Tuesday, 28 June 2016


This photo was taken at 11 pm outside our land, and that tells you a lot of what you need to know about life in Ireland. 

In the Missouri of my childhood, summer could bring 40-degree heat and winter heavy snow, and the days in between swung wildly through all kinds of weather fronts. There’s a reason it’s called Tornado Alley.

Here in Ireland, though, a cool and rainy day could be July or January; the weather remains remarkably constant through the year. It’s the light that varies from one extreme to another, from seven hours of dim December day submerged in seventeen hours of total night, to seven hours of  June night surrounded by long brightness. We are, after all, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle.

Winters here hit us hard, not because of the cold -- it rarely dips below freezing -- but because of the lack of light. Going to work when it's dark and coming home when it's dark, you feel like a mine worker that never comes up to surface. I began to understand why northern European cultures had special names for the long stretches of total darkness, what inhabitants of these islands a thousand years ago called the Mother Night.

This time of year, though, we feel an energy that December saps from us; I can ride my bicycle to town and back to catch the bus to work, and when I return my daughter and I can pull weeds or chop wood as we do our home-schooling lessons. Still, I must cover my windows with foil this time of year, or I wouldn’t sleep. 


In what has become our yearly ritual on Midsummer Night, my daughter and I watched A Midsummer Night's Dream. We love the 1999 version with so many great actors and soon-to-be-stars --  Kevin Kline, Sam Rockwell, Dominic West, Christian Bale, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees and David Strahairn. 

The Girl loved the film the first time we saw it -- she was eight then, and loved the touches of broad comedy that more jaded viewers ignore. She laughed at Bottom flubbing his lines, referring to the “odourous” queen as “odious,” or saying that his friends would “make an ass of me.” I pictured Elizabethans at the Globe Theatre laughing at the same lowbrow moments.

She also gets some references that I think a lot of modern audiences might miss. We have foraged through woods together since she was small, so she knows "where the oxlip and nodding violet grows" in a way that many children these days do not.

A few things still bother me about the film; Rupert Everett gave a strangely lethargic and horizontal performance as Oberon, and– while he’s an excellent actor – the bald and fiftyish Stanley Tucci was not an intuitive choice for Puck. Calista Flockheart was famous at the time from the television programme Ally McBeal, but her whiny petulance is a distraction from the delightful performances around her.
Now that I live here certain references make a new kind of sense to me; for example, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now that I know how short Midsummer Night is here, I realise that all the quarrels, reconciliations and musical-chair relationships took place in only a few hours. The very name of the play was a joke in itself, to emphasize how quickly love can change or disappear -- one that you have to live here to get.


For those who don't already know, The American Conservative  -- one of the best political magazines around -- has published my piece on the UK’s departure from the European Union. Check it out.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Breakup

This morning in Ireland, we got the same screaming-headline news as everyone else – the pound crashing, the UK prime minister resigning and so on. To my acquaintances here, though -- bus drivers, clerks and farmers – the news is not an abstraction. They wonder how this will affect their visas, their UK relatives, their pensions, banks, next car, and all the burning minutiae of daily life.

My friends in London, Italy and France are all doing the same; the economies are so deeply intertwined that untangling them will take years. Imagine how Louisianans would be affected by a “Texit,” and you have some idea how it feels. As an American here, I also wonder if it makes Donald Trump’s election look more likely.

It wouldn’t cause a Trump victory, of course, but perhaps presage it. The UK has always been just a little ahead of the USA; Thatcher preceded Reagan, Blair preceded Clinton, and Corbyn preceded Sanders. Moreover, Brexit supporters shared a lot in common with Trump supporters, in both demographics and frustrations.  

The UK and USA are global powers somewhat in decline, with the UK obviously some decades ahead of us. Both powers saw a flood of Third-World immigrants in recent decades – in Europe especially, with millions of refugees escaping the war-torn Middle East --- competing for jobs and causing tension among working-class natives. Both countries took part in the same Mid-East wars and suffered the same Great Recession – both supposedly over, but with loved ones still dead and many working people still unemployed.

