Saturday 17 February 2024

Straw-bale gardening

Many of the straw bales you see across the fields of County Kildare these days are mammoth cylinders that you would have difficulty moving without farm equipment. But on some horse farms you can still find the older kind of straw bales – rectangular, metre-long, hefted by hand.

Straw bales have many uses – as seats, as compost bins, as borders to a garden to keep out rabbits. On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. People still do this today to create sheds, barns, homes and even churches, and they provide great insulating walls – and are no more a fire hazard than wood.

If you don’t have the wood or time to build regular garden beds, you could plant a garden directly inside your bales.

First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales, or add urine in whatever way will not upset your neighbours.

After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw.

The best straw bales for a garden are wheat, oats, rye or barley straw. These consist of stalks left from harvesting grain; they have been through a combine harvester and had the seeds threshed from them, leaving none or very few left. I got mine from a farmer in Maynooth who still uses the small bales.

Hay bales for gardening are less popular as they have the whole stalk and seed heads with mucho seeds. They also often have other weeds and grass seeds to cause trouble. Use what you can get locally — it may even be lucerne, pea straw, vetch or alfalfa bales. Corn and linseed (flax) bales are not so good as they are very coarse, and linseed straw takes a long time to decompose due to the oil residue left on the stalks.

An approach like this is not for everyone – it requires a great deal of water, which was not a problem for me, who lives along the canals. Other people might find it too much trouble. But it can allow elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests. It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it cuts down on the amount of weeding.

Most of all, this approach can work well for homeowners with what I call suburban soil: a thin layer of grass and topsoil, covering clay and builders’ rubble from the construction of the house. Such people need to build up their soil, and straw bales allow you to bring in the organic material to do so – and straw makes a light and easily portable material.

By the time your gardening project is done for the year, the straw bales will be well-decomposed, and you can simply take apart the soil and wet straw and spread it over your garden as winter approaches. The straw will keep weeds down like mulch, but unlike mulch is already partly decomposing and will finish turning back into soil quickly, and can be mixed with the rest of the soil come spring.

If you’re just starting to garden, try doing this with bales the first year, and that gives you an additional year to build wooden or stone beds; by the time they’re done, you have the soil to fill them. In effect, you will have created soil without having to lift the mineral and water content that comprises most of the soil’s weight.


Photo by Mohamed Haddi, courtesy of WikiCommons.


Friday 2 February 2024

Jobs then and now

Johann Hamza, The Blacksmith's Forge. Public domain.             
Somewhere in an elderly relative’s mouse-chewed attic there probably sits a dusty photograph of you – you as a child, smiling and proud one Halloween, wearing a tiny uniform of the thing you were going to be. You had it all planned out; you were going to be a farmer or fireman, cowboy or doctor, or some other role that a child can instantly identify and adore.

For most of us life hasn’t worked out that way. A few become firefighters, of course (one in a thousand) or doctors (two in a thousand), but most of us -- for the first time in human history -- do not work at jobs that any child would understand or care about. Three-quarters of Westerners work office jobs – telemarketers, marketing managers, Assistant Diversity Officers, and other growing titles that never existed until yesterday, all to describe where we fit in an ecosystem of office plankton. Everyone jokes grimly about hating their job and hangs Dilbert cartoons on their cubicles, and waits until Friday, as they cling like fleas to the undersides of corporations for as long as they can before being dislodged.

It was a shock, then, to hear my elderly neighbours talk of their work life. Many learned crafts passed down through families until they became surnames – smith, mason, miller, thatcher, tailor, baker, carter, cooper, and wright. By the time they were men and women they were respected masters, keepers of secrets handed down through generations. They spoke of shaping wood and iron and leather in ways everyone could see and respect. Saddlers and scutchers, farriers and felters, cobblers and cordwainers – even grave-diggers and churchbell-ringers spoke of their jobs with an enthusiasm I rarely see today.

“I jump out of bed on a Sunday morning for my ringing day,” said bell-ringer Leslie Taylor in an interview in Dublin Voices. “I am the elected ringing master, chosen by my fellow ringers who are members of the society ...I’m one of the people who have in one way or another serviced the cathedral in some way since its foundation in 1038. ... I’d like to die in the belfry … when I’m ringing.”

