Friday, 30 August 2013

Published at the Daily Prepper

Sorry our return to blogging has been slow -- I'm working on it. In the meantime, the Daily Prepper has run one of my articles, on the stone walls of Ireland. Check it out.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Putting yards to use

Technical problems continue to make posting light for the moment. Hopefully that will change soon. Meanwhile, this article will appear in the Kildare Nationalist this week. 

Take a few facts from recent news reports and try to put them together:

1.) There are about two million homes in Ireland, according to the Central Statistics Office -- most, presumably, with front and back gardens, some near expanses of unused fields. Of these, 289,451 – 14.5 per cent of all homes here – lie vacant.

2.) Four hundred and twenty-seven thousand people are unemployed in Ireland, also about 14 per cent of the country. Five-and-a-half thousand Irish people are homeless, according to the Department for the Environment. Most, presumably, have little to do.

3.) Most of the food eaten in Ireland must be imported from outside the country, according to the Sustainability Institute.

These are no excuses for these facts to co-exist. It’s understandable if not all homeless can be put into currently vacant houses – homeless people can have many issues. But those houses have open space around them, room for gardens that could grow enough food for everyone in the area.

Ireland’s prodigious rainfall and long growing season create a paradise for agriculture, and we know that we can grow and make most of their own food and belongings, because for hundreds of years we did. Meanwhile, we spend money importing food from across oceans, food bred and grown to survive the journey rather than for taste or nutrition.

 Instead of gardens, all those homes have grass around them, which someone – presumably the owners of the estate – must pay to mow. Meanwhile, animals that could eat that grass stay in the surrounding fields, while their owners must pay for hay to keep them over winter. Some homeowners use chemicals on their lawn to fertilise the soil; meanwhile, they must find a way to get rid of their animal waste.

Other articles recently talked about the problem of elderly people living alone, with no one to talk to. These are people who grew up with the traditional self-sufficient crafts that got their families through hard times, yet now that times are getting harder again, younger people lack the knowledge to cope with hardship.

In other words, we have inherited several problems that fit together like pieces of a jigsaw to create a solution, and, year after year, choose to deal with them as separate problems. There are many ways of sharing land, but they all involve bringing together people who have time – say, unemployed, under-employed, homeless, children and pensioners – together with land that can provide food for the community with an investment of time and effort.

 In a fairly ambitious form of the plan, local organisations like city and county governments, sports clubs, churches and charities could decide to devote it to growing food for the hungry, and hires homeless or unemployed men to work the property. Alternately, they could loan the land out as allotments, to allow such people to grow their own food. The young men would learn vital skills, gain experience and avoid the trouble that comes from adolescents with too much time.

In the UK the Landshare Project has brought more than 72,000 such people together, in a country where tens of thousands of people have applied for community garden space and are waiting in queue. In one area of Manchester, where unused land has been turned into a community allotment, police reported a more than 50-percent decrease in anti-social behaviour, according to UK news sites – they believed it gave young people something to do.

A project like this does not have to be limited to estate gardens. Our area has many green fields that seem little-used, and could be put to work. It doesn’t have to be for growing allotments, either – local residents could use an overgrown vacant lot to graze goats, or plant young fruit and nut trees across green fields. To see if this kind of project would work where you are, walk around your area and ask these questions: how much of the land is unused? Are there unemployed or elderly people around with nothing useful to do? Are there people who don’t like spending money, or who like eating food?

See if you can find them. Take up the challenge.

Number of homes: Unemployment rate:

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


"Most people had a pony or donkey, but young people walked. The only motor car in the area was owned by the solicitor, and he drove it to see people who were making out their will, and once people heard the motor-car, they started talking about the person as though he were dead already. 

There were two motorbikes in our area, one owned by the priest, and the other owned by the doctor -- and when they passed late at night, we knew by the sound of the bike which one it was passing. As soon as they heard it in the distance, people were in a panic as to who was badly off."
-- Recollections of Aine Aherne, of Nohoba Kinsale, County Cork, of growing up there in the 1920s. Photo of my neighbour driving his pride.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

In the shadow of Darwin

At the Natural History Museum in London.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Selling laces

"When houses haven't been rethatched in a while, the walls started to show green streaks from algae off the thatch, and all the neighbours knew they were 'selling laces' -- having money problems."

RTE radio documentary on village life, "Up the Church," broadcast 1972. 
Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, 13 August 2013


“Can I light the candle tonight?” she asked. Every night we do this, my nine-year-old and I. Weekdays I’m at work and she’s with her grandmother, and on weekends we do chores around our homestead. Every night, though, we light a candle, sit in meditation for a moment, and go over another some idea that will be useful to her later.

