Sunday 26 November 2023

Great write-up by Rod Dreher

 Between going to Budapest to visit Rod Dreher and dodging the riots in Dublin, I've been a bit busy lately -- and I'm preparing to go back to the USA at Christmas. Thus, I'm late in posting a link to this, but Rod Dreher gave me a generous write-up on his Substack blog, and I'm quite chuffed:

I've finished the book and am searching for an agent and publisher, so I'll keep you posted.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Been a bit busy here in Dublin

Believe it or not, this is my third time seeing part of my own neighbourhood smashed and burned. I grew up near Ferguson, Missouri, which made the news with a race riot in 2014, and then I lived in Minneapolis and worked around the corner from where George Floyd would later be killed. Most people don’t see this happen to their neighbourhood even once, much less three times in three separate neighbourhoods. I would be the dot in the middle of a very strange Venn diagram. 

I'm writing about it at the moment, and will be doing an interview -- details to come soon. 

Photo: Irish Independent.

Saturday 18 November 2023

The History of Woven Boats

Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, a dozen kilometres from the seaside, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots, or at least people of Scotland. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, like someone today might be buried in their Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across vast stretches of cold water. (1)

That’s not as strange as it sounds; humans around the world, whether jungle tribes or Eskimos, whether in the Stone Age or the Industrial Revolution, used similar woven boats. Who first thought of it we don’t know; the first basket fragments we have were about 13,000 years old, but we have circumstantial evidence that humans might have been weaving baskets the size of boats almost four hundred centuries earlier. 

Not four hundred years, by the way – four hundred centuries.

You see, early humans first appeared in Australia about 50,000 years ago, and even with the ice age lowering sea levels, you still can’t walk there. To get there from Asia (presumably, because anything else would be even stranger) they would have had to set out on the ocean — whole families in boats, not knowing if there was land out there. Obviously they floated on something, and we know of no other kind of boat-making technology for tens of thousands of years to come. Even if they only lashed logs together to make rafts, as you see in so many castaway films, they would have had to use the similar technology of weaving fibres together to make knots.

In the centuries since, cultures around the world wove boats: Tibetans floated in Ku-Drus of woven wood and yak-skin, Eskimos lashed sealskin around their long umiaks, Arabs traversed the Tigris and Euphrates in quffahs, and the Celts of the British Isles – Irish, Scots and Welsh — had an amazing variety of coracles for fresh waters and curraghs for the sea.

Most were woven from some local pliable wood – although Eskimos used sometimes used bones — then covered with some kind of skin, and finally waterproofed in some way. They were often rounder in flat water, like the Irish coracles, and more oval or pointed in running or sea waters, like the Irish curraghs or Eskimo kayaks. They also tended to be alarmingly tiny crafts, often just big enough for one – although a traveller to Iraq in the 1930s reported seeing woven boats large enough to carry several human passengers and a few horses. (2)

Coracles in particular had the basic shape of a bowl, and its users needed substantial practice to avoid tipping over. The advantage, however, was that once the user reached shore, the small and lightweight craft could be lifted and carried on one’s back. An English poet in the 1600s described “salmon-fishers moist, their leather boats begin to hoist,” looking like turtles as they walked away from the water carrying their boats upside-down across the countryside. (3)

On these islands coracles and curraghs were used from ancient times – the ancient Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion mentions them, as did Julius Caesar on his trip to Britain. Irish monks like St. Columba in the sixth century travelled around isolated islands in a hide-bound boat, and Hector Boece’s 1527 history of Scotland describes their frequent use of coracles:

How be it, the Highlanders have both the writings and language they had before, more ingenious than any other people. How may there be any greater ingenuity than to make any boat of any bull-hide, bound with nothing but wands? This boat is called a curragh, and with it they fish salmon … and when they have done their fishing they bear it to another place on their back as they please. 

Fishing was not just a pastime for such people, but a matter of survival; the protein they brought in was precious, especially in Catholic countries where meat was forbidden part of the year. Another common use was to gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also, of course, woven of wood like baskets. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.

Coracles also proved useful in other ways; when shepherds washed their sheep, for example, coracle-men positioned themselves downstream to catch any sheep that might be carried away. And, of course, they offered simple transportation across a landscape lined with lakes, rivers and canals, and among many islands separated by the sea.

