Saturday 22 March 2014

Back soon

I'm still dealing with technical problems, and haven't had as much opportunity, in time or internet access, to write or respond to e-mail The Girl and I are going camping in the West Country for the weekend, and will be back next week.

Saturday 15 March 2014


Note: I finally broke down and got a new computer today; I buy and use as little technology as possible, so this was a big deal for me. My apologies if I haven't responded to comments and e-mails quickly; I'll get to you. 

The village of Sallins in County Kildare, Ireland, lies on a stretch of road with two stone bridges — one over a railroad built in the 1840s, the other over a canal a quarter-millennium old. The bridges, canal, and railroad are sturdy and remain in use, but now they sit in the shadow of a modern office complex, a stillborn child of the recent economic boom. It opened just in time for the crash and instantly became a graffiti-covered derelict.

Ireland seems to specialize in this smashing together of the ancient and the modern. Just a brief drive from my house in Sallins, a new Starbucks overlooks medieval ruins, and a thatch-roofed pub has a satellite dish. But many of the new features are destined for a short shelf life. The country has seen the same troubles as my native United States — layoffs, bailouts, bubbles, and cutbacks — and the vacant office buildings reinforce the picture of desperation. Talk to the people, though, and a more complex picture comes into view.

The Irish have a lot in common with Americans, and not just because our globalized culture has everybody listening to Beyoncé and talking about the series finale of Lost. To a Missouri boy like me, many things seem familiar: faces and last names, crops and churches, country music stations and county fairs. This is where much of rural America comes from, the original of the species. In other ways, of course, Ireland is a European nation, with nationalized health care, coalition governments, no death penalty, and no guns.

And when it comes to attitudes toward economic hard times, the Irish could not be less American, owing to the country's unusual modern history. Ireland’s stark landscape of windswept plains and ancient monoliths draws legions of tourists, inspires New Age records, fantasy literature, and inspirational calendars. But we see those ruins out of context. When built, they were surrounded by towns, farms, and a cold rainforest like Oregon’s today. In medieval times, Ireland was a civilized and densely populated country compared to most of Europe. Even after the land was conquered and the forests felled, as many as 8 million people lived here — almost twice as many as today. Over the last 200 years, the populations of most countries increased dramatically — Britain’s by seven-fold, America's by a factor of 50. Ireland’s was cut by almost half.

The most important reason was the Famine, of course, and you can still hear the capital F in today’s Ireland. But that epochal crash was just the worst chapter of a history that emptied the land and made Ireland the world’s most famous exporter of sad songs and refugees. Perhaps no other people but the Jews have been so defined by tragedy and exodus.

In the U.S. and around the world, the descendants of the Irish multiplied until they vastly outnumbered the population of Ireland itself, and many retained an (often sentimentalized) love for their ancestral homeland. It’s the reason so many cities celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, why Ireland became such a popular tourist destination as the Land that Time Forgot. Even when Ireland’s cultural exports expanded beyond the Quiet Man stereotypes to U2 and The Commitments, the country retained its image of charming poverty.

Poverty looks better in memoirs or through the tour bus window. When my wife moved to County Clare in the 1970s, indoor plumbing and electricity were new and still not universal. Potatoes and cabbage really were the staple foods, and pubs and gambling houses were more common than libraries or grocery stores.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, most older people I talk to remember those days fondly. They recall a life that few modern people have experienced, spending the days working in the company of family and friends. They speak with pride of being able to provide their own food and fuel. They say that neighbors helped each other through the lean times, weaving a dense web of indebtedness. They too might be sentimentalizing a life most of us would find harsh, but they also tend to agree that in its prosperity, Ireland has lost something precious.

During the 20th century, the modern world slowly crept in, until most Irish had cars and televisions, and cracks began to appear in the old culture. Contraception was legalized in 1978, homosexuality in 1988, divorce in 1995. Then in the 1990s, a number of computer companies settled in Ireland, and the unthinkable happened.

In just a few years, Ireland went from being one of the poorest of Western nations to one of the richest, with double-digit annual growth some years. For the first time in centuries, poor immigrants flooded into Ireland, mostly Slavs who filled the service sector. Land prices in our area doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again. Villages swelled with housing developments — the population of Sallins quadrupled in a decade. Traffic jams filled the newly built highways, traditional pubs remodelled as trendy nightspots. It was as if the whole country had won the lottery.

The shake-up gave a boost to other changes that were already in the works. It dealt a final blow to the Troubles with Northern Ireland, effectively ending a thousand years of conflict. It did the same for the Catholic Church’s once-uncontested power. By European standards, Ireland remains devout: abortion remains illegal, state schools are Catholic, and the national television stations take breaks for vespers. When my bus passes a church, half the passengers still make the sign of the cross. But most remember the Church’s sometimes abusive history, and few today rue the breaking of its political power.

