Living off the land with the moneyless man

The Environment Activist Who Gave up Possessions

It may be a long way to Tipperary, but it’s further still to Knockmoyle. Woven deep in the tractor-green countryside of county Galway, Knockmoyle is so remote that it evades both the taxi driver and his iPhone’s sat nav app.

Knockmoyle, Galway, Ireland. All photos by Charles Moriarty.

Our printed instructions tell us to look for a yellow house, but around each winding bend in the dirt track road lurks yet another yellow building. Several U-turns later we pull into the drive of a ramshackle, butter-coloured dwelling. Waving from the porch stands our host, Mark Boyle, an Irish activist and author of The Moneyless Man, The Moneyless Manifesto and Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, books which aim to “demystify money and the system that binds us to it.”

Weekend guests arriving at the eco-house.

In The Moneyless Manifesto, Boyle claims that without dependence on money and the superficial distractions that it generates, life can be more simple, more connected, more authentic — in short, more fulfilling — so I’m in Galway to spend the weekend with him at his house, a site that, with the help of volunteers, he has refurbished and rebuilt with the intention of establishing an eco-friendly, low impact community of his own in rural Ireland. 

The eco-house mid-build.

It’s something of an inauguration weekend for the refurbished site, celebrating the help (both financial and physical) of those who helped build the site. Eighty plus people, from permaculture enthusiasts to authors to circus performers and yoga teachers have travelled from as far as Fez, Morocco, to the site to participate in a weekend of talks, yoga, food, foraging and performances, all without a single Euro changing hands.  Meanwhile, I’m here to gain insight into a lifestyle which operates outside two of capitalism’s most fundamental constructs — wealth and ownership — and to see whether it really is possible to live, and more importantly, eat, outside Western economic norms.

Ironically, Boyle arrived at the idea of “moneylessness” after graduating with a degree in Business. Whilst working as the manager of an organic food company, Boyle began to feel the friction between his ideological beliefs and the reality of running a business. “I felt a disconnection from the natural world,” he tells me. In an attempt to get to the root of the social, environmental and geo-political problems that he saw damaging the world around him, Boyle decided to live out the ultimate eco-experiment by forgoing money altogether. For almost three years, Mark Boyle existed as The Moneyless Man.

The Moneyless Man Mark Boyle.

Boyle has lived in Knockmoyle for a few years now, during which he’s developed the three-acre site with minimal financial help. When he bought the property, he tells me, the site was in really bad condition. “The house hadn’t been lived in for a few years and the garden was a scrapheap of car parts.” Today, the site is a rudimentary set-up, but there is electricity, running water, two rudimentary showers and a couple of compost toilets. Along with the main house there is a second building, a former pig shed nicknamed the Happy Pig hand built by volunteers and funded via Crowd-funding, with a third cabin in the process of being built. Showers may be in short supply, but the moneyless bar is constantly stocked with bottles of whisky and endless cans of Guinness – this is Ireland after all – which guests are invited to add to and consume as they want. It’s a communal philosophy that extends to everything on site: contribute what you can, take what you need.

There are currently three people – Mark Boyle, Mark Singleton and Boyle’s partner Kirsty – living full-time in Knockmoyle, but Boyle tells me that he expects this micro community to expand to around eight people in the next year or so. Living a low-impact lifestyle, he has discovered, requires a community to succeed.

Inside The Happy Pig.

“We grown-ups strangely believe that money provides for us when it is actually Nature (which includes humans) that does so,” Boyle explains in The Moneyless Man. To start living without money requires one to “start living with the local gift economy”. In his Knockmoyle site, which isn’t quite moneyless, gift giving still plays an important role. During the weekend that I spend in Knockmoyle, everything from food to booze is provided by Boyle and his guests in a system of reciprocity. However, once the weekend guests have packed up their tents, Boyle intends to revert to his main goal: creating a self-sufficient site. 

The site’s land, Boyle tells me, was designed in line with permaculture principles. A term coined by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the late ‘70s, “permaculture” means both “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture”, and involves following the patterns of natural ecosystems and integrating social aspects of farming to create sustainable agriculture. In the garden and poly-tunnel, tomatoes, kale, cabbages, chard and other vegetables are grown. Lately though, building The Happy Pig and a third cabin has been keeping the residents busy. “We’ve regressed on the vegetable front,” Mark admits when I ask him about his vegetables. Still, once the cabin is fully built this autumn, the residents of Knockmoyle East are eager to turn their attention back to the production of food. An orchard has been planted, which Boyle refers to as “the Forest Garden” because it has been designed to replicate a naturally occurring forest eco-system; eighty fruit trees have been planted and ten to fifteen nut trees. Along with the trees, crops will grow, which will provide the means for food and clothes, although Boyle estimates that the Forest Garden will take between ten and twenty years to grow. In the mean time, Boyle tells me the garden and poly-tunnel will allow the site to be 80% self-sufficient within a year.

Mark Boyle and the author.

