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Journey to the west


It was a wet and windy Sunday when China’s Premier visited Cathal Garvey’s farm on the Mayo/Galway border to take a look around.

Willie McHugh

IT was just another morning on the Garvey farm in Gortbrack on the borderlines of Galway and Mayo. The milking routine was attended to when Cathal Garvey’s phone rang. 
“It was about seven weeks ago I got a call around 10.30am,” Cathal recalled as he shared the general gist of the telephone conversation with The Mayo News. “[I was told] there were some Chinese visitors staying in Ashford Castle and a department of agriculture official, and they’d like to visit a beef and dairy farm that morning with a view to a possible follow-on visit later in the month.”
Cathal Garvey seized the opportunity of a lifetime in the lifetime of the opportunity. “I told them they were welcome to come along and we’d show them around. The call was at half ten and they were here in the yard at twenty to twelve.”
Cathal’s son Paddy, a 5th Year student in Presentation College, Headford had a school free day. “He was probably sorry he had because he sweated for the next hour and probably worked as hard as he’ll ever work again getting the place ready,” explained Cathal.
“It was a lot worse than school ever was and it was me that was sorry I was off that day,” Paddy humorously interjected as his dad recounted the story.
“Next thing three Merc’s, a BMW and a half a busload drove into the yard and about thirty people got out,” resumed Cathal. “There was the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland [Jianguo Xu] and with him a chief of protocol of the Department of Foreign Affairs and a few Chinese diplomats. 
“Then the quickfire questions started coming at me from the ambassador. ‘Whose is that house?’ ‘That’s our home,” I replied. ‘And that house there?’ ‘That’s my father’s’. ‘He has a bigger house than you.’ ‘He has.’
‘Can they go into your house if they come?’ ‘They can, and welcome.’ ‘How many people work here?’ ‘It’s a family farm and we all do.’ ‘What do you pay your children?’ ‘We don’t’. ‘Oh.’ ‘We feed them and fund them for college.’
“They left and we heard nothing more until four weeks ago,” Cathal recalled. “I got a call on a Monday evening from Sinead McPhillips of the Department of Agriculture to say the Chinese Prime Minister was coming to Ireland and he, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney, along with an entourage, would be coming to visit our farm on Sunday May 15.”
The Gortbrack ‘Meitheal’ triggered into action immediately. Readying for the village stations was only a wipe of a duster in comparison.
“Our regret is that we couldn’t tell our neighbours what was really happening because we were told to keep it secret,” said Cathal. “All we could say is it was a Bord Bia food promotion we were hosting and, in a way, that was true because I’d hate to lie to my neighbours.”
Painter George McGhee is a Ballycurrin man more attentive to his trade than Michelangelo. “George is a perfectionist and the job has to be done right or not at all,” is Cathal’s appraisal of George’s work. He was even here the morning they arrived, tending last-minute details.
“Following the initial inspection the Chinese Ambassador made two visits,” recounted Cathal. “He was anxious everything would be perfect for the visit proper. He wanted the Prime Minister to see green grass and cattle grazing on it. He came back to do a pre-check the Friday before the Prime Minister’s arrival.
“I asked him if he was happy enough with things. ‘You have excelled and exceeded beyond our highest expectations,’ he replied.

TO Cathal’s wife Mary befell the task of preparations within the home.
Mary is a Dublin native. She married Cathal when he worked in Dublin but she already knew walking up the aisle going west to take over the family farm was the definite plan. “That was in the pre-nuptial agreement,” she jokes.
“The Chinese Prime Minister wasn’t the first person to be charmed by the beauty of Gortbrack and Mayo,” Cathal chimed in.
“Lana Murphy down the road helped me and she’s better than any professional interior designer,” said Mary.” She has an eye for detail and she’d spot things others wouldn’t. While I hate singling anyone out, because everyone around here were so helpful and couldn’t do enough for us, it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge Lana’s input.”
Bord Bia got Café Rua from Castlebar to do a presentation of artisan Irish food.
“Aaron and Colleen McMahon of Café Rua were brilliant and it’s amazing what they do with the simplest of ingredients. The took our home-grown rhubarb and lettuce from our garden and some from Ger Langan also. We had a drill of early Golden Wonders they got potatoes from.”
The Chinese delegation also requested more of the scones that Cathal’s mum, Margaret, had baked the first day they visited.
“But it was only as time went on, and maybe not until the Chinese Prime Minister [Li Keqiang] and his wife were standing in my kitchen, along with the Taoiseach and his wife Fionnuala, along with a group of other delegates, I fully realised the important responsibility we were entrusted with,” admitted Mary.
But Cathal grasped it from the very first phone call.
“It was a chance to showcase Irish produce to the Chinese and I was thrilled it was a West of Ireland farm got an opportunity to show we can compete too,” he said. “We forget sometimes that we can grow grass in the west as good as anywhere else. All the Chinese Prime Minister wanted to see was green grass and beef cattle grazing it and we could show him that. And for the full effect we gave him a good day’s rain too!
“A marquee was erected in the front garden and Galway group ‘Trad on the Prom’ performed for the guests.
Sitting in a marquee on our farm, seated between the Irish and Chinese Prime Ministers and their wives, and us entertained by the finest of Irish music and song, is something we’ll never forget.
“We had a barbecue organised for all the neighbours later in the evening but Mary and I were invited to Ashford Castle. When we got home later we realised we’d missed the best party of all!” smiled Cathal.
“But the most important guest came from Galway. Cathal’s father Cormac was a patient in UCHG and on the morning he was allowed out for a few hours. There’s a quivering in Cathal’s voice as he tells how important that was.
“It was the icing on the cake for me when word came from that dad could be here. The first thing he remarked on was the leaves on the trees because they were bare when he left to go to hospital. All the telling him about it afterwards wouldn’t have been the same. It was his day too. It was because of him and my mother that all this was possible.”
For the Garvey family of Gortbrack it was a once in a lifetime day that they couldn’t have envisaged in the wildest of dreaming.
Even Rip Van Winkle himself wouldn’t have fantasised that one during his long slumber.