But even the newfound excess was frugal by American standards. The Irish use less energy per capita than most Western European nations, and half of the energy per capita as the average American. Personal savings remain much higher in Ireland than in the U.S. Personal debt has increased, but only because so many acquired new mortgages in the last decade.

More significantly, few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God. In short, the Irish did not react as many of my own countrymen did to the rising economic fortunes of the U.S.

Most Americans don’t imagine themselves to have lived through a boom of their own, but they have — just one that has lasted a human lifetime, so few people now remember frugality. The current crisis has left many Americans feeling helpless and outraged: this isn’t supposed to happen to us. The Irish make no assumptions, and now that lean times have returned, any older Irish person remembers how to live through them.

Living on an island makes Ireland more vulnerable to a depression, fuel shortage, or food crisis, and yet the Irish seem more prepared to endure it. Agrarian self-sufficiency ran too deep, too recently to be fully abandoned. Many people here grow gardens, and until recently it was common for schools and hospitals to have a garden outside to feed the students and patients. Cities and towns are compact to the point of claustrophobia, so arable land is never far away. Public transportation is widespread and carries no stigma of poverty. Perhaps most importantly, everyone seems willing to help even distant relatives — and if they live on the island, they are never far away.

Finally, much of the old infrastructure is still functional, or could be put back into service again soon, and could last for centuries after the boom’s plastic and plywood have collapsed. The railroads still run through Sallins, and could be electrified or horse-drawn if needed. The old canal barges may be lying on the banks with trees growing through them, but new ones could be made. The 250-year-old bridges are used every day with little sign of wear. They were built before the throwaway world was even imagined.

No one in Ireland would find a post-crash world pleasant or easy, but their culture might allow them to cope better than most. Traditional Ireland, the culture that older people remember and that still exists all around, was a post-crash world, its institutions and customs shaped by the Famine experience. The boom swept away the uglier aspects of the old order — the institutional abuse, the Troubles — but did not fully replace the qualities that older people here miss.

Many Irish see austerity not as the end of the world but as the hangover after the party, after which life will go back to normal. They have been here before. This is where they lived.

Originally published by Big Questions Online

Friday 14 March 2014

Gardening in March

This article originally appeared in the Kildare Nationalist, County Kildare, Ireland.

March can be a frustrating month, inuring us to springtime days of sunshine and green fields and then plunging us into the damp and chill again. Its unexpected turns make it difficult to judge the last days to prune, or the first days to plant or put delicate seedlings outside.

If you haven’t planted anything yet, there still might be time to order seeds and plant something for later in the year; buy seeds for more than one year to be on the safe side, but not more than a few years ahead, as after that some seeds tend to lose the ability to germinate.

Your first concern should be soil; in some places here, the soil can be solid clay, while other people have a wet and acidic bog. Gardening soil should usually be dark and mostly compost – that is, well-rotted plant matter – with some clay and sand. You can make your own compost and enrich your soil by composting kitchen waste or manure for two years, until it is dry, crumbly and feels like soil – and then mixing it in. Alternately, you can mix it in now and wait just a year, but then you would not be able to plant anything in the meantime.

If you have particularly boggy soil, you might want to build raised beds and lay down mulch or branches underneath and rich, sandy earth on top. This allows the bed soil to drain properly and provides nutrition for the plants as the wood slowly decomposes. Boggy soil can also be acidic, and many gardeners “sweeten” the soil with lime or some other alkaline – although such measures are said to increase the risk of disease in potatoes. Outside the beds you could plant crops that like acid soil, like blueberries.  

If you are experimenting with gardening for the first time, it is probably best to try small patches of the easiest crops – courgettes are famously easy and prolific. Other relatively easy crops that thrive in this climate include brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and peas. All of them should go in the ground quickly if they’re not planted already, along with other local staples like carrots, parsnips and lettuce, as well as crops that more Irish should experiment with -- artichoke, celeriac, chard, beetroot and asparagus.

Check your saplings and young shrubs, especially those planted over winter, to ensure they have not been rocked by wind --- you might have to pound a post into the ground and stake them. Remember that they need extra water when they are producing leaves. If your trees haven’t begun to bud yet, this might be your last chance to prune them this year; some trees react badly to being pruned with leaves or buds.

Since the March weather is so variable, it helps to plant seedlings inside first – ideally you should have had them going for a month or two now. A greenhouse or poly-tunnel is an immense help in growing veg, and allows you to grow year-round. If you can’t afford one right now, build a cold-frame, a box with a window on top that allows sunlight to come in – ideally slanted toward the south and placed in a sunny spot.

