Monday, 25 May 2020

Epidemics in the old days

I talked to my neighbour, Angela, about what it was like during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1950s.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Covid's Metamorphoses

A few weeks ago, I posted a video about the silver linings to this crisis and quarantine. Now that countries are either opening up or announcing plans to do so, I wanted to make another video looking back on what we've learned from this. Enjoy -- and if you do enjoy it, I'd appreciate it if you subscribed and shared it with all your friends. 

Friday, 3 April 2020

Remembering the pandemics that came before

Recently I was able to interview another one of my elderly neighbours -- by phone this time -- and he told me all about the dangers of tuberculosis in Ireland in the 1950s, along with the Spanish Flu of 1918. We forget how fortunate we are.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Relaxing during a pandemic

This covers some of the same ground as the article, but I'm hoping people find it useful. Stay safe everyone!

Saturday, 14 March 2020

What to do when you're cooped up at home

Girls wearing masks in Helena, Montana during the 1918 flu, courtesy of "Helena As She Was" web site,
For the next few weeks, many of us here in Ireland – and possibly where you are -- will feel like we are in a permanent state of house arrest, working from home and looking after children kept home from school. Most of us are, rightly, staying away from crowds of people and making food at home, so most of us need to stock up on the basics durable foods that will keep over time – beans, lentils, rice, flour, salt, sugar and other staples.

Once, shopping meant shopping for these basic ingredients, which any home-maker knew to make into bread, soup, cakes and other goods. Vegetables came from the garden, and everyone had one of those just outside the kitchen door, fed every year with compost from the kitchen that had been allowed to rot into soil again. This basic cycle meant that every home was – to some extent --- a self-sufficient homestead, a self-contained Ark during any of life’s floods.

Floods come more often than we realise; since I moved to Ireland 15 years ago, we have seen fuel prices skyrocket, the crash of 2008, the country go bankrupt in 2010, and the housing crisis of recent years. We have seen scares around Ebola, SARS and now Coronavirus. We have seen planes grounded temporarily during the Icelandic volcano of 2010, and of course many individuals have seen their own personal crises. We will see many more crises in the years to come, as climate change increases and weather grows more extreme. Yet we think of preparedness as a fringe activity for people preparing for the End of the World – and, in fairness, there are people who do that.

Most of the crises we will encounter in life, though, are not the Big One – there probably never will be a Big One, in climate change, disease or any other area. We are entering an era of increased problems – what James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency” – but  like the “Fall of Rome” or “The Industrial Revolution,” it will not be an event, but an era in which, most of the time, everything is normal, and life is only occasionally be punctuated by severe events. Only later will historians look back and see the overall trends.

In the meantime, don’t panic. New diseases crop up every year, as old strains mutate or jump from one species to another. Most are not serious. Most of the serious ones are contained quickly, and do not become pandemics. Even in the middle of a pandemic, most people do not get sick, and most people who get sick get better. There’s a small chance you might die from this, but only a very small one. Your chance of dying in the long run, of course, is 100 percent.
Of course wash your hands frequently, consume lots of vitamins, get a mask and keep a few months’ worth of stored food in the pantry. What foods you stock up will depend on your situation, but stock up on a mix of proteins (beans, meat, fish), starches (dried pasta, rice or flour) and vitamins (fruit, vegetables). We have vitamin pills, frozen veg in the freezer, along with root vegetables in the garden. Always keep your food in vermin-proof containers.  Stock up on medicine, soap, toothpaste, bandages and blankets, and have stores of potable water, just in case. If something happens to the water supply, you can make water filters using sand or charcoal, or with ultraviolet light – look up how to do that if you’re interested.

Collect information on what to do if hospitals are full, either for the flu or for anything else that might happen – one very good book on the subject is Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman and David Werner. It is used by WHO and UNICEF for their workers in the Third World, and deals with everything from injuries to childbirth. Brush up on traditional treatments – comfrey for headaches, plasters to aid breathing. They won’t cure the flu, but neither will antibiotics.

