Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Our neighbour's shed

This is our neighbour who owns part of the boglands behind us. All the people on our road pay him a small sum to be able to stack bricks of turf -- the dried peat-moss we use for fuel -- to dry each spring, and haul it home each autumn. And the last time the road froze over, he was the person people called on he and his tractor to fish our neighbour's car out of the canal.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Making butter

Last night we did our usual quiz for our homeschooling -- well after-school schooling -- and I said we could also do an experiment.

"After the quiz?" she asked. We can do part one at the same time, I said. While you answer the questions, shake this jar -- we're making butter.

I showed her that if you shake a jar of milk or cream, it feels like nothing is happening - until rather suddenly the splashing sound changes to a splosh, and you can see a solid mass bouncing around inside the jar.

"Is the liquid whey now?" she asked. Close, I said -- buttermilk.

Now we have to pat the butter, but not with our hands -- you know why? "Body heat?" she said. Absolutely right, I said --- well, I've seen people in old-fashioned cottages in County Fermanagh do it with their hands, but I suspect their houses and hands were quite cold.

A bit later she had it in a neat pat. "What will we do with this?" she asked.

Next is phase two of the experiment, I said. We'll bury it in the bog for a year, like people here used to in the Viking era, and see how it keeps.

Photo: The Girl showing how to make butter. Zebra pyjamas and pink rubber gloves are optional. 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Community-supported agriculture

Published in the Kildare Nationalist this week. 

When people start their own business venture, they usually prefer finding investors to relying solely on a bank loan – many other people can share in your risk and rewards, and they find it in their interest to help you succeed. Now, some farmers are using this model, finding selling shares of their farm to the people who will eat the crops.

Under a system called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), local residents invest in a farm at thebeginning of the year, before the crops have been planted. Typically each family buys a standard share of the farm’s produce, and in exchange they receive a box of crops each week for the rest of the season. What they receive will depend on the time of year, but if a farmer plants enough variety, any weeks’ box will likely have several different kinds of crops, whether delivered in May or October.

Such projects make a farm particularly resilient in the face of global financial crises. A CSA farm does not depend on loans from major banks to continue from year to year, nor do its crop sales depend onthe vagaries of faraway markets. A CSA pays the farmer early in the year, so that the farm does not have to go deeply in debt each year, and it allows the farmer to market their food before their 16-hour days begin.

Sometimes a CSA plan finds a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They providework for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.

In addition, CSAs allow neighbours to form a personal relationship with the person who is growing their food, and allows the farmer to hear and respond to consumer demand quickly, without the need for commissioning survey groups. Since people must invest in the farm, they usually must cometo the farm at least once a year, and get to meet the farmer and see where their food comes from. They must accept a variety of vegetables and learn to cook them.

But perhaps the most important use of such farms is giving a community food that is not flown in from across an ocean -- food that must often be must be sealed in plastic and foam packaging, sometimes preserved in chemical gases, to delay spoilage. We are surrounded by fertile land here in Ireland, yet we import 90 per cent ofour food. If there were an oil crisis, as many predict is beginning now, we would have to rebuild muchof our local agriculture from scratch.

If the farm is next door, the food is always fresh, no rubbish need be generated, and we would not use those thousands of gallons of fossil fuel right away, and do our part to delay a global energy crunch. CSAs can go beyond vegetables as well, to include grains, meat, home-made bread, eggs, cheese, flowers or fruit. Several farmers could join forces to create a regional CSA, coordinating their efforts –one supplying chickens, for example, and another supplying vegetables.

By looking at ways to embrace CSAs in this country, we might be able to stem the gradual loss of our farms and farming families, and to ensure that those that remain not just survive, but thrive.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Doors in County Clare

With The Girl in the village of Killaloo.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Old ivy

We went to an archery event a few weekends ago in what used to be one of the old estates of Ireland, and in a field that was once a kitchen garden -- we could see the stone ruin on the south side where, I guess, melons and tomatoes were once grown. Since the decline of that self-sufficient age, ivy had grown up the surrounding walls, their vines grown touch and knobbly over the decades.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Back from book-binding

I’m just now back from spending the weekend in the Ox Mountains of County Sligo, a land of lonely beauty like you don’t expect to see outside of a Lord of the Rings film. I was taking a course in bookbinding from one of the few remaining craftsmen of that art. More on that later.