Each region had its own design – not just region as in “Europe,” but as in each local village or stream; small Welsh rivers like the Teifi, the Taf, the Wye, the Monnow, the Lugg, the Usk, the Dee and the Severn each had their own styles of coracles, each apparently made for the conditions of that place. (4)

Irish coracles and curraghs were woven from willow or hazel, and typically built upside-down. Locals here began by planting a row of hazel rods straight into the ground, continuing in a wide curve until the row came back to where it began. Then, when the rods looked like the bars of a large cage, they wove withies – thin strips of wood – back and forth between the rods along the ground. This would be the gunwale – the “rim” of the boat – when it was flipped over.

Then the hazel rods — the bars of the cage, as it were — were bent down across the oval to make a wicker dome, until the whole structure formed a large, solid basket. Then a covering was lashed to the frame – cow-hide was typical, although horse-hide and seal-skin were also used. Finally, the cover was waterproofed – in recent years with tar or some other petroleum derivative, but originally with tallow or butter.

Such ingenious craft opened up new industries, crafts and food sources for ordinary hunters or farmers, allowing them to traverse lakes and rivers easily and travel between islands. They allowed people on islands or in remote areas communicate and trade with the rest of the world. They let people create their own craft for the unique conditions of their place, with nothing more than local resources, knives and skill. In short, for tens of thousands of years human survival depended on such small and unlikely-looking creations.

Originally published in Mother Earth News.  Photos: Irishmen carrying their coracles. Courtesy of Wikicommons and Flickr, public licence.


1) T. Watkins, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 1980
T. Watkins, The excavation of an Early Bronze Age cemetery at Barns Farm, Dalgety, Fife, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 112 (1984) p. 48 – 114
2) James Hornell, “Coracles of the Tigris and Euphrates,” The Mariner’s Mirror, Volume 24, Issue 2, 1938
3) Andrew Marvell, “Upon Appleton House,” 1651.
4) James Hornell, Water Transport Origins & Early Evolution, 1936.


Thursday 9 November 2023


Making food – gardening, preserving, cooking – is generally time-consuming work, and very few foods leap out of the air and volunteer to make themselves. Fortunately, sourdough does just that.

Sourdough is a kind of bread made with naturally-occurring yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria, already floating in the air all around you. Because the lactobacilli create lactic acid, it has a slightly sour taste compared to breads made quickly with dried yeast powder from the store.

The preparation of sourdough begins with a starter of flour and water, which can be a solid, liquid or somewhere in-between. The starter carries the yeast and bacteria, and when you mix the starter with the rest of the dough you are giving the micro-organisms much more food, enabling them to spread throughout the dough. The bacteria and yeast have a symbiotic relationship: the bacteria ferment sugars that the yeast cannot digest, and their by-products are metabolised by yeast, which produces carbon dioxide gas, which leavens the dough.

First take a tablespoon (about 10 millilitres) of flour and a tablespoon of milk and mix them together – exact quantities aren’t that important. Then you leave it sit out – say, on your kitchen shelf – and stir it every morning and evening for about a week.

When this gooey, pale mix begins to bubble and smell sour and tangy, it has become sourdough starter. If it smells pongy, it pulled the wrong kind of bacteria out of the air, and needs to be thrown out -- there’s really no way to ensure either result or predict ahead of time.

I added some organic grape peels to the mix; the grape’s sugar is food for the yeast, and grapes are often covered in yeast themselves – that is the powdery coating you see on the surface of grapes, one reason ancient people so easily discovered they could make the juice into wine.

Once you have a good batch of starter going, you keep feeding it a little bit every day. Keep it at room temperature – say, 20-25 degrees -- and take out a portion every week or so to make the bread. Some people keep their starter in their refrigerator, where it ferments more slowly and only needs to be fed once a week.

Sourdough needs to be stickier and wetter than other doughs – the wetter the better. Generally it should double in size within six hours of each “feeding,” and it should be full of bubbles. One tip I got from the Prairie Homestead blogger was that “if you place a teaspoon of the starter in a cup of cool water, it should float on top of the water.”

To make the bread itself, you bake it as you would bread in general, except that instead of a packet of yeast you use some of the starter – don’t use it all, of course. I use about half a cup of starter – 120 ml -- to about 300 ml lukewarm water, and then add a teaspoon-and-a-third of salt, or about eight ml. I then mix in 720 ml of flour; I use about 20 per cent rye flour to about 80 per cent wheat. I mash it together until it’s somewhat stiff, form it into a ball, and let it sit in the bowl for about 30 minutes.

