My farming background: ‘What I loved was that I saw my dad all the time’

Saturdays, summer holidays and family occasions all had one thing in common, while growing up at the McEntee household, in Castletown-Kilpatrick, Co. Meath – loads of work needed to be done on the farm.

Whether picking stones, standing in a gap, herding cattle, scraping out sheds or helping with milking, Helen McEntee, her older brother, Vincent, sisters, Aoife and Sally, and any other idle youngsters in the vicinity of the family’s dairy holding, were rounded up for jobs.

Hailing from a strong farming lineage, McEntee (31) says her dad – the late Fine Gael minister of state at the department of agriculture, food and the marine, Shane McEntee – instilled in his children that they must “work to earn“, if they wanted to succeed.

Sitting down with AgriLand, in her impressive, time-honoured office – located in the Department of the Taoiseach – it is obvious those words were not lost on the current Fine Gael Minister for European Affairs.

“Dad was the farmer and he never wanted to leave anyone out. If there was cattle to be moved two miles up the road; if fields needed to be ploughed; he’d appear with about 10 different children from around the place; we’d all be helping out.

“The idea of lying in bed until all hours wasn’t an option. He would be roaring up the stairs at 8:00am telling us to ‘get up, half the day was done‘,” she smiled.

Although McEntee’s family – including her mother Kathleen – were constantly on the go with the farm, she says she wouldn’t change a thing about her rural upbringing.

What I loved was that I saw my dad all the time. You’d get up for breakfast before school, and he would be coming in having done practically a full day’s work. He would always be around; I loved that.

At the same time, McEntee also recollects the hardship of farming.

“Because we had a small farm, dad eventually ended up working off-farm too for a company supplying meal – and other products – to farmers. He also took over a lease in a pub.

“The size of the farm became unsustainable. It is a very difficult life; up at the crack of dawn; home every evening milking cows; there isn’t really any holidays. Financially it became too difficult, it wasn’t just the option for him in the end,” she said.

‘Family, football, Fine Gael and farming’

McEntee’s father first became an active a member of Fine Gael when he joined the party at the age of just 15. He was selected as the Fine Gael candidate in the Meath by-election in 2004.

There was always four ‘f’s’ at home – family, football, Fine Gael and farming. My grandad was one of the founding members of the local Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) branch. Fine Gael and farming were married together.

However, farming was never on McEntee’s career radar. She studied economics, politics and law at Dublin City University (DCU), and spent a year working in a bank in 2007.

After returning to college to further herself in journalism and communications, McEntee starting working with her father. He was opposition deputy spokesperson on agriculture from 2007 to 2011. She was his parliamentary assistant.

“The fact that he ended up being minister of state for agriculture, was something he – and the entire family – was extremely proud of,” she said, adding that her father – a GAA stalwart – also trained 11 local GAA teams over the years in The Royal County.

“Being in the department, and seeing how things actually work behind the scenes was definitely an eye-opener. Some things don’t appear as straight forward as they seem.

“For farmers, ash dieback was a massive issue. Dad developed a body for organics organisations so they could work together to benefit the area of organics. I was also very involved on pyrite issues,” she said.

As McEntee’s political experience grew, so did her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.

“We discussed local elections. But, my own view was that there wouldn’t be a seat for me in Meath East for a long time; and local elections were the natural starting point,” she said.

On December 21, 2012, the then government announced the sudden and tragic death Shane McEntee. The popular TD had taken his own life at the age of just 56.

In the midst of her unspeakable grief and loss, McEntee felt compelled to complete her father’s work.

“For me, dad always did it for the right reason; he wanted to get a good result for people. To see the positive impact, that’s what it’s about.

“After something like that, you’re probably on autopilot for a while – but in my head, I just knew I was going to go into politics.

I didn’t have to think twice about it, it came naturally. Losing wasn’t really an option. My sights were set. I wanted to make sure his work, and his intentions, didn’t fall away.

In the initial months after her father’s passing, McEntee vigorously prepared for local elections. She was first elected as a TD at the 2013 Meath East by-election.

“Things just haven’t stopped since then. Some people would say that’s not a good thing, but for me it has been good, everybody deals with things differently. It has kept me positive and focused; you need to have a focus when things like that happen,” she said.

‘Farmers should not suffer in silence’

As her father’s five year anniversary approaches, McEntee says farmers dealing with personal battles, should not suffer in silence.

“Anybody who has lost anyone, not just to suicide, but anyone who has lost someone suddenly like that, it will always have an impact on you.

The age profile of farmers in their 40s, 50s and 60s grew up in an era where they didn’t talk about their feelings – they didn’t talk about anything considered ‘namby-pamby’. But it’s vital to talk.

“From a really young age, people need to understand that feelings of stress or anxiety are normal. But we have to make an environment where people feel it is okay to talk about it,” she said.

McEntee raised particular concerns for farmers working in routine isolation.

“A farmer could be out on his own for 7/8/9 hours a day in a field with only their own thoughts, sometimes that can be the most damaging thing about it all.

“It [mental health in farming] is something we need to continue to focus on with the IFA, and various other farm organisations, and groups, to give people a safe place to open up,” she said.

Rural Ireland

As for revitalising remote corners of rural Ireland, McEntee – who recently married her long-term love and Roscommon native Paul Hickey, who comes from a sheep farm – has total confidence in Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

“There is a perception out there that rural Ireland is dead and gone; and I completely disagree. We have created 225,000 jobs over the seven years; over 70% of them have been outside Dublin. We are setting very ambitious targets in the new action plan for jobs, which is very rural based.

“Leo is doing very well. Just because someone isn’t from a rural background, doesn’t mean they can’t have an authority or an understanding. He has a good handle on the issues that need to be tackled and Leo will always ask people’s views and opinions,” she said.

As for her new role as Minister for European Affairs, where she has served since June of this year, McEntee will be working closely with the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney – both of whom she considers “good friends“.

The UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) is central to her brief.

“Brexit is the here and now, and we’re doing what we can to try to mitigate the impact that will happen. We will also be launching a civic dialogue on the future of Europe shortly; emphasising the significance of our membership of the EU for the last 45 years,” she said.

However, true to her father’s spirit, McEntee continues to keep her ear to the ground in her local constituency. And although, her own immediate siblings did not opt for farming, she is optimistic about the next generation.

“It happens in some families that it just skips, it doesn’t continue on. But in the new generation there are some cousins who are looking into it and showing signs of interest. It moves in cycles, we’ll just have to wait and see,” she said.