Wednesday, 29 March 2017


Originally published March 2010. 

Most of us take libraries for granted, without appreciating what amazing things they are. Imagine having to buy even a fraction of the books, CDs and movies we can borrow freely from even the most meager local branch, whose total inventory might be worth millions.

They also serve you and your neighbours in other, less appreciated ways. Many offer free internet access to everyone, weekly storytelling for children or night courses for adults. For decades they were a centre of most small towns, hosting meetings and events of civic groups like Oddfellows, PTA, Jaycees and 4-H Clubs. One library here hosts the art of local painters, perhaps their only recognition. Another group of libraries published short-run collections of local students’ fiction, giving aspiring teen writers a start – including myself. A library might offer bound volumes of now-extinct local newspapers, or other non-Googlable information.

Even more useful than the books or activities, though, is the principle behind libraries, that we and our neighbours can pool our resources and hold things in common that all of us occasionally need. Most of the Western World, however, adopted this principle for books and then stopped, never extending it to other obvious areas of life.

In fact, the trend of the last few decades has been the opposite – people bought more and more of their own private stocks of anything, no matter how expensive or little-used: a row of ten family homes might have ten rakes, ten chainsaws, ten lawnmowers, ten barbecue pits and ten Dora the Explorer videos, each of which is used for only a few hours a year.   

Think of the money everyone could save, however, if those ten neighbours were to pitch in and buy a shed full of tools together – a rake, shovels, saws, hammers and so on. Each person would spend only a tenth of the price, yet the tools would be available when needed. There might be more wear on the tools, but there might also be more people taking care of them and making them last longer.

Any small community could also keep a library of seeds. Many garden megacenters carry only a few varieties of anything, often shipped from around the world, sometimes genetically engineered to yield only a single year’s crop. A seed library would be inexpensive insurance against unforeseen events – drought, fuel shortage, worsening economy -- that might make seeds might be harder to come by and more urgently needed.

Everyone needs medical care sooner or later, and while prescription medicines should not be casually traded or used past their sell-by dates, many other first aid items could be used in an emergency – bandages and plasters of various sizes, surgical spirits (rubbing alcohol to Americans), hydrogen peroxide and painkillers, as well as thermometers, blood pressure wraps, swabs and other basics. Such a store could also keep a few emergency substitutes–ground charcoal for poison, honey or vodka as antiseptics. Finally, it could a stock of books like Where There is No Doctor.

Food doesn’t exactly lend itself to re-use, but cooking supplies do, and many people have things like steamers, pressure cookers, woks, deep fryers and other expensive equipment that they use rarely and that could be kept in a common stock.

Any parent knows that children love new toys but are quickly bored with them, and they gradually accumulate in a child’s room until digging through them becomes an archaeological project. If each family were to frequently clean out the toys their children don’t use, however, they could create a common pool of toys that can be used and re-used.

Finally, to come full circle, we could keep books. We can recommend to our existing, official libraries books that we think might be useful in the lean times to come – gardening, home health care, water filtration – and books to tell future generations what was happening to us. Consider joining your local library board to recommend such things – I used to cover the library board, and they are usually a small group of elderly people whose hard work and subtle power to control the future goes unappreciated. They will need more volunteers as state and county funds grow scarce, and by joining the board yourself, you make sure they do not fill up with people trying to use public funds to push a single religious denomination or political party.

One easy way to start would be for you and your colleagues to engage in a spring cleaning together – books you finally admit you aren’t going to read, clothes that might come back in style in ten years and rarely-used tools from the garage. People have more than they realise, and find less clutter a relief – and since many might fear abuse of the system, it’s often best to start with things people won’t miss anyway.

Such abuse – members not giving back what they borrow – can happen, but it happens in public book libraries too, and it is rarely fatal. Things like power tools, of course, are more expensive than books, so members might have to keep them secure and enforce membership fees, security deposits or late charges to make sure everyone plays by the rules.  Of course, members can also restrict their library only to trusted associates at first, but try to open it up to more people over time, until you have a critical mass in the larger community.

The details will depend on your group, of course, and that could be almost anything. It could be you and your neighbour down the road agreeing to share a few things. It could be members of your church agreeing to stock some spare belongings in the parish shed. It could be the Girl Scouts asking to store a cabinet of seeds at City Hall, or the town’s 4-H Club keeping a shed of equipment for anyone to check out. It could be poker buddies going in on a chainsaw, or people in a college dormitory time-sharing their textbooks.

The principle is the same – most of us have more than we need, and not enough. We can do more together than we can separately, and out of such networks of co-operation community is created. Whatever the circumstance, such a system creates tiny pockets of assistance in a troubled economy, and an overlapping network of such collaborations would help restore something the culture has lost.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

More only in Ireland

At the local petrol pump, some people just pull their horses in for a refueling.

 Seen near Dingle.

Signs here do what they say on the tin. 

The signs here don't always tell you the direct way to get somewhere, but they tell you a way.