If all this sounds extreme, keep in mind that most of it will probably not be necessary, but there’s no harm in learning a bit more about these things just in case, for this outbreak or the next one that comes along. Modern medicine has blessed us with a lifespan and health far beyond most people in most places, but we are still mortal, and our modern lifestyles are likely to create new diseases faster. The world’s population has increased from two billion to seven billion in a single lifetime. Air travel has increased exponentially, so diseases that took centuries to travel across the medieval world now spread around the world in hours.
For the time being, we can use this opportunity; this is a good time to spend with family, play board games rather than video games, and catch up on reading books – including, preferably, some written more than a century ago. Right now I’m reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, an academic work that is nonetheless fascinating for showing how extremely poor people created their own schools, libraries and debate societies that transformed their lives, offered a way out of poverty, and gave them something to live for even in the most extreme poverty.

I’m also catching up on old black-and-white movies, many of which have a lot better dialogue and characterisation than today’s blockbusters. Tonight I saw No Highway in the Sky, with Jimmy Stewart and Glynis Johns, and recently watched And Then There Were None, the excellent 1945 version of the Agatha Christie mystery.  

 If you have some staples to hand, you might want to try these filling and nutritious recipes.

Lentil soup
500g dried lentils
One large onion
Three cloves of garlic
Three large potatoes
One carrot
One leek
One stalk of celery
One litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Two teaspoons of marjoram
One-fourth of a teaspoon of thyme
One tablespoon of soy sauce
Two tablespoons of cider vinegar
Olive oil

Cut the leeks lengthwise and wash them out well, as grit tends to collect between their layers. Peel and dice the potatoes into bits two centimetres across Chop the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery about a centimetre across.
Pour some olive oil in a pot, and sautee the vegetables until they are soft, and add the potatoes. Add the lentils and stock, and add seasoning. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes until they are tender.
I sometimes add bits of fried meat to the soup for flavour, and serve with crusty bread.

Buttermilk pancakes
1.5 cups of flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1.5 teaspoons of baking powder
0.5 teaspoons of soda
0.5 teaspoons of salt
1.5 cups of buttermilk
Three tablespoons of melted butter
Two large eggs
0.5 teaspoons vanilla

First mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then the wet ingredients in another bowl. Mix the two bowls together gently – it’s okay if the batter is a bit lumpy.
Melt a pat of butter in a cast iron pan with a few tablespoons of oil, and heat it on high heat – about 180 Centigrade. Pour the batter in from a height of five centimetres and turn the heat to low. Depending on the consistency of the batter it will either spread round by itself of need a little nudge with a spoon.
The first side is done when you see the bubbles rising all over the pancake, and then flip over the pancake. Cook it until the second side is lightly browned.
Pancakes can be kept for a half an hour or so before serving in a preheated oven at 90 degrees centigrade – for extra tenderness, brush them with melted butter.
Leftover pancakes can be allowed to cool, then sealed in an airtight container and frozen for up to one month. When removed they can be reheated by putting them into a microwave, although they tend to toughen a bit; they can also be put into a regular toaster.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Article published in American Conservative

For those who haven't yet been informed, most of my articles are not moving to the new web site and host of my ongoing projects, Old School School. I'll continue to update this site periodically.

Also, the American Conservative published my breakdown of the Irish election and the rise of Sinn Fein as our newest political force - read all about it here.

I'm continuing to interview elderly Irish about traditional ways of life: you can read the latest part of my interview with Jack here, talking about keeping cows and horses. 

I've also published my interview with my neighbour Angela, talking about a traditional childhood -- you can watch it here.

Finally, Mother Earth News has published my piece on preserving butter in an Irish bog - you can read the article here, watch the video here, and see the piece about it on British television here. It's an hour long, but my piece is mentioned around the 5:45 mark.

Thursday, 16 January 2020


Winter sky over Dublin. 
I'm focusing on the new web site, Old School School, for now, but I wanted to let everyone know that I will have some new articles at The American Conservative shortly.

My bog butter article will also be featured on the BBC show QI tomorrow; for those not in the UK area, it will probably be on Youtube soon.

I also have a number of videos up on the Youtube channel, including some excellent interviews with elderly neighbours. Check it out.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

The Mother Night

I hope everyone is doing well. I'm gradually adding to the new web site, Old School School, as well as the video channel, so check those out. I'll be publishing a lot more pieces in magazines in the near future, so I hope to reprint them here. In the meantime, Merry Christmas -- or whatever holiday this is for you -- to all.