A few nights ago, we began talking about exponential growth.   

I began with a story. A wizard invented a game for the emperor of Persia to play, I said, and called it chess. The emperor loved it, and was so grateful that he offered the wizard anything he wanted in the kingdom. The cheeky wizard told the emperor that all he wanted was some grains of wheat on a chessboard – one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and so on.

The emperor was puzzled – he was prepared to give the wizard vast regions for serving him. He had sworn to give the wizard what he wanted, though, so he started filling up the grains of the chessboard.

So my question to you, I asked The Girl, is this: if there are 64 squares on a chessboard, how many grains of wheat were there in all?

The Girl dutifully began working it out with pencil and paper. “One ... two ... four ... eight ... sixteen ... thirty-two ..,” and paused.

“Hang on,” she said, “I’m not even to the end of the first row. This is going to be a lot.”

At 1,024 I told her she could start rounding off – one thousand, two thousand, four thousand...

“How high does it get?” she asked.

The final square, I said, carries more grains of wheat than exist in the world, I said. The wizard bankrupted the empire.

“What did the king say?” she asked.

I don’t know, I said, but I hope the king had a sense of humour.


On the second night we drew graphs. I had asked her to draw a graph of her height at age two, age three and so on – we have them all drawn on a ruler on the wall.

“It makes a straight line,” she said. More or less, I said – that’s called arithmetic growth. Now what would happen if you took some number, no matter how small, and doubled it, and doubled it again, and again?

She plotted it out. “It curves,” she said. “It starts out at the bottom and goes straight up.” 

I pointed to the part where the curve shoots up.  See this part? I said. It will look like that’s where everything goes wrong. But this is the same curve as back here, I said, pointing to where the amount was small. This is just where you can’t ignore it any more. 


A few nights later we talked about percentages. She knew that one per cent was one in a hundred, and ten per cent was ten in a hundred, or one in ten.

“So what happens if something increases by seven per cent?” I asked. If you start with a euro – 100 cents – and you increase it by seven per cent, what do you have?

“A hundred and seven per cent?” she said. Right, I said. What happens if you do it again?

She thought a moment. “A hundred and fourteen per cent?”

That’s close, I said – that’s where it gets interesting. See, you’re not just adding seven each time – you’re multiplying a bit more than one by a bit more than one. What you get, in the end, is a bit more than a bit more than one, so it ends up being a hundred and fourteen .... and a half.

The Girl and I did it eight more times until we reached two – in ten moves, I told her, it’s gone from one to two. And in ten more moves to ...

“Three?” The Girl said, and I smiled. It doubles, I said.

“No – wait! Four!” The Girl said. “Then eight! Than sixteen! It’s exponential growth again!”

My daughter flopped down face-first on the bed. “No matter what I do, I can’t get away from exponential growth!”

Yes, I said – remember that in a few years, when someone offers you a student loan.  


A few nights later we talked about life we couldn’t see. You know when I make wine? I asked. I boil flowers, throw in lemons and sugar, wait for it to cool to blood temperature, and throw in yeast. The yeast eat the sugar and wee alcohol, and they divide: one yeast cell becomes two, becomes four, becomes eight ...

“Let me guess - exponential growth?” she said.

What happened if it kept going forever? I asked, and she made an upward curve with her finger.

Has that ever happened? I asked, and she shook her head.

How do you know it hasn’t? I asked.

“Um ... “ she said. “The Anthropic Principle?”

Right! I said – I’m really proud of you. We know that never happened because we’re here, and the world isn’t covered in yeast, so we know it never happened.

“Could it ever happen?” she asked.

No, I said – you don’t need to worry about that. Whenever someone tells you something’s going to keep going forever – in this world – they’re wrong. Tomorrow we’ll talk about negative feedback.


These aren’t normal things that most nine-year-olds know, but it’s what I wish every child knew, what I wish someone would have taught me. I don’t just prepare these lessons for no reason, or to show her off – I discourage her, in fact, from appearing different.

All these lessons, though, are jigsaw pieces, and before she endures the storms of adolescence I want her to see what picture it creates. Sooner or later, you see, she will look at a graph of the last century or two – population, waste, pollution, temperature, chemicals, extinctions, or any number of other factors – and see instantly what that upward curve means.

And I want her to be able to look around at a homestead, with the skills we teach her, and know why we chose to have a child anyway, and why the jigsaw also offers a picture of hope.   

