Slí Eile was founded in 2004 by Joan Hamilton, whose pursuit of a better life for her own daughter who had a mental health challenge had led her to search for an alternative to psychiatric hospital, where admission periods were often long and where readmission rates were disturbingly high. After having spoken on local radio, Joan was approached by other concerned people, some of whom went on to join her in setting up the Cork Advocacy Network (CAN). Two public meetings were held, the second of which was chaired by broadcaster Vincent Browne and attended by the then Minister for Health, Michéal Martin, along with around 700 others.
An appearance on national television then brought Joan into contact with people with experience of promoting mental health recovery through farming and she worked with her collaborators in CAN to delineate the principles of another way (or slí eile in Irish). With guidance from the Irish Council for Social Housing, CAN set up a housing association. However, when it became clear that there were differing understandings within CAN of how best to proceed, Slí Eile was established as a separate housing association.
After an attempt to purchase a suitable property in Rathcormac failed because of a funding delay, a further attempt was made to purchase a property in Charleville. However, concerns of local residents led to a third property being sourced in another part of Charleville. The first tenants took up accommodation in this property, Villa Maria, in September 2006. They were supported by paid staff and volunteers to take responsibility for managing their own affairs. Slí Eile drew on a range of traditions, including especially William Glasser’s ‘Reality Therapy’ and the recovery-oriented practice of Hopewell Community Farm in Cleveland, Ohio.
With a background in food business, Joan went on to test the feasibility of setting up a bakery and Cuisine Slí Eile was established as a social enterprise supplying bread and scones to local businesses. A 2011 national television documentary about Slí Eile resulted in Cuisine Slí Eile being invited to supply an expanded range of baked products to the local SuperValu supermarket. Research studies undertaken around this time showed that Slí Eile was performing well in terms of tenant progression and overall cost-effectiveness.
In December 2012, a new phase of development occurred for Slí Eile when a lease was taken out on Burton Park, a 17th Century manor house and 50-acre organic farm in Churchtown. Burton Park then became the primary centre for Slí Eile and, with the help of leading horticulturalist Jim Cronin, the farm was developed as a second social enterprise. Relationships with people in the Churchtown area were excellent from the start and became stronger still through annual Summer Festivals and the establishment of a weekly Saturday Market with a wide range of stalls, a café and live music on offer.
Joan Hamilton retired in 2017 and was succeeded by Paul Doherty, a former Director of the Social and Health Education Project (SHEP), who had extensive experience of organisational development and leadership in the community sector and who had played a central role in developing the Supported Self-Directed Living (SSDL) approach to recovery-oriented mental health practice in Ireland whilst serving as Leadership Development Manager with Genio.
In 2018, the HSE, which had provided Slí Eile with essential support from its early days, conducted a major review of Slí Eile’s operations which resulted in enhanced funding being made available for an expanded programme of activities. This programme carried forward the two key strategies that had characterised Slí Eile’s earlier work – supported community living and ‘real-world’ social enterprise. To these, it added a third strategy – personal progression coaching. The coaching was introduced to ensure that Slí Eile tenants would avoid the dangers of institutionalisation and dependency and go on to successfully and sustainably claim their place in wider society. Tenants now generally stay at Slí Eile for no longer than 18 months before they move on to mainstream housing and occupation. As they move on, they can avail of ongoing coaching support and ongoing connection with the Slí Eile community. Over time, Slí Eile hopes to expand its ability to support people in regular community settings.