and sustainable energy. “It’s all about knowledge and fun through education and engagement,” he says.
Official Launch of SOLAS Eco Garden Shop on Wednesday 23rd June
The official Launch of the SOLAS Eco Garden Shop (www.ecogardenshop.ie) is to take place this Wednesday. Co-Owner John Carey explains "as this is a very new venture to us we decided to do a soft launch back in May with no fanfare as we found our feet. We have poured our hearts (and wallets) into this project and we believe we have created something really special - a destination garden centre which espouses the values of sustainability, good food, community involvement and innovative design. We are so lucky to have a site which allows us to create a really impressive range of facilities - with an indoor garden shop of 22,000 sq. ft. and over 4 acres of outdoor food courts, a farmers' market, plants, domes and parking"
- Location: SOLAS Eco Garden Centre, Portarlington, R32 RPX8
- Date: Wednesday, 23rd June 2021
- Ribbon cutting: 1.30pm
Events to include
- Midlands Radio 3 from 12 noon to 3pm
- Farmers Market 'Container Street' Food market offers a vibrant range of foods
- The possibility of TV coverage !
- Local and National media have been invited
- Competitions and prizes
Co-Owner David Maher continued "When we initially came up with the concept of building a destination eco Food and garden centre out of recycled 40ft containers we were a little bit nervous that our idea was possibly a bit too 'out there'. But as we refined the idea and worked with a range of local builders, welders and artists we became confident we could create something truly wonderful. It has been a leap of faith for us as we have invested €2 million into the project on the premise of 'Build it and they will come'.
The centre piece of the development is a 40f high 'Light Tower' which the project's developers say they hope "will act as beacon for environmental and economic regeneration of this brown field site into a vibrant new cultural, environmental and economic hub of activity"
From the start, the project has been supported by local people and businesses alike with not a single objection to the planning permission which was lodged in 2020. Maher explains "it is wonderful to see the buzz that SOLAS has brought to the whole area. We really feel like we are on a journey to revitalise the site that was once the home of SIAC Butlers engineering and reimagine it as a hub of sustainability and Leisure. Our inaugural farmers market last Saturday (and every Saturday between 10am-2pm) was a huge success with over 1,000 people attending to enjoy the local organic produce for sale and relaxing for coffee in our 'Chill Food Courtyard'.
The Official ribbon cutting will be preformed by David's daughter Sadhbh Maher (12). "We really want SOLAS to be about community, sustainability and future generations - so the choice of a young girl to do the honours is apt"
All welcome on the day
Contact David on 086 3475357
Farmers Market Now Open
The inaugural 'Farmer's Food Market' took place on Saturday 19th July & was a great success
We are delighted to announce the market will be held at SOLAS eco garden shop every Saturday
Location: SOLAS Eco Garden Centre, Dublin Road Business Park, Portarlington, Co. Laois, R32 RPX8
Time: 10am - 2pm
Dates: Every Saturday
See gallery of some pictures taken on the day
Our purpose built 'Container Street' food market offers a exciting range of organic and natural foods including...
Local organic fruit & vegetables
Jersey organic milk and a range of cheeses
Local honey & blueberry tonic
Cakes, confectionary & chocolates
Bread, organic flour & oatmeal
Organic pork and beef
Poultry & eggs
Locally roasted gourmet coffee
Jam, chutneys & other local delights
The farmers market is located at a central location within the spectacular new "SOLAS Eco Garden Shop" which includes an exciting mix of great food, drink, plants and 22,000 sq. ft. day out experience for families and or friends just chilling out for a few hours.