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Small Talk with Donal Kearney from the Irish Institute of Sports Surfaces

Donal Kearney, managing director of the Irish Institute of Sport Surfaces

This week, talks to Donal about his start in horticulture, his recent success and greatest challenges



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26 January 2024

In association with Tully Nurseries

At Growtrade, we’re running an interview series titled ‘Small Talk’, where we talk to various influential members of Ireland’s horticulture trade. This week’s conversation is with Donal Kearney from the Irish Institute of Sports Surfaces.

How did you get your start in horticulture?

At a very young age I learned from my parents how to grow healthy vegetables on a shoestring budget using sustainable methods that included use of organic well rotted farmyard manure from our part time farm, using non mechanised methods of hand tools and a rusty wheelbarrow over a half acre site. In 1994 I progressed into formal horticulture education at An Grianan College of Horticulture in Termonfeckin Co. Louth. I gained a high quality wide range of horticultural training in each of the horticulture sections of fruit, vegetable, nursery, grounds maintenance and golf course. 

The golf course construction boom in Ireland was taking off and An Grianan was the first college in Ireland to offer a Diploma qualification in Sportsturf management in horticulture. An Grianan trained some of the best horticulturalists that are in our industry today and was a college ideally located on the grounds of the ICA (Irish Country Women’s Association) which sadly closed in the early 2000’s. In my opinion, like many other colleges such as Multyfarnham in Co. Westmeath should never have been allowed to close. Indeed it was an early indication to me how poorly represented the Irish horticulture industry was in Ireland and how low on the list of priorities it was sitting in the Department of Agriculture. 

What was one of the proudest moments in your career to date?

I have many proud moments including interning in the USA working on two golf courses under construction, growing in construction at the Old Head of Kinsale, volunteering as the sportsturf industry representative in 2010 on the FETAC awards review committee. This is where I wrote the first national awards for sports surfaces that now many other companies benefit from today. Additionally, I was the first regional advisor for the Institute of Groundsmanship in Ireland, 2006. 

What was one of the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your career to date?

As a senior greenkeeper on the Co. Sligo links in Rosses point where I spent three years, I was determined to also develop my education to a BSc. I moved to the UK in 2002, leaving a job I loved and living in lovely Sligo in order to pursue this education as there was not any available degree courses in Ireland at that time.

Give us an example of a recent success you had in your work.

Most recently I wrote a research paper extending from my dissertation MSc in occupational safety and health. An abstract of my paper An Analysis of the Safety Climate of Outdoor Landscape Workers’ is to be presented for the international conference of Occupational Health 2024.

What are the greatest challenges facing the industry today?

For a small industry there is no obvious clear education pathway in horticulture that is inclusive for people of all abilities and backgrounds. Horticulture is a practical ‘hands on’ profession. Apprenticeships in horticulture should begin at QQI level 4, as there is a clear absence of skilled workers at operator level. Starting apprenticeships at QQI level 6 is too theory based for new entrants resulting in too many dropping out. Further to this, applicants at level 7 or level 8 degrees in horticulture should not be allowed entry without 5 yrs of practical ‘hands on’ work experience as a minimum. Due to these factors there is a severe labour shortage resulting in the majority of unskilled workers going to higher paid employment in construction. 

What are the greatest opportunities facing the industry today?

There is an opportunity for a singular umbrella organisation representing all the various sectors within the horticulture industry in Ireland. The horticulture industry in Ireland will gain greater opportunities with one voice to lobby government and access greater funding from the EU. As the Emerald Isle, we are missing out on a united industry approach to support each other as a clean green industry, the opportunities are endless.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their career in horticulture?

Gain experience with various employers and understand their business to market and opportunities, as this is not and should be thought of as a desk based industry. Understand soils, soil physics and soil biodiversity for all areas of horticulture. 

What are your hopes for the future of Irish horticulture?

A coming together of the horticulture sectors where a common approach can be taken to solve common challenges. We have too many individual horticulture groups who do not work together and address the career pathways needed for further development. Otherwise it remains controlled by trading companies who persuade decision makers for their own interests only, rather than the development of the Irish horticulture industry. 

The Irish Institute of Sports Surfaces has been providing  independent sports turf design & consultancy services since 2009. For more information, visit:

Small Talk is produced in association with Tully Nurseries, one of Ireland’s wholesale nurseries supplying landscape contractors, garden centres, DIYs and supermarkets in Ireland and the UK. For more visit


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