It’s worth examining why most people in traditional societies spoke so fondly of their jobs and modern people do not, since work would seem to be one area where life has unarguably improved in modern times. The long hours and unsafe conditions we remember from Dickens and Upton Sinclair have much improved, thanks to unions and labour laws, and for that we should be grateful.

Victorian factories and coal mines, though, were a historical anomaly, appearing only with the discovery of fossil fuels. Before the mid-1800s in Britain, and the mid-1900s in Ireland, most people were farmers or craftsmen. Also, when people today refer to “modern” jobs, they tend to be those of middle-to-upper-clasFirst-Worlders, not those of the near-slaves that made our clothes and laptops. We compare the worst of their time with the best of ours.

If we compare our eight-hour day in a cubicle to the 15-hour day of a Victorian factory worker, both working corporate jobs for hourly wages, of course we come out far ahead. As Jaques Ellul pointed out, though, we can’t compare our office job to the day of a village craftsman, who chooses their own tempo and rhythm, who mentors and is aided by apprentices or children, and who stops to chat with passers-by. We can praise the progress from 1850 to 1950, he said, but “we cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950. In so doing, we would be comparing things which are not comparable.”

Making hay in Ireland (Irish photo archive)
Even then, Ellul was assuming a 15-hour day, but most of our ancestors -- craftsmen and peasants – worked far less. Historian James Thorold Rogers estimated that medieval peasants – whom we think of as the most menial peoples of the most backward age – worked no more than eight hours a day, a figure backed up by several other studies. Labourers rarely worked an entire day for a lord; half a solar day’s work was considered a full working day, so peasants who worked sunrise to sunset were credited for two days’ work. Medieval Christians, moreover, had so many holidays – in the literal sense of “holy days” – that Nora Ritchie calculated they only worked half as many days per year as modern Americans.

The modern age has many advantages, of course; I can pull open a laptop and work from anywhere, and make more in a month than my great-grandparents made in a year. I'm grateful for all that. But most of those jobs move electrons around a screen; they build nothing, and leave us with nothing that we can feel or use, or say we built. They are part of a world that gives us everything we want, but little that we need. More on that next week.

Sunday 28 January 2024

The past and future of food


When I give talks about a good, healthy future, I tell the audience that living sustainably doesn’t always involve inventing new technologies or ways of living. Quite often, I say, it involves rediscovering old ways that our grandparents knew but that we have forgotten.

I get a lot of objections to this from people who insist – as is fashionable to do these days – that everything in the past was terrible. Everyone was dumber than we are, everyone was a religious fanatic or a Nazi, everyone was starving, everyone died at 30, and so on. I’ve talked before about how educated most people were a century or two ago compared to ourselves, and I’ll talk more later about how we’ve taken the Nazis and retroactively superimposed them on every complex human situation. Right now, though, let’s look at some of the claims about food and health.

First of all, there was never an age when everyone died at 30. It is true that more infants died in the past, and while we are lucky to be spared that horror, it does warp the average; in many times and places, young adults could expect to live as long as they do today. A book of the Bible written perhaps 25 centuries ago said that humans live “threescore years and ten,” or 70 years, and that tracks with many traditional peoples around the world. Of those who survived infancy, 1850-era British men – mostly working-class -- lived to be 73 on average; life expectancy today for working-class British men today is only 72.

Nor were people starving in most times and places. Nineteenth-century British weren’t all begging for gruel, but usually enjoyed diets “vastly superior to that generally consumed today, one substantially in advance of current public health recommendations.” They ate more fruit and vegetables than most First-Worlders today, as well as nuts and organ meats high in micronutrients – most of the things fitness instructors recommend today, and they ate up to twice as much as we do. Similar examples come from many traditional societies; they lived more vigorous lives, so needed extra calories to survive -- and they did, because you’re reading this. As writer Chad Mulligan put it, starving people don’t build cathedrals.

Of course there have been severe famines in history, most famously Ireland. Yet that resulted from the British seizing the land for plantations to export food to Britain, while small farmers were forced to rely on the one crop with enough calories to feed them. When that crop caught a disease, there was nothing to fall back on, and what might have been unfortunate but survivable turned into a mass death. It was also genocide, as British plantations continued to export food to Britain even as their Irish workers starved.