For now, here are a couple of small books I made under his guidance – one covered in calf vellum, the other in deer. They are just first attempts, of course, and filled with mistakes, but they were immensely satisfying to make by hand.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Everyone gathers to dance

The day after Christmas here is Wren Day, when we and all our neighbours go to the nearby forest and take part in an ancient tradition.

Some local men dress up in straw-covered costumes -- "straw boys" -- and others in proverbial Robin Hood gear, as "Wren Boys." The Wren Boys try to protect a model of a wren, and the straw boys try to steal it, and they chase each other around the forest with everyone shouting. Finally the wren is recaptured and crowned the King of Birds, songs are sung, poems are recited ...

And then everyone gathers to dance.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

End of winter

The last day of winter for us is St. Bridget’s Eve, and this was a beautiful fresh sunny day, with a gentle wind two points south of west. This last day of winter put on a pleasant appearance as if it were saying, “I was soft and easy with you for the last three months, and now, as we are going to part, let us shake hands with each other in a friendly manner. Good bye!”

On St. Bridget’s Eve the little girls go from door to door with brideogs, images of St. Bridget dressed up in lovely clothes, asking for halfpennies – and getting them – to have a party for themselves, just as the young boys do with the wren in the holly branch on St. Stephen’s Day.

- From the diary of Tomas de Bhaldraithe, 31st January 1827, in The Diary of an Irish Countryman.

Monday, 9 February 2015

The old roots

We like to walk through woods near our house, formerly the grounds of a castle, built in the 1600s and almost destroyed in the 1641 rebellion, rebuilt and extended over the centuries.The home of the baronial family that ruled these lands now lies vacant, its halls of power now open to the sky.

From the nearby lake we can hear the trills of moorhens and the squeaks of coots, tending their chicks in the dense thickets of reeds. On one corner of the lake must once have sat a small boathouse, now covered with rocks like a cairn.

On the top of this mound, its roots winding through and over the rubble, grows a single tree, somehow thriving on the barest of surfaces and clinging to the mound through the fiercest of winds.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Life on the canal

We live along a canal dug more than 250 years ago, to ship turf in barges to the hearths of Dublin. Now, these same canals serve as a home for people -- sometimes families -- who roam up and down the canal, changing the scenery outside their window whenever they like.

My favourite houseboat so far was one that had gardens on its deck, giving the owners a permanent source of vitamins. I'm told that other houseboat owners have cultivated patches of wild edibles along the canal banks in patches, harvesting as they go.

Friday, 6 February 2015

The board is set

This is another Tolkien post, so my apologies to those who aren’t interested in this sort of thing. If you plan to read them and don’t want spoilers, skip this.

The Girl and I are starting The Return of the King, the last Lord of the Rings book and my favourite of Tolkien’s works. Through the books we have seen these rich characters, whom we met in various mundane or degraded states, face one crisis after another and show themselves to be deeper and nobler than we – or they – had realised, until we realise that they are not the same characters we thought we knew.

Finally, in this last section, the young peasants prove themselves as warriors (Merry and Pippin), the elderly king rallies from despair into legend (Theoden) the exiled captain becomes a lord (Eomer), the death-seeking woman embraces life (Eowyn), and the scruffy homeless man (Aragorn) takes his titular throne as the High King. Seeing it anew through her eyes, though, I realise what a strange story Lord of the Rings is, and how different from our normal storytelling conventions in many ways:

• Like so many fantasy or science fiction works it portrays many humanoid races, but the “normal” point-of-view characters are not the human beings.

 • The book describes vast journeys made by a group of people, but for almost all the journey they are separated and unaware of each other.

• The plot eschews the predictably clockwork action of Hollywood screenplays, with expected showdowns that never occur and romances relegated to appendices.

