South Armagh wellbeing centre and social farm best project in Northern Ireland

A Wellness Centre and Social Farm in south Armagh has been named Northern Ireland Project of the Year by the National Lottery.

An Tobar in Silverbridge provides ways for adults and children to improve their health and well-being.

It was formed by sisters Margaret Finnegan and Kathleen Finnegan- Agnew in April 2018 based on their farm, a 40-acre site that has been in their mother's family for at least 300 years.

The land has reputed healing powers and after running the farm commercially for 30 years the sisters decided they wanted to take a more community-centred approach with their land.  

They launched a social farming programme along with ecotherapy and educational programmes that worked with schools to provide gardening opportunities to children.  

They have planted thousands and thousands of trees, created nature trails, and brought poetry out of the classroom and into the woods.

“We planted up a lot of what would have been formerly grazing area pasture into trees,” explained Kathleen, “and now we’ve built the trails and that's where we do a lot of our workshops. We do mindfulness, forest school, forest bathing and nature walks. We also work with school groups and youth organisations.”

She added: "We work with people with learning disabilities and so we've had a lot of people through the site in the last few years."

The National Lottery Awards are the annual search for the UK's favourite Lottery-funded projects and people.

More than 1,300 nominations were received in this year's campaign and following a public vote An Tobar was the most popular project based in Northern Ireland.  

Actor and comedian Ardal O'Hanlon presented the winning trophy to An Tobar.

Comedian and actor Ardal O'Hanlon presented the award. Credit: UTV

He said: “My ancestors come from this part of the world, from a neighbouring town here, called Mullaghbawn. So it's quite special to me from that point of view. But then you turn the corner and you are in An Tobar, it's a magical place."

Speaking about it further he said: “What I particularly like about it is that it's not-for-profit. It was a very successful commercial farm and they've turned it into a place that's very accessible to the community. So there's a lot to really like about it. But everyone will tell you that in terms of your mental health and your wellbeing there's no substitute for nature”.

In 2019 the sisters planted more than 13,000 native trees to create Brian's Wood, named after two of their uncles of the same name who died in infancy.

Last year they enhanced the access to the woodland, especially for young people with additional learning needs, carers and families from lower socio-economic backgrounds, by improving nature trails, planting trees and installing new seating, preserving this heritage for future generations.  

They also carried out 60 workshops covering a range of topics, from forest bathing to geology to community and cultural heritage with the help of funding from The National Lottery.  

Kathleen added: “Anybody can come in and use the space as their own. It doesn't have to be as part of a guided tour with ourselves. And on Friday mornings, we also have a community Café where people can just drop in and have a cup of tea and a chat. We're trying to create a social hub in the area where people can come in and connect with each other.

She continued: “And it's all about telling stories and having a bit of craic.

Kathleen and Margaret have big plans for An Tobar going forward. Whatever they do though, the well-being of the community and social farming will remain at its heart.

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