Both populist movements promised to make their country great again, toss aside foreign entanglements, reduce immigration, and bring back local industry. Both movements were called “far-right,” but were more about class -- and in both countries the elites of both major parties, along with the media, opposed and underestimated them until the last moment. In both countries the debate turned venomous, even violent, with protesters clashing with Trump supporters in the USA, and a pro-EU minister of Parliament shot and stabbed to death last week in the UK.

Now that the vote is over, as Daniel Larison pointed out,much will depend on how bitter the divorce settlement will be, but this decision could trigger a lot of other dominoes.  

For one thing, this could well be the end of Britain after 300 years. The BBC’s county vote map shows the divide; English counties almost entirely voted to leave the EU, Scottish counties to stay. 

The scheduling of the Scottish independence vote two years ago could not have been accidental, as Euro-advocates must have hoped the Scottish vote would anchor Britain -- it didn’t. As the leader of the Scottish separatist movement put it a few months ago, if the UK leaves Europe, Scotland is likely to leave the UK. (Britain is England plus Scotland, Wales and a few islands. The UK is all those plus Northern Ireland.)

Here in Ireland we have the same questions as the rest of Europe, only more so – the UK is our main trading partner. And we have a unique reason to be wary; we fought a thousand-year conflict with our neighbour, which came to an end only in the 1990s. Since that time, along a border once patrolled by paramilitary units, a generation of Irish have grown up travelling between North and South without even flashing a passport. Now, though, Northern Ireland voted much as Scotland did, with a majority wanting to remain European; if Scotland goes, they might want to leave as well.

In Ireland, meanwhile, voters had their own populist moment earlier this year, and elected a near-majority of third parties and independents.  Chief among them is Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and if this anti-establishment trend continues they could lead the next government. That doesn’t mean they would resume their old ways – they have spent decades working hard to be a respectable political party, and their younger members are too young to even remember the terrorism of the 70s and 80s – but within hours of the vote, they did renew their call for Irish reunification.

How the rest of Europe will handle this remains to be seen – they are left holding several unenviable crises, including sky-high Mediterranean unemployment and a million refugees a year flooding into the continent. Right now, the rest of the world is shaking its head at Britons’ apparent foolishness, and half the UK is doing the same. For the other half, though, this is their independence day, the moment they can remake their country in their image.

This November 9, we’ll see if my native USA looks the same.  

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Homeschooling - the end of empires

Anyone who reads this blog has watched my daughter grow up; she’s an adolescent now, and while she is still only 11, she looks about 16 and acts more mature still. I’ve been using her pugnacious teenaged energy to put her to work, mowing the lawn or taking a sledgehammer to our old shed.

I don’t post about her as often as I used to; when she was ten I decided I would start asking her permission before repeating any of our conversations. I’m not fond of the way the Internet destroys our sense of privacy, and the way young people these days grow up online, the details of their formative years there for everyone to see – for governments to monitor, predators to find, and marketers to manipulate. I didn’t show her face or say her name, or exactly where we lived, but when she was small I repeated our adorable conversations on this blog; once she was older, I wanted to make the decision hers.

Partly, though, it’s because we’re always busy. On the weekends our days have been filled with our new favourite activity, “medieval camp,” in which she and other students are taught archery, sword-play, horse riding and so on. Starting next weekend, they will take part in archery tournaments and re-enactment events, and I will be going along as chaperone and, this weekend, playing a suit of armour.