Whether you grew up in Arizona or Australia, Florida or Johannesburg, you probably celebrated Christmas by displaying plants from Northern Europe – hanging holly, ivy and mistletoe in the house, and decorating an evergreen tree – whether they are appropriate for your climate or not. I used to wonder why these plants, and why Christmas was this time of year when we don’t actually know when Christ was born. Once I moved to rural Ireland, though, these things began to make sense.    

You see, I’ve mentioned that we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, the same latitude as part of Alaska. We don’t think of Ireland as being so far north; it rarely snows or freezes here, because it’s an island surrounded by a current from the Caribbean, which keeps the temperature from getting too cold. But it never gets that warm either, and the seasonal light changes are extreme.

At Midsummer – the longest day of the year – you can walk around in twilight after 11 pm and before 4 am. Until we moved here, I never understood the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play in which lovers change their allegiances several times in a night. The longest day is the shortest night, so the title emphasizes how quickly love can turn – in a “Midsummer Night,” the equivalent of a “New York Minute.” 

Winter brings the opposite, with nights that can last for seventeen hours at a stretch, punctuated by not-quite-days of dim, low light, with the bare trees casting long shadows across a grey landscape. And those are the few hours of daylight before the long night comes again.

Where I live there are no streetlights, and until a few decades ago, no electricity at all, no light but candles and flames. As one Irish writer put it, “the nights were treacle-black, they haunted little children and big men alike. Outdoors was for spectres and hooved creatures with strange powers. Children of the long-legged day would look out petrified at the wild sea.”

In most of the Western world generations now have grown up with streetlights outside and houselights a flick away, and can little comprehend the unsettling power of long and absolute darkness.

No wonder people here used to spend the winters going from house to house, lantern or torch in hand, spending time with neighbours and singing songs, sharing dishes and telling stories. Even further back people here built some of the oldest monuments by humans – Newgrange just north of us, five thousand years old, and Stonehenge in England, built around the same time, and both aligned to mark the solstice of maximum darkness, what the Saxons would later call the Mother Night.

No wonder, then, that people here devoted the longest night to celebration, reminding each other that this too would pass. No wonder people brought indoors the plants that remained green and cheerful – holly, ivy, evergreens -- a reminder that the green world around us would return as the world was remade. No wonder it became the celebration day for the birth of Christ.

Christian holidays, like the faith itself, came to Europe from a very different culture and landscape, the desert lands to the far south and east. Once adopted by peoples of the long darkness, though, they were transformed. 

Whenever Christ was actually born, the obvious time to celebrate his birth was when -- after a long and harrowing plunge into the abyss -- the world seems to exhale, the days are born and grow again, and another year of life, with all its possibilities, appears before us.

Thursday, 31 October 2019


I have posted less often here lately for a couple of reasons: first, we've been having a lot of problems with our internet at home, so I can only publish when I'm at lunch from work or on the bus. Also, I've been pre-occupied with a lot of personal things; details aren't neccessary.

The most important reason, however, is quite a positive development; after writing for newspapers for more than two decades, a weekly column for 12 years and this blog for 11 years, I am trying a new venture to talk about traditional and self-reliant ways of life, called Old School School. The goal is to pull together not only my own writings from the last 20 years, but to publish interviews with a variety of other people who have embraced a simpler and more minimalist life.

The web site is still a work in progress, but I plan to have links to a wide variety of resources for people who see a difficult future ahead and want to prepare for it. I am deliberately reaching out to a variety of people: right and left, religious and secular, from many different countries, and I know that right there will drive a lot of people away these days. I hope it will attract some people as well, however, and even in these tense and polarised times, some people still want to put aside their differences and learn from each other.

I've also learned to create videos, and will be uploading some of the footage of my own family, as well as elderly Irish I've interviewed over the years, at the corresponding Youtube channel.

I'll still be updating this blog periodically, but I hope you'll check out the new ventures.

As for the rest of our lives, The Girl is almost an adult now, still doing archery and riding horses, and living the life of a teenager. If you've read this blog for a while, you've watched her grow up with me, as she finds her own life I'm slowly learning to let go.

Happy Irish New Year's Eve to everyone.