 • The novel has six appendices, dealing with family trees, languages, pronunciation, and thousands of years’ worth of back-story;

 • Tolkien interrupts the action for long and loving descriptions of the landscape, or to listen to characters sing long epic poems about other adventures that relate to this one.

• The novels revived the pagan folklore of centuries past, bringing elves and dwarves from forgotten bedtime stories into pop-culture prominence, yet exudes a deeply Christian value system – albeit very different from the mega-church fundamentalism so popular in my own country right now.

• An expert ancient myth cycles like the Eddas and Kalevalas, Tolkien wove them into an Edwardian adventure story, with point-of-view characters that are basically middle-class Englishmen journeying through exotic lands.

 Most of all, I noticed how much of the novel’s power and charm comes from the way it constantly shifts in style and jumps into higher and lower registers. Much of his prose sounds modern enough to ease the passage of the contemporary reader, but the style subtly shifts into the folksy speech of the agrarian hobbits, the authoritative storytelling of Gandalf and the formality of the elves. As we move into Return of the King, the prose increasingly shifts into high and epic verse, with “you” shifting to “thou” and “before” to “ere,” but smoothly enough that readers finds themselves reading a heroic saga from bygone age, without quite knowing how they got there.

Such choices give the impression that we are looking into a world that continues far beyond the edges of the page, whose scope must be gleaned from cherished fragments. They give the reader a place to stand on solid ground, and slowly peer into a higher and nobler world.


The first chapter echoes Gandalf’s words that “The board is set, and the pieces are moving.” The entire journey until this point – the escapes and chance meetings, journeys and sieges, through mountains and mines – has come to this, with most of the characters joining together for the final battles.

“Like they’re chess pieces?” The Girl asked.

Like that, I said – as Pippin has joined the army of Gondor, Gandalf warns him that the pawns will suffer in the battle ahead. The soldiers will be pawns.

“Who would the king be? Aragorn?” she asked.

Well, if you want to extend the metaphor, I said, the king in chess isn’t the most powerful piece; it’s the piece that has to be protected at all costs. The queen is the most mobile and powerful piece, but if the king falls, it’s all over. Who do you think would be like that in this story?

 “Frodo!” she said, her eyes brightening. “If the Enemy gets the Ring, or if he fails to destroy it, everything is lost.”

I think you’re right, I said. Who would be the queen, the single most mobile and powerful character?

“I think Gandalf is the queen,” she said. “And the men of Gondor are the pawns, and the Fellowship are the knights.”

That sounds right, I said. What do you think the Ents are?

She thought a moment. “Castles! They are very powerful, but only in certain ways.”

We eventually decided on this arrangement. It’s not perfect – the elves and dwarves don’t appear except as part of the Fellowship, and it leaves out isolated catastrophes like the Balrog or Shelob. Still, we were rather pleased with the symmetry. If anyone tries to patent this, The Girl and I claim a cut:

King – Frodo
Queen – Gandalf
Knights – Fellowship
Castles – Ents
Bishops – Rohirrim
Pawns – Men of Gondor

King – Sauron
Queen – Saruman
Knights – Nazghul
Castles – Trolls
Bishops – Uruk-hai
Pawns – Orcs

Illustration:  Georg von Rosen's painting of Odin the Wanderer, which I'm told was an inspiration for the character Gandalf. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The fish for me

O, fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s belly,
Fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s belly,
We’ll market a lassie and christen it Nellie,
Herring’s belly, lassie-ga-Nellie,
Herring’s back, laddie-ca-Jack,
Herring’s fins, needles and pins,
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies,
Herring head, loaf and bread, and all sorts of things.
Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring it is the fish for me,
Sing fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo-lai, day.

O, fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s tail,
Fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s tail,
We’ll mark it a ship with a beautiful sail
Herring’s tail, lar-i-a sail,
Herring’s belly, lassie-ga-Nellie,
Herring’s back, laddie-ca-Jack,
Herring’s fins, needles and pins,
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies,
Herring head, loaf and bread, and all sorts of things.
Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring it is the fish for me,
Sing fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo-lai, day.

-- Lullaby told to children in Irish fishing villages. Photo courtesy of