In the evenings I come home on the bus from my day job in Dublin, ride my bike from the bus stop home, and hug my daughter. After dinner we do one of my home-schooling lessons – “after-schooling,” technically, since she goes to regular Catholic school in the village during the day.
The purpose of my lessons is not to replace what she learns in regular school, but to teach her the things that conventional schooling will not. Some days we do history, and we’ve covered foragers through pharaohs, Paris to Periander, Cleisthenes to Claudius. Some nights we do natural history, from archaea to anapsids and gompotheres to glyptodonts. Some nights we covered systems theory; the Red Queen, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and negative feedback.

I try to teach them together to show how they fit; talking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma around the same time as the uprising of Spartacus, to show why more slaves didn’t revolt.
We’ve been wrapping up the Roman Era; we’ve covered the republic, from Aeneas to Romulus to Tarquin and Horatius, from the Celtic burning of Rome to the Punic wars against Hannibal, from the abortive dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar, to the lasting empire of Octavian. We covered the mad emperors, interrupted by the almost accidental reign of Claudius and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. We re-read the Gospels, talked about the early Christians up to Constantine, and finally the ending of slavery in the Roman Empire as Christianity took hold. We talked about the rebel-queens against Rome – Boudica and Zenobia.

Then, last night, I started talking about the decline and fall of empires.

“We talked about this a long time ago,” she said, “about Sumeria, Assyria and the others.”

We did, I said – do you remember what makes an empire rise and fall?

“Well, they usually grow by using a resource,” The Girl said. “Either a new crop, or a new technology, or just by enslaving the peoples around them, as the Romans did.”

Right – and when that resource is tapped out, empires often start to decline and fall …

“Like the bacteria in the bottle,” she said. “And then there’s a die-off.” We had often talked about how bacteria multiply exponentially in a closed system until their food is gone and their waste products fill the system, and then they die off – yeast in my beer vat, for example. Humans, though, aren’t yeast – we’re much more complicated. As empires decline, people who were doing well aren’t any more, and sometimes they overthrow the government for something else, like Plato’s cycle of governments. Remember what those were?

“Oh …” she said. “Democracy, tyranny and … um … rule by a few people.”

Oligarchy, I said – you’re right. And sometimes different parts of the empire go into civil war – Rome in its later years had seen France break off, Queen Zenobia’s rebellion, lots of patches split off – and finally they split into West and East.

And sometimes they fall to barbarians from outside – the Chinese to Mongols, the Hittites to Sea Peoples, and the Romans to various barbarians from the north and east. Which brings me to Attila the Hun.

The Girl perked up.

To be clear, I said, there weren’t exactly Huns -- not like a nation with cities and roads filled with people who called themselves Huns. Rather, I said, he became head of a tribe, and attacked or made aliances with the tribes around him, or both …

“Both?” she said. “Attacked and then made alliances with?”

It’s more common than you might think, I said. He was basically a gangster – most leaders are. He wasn’t evil for the sake of being evil, he just wanted more power or protection money. He would defeat other tribes and then tell them things like, Now I could destroy your peoples, but I’ll leave them alone if you come fight for me. And the more people he conquered, the more he could conquer …

“Postitive feedback loop,” The Girl said.

Exactly! Well done, I said. So once he became leader of his barbarian tribe – actually he and his brother, but he murdered his brother pretty fast – he started growing in power, until his empire stretched from France to Russia, as big as the Roman Empire. He talked many other armies into fighting with him, and the “Huns” became the general term for this group of many tribes following Attila, all speaking different languages.

The Roman Emperor, Valentian, tried to hire him at one point to help them defeat the Goths, but then he turned on the Romans.

“Did the Goths go into battle really mopey and with black eyeliner?” she asked.

I’m loving that image, I said. They were the ancestors of Germans, so they might have been a bit melodramatic. Anyway, the plot thickened when, back in Rome, Emperor Valentian was marrying off his sister to someone she didn’t like – remember how people would marry to form political alliances?  
“Sure,” she said, “like Octavian marrying that one lady.”

Right -- Clodia, Fulvia's daughter. Well, I told her, Valentian’s sister, the princess Honoria, decided she didn’t want to marry the person she was supposed to, so she sent a message asking for someone to rescue her. Guess who she sent the message to?