Seen on a wall in Dublin.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Irish childhood

If you ever wanted to see what the world might look like after the apocalypse, you could do worse than see the Burren land of County Clare, Ireland. Other regions of Ireland are as lush and green as the postcards, but the Burren has too little soil for that; instead, its exposed limestone forms a stark moonscape of pale hills. Cows and sheep graze on the plants that peek out of jigsaw patterns in the stone, and the occasional tree does nothing to slow the screaming wind coming in from the nearby sea.  

Living here, you might think, would be like being marooned on an alien planet, and raising children unthinkable. It would not seem very thinkable now, when your house might have central heating and a television set; in the 1930s no one here had electricity or cars, and life was similar to what it had been in the 1830s, or for that matter the 1830s BC. Dersie Leonard, who grew up in the Burren then, later wrote that she and other children walked miles a day in all weathers, to school and church and home, barefoot and wearing clothes made from flour sacks. Modern American kids, dependent on cars and electronic devices to function, would struggle to picture a more depressing existence.

Surprisingly to them, then, Leonard wrote joyfully about her early life, saying she and her friends had “lakes and rivers, good land and bad, bog and rocks, not to mention fairy rings and forts – in fact everything a person could wish for.” They spent their days exploring the countryside, playing games, singing and telling stories, immersed in the adventure of childhood. Here she describes the day when she and her friends accompanied their fathers to the bog to dig turf – compacted peat, dried and burned for fuel:

“As children we loved this day of days. A turf fire was set and lit and a kettle placed over it. The tea always tasted of heather and was slightly smoky. When the tea had been made the fire was put out, because if it spread, hundreds of acres of bog and turf would be in danger. Then we set off to our picnic spot in the nearby forest where we set up a shop under some trees. By this I mean a make-believe shop. We picked wild violets, heather and primroses and sold them for old broken delft which we called “chanies.” To this day I can remember that spot and know exactly where it is, although I haven’t visited it for forty or more years.”

Of course, you might think that Leonard really was miserable at the time, and nostalgia colours even the harshest of memories. Or perhaps she was an unusual case, and few of her peers handled poverty so well. Yet a glance at old school-papers from that era – thousands of them have been saved in national archives – show that most Irish of that generation seem to have been as cheerful then as children as they are now as elders. Nor is Leonard unusual; I’ve heard or read hundreds of interviews of people her age saying the same thing.

“What kind of upbringing did I have?” said Tom Shaw, who was born in a one-room hut in 1935. “Brilliant – you couldn't have wished for better.” Shaw, interviewed by Irish radio, said that he had “no electricity, no running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet,” but that “under any circumstances, it would be a great youth -- we got to spend a lot of time with my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, yet we had total freedom to run around.”

“We were real happy children, never bored,” said Jenny Buckley, who grew up in County Offaly in the 1930s. She described working hard at farm chores and school, her loved ones pitching in together, so that they were almost entirely self-sufficient.

“Our farm kept us going; we bought nothing but tea, sugar, rice and sultanas,” she said. “Now our pocket money was that we had a hen each and collected her eggs and sold them.”

“...we didn’t walk through fields to school, but travelled the then-rugged and stony way which was up hill and down dales,” remembered Bessie Byrne Sheridan, who grew up in County Wexford in the 30s. “No tarmacadamed (paved) roads in those days of sparse cash but healthy living. Making ourselves happy with very little was the norm for us all. Those times were known as the ‘hungry thirties,’ which I think is a misnomer because there was plenty of home-produced natural food available everywhere,” and if anyone didn’t have enough of something, all the neighbours shared with them.

“…it was much more a children's world, for few people remember anyone who would harm a child, nor were there any media around that could corrupt them,” said Irish radio producer Tommy Ryan about Irish village life. “Children ran everywhere freely and safely. There was less hurry to get out of childhood and into adolescence.”

Most of the children ran barefoot in those days, but that wasn’t the hazard it would be today, for roadways were not lined with auto parts, broken glass or discarded needles. “There a picture somewhere of my last school year, and half of the children were in their bare feet,” said Jack, an elderly man I talked to. “And it was quite usual at that stage that when the summer holidays were coming on, you’d get your shoes or boots taken away, and you trotted down in your bare feet for a few months.”

You might think of such children as deprived, but Jack said that everyone looked forward to the bare-footed seasons. “Shoes were something to get used to, and unwillingly,” and they stretched it out further than they were supposed to, Ryan said. “We took our boots as far as the stile, hid them there, went to school barefooted, and on the way home put them on again. Our parents didn't want us to go barefoot until May, but we had it going from March.”

Many elders emphasize how safe the world was for children then. “Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody would touch it,” said Con Moloney, who grew up in County Laois. “Everybody had the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers behind the wheel of fast cars.”

Village children in those days rarely had to worry about strangers, for they knew everyone around, everyone saw everyone else, and gossip was a powerful tool for keeping people in line; if a stranger came to town, everyone knew. Nor could children get away with much either, not with so many eyes on them, connected to people who talked to their parents every day. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that crime in rural Ireland was a small fraction of what it is in the USA today, and most doors were open or unlocked all the time. 

“I pity the country children of today,” said Nancy Power of County Kilkenny. “The journeys to and from school were an education as valuable as any we managed to imbibe at school.”