Inside your greenhouse, this is a good time to plant tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers and other warm-weather plants. Feed and water them well to prepare them for summer – remember that a greenhouse needs to be watered no matter how much it rains outside -- and check for greenfly, whitefly and other pests. If you get slugs, you have treats for your chickens and ducks. If you get snails, you can experiment with French cooking.

Most of all, look around for larger areas to garden, for yourself or your neighbours, for when times get tougher. We are surrounded by fields, most of which are used for grazing if at all, and growing crops generally feeds more people than animals on the same ground.

Friday 7 March 2014


I mentioned a few months ago that one-third of the food in the UK is thrown away uneaten, not even counting the amount that goes to waste on the farm or the factory. Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but throwing it in with the rest of the rubbish is a ridiculous solution when there are so many allies happy to turn it back into soil.

At the same time, many people have another problem; they want to grow their own food, but have the thin, poor soil of many suburban housing estates -- builders’ waste covered in a thin veneer or topsoil and turf. To grow things properly, many people need to build up their soil with organic waste.

Fortunately, these problems can solve each other, and there are already volunteers ready to help in your neighbourhood. They will work hard for you 24 hours a day without complaint, they are experts at turning kitchen waste into great soil and they work for free. They are worms.

We got a wormery a few Christmases ago, when we were staying in a flat (apartment) while we built our home. Once we had finished and moved back to our land, a full compost bin made more sense, but wormeries still work well for urban and suburban residents. It came in an easy-to-assemble kit – the bin, a stand, an interior tray and – snug in a plastic bag with air holes – the worms. We lay them gently in the tray inside the bin, spread a bit of peaty earth, shredded newspaper and a bit of kitchen waste around them, and then let them settle in.

A medium-sized wormery can process several pounds of organic waste a day – that’s several pounds you don’t have to put in bins, wrap in plastic and put outside in the cold; that won’t take up space in the landfill; and that won’t worsen climate change.

When the temperature dropped, we wrapped insulation around the bin and placed cardboard over the top to keep them warm, and they seem to still be going. According to worm experts, they slow down below eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) and stop altogether below five degrees (41 Fahrenheit). The outside temperature can go five or ten degrees below that, however, and they can still be all right if the wormery is sufficiently insulated. If you live where it regularly goes below freezing in the winter, you can bring it inside or into the shed – a well-maintained wormery should not smell foul.

A few things are not suitable for the worms. They don’t like high-protein dishes like meat, cheese or beans, acidic waste like citrus peels, too much grass, or pet poo. A little bit of these things can be okay, but not much. Most wormeries also come with an alkali powder of some kind in case the compost gets too acidic, and seaweed or crushed eggshells will also help. Some people recommend fireplace ash, but I learned the hard way not to put more than a light dusting -- it kills everything. You can tell if it starts to smell or if you see tiny, threadlike worms. The worms – called potworms in Britain – are harmless themselves, but an indication of a problem.

One nice thing about a wormery bin is that most have a valve at the base for draining excess water -- “worm tea,” which is about the colour of tea and, diluted, is excellent for watering plants.

It's all well and good to talk about living more self-sufficiently, and we know many people fumbling towards it, ourselves included. Most people's idea of self-sufficiency, however -- off-the-grid living, organic farming, wind power and so on -- can involve radical lifestyle changes for most people, and ambitious projects requiring substantial labour. Many of the people we know who are trying to embrace such a life, meanwhile -- ourselves included -- were taught few practical skills in their youth, live in isolation or in small communities, and no longer have the stamina of teenagers.

We too readily undervalue the importance of small and intermediate steps that would allow us to get closer to where we're going -- things that could be adopted by all the people who don't live on acres in the country. We would also be well advised to accept free help wherever it’s given, and when a staff of small experts offers to do some work for us, we shouldn't refuse.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Silver screens

"The great rival of the Catholic Church in Ireland was not Protestantism, or even Communism, but the cinema, in that cinema was competing for the same part of people's inner lives as the confessional and the Church.

When cinema started in the early decades of the century, it wasn't just a church that was in opposition, it was also cutting across the idea of the national revival, and the Los Anglesation of Ireland was feared as much as the Anglicisation. So what might be called the culture of protectionism of the 1920s and 30s militated against media and jazz.

One of the ironies of the Gaeity Cinema in Carrick-on-Shannon was that it established against the backdrop of a movement to ban jazz in Ireland, founded by a parish priest in the adjoining district of Cloon, County Leitrim. And that led to marches of over 5,000 in Moyle against jazz - jazz was Beelzebub’s music. And the dance-halls can be seen as part of that as well, their libidinous energies cutting across the austerity and puritanism of the new state."

-- Unidentified interview subject in the RTE documentary, "Closing the Gaiety in Carrick-on-Shannon," August 2010, remembering the cinema's role in the town during the mid-20th century.
Photo: Still from the 1920 Irish film Come On Over.

Monday 3 March 2014