“Um…” she thought about it. “The emperor of the Eastern half?”

That might have been more sensible, I said, but no. She sent a message to Attila the Hun to rescue her.

My daughter slapped her forehead. “What a muppet!” she said. “What did she think was going to happen?”

Who knows? I said. But even worse, she sent her ring as a sign that the message was genuine, but Attila thought she was asking him to marry her.

“This just gets worse,” The Girl said. “What did Attila do?”

He told Valentian he wanted her hand in marriage, and he wasn’t asking, I said. The princess eventually married the person she was supposed to – I imagine her brother gave her a good talking to – but in the meantime Attila had an excuse to march on the emperor.

Attila had so many tribes on his side, I said, that some people say the army was half a million men. It was so great that the Romans had to get help from some Goths to fight off Attila …

“Wait a minute,” The Girl said. “Hadn’t they just hired Attila to help them fight off Goths?”

Right, and now they were hiring Goths to help fight of Attila. You can tell the Romans were getting desperate, and running out of friends.

The two armies met at the Battle of Catalaunian, where the Romans formed their usual line, and Attila sent all his men to rush it right in the middle. It was one of the greatest battles of the ancient world, with many thousands on both sides fighting all through the day and long into the night. Even after nightfall, they say, everyone kept on fighting blindly in the darkness. But when the dawn broke the next morning, the Roman line had held.

“Was that the end of it?” she asked.

No, soon Attila invaded Italy, pillaging everything as he went. It took all the legions of Rome to stop him even temporarily, and they weren’t sure they, or anyone, could do it again. Remember Pyrrhus, in the days of the Roman Republic? This was the Romans’ Pyrrhic victory, and they never recovered; the civilisation that had lasted a thousand years was gone in two decades.

But then one person went out, alone and unarmed, to meet Attila’s entire army, and talk with him. Guess who that was?

“The princess?” No, I said. “The emperor? We haven’t named anyone else in the story.”

Believe it or not, it was the Pope, I said.

“The Pope?” she asked incredulously. 

Sure, I said – this is in the Christian Era, so there was a pope. He rode to Attila’s camp, and Attila saw him, and no one has any idea what either of them said. We do know, however, that Attila stopped, and agreed to withdraw.

“That pope was amazing.” she said. You have to be pretty amazing if you’re going to be Pope, I said.

“Did Attila just go home?” she asked, “or convert?”

No, but a year later he was dead – he died on his wedding night.

“Was he killed?” she asked. We’re not sure I said. Maybe his new, Celtic bride killed him intentionally, or just gave him a heart attack.

“On his wedding night?” she said. “That’s quite a coincidence.”

Um, yes, I said … it is.

“So Rome fell pretty quickly after that?” She asked.

It had been collapsing for centuries, I said – most people lived their whole lives during the slow collapse of Rome and never knew it. There was no moment when everyone said, ‘Everything will be different now’ – there almost never is. And remember that some people were better off – people who had been slaves.

“Why do we call it a fall, then?”

The population declined, and most people became preoccupied with survival, I said, and most probably lost the ability to read and write. We lost most of the Greek and Roman books – when I read to you from Aristophanes or Epicurus, keep in mind we have just a tiny fraction of all the material they wrote. We lost all the writings in the Library of Alexandria. We lost all the music ever written. Greece and Rome at their height had underfloor heating and taxi metres, sculpture and plays, and philosophy that we can still use today. And we only have a sliver of it left – but it’s what we built our culture on. You remember who preserved all that through the Dark Ages?

“Monks,” she said.

Yep – we’re done with the ancient world. We’re into medieval times.

“Woo-hoo!” she said, pumping her fist in the air.