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The future of buses

Traffic to and from Dublin was particularly difficult last week when the bus drivers went on strike, and while they seem to be running again, their action reminded us how dependent thousands of us in Ireland are on public transportation – Dublin buses, Bus Eireann, trains, Luas and regional bus services.

Only twenty or thirty years ago, public transportation was basically the only transportation for many Irish, as so few people could afford cars – and now that the nation's economy crashed and had to be bailed out a couple of years ago, it has become many people’s only form of transportation again. Yet if governments become increasingly cash-strapped, they will be less able to buy new buses or replacement parts, much less restore some of Ireland’s once-extensive rail lines. More and more people will need to use the bus, yet the bus might be less frequent and more expensive.

There is another solution, however: during the Celtic Tiger a few wealthy Irish bought SUVs, vans or Hummers for some reason, apparently to seem more like Americans. Such suburban assault vehicles are dubious in the USA, but at least there most people are assured of being able to get them on the road; on Irish roads, which are the approximate width of American supermarket aisles, they look ridiculous. A few of them can function on the Irish landscape, for the few other large vehicles can swerve out of the way delicately, as they do with buses -- but roads filled with them on both sides would be disastrous.

Moreover, they receive only half the mileage of 1920 Model Ts, and are not generally used for fording rapids or scaling Alaskan mountains, as in telly adverts, but rather for inching in and out of parking spaces. These vehicles typically have enough room for at least six people, plus enough cargo space, as writer Dave Barry put it, “to pick up something else, such as a herd of bison.” Between the spike in fuel prices a few years ago and the recession today, many SUV owners are trying to rid themselves of these white elephants; look in any Buy-and-Sell section of any newspaper and you will see such vehicles for sale, at plummeting prices.

These two problems could solve each other. the infamous mileage of SUVs and Hummers only results from the empty space in the back; fill it up with passengers and it becomes a very green choice. Local officials could buy them cheaply, or rent them to use to ferry passengers in lieu of bus lines.

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent – but any of us can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.

If neither the city government nor the populace has money, enterprising officials could make more creative arrangements – say, giving the SUV owner use of a foreclosed property in exchange for the use of the vehicle, rather than forcing the homeless owner to sleep in it. They could agree to co-sign a residents’ mortgage in exchange for permission to use the vehicle.

SUVs have several advantages over regular buses; for one thing, they would be more comfortable. Their ability to handle rough terrain might turn out a blessing after all, as they can continue to drive over roads in disrepair -- as our roads might increasingly be. More importantly, since they only take eight or nine passengers at a time, they can be economical in small towns and in the country, driving routes that cannot afford 80-seat buses. Bus routes could actually be expanded in places, allowing otherwise marooned residents easy access to jobs, hospitals and food markets.

They can also vary their routes slightly to pick up passengers at home or a short walk away if needed, responding to phone calls for assistance. If a country-dweller needs to get to town and has the SUV driver’s mobile number, for example, they could ask the driver to vary their route slightly rather than walking miles to the nearest pickup point, without unduly inconveniencing other waiting passengers – an important detail for elderly and the handicapped.

Cash-strapped cities could also require drivers to supply their own SUV and fuel, compensating them by letting them keep riders’ fares, and freeing the local government from financial burden. If this sounds suspiciously like a taxi, it is – just a taxi that runs regular routes. Put another way, it could combine the security of bus lines with the flexibility of taxis and the social advantages of carpooling.

 The modern system of everyone having their own personal high-speed vehicle will turn out to be a brief and bizarre moment in history, but people will still need to travel. Too many local people, though, think only of their own situation – not realising that thousands of others are in the same boat and that, together, they could do something about it.

Photo: A double-decker bus and horse carriage in downtown Dublin.  Parts of this article were published previously in 2009. Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Trams at Terenure

Dublin was once covered with a network of tram lines, so that no one ever had to walk far. Some of the tram cars --- streetcars or trolleys to Americans -- even had two floors, as Irish buses do today. They took holidaying families to the lovely cliffs of the Howth peninsula by the sea, they stretched south to Terenure, and they reached west to the nearby village of Lucan. All with a fraction of the energy we would use to travel the same distances today.

Streetcars seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the motorway; compare them to a car in the city and they may have been faster. One of the Dublin lines ran out to the suburb of Lucan a hundred years ago, and passed through town at 25 miles an hour -- a goodly speed in Lucan's modern traffic jams.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


The Girl has a fascination with history, and has collected several children’s books on ancient Egypt alone. When we visited the British Museum in London a few weeks ago, she most remembered tiptoeing wide-eyed through the Egypt room, dwarfed by stone monuments of men and gods. So when we went camping a few nights ago and huddled in the rain under the tent, we read about Rome and talked about slaves.

