‘Battling to save our family farm led me to accountancy’

Fighting to save the family farm during the economic downturn in the 1980s prompted Eilis Quinlan to go into accountancy, a decision that paid off as she was recently named accountant of the year by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

Having met her husband Paddy – a professional showjumper and the first to be employed by the state through Bord na gCapall before becoming self-employed – when she was 18 and getting married when she was 19, Eilis enjoyed farming and showjumping with her husband in south Kildare before moving to Moyvalley in 1984.

The farm was over 400ac of mainly crops. “This was the first farm we owned ourselves, and that’s where we started our milking, but before moving there, we had the use of 50ac for the horses and we also rented an outside yard of 20ac stables close by,” Eilis said.

“Two years after getting married we had our first child, and then two more, so I was always at home on our farm, with the horses and cows. I would do the morning milking before the three kids would get up, and then be back in the kitchen to get them – or some of them – ready for school.

“In the mornings we would ride the horses and then get back to the kids, while Paddy did the evening milking. It was idyllic until the economic crash in the 1980s,” said Eilis, daughter of the late Labour minister and journalist, Justin Keating.

We had invested heavily in the farm in Moyvalley, and in a bigger milking system, and with interest rates well over 20% –  it’s hard for the new generations to fathom what that was like – we kept sinking deeper into debt, even though we had a monthly milk cheque and were paying the bank a fortune.

“We often couldn’t even cover the interest being charged. We sold off 14ac which gave us a bit of breathing space, but really we wanted to sell the whole thing and start again, but smaller.

“However, nobody wanted to buy, so when we finally bought the farm where we are now, we ended up with a bridging loan for over a year.

Hard times

“Times were really hard, and I decided I needed to do something drastic to help us before we ended up completely bankrupt. So I did what I always do when in doubt – I bought a book. But I ended up not being able to understand anything in it, so the next step was to find a course to attend,” said Eilis.

“The only course available to me at the time that I could do at night was the first year ACCA, so I did that in Rathmines College of Commerce. Paddy babysat three nights a week.

“I thought one year would sort me out, and I never intended doing more than that. However, once I started I absolutely loved it, so I just kept going and qualified in accountancy after three years,” she said.

“All the time we were farming, Paddy was showjumping, and I realised we could make this into a proper commercial enterprise.

“We had livery horses at the time, where people paid us to keep and compete them, and I started doing the books, keeping the records and charging properly. I worked closely with our accountant and things steadily improved after that.”

Brucellosis

They now live in Ballymore Eustace on almost 200ac, but suffered another setback there.

We brought our herd and our milk quota over here but an outbreak of Brucellosis less than 10 years later ended our milking as the herd was completely de-populated pretty much overnight.

“The compensation that the department of agriculture paid was only a fraction of what it would have cost to start rebuilding the herd, so we instead concentrated on the showjumping end of things. Recently we have invested heavily in trees.”

Eilis, whose accountancy practice is based in Naas, grew up on farms.

“We had 30ac with sheep. Then when I was 12, we moved to a bigger farm that was farmed in partnership with my father and another man. I was always knocking around the farm which was dairy and especially I helped with the calves. I loved the ponies. It was every little girl’s dream.”

Her original plan had been to become a vet. “I didn’t get the points, so I repeated out of school and at the same time started playing the cello seriously. By the time the next summer came around and I actually had enough points for veterinary, I decided I wanted to keep going with the cello instead,” said Eilis.

“I had a brilliant horse at the time and we both competed around the country and I milked 200 cows in between. I never had the urge after that to take up veterinary.”

Eilis and Paddy now keep horses, mainly both showjumpers and thoroughbreds. “We keep some brood mares and their progeny, and showjumping ponies for the kids and grandkids.”

Between family life, horses and accountancy, it all adds up to a busy lifestyle.

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