What’s more, I said, we see around us in Ireland things that were built around the time we’re talking about; it was St. Bridget who built the abbey in Kildare, and her life overlapped with Attila the Hun. People were already building monasteries and abbeys here to preserve the knowledge of the world while the empire collapsed. We’re now to the history we can see all around us.  

Top photo: The monastery at Glendalough, built within a century or so of Rome's fall. 
Bottom photo: My daughter a few years ago, in the Wicklow Mountains. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

What to do with weeds

Our internet is down this week -- I'm posting this from a public place -- and The Girl and I will be away all tomorrow at the Waterford County Fair, where her Medieval Camp will be showing off their archery skills, and I will be showing off medieval armour. Anyone wants to reach me, I can respond Monday.

Gardening, more than anything else, involves weeding – long hours of it sometimes, for the particularly weed-infested. All gardeners must constantly uproot their weeds or make peace with them, or they can take over your crops and your life.

In weeds’ defence, though, remember that they are simply the plants we don’t think we can use, and they can tell us a lot about our soil. If our soil is poor, acidic, chalky or has some other quality, we can tell in part by the weeds that come up.

Remember also that they are part of the natural cycle of succession; Nature abhors like a vacuum, and any bare earth exposed in the wild is quickly covered with waves of opportunists that protect the soil from the elements and prepare the way for trees and other permanent residents. We plant our crops on bare soil, and any soil contains dozens of weed seeds waiting for decades for the opportunity you have given them.

These days, of course, many people simply spray poisons on weeds -- poisons that could make their way into your food later on. Instead, try some of these other ways of handling your enthusiastic guests:

1.)    Eat them. Nettles, dandelions, clover, daisies, fat hen, and many other plants are delicious and full of vitamins – and free. In the spring the fields are covered with free food; you could get all your greens this way, for months, until the rest of your crops come up.  Even if you don’t like them, maybe you have chickens or other animals that will. 

2.)    Compost them, but only if they are not going to reproduce in your compost mound. Nothing that has gone to seed, and nothing with roots that can keep growing, and nothing toxic like potato or tomato plants. 

3.)    Soak them. Put all the weeds in a bucket of water, and keep stuffing more in until it is full. After a few weeks the weeds and seeds should have rotted, and the liquid should be a nutritious “tea” that you can use to water the garden. The rotted plants will be pungent, but you can throw them on the compost pile and cover them with earth to cut the smell.

If you keep weeding every day or week, you can line up several buckets according to week, and keep using the latest as fertiliser. 

4.)    Feed them to your animals; anything that we can’t eat, animals might be able to. Our chickens eat most of our weeds and turn them into fertiliser, and trod the rest into the ground. 

5.)    Burn them. If you throw weeds on the compost after they have seeded, the earth you get from that compost will keep on sprouting weeds for years to come. You can eliminate weeds and seeds alike, though, by burning them, and the resulting ash is good for the soil.

Some gardeners eliminate the weeds and sterilise the soil by creating a burn mound, starting with a circle of straw and laying a terra cotta pipe from the middle of the circle, like the hand of a clock. Then they lay pruned branches and other wood in a pile on the straw, and cover those with all the weeds gathered from the gardens. Finally they cover the whole thing with earth, reach inside the terra cotta pipe, and light the straw. This method was supposed to kill off all the weeds and sterilise the soil of weed seeds all in one go, and create potash that could be used to fertilise tomatoes and other hungry plants. 

6.)    Make peace with them. If the weeds are right next to your crops, you can certainly keep them from overrunning your beds. But if they are on your lawn, save yourself some work and pick only the least desirable weeds, leaving the lovely and useful ones to colonise your property. If you have children, for example, pick the nettles but leave the dandelions, which provide them so much entertainment. Pick the thistles but leave the chamomile, whose flowers you can pick for tea. Eventually you will have, not a lawn, but a very useful flower meadow, which looks nicer and is better for the soil. 

Photo: Our garden overrun with wildflower weeds -- chamomile, catmint, poppies, comfrey and daisies.