“I wish I could have lived back then and freed the slaves, as Lincoln did," she said.

I'm proud of you for saying so, I said, but it's never easy -- Lincoln was killed for it, and so were many others before it was settled. 

"Or I wish I could go back with lots of money, so that I could buy lots of slaves and treat them really well, instead of working them to death.”

I’m glad you’re thinking of others, I said, and it’s a good thought, but crossing that line is dangerous. If you let yourself think it’s okay to have slaves, because you’re not as bad as someone else, you’re still doing the thing that’s wrong.

“I know, but wouldn’t that have made so many people’s lives better?” Sure, I said. And sometimes you have to take part in a system that’s wrong, because there’s no choice. But it’s very easy to start doing wrong – you make excuses for doing what you want to do. For example, you can say, ‘Everybody does it,’ or ‘Somebody else would have anyway,’ or ‘I’m not as bad as this other person.’ But if you always do that …Well, how many people are there in the world?

“Billions?” she said. Right, I said. There’s always someone worse, someone that lets you be not as bad as. You see what I mean?

She looked for a moment like a switch had been turned. “So everyone can get really bad without seeing it, because we’re all looking at someone else.”

Right, I said. There are plenty of bad people in the world, and that’s why everyone loves to hear about them on the telly, because then we all get to not be as bad as them.

Photo: The prisoner's gates at the Tower of London, where the condemned were brought in boats.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

In the Jewel Tower

With Westminster in the background.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Over the sea

After a month of hiatus in July, we’re back in business -- thanks to everyone for your patience, and for the compliments. It’s always gratifying to know you’re not shouting into an empty room.  

The Girl and I had a full month, as Ireland had its first proper summer in a decade. Regular readers remember last year’s never-ending rain and record-breaking chill, when weeds could not be mown, hay could not be dried for winter, pollen washed out of flowers and no bees could fly. This year, though, we saw weeks of warmth and blue skies when the landscape turned into a postcard of scenic Ireland. Sometimes, it really is like that. On one such day, the Fourth of July, my daughter and I headed from our home in the Bog of Allen to the Irish seaside, where a ferry waited to take us to Britain.

“Why didn’t you just fly?” people asked us, demonstrating how recently flying has come to dominate people’s sense of space. Only a few decades ago flying was a rare privilege, often reserved for starting a new life, and people dressed up for it as they did for weddings; for most people today it is as banal as driving and treated with the same impatience.

We didn’t want to queue impatiently, jostle crowds, be scanned and prodded, clamber into a metal box, rise and fall like a carnival ride, and burn more ancient sea-life in an hour than our ancestors did in a lifetime. We wanted to travel through the world, to savour the choppy seas, new smells and strangers as writers did a century ago. The Girl and I were only going to Britain, of course, but for her it was a new world, and as we rocked on the sea or looked out a train window at the mountains of Snowdonia, I could savour the adventure in her eyes. Even the Underground was like a carnival ride.  

The cheapest hostel in London lay, unsurprisingly, in a run-down neighbourhood of mostly Third-World immigrants, but everyone was quite friendly and accommodating, and the long commute to the city meant The Girl had time to devour the third Harry Potter book, finishing it in only four days in-between sights. We hit the usual tourist spots, popular for a reason – boat ride on the Thames, Tower of London, Natural History Museum and many more. We didn’t get to see the inside of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben or Parliament – that’s what comes of touring on a Wimbledon Saturday, and I stretched a nine-year-old’s patience as far as I could.

Some of her favourite stops reflected her child's penchant for the gruesome; she was fascinated by a National Gallery exhibit about the martyrdom of the saints, and with my seminarian background I could ... um ... flesh out the details. The Girl has long held a fascination for “bog bodies,” apparent human sacrifices made by the Druids perhaps two millennia ago, so we went to see them in the British Museum.

Most of all, though, she wanted to go bowling; she had heard about this ritual, and wanted a piece of the action. I found a special place where we could have a lane to ourselves for a while, coached her on the basics, and finally let her have a go. After a dozen tries or so she knocked down three pins, and to her it felt like a world championship.

Oh, and we went ice skating. In July, which awed her most of all.

“London is the best city in the world!” she said. “I want to live here someday.” You can, I said.