Mark Boyle refers to his home-grown garden as “semi-wild” – the meeting of the human world with the wild. In order to live off the land in rural Ireland in 2016, planting seeds and crops is inevitable. A long-term vegan, Boyle is now reconsidering his entire food philosophy. Experience has led him to the pursuit of a more primal lifestyle he describes to me as “hunter-gatherer”. Fish will soon be sourced from a nearby river. “The goal is to be largely hunter-gatherer, and supplement that with the food grown here,” he explains. For this weekend, though – luckily for my rumbling stomach – foraging expert Fergus Drennan is on-hand to demonstrate the culinary potential of the nearby woodland.

For Drennan, foraging food from the wild means more than a free bowl of nettle soup. On his website, Fergus describes himself as a “wild food experimentalist and educator”, but he’s probably better known as The Road-kill Chef following his starring role in a BBC television programme of the same name. When I meet Drennan on the first day of our visit, he is leading a group into the Galway wilderness in pursuit of wild fruit and plants. At the top of his list are chanterelle mushrooms. Three hours later, we have penetrated deep into a nearby forest, and Drennan is excitably waving golden-hued chanterelles over the heads of the assembled crowd.

Fergus the forager.

The next day, when we sit down for a chat, he is deflated. “I’m not the happy, joyful forager I was ten years ago,” he confesses: the road kill chef is disillusioned by the very lifestyle he’s spent his career promoting. “It gets too much, honestly. It gets too much.”  When I ask Fergus how much of a role foraging plays in his everyday life, he replies, “Very little, apart from running courses.” Along with expensive organically sourced meat from the organic shops and bio-dynamic farm near his house in Sussex, he eats “accidental” venison found in nearby Ashdown forest. Finding dead venison is rare, but the animals are so huge that they can fill his freezer for months on end.

Foraged Raspberries.

“It’s not just about food,” Drennan tells me when I ask how he would define foraging. “It’s about fifty different things. There are so many aspects of it that I don’t want to start talking about any without mentioning them all. It’s to do with wellbeing and connection on so many levels. Connection to yourself; what you are as a human being; where you’re going as a human being individually, culturally; humanity in general… It’s both a celebration of being alive and our ancestors, but also a question of what does it mean to feed yourself ethically, sustainably, joyfully, consciously in the modern world? To what extent can it be made to make practical and spiritual sense?” It’s a question that explains Fergus’ recent inertia, and something I’ve been asking myself since I arrived at Knockmoyle East: can alternative, low (or zero) cost forms of food production, whether consumption of road-kill, planting allotments and orchards or river fishing exist outside the isolate utopian community that Mark has created?

Fergus exploring the woods.

For Fergus, the problem with foraging is human. He recently discovered the impact of human existence on the natural world when he had a foraged plant analysed. “It’s partly the frustrations of living in the south east of England and wanting to explore foraging in much more depth but not having answers about bioaccumulation of heavy metals in seeds and fungi. If you’re going to pick from a habitat every day, you need to know these things. These questions wouldn’t have been relevant two hundred years ago. People are constantly looking at me some kind of guru of foraging, projecting all these things onto me and I can’t stand it. But partly what I can’t stand is that I feel sad that I have to burst the bubble.” Here, a line is drawn between Fergus’ practical, scientific approach to food and the more ideological approach pursued by Mark. “It’s a big issue in terms of moneylessness in that moneyless people don’t fund research to find out what’s going on in the land,” Fergus tells me.

Billy the neighbour.

Foraging might be free but it’s certainly not a realistic substitute for your vegetable patch (ok, Tesco). As Boyle admits, “9 billion people can’t live off foraging in an entirely denuded landscape. The problem isn’t foraging itself, as ultimately it is the only sustainable way of eating, the problem is the impact so many people have had on the natural world, and industrial civilisation’s insatiable demands for growth.” Boyle’s developing hunter-gatherer approach to nutrition, supplemented by fruit and vegetables grown from seed in the three-acre garden may provide enough food for the eight or so people who will eventually live on the Knockmoyle site but his plan is not without its cynics. “We have 130 people working in our eco-village,” one of the weekend guests admits, “and its still not sustainable.”

The author watching activities in the garden.

“We try to form prescriptive solutions of what we should do,” Mark Boyle tells his assembled guests. “There are sixty of us here and we probably each have a different answer. It’s a question for each of us: what are we going to do with our lives?”

The author and Fergus.

Spending a weekend in Knockmoyle eating foraged, garden grown and gifted food has put a question mark over my own magpie-eyed attraction to overpriced food chains and taught me that sometimes, there is such thing as a free lunch if you know where to look. Back in smoggy London though, foraging is unthinkable. Boyle is right: there are alternatives to working twelve hour days to pay for things we don’t need, but without packing in city life and moving to the middle of nowhere, living a money-less, low impact lifestyle simply isn’t possible.

By Bryony Stone

Photography: Charles Moriarty

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What do we own? Continues next week when Milly McMahon & Christian Belgaux join 21 year-old tech millionaire Evan Luthra for yachts and lobster in Ibiza.