Another truism of modern life is that all food until yesterday bland, rotten and generally disgusting. Just as people today insist that all earlier generations were less free, less healthy, less educated and less tolerant than we are, they insist that food must have been a daily ordeal, tolerable only because they were too ignorant to realise how miserable they were.

Sometimes people cite the often-repeated stories of bakers padding out bread ingredients with ash and bone and lead. As historian Frederick Filby demonstrated almost a century ago, however, those stories – 18th-century clickbait– could not possibly have been true. Filby tried baking bread with the alleged ingredients and found that it almost never became anything resembling bread, and were often more expensive to make than the real thing anyway. Also, food manufacturers put dubious substances into our food now, as we will see later.

Also, the examples many people give – say, of their grandparents’ olive loaf or fruit jello -- are not traditional foods at all, but were early examples of processed factory-made food that have simply fallen out of fashion, or marked as unforgivably working-class. Other people point out that old cookbooks never call for much seasoning, and are bland if you cook the dishes as described. But old recipes tended to give the basics of preparing a dish, with the assumption that people would add whatever herbs and “seasonings” were, well, in season.

Most traditional peoples eat far more variety than we do; English farmers record eating now-neglected meats like pigeons, rabbits, pheasants and geese; now-forgotten vegetables like cardoons, chicory and scorzonera; underappreciated fruits like damsons and medlars, and of course wild foods like Fat Hen, nettles, hawthorn, sorrel, dulse and samphire. These weren’t inferior foods that we ate out of desperation -- I can personally attest that most of these taste amazing – but they have been largely forgotten. Some were abandoned because of changing fashions, others because they did not fit our modern mass-production systems – medlars, for example, need to be picked when they are just slightly over-ripe, and cannot sit on a shelf for weeks. 

Also, the elders I talked to worked hard, and worked up an appetite. Few of us today have ever done this, but when you do, food tastes great by itself, and doesn’t need a lot of added chemicals to make it appetising. “It was wholesome food, plain and simple, and the golden rule was ‘get it into you and it will do you good.’” John Curran said in his memoir Tides of Change. They were also grateful for the food they had worked hard to earn; they had overseen the plants from seed to crop, and the animals from womb to adulthood to knife. We have no such connection to the hog factory workers or the genetic laboratories where the corn was designed, or the Godzilla-sized machines that harvest it. We have mountains of food, but it appears before us without context, removed from our capacity for gratitude.

In addition, meals were communal, and the company was as important as the food. Some of my most cherished memories are of Thanksgiving or Christmas at my grandparents’ small house, with aunts and uncles laughing and chatting as they prepared the meals together, set up the tables and finally packed together snugly to eat, chat, laugh and share stories. The food was great because it was shared in the company of loved ones, not because it was heaped with flavour chemicals.

“They were great old days,” John Lyons said in his memoir Joy of my Boyhood Years. “There was not much money around, but we had happiness and joy in our hearts, and every neighbour’s house was the same as your own. You could walk in any time of day or night.  The kettle was always on the boil, the tea was made, you sat down and you were handed a mug of tea with plenty of sugar and a yellow square hot off the griddle, with lashings of butter – a delicious feed. My mouth waters with longing when I think of it.”


Thursday 25 January 2024

Buildup to the riots


From my article:

There has been a surge in murder, rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, as well as a few shocking and previously unknown crimes—as when, in April 2022, a Muslim immigrant murdered two men, one of them by beheading, and stabbed a third man in the eye, after using a gay dating app to target his victims. Gauging how many of these crimes are committed by immigrants is difficult, however, as the media initially report only the perpetrators’ place of residence—a reticence that does nothing to allay suspicion.

When the national media do discuss such crimes, they generally blame Irish culture, rather than the assailants’ own cultures. After the beheading, for example, former president Mary McAleese blamed Christian churches for being “conduits of homophobia,” even though the assailant was from a Muslim country. When 23-year-old schoolteacher Ashling Murphy was stabbed 11 times by a Roma migrant in 2022, the Guardian ran an article on Ireland’s “culture of misogyny.”