When this is done, I stretch and fold the dough a few times, cover it with a clean dish towel and I let it rise overnight until it’s doubled in size. The next morning fold it over a few times and let it rise for about three hours, or until it’s doubled.

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Centigrade. Sprinkle cornmeal in the bottom of a baking pan lined with parchment and place the loaf into the pan. If you have a Dutch oven, bake it for about 20 minutes with the lid on, and about 30 minutes without. Wait until it’s cool before slicing into it.

These figures and this recipe are meant to be approximations; people have different tastes, different kinds of bacteria and yeast in their homes, different room temperatures, and different luck. Some bread-makers advise novices to get someone else’s sourdough starter first, in order to see what one should taste and smell like. Some “proof” the starter before making bread dough; that is, mixing it with three parts flour to two parts starter, letting it rise about an hour, and then mixing in the rest of the dough. Sourdough does have more of a learning curve than most kinds of bread, so it takes a lot more tries to get it right, and of course every culture of sourdough has its own rules. That's part of the fun; you get to feel your way along your own path.


Sunday 5 November 2023

Growing Flax


Most of the clothes we wear today are made of oil, or coal, or gas, mixed with chemicals and turned into mylon or rayon or some other synthetic. They will not decay as natural fibres do, and when bits of them come out in the wash – almost every wash – they flood into the sea. Scientists recently said they expected the ocean to soon have more plastic per weight than fish, and we have no idea what effects it will have on life there as it disintegrates into chemicals.

Once, though, Ireland made its own clothes, giving thousands of people useful work – raising sheep, of course, but also growing flax to turn into linen. Flax – ‘lint,’ they called it – made linen cloth and canvas, string and rope. It was “a money-making crop because there was very little work with it,” said Davy McCrory, but that was just to grow it.

Turning it into linen was a long and complicated process that involved uprooting the plants, removing the seeds (“rippling”), soaking them (“retting”) in a bath (“dam”) until the outer husk rots, drying them again, smacking the stalks to remove the rest of the husk (“scotching”), and combing them (“heckling”). The end result was long yellow fibres of flax that became linen cloth and canvas, and a lot of short loose ones called “tow” – the reason long blonde hair is called “flaxen” and blonde children are called “towheads.”

Flax had to be pulled out of the ground rather than cut, and here too neighbours assembled to help. “You went to the neighbour to their pulling and they come to you, so that you had eight or nine men to attend and to pull it, all in one day,” said Annie McKillop. Then the plants went into the dam to be soaked so all but the fibres rotted away, and “oh the smell was wild altogether,” Francis Quinn said.

“It was the custom for the farmer whose flax was being dressed to call at the mill with a bottle of whiskey, for all the workers to share a drop on breaks,” Maurice McAleese said. “If this custom was not upheld, that farmer could count on his flax being treated with less care than the rest. The workers took two breaks, at 10 am and 3 pm, for a snack, shot of whiskey, and a smoke.” (Back Through the Fields, 112)

Women handled the scotching and heckling, said Martin Keaveny, “but scotching wasn’t all work for them! They did a bit of match-making as well, planning who would make suitable partners. There was a party atmosphere and a singsong.” It also seems to have been an opportunity for community organising; flax workers had a reputation for being political independents who talked back to public speakers, something we still call “heckling.” (Growing Up with Ireland, 24)

“It was the custom for the farmer whose flax was being dressed to call at the mill with a bottle of whiskey, for all the workers to share a drop on breaks,” Maurice McAleese said. “If this custom was not upheld, that farmer could count on his flax being treated with less care than the rest.” (Back Through the Fields, 112)

Once the linen was taken to market, “it was taken to the linen halls in Ballymena,” Harry Hume said, where cloth buyers had strict standards and long experience examined them carefully. “The buyers came along and pulled out the flax and they knew by the fibre whether it had been properly retted in the dam, or properly scotched, or dried or hadn’t been dried properly and hadn’t heated in a pile or anything.”

In our time, we have become accustomed to clothes just showing up in stores, made by slaves somewhere and travelling around a planet for us. We have become so used to cheap fabric that we have stopped mending clothes when they have holes. And we have become accustomed to widespread rural unemployment. All these problems, though, could solve each other if we brought back some of the industries that sustained small farmers and villages across Ireland for hundreds of years. We would also have clothes that did not make us dependent on Middle Eastern nations where the oil is found, or Third-World dictatorships where the clothes are made. We could clothe ourselves again.