Tuesday 23 January 2024

A changing country

From the Quillette article

Following a quarter-century of immigration, however, more than 20 percent of Ireland’s population is now foreign-born, and the immigrants keep coming; the number of asylum-seekers increased by 415 percent last year. According to Ireland’s Newstalk programme, 70 percent of those immigrants were male, and almost 40 percent had false or no passports. On the rare occasions on which an immigrant is ordered to be deported, only around one out of every seven deportation orders are actually carried out.

By the end of 2024, government spending on welfare payments is expected to have tripled from that of 2020. And this increase comes at a time when two-thirds of Irish people under 40 cannot afford to purchase a home and an unprecedented number of Irish people are homeless. Ireland is wealthy on paper—particularly thanks to the pharmaceutical and tech companies headquartered around Dublin—but much of that supposed “foreign investment” involves a kind of corporate tax dodge—and the cost of living has skyrocketed. To ease the strain on Dublin, the government has been shipping immigrants to rural areas en masse. In some country villages, asylum-seekers now outnumber Irish.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Published at Quillette

I'm delighted to report that Quillette magazine has published my piece on the Dublin riots, as well as the censorship bill going through the Irish Parliament as we speak. 

What's happening in Ireland is part of a much larger trend affecting every Western country, so this is an important story with a lot of moving parts, and I hope to report on more in the months to come. 

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Victory Gardens

Imagine Hollywood celebrities campaigning for backyard gardens, and America’s best-selling music stars singing songs about patriotic recycling. It may sound crazy, but that actually happened eighty years ago. As the USA entered World War II, much of the food industry focused on the war effort. Farmhands were needed at the front, machinery for planes, and people needed to do more for themselves. A grass-roots movement spread across both countries to create “victory gardens,” and the idea was picked up by celebrities, politicians and the media.

Similarly, In Great Britain, 60 percent of food was imported when World War II began, and most of that food now had to be grown locally – and everyone pitched in. Radio programmes, magazines and movie newsreels showed families how to save grease for machinery and bones for fertiliser, how to turn their yards and neighbourhood vacant lots into gardens into an allotment garden. They explained how to clamp potatoes under mounds of hay to keep them for the winter, and how to save energy when cooking food by setting stews in hay-stuffed boxes to slow-cook.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the victory gardens worked. They allowed most people to grow their own food, and spend less money. They put to work the precious space that is now being used simply as lawns or landscaping features. In a time when energy was scarce, they allowed more trucking and food to be used for the war effort. They ensured that millions of people became self-sufficient, and were insulated from the chaos of energy shortages and supply chain disorder. In the event of a crisis, every gardener makes your neighbourhood more secure. The gardens meant that people spent less money – the less money you need to spend on food, the more you can put away for paying the mortgage or eliminating the credit card debt. They created more beautiful neighbourhoods, gave people exercise, and brought communities together.

Victory gardens meant that citizens ate better food as  well – fresher than can be bought at any store, with the maximum nutrition and no chemicals. A now-forgotten 1977 Congressional panel observed that heart attacks and strokes went down in the war years, even with the stresses of war and a demographic shift toward the elderly, because of more fresh vegetables in their diet.

Such gardens also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which are currently used to plough fields, make fertilizers, create pesticides, harvest, process crops and transport them to market. Gardens eliminate all those steps at once, reducing a 10,000-kilometre diet to a 10-metre one. While Ireland never entered into World War II, the same thing was done here – council estates gave families as much land as a cow needed, and it was once common, I’m told, to see cows, pigs and chickens in many yards in Dublin. Even schools and hospitals had their own gardens to feed those inside.

Writer and former Soviet citizen Dmitri Orlov wrote that most Russians had kitchen gardens, and that 90 percent of the country’s food was grown in such plots. Even though they were formed from necessity, because of the poverty of the nation and the incompetence of centralized agriculture, they ended up being a blessing – as the nation collapsed, the people could still eat. He warns that many nations in the West are now heading for a crisis, but are not as well prepared.

Could we feed ourselves again? We have in the past, and with less knowledge and technology than we have now. Australian ecologist David Holmgren has estimated that his country’s cities could not only feed their own population, but become net food exporters, if the yards and golf courses were replaced by everything from leeks to cardoons to turnips. Presumably the same could be done in similar cities in Europe and America.

Some people are doing this now – still a small group, but in an emergency they could be the ones who teach others, as a similarly small fraction of the population could teach others when World War II began. Within only two years, though, Americans were growing almost half their own food. It could happen again, and if the next few years were to bring another fuel crisis, or a civil war, or an economic crash, or any number of other possibilities, every backyard could be an ark that could carry people through the storm.

Monday 15 January 2024



Sorry for the gap in writing; some of you know that there’s
been a lot happening in my life, and not just the riots.

I won’t go into details, but I’ll be posting a lot more in the future, both here and on social media, and on my web site. I’m also trying to find an agent and publisher for the completed book, which Rod Dreher was so kind as to promote onhis Substack.

Friday 22 December 2023

Upcoming article on Dublin riots

Dublin a few nights ago.
The same scene during the riots.

Sorry for not posting much - I'm flying to America tomorrow, and between that and the article I'm writing on the Dublin riots, it's been busy. 

From the article: 

"Most other attacks had been rural or in poor areas, easier to sweep under the rug. This was in the heart of the city, the main shopping district at Christmas season, in a square named for a national hero, in the neighbourhood where the Irish Revolution began a century ago. It was next door to where Irish icon Oliver St. John Gogarty once lived. It was around the corner from a memorial to the innocents killed by an IRA bomb in the 1970s. It was at an Irish-language school, favoured by people proud of their heritage, in neighbourhoods now populated heavily by migrants."

Sunday 3 December 2023

Avoiding the Same Old Crops

As pleased as I am to see so many people here turning back to allotments and backyard gardens, I don’t want to see people rely too heavily on the same potatoes and cabbages. Relying too much on only a few varieties of a few plants, though, makes for a very fragile kind of self-reliance. Eat a surfeit of one food and your health declines; meet the wrong caterpillar or fungus, a summer too hot or a winter too long, and much of your food is gone. The Irish did that once with potatoes, with disastrous results.

Most of us, though, have little idea how many edible plants are all around us, and how many could fill our salad bowls or soups. Even if we restrict ourselves to the minority of plants that have become domesticated crops, we typically recognize only a few varieties of each – the ones bred recently for fossil-fuel transport, not for taste, health or your climate.

Take the colour, for example – most of us have never seen green oranges, purple carrots, striped beets or blue potatoes. Or look at breed names -- most of us have eaten Johnagold or Green Delicious apples, perhaps without knowing what they were called, but I have never had Seek-no-Furthers or Belle-de-Boskoops, and you probably haven’t either.

Even many ordinary vegetables have become widely unrecognized. When I was in charge of a magazine in America, we made an arrangement with a local CSA to get a weekly box of whatever was in season. I waited until everyone else had their share and took the rest home – which meant I took most of it home every week, because my colleagues had no idea what to make of the vegetables or what to do with them. Some of these people were environmental activists or vegans, but they stared quizzically at the kohlrabi, fennel, mange tout, swedes, daikons, parsley root, beetroot or sunchokes as though they were specimens from an alien planet.

Still, I didn’t grow up knowing many of these crops either, and had to learn them over time. When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.

As another example, I grow scorzonera, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. I also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.

Acquaintances of ours experiment with other roots and tubers: yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Sometime soon, though, we really must experiment with yacons, which can be eaten raw and, I’m told, taste like sweet radishes.

Most people think kiwis come from the South Pacific; in reality the name was a 1960s marketing ploy, a Cold War rebranding of the Chinese gooseberry. They too grow in this damp and windswept country, perhaps not as big as the ones in supermarkets but just as tasty --- and without using their own weight in fossil fuels to get here.

We will never approach resilience unless we wade into the vast pool of little-known and rarely used plants. This time of year, as many of you are buying seeds for the spring, consider devoting a piece of your land for experimenting with new crops and new varieties. Not all your experiments will work, but some might prove easier, healthier, more pest-resistant, tastier, or more suited to your particular patch of the landscape that what you are planting now.

Photo: Morning dew on my strawberries.