Saturday, 10 February 2018

A man who knows his business


The road to our house runs along a 300-year-old canal, originally dug to transport turf -- dried peat moss, our main fuel here -- on horse-drawn barges to the damp and chilly homes of Dublin. The road is only a single lane wide, so even a short trip to the village and back involves a lot of pulling into driveways and letting other cars go past. 

On the other hand, it makes a lovely path to jog back and forth on weekend mornings, past rusted boat-hulls on the shore and neighbours with their dogs and children. It harbours many distractions for the aspiring jogger, like hedgerows filled with fruits and berries in season, the sweeping grandeur of our local herons in flight, or the darting brilliance of kingfishers and bullfinches.

As I jogged along the canal this weekend, my neighbour Liam waved to me, and I stopped to say hello.

How you keeping, I asked.

“Not a bother, Brian,” he said in his amiable rasp. “A little unsteady this morning -- I was up calving all last night.”

One of your cows gave birth? I asked. As long as I’ve lived here next to neighbours and friends who raise cattle and sheep, and even helped out a bit, I’ve never been with them during birth. Yet this is central to a farmer’s life -- one of my favourite television programmes on these islands is an annual event called Lambing -- Live!, where talk show hosts interview farmers in spring and talk about how the lambing is going.

“Sure, usually they’re just fine by themselves, but sometimes they need a hand, and it can keep you up until dawn,” he said.

Do they tend to all give birth around the same time, in spring? I asked -- it seemed a little early for that.

“Left to their own devices, they’d all give birth around spring, but I encourage them to spread it out a bit,” he said. “Makes it easier on me.”

Do you, um, bring the bull around at certain times, or what? I asked. Sorry, I’ve lived here long enough that I feel like I should know this.  

“Frederick,” Liam said -- “you’ve seen him in that field down along the canal banks - you know the one? He’s a good lad, and he’s been with me a while now.”
I’ve seen you with the bull, I said -- I’m impressed at how calm he is.

“Everyone’s terrified of bulls, but I’ve never been hurt by one -- I raised him, and he trusts me,” Liam said. “Occasionally he’s lifted me in the air with his head -- gently, just playing -- and set me down again. I’ve tried to pull him in the tractor, and he can just pull the other way and turn the tractor around -- so if he wanted to get me, I’d be gone. But he’s never wanted to do anything other than play a bit. It’s cows you have to be afraid of.”

Really? I said. You think of bulls as much more dangerous.

“Ah, bulls warn you when you’re getting on their bad side -- they stamp, they snort. They give you fair notice, and only fools ignore them. But cows can come at you out suddenly, just because the spirit took them.”

Liam has been handling cows since he was a boy -- in some cases, the great-great-grandparents of these cows -- so I trust his judgement on these things.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Garden in winter


·        



























Today I had a chance to step out in the garden and get a few things out of the way. We are tearing down the garden beds in our greenhouse, as the wooden beds are almost rotted through and we have used the soil for tomatoes over and over, so we need to get new beds and new soil.

If you don’t have a greenhouse yourself, think about making cloches, clear containers to protect your plants from frost and give them a head start. To make a cloche you can take a scissors and cut across the middle of a plastic fizzy-drink bottle, leaving a bell-shaped dome for your seedling. The resulting plastic will be quite floppy, so you might want to support it with a criss-cross of sticks poked through the plastic and taped together where they cross.  You can place the bottle over seedlings in the garden – preferably with the bottle-top screwed on at night to keep out frost, and left open during the day to allow the plant to breathe.

also drained water through our fireplace ashes, in the hopes of creating enough lye -- the alkaline water that drained out the bottom -- to make soap later this year. I spread the soaked ash over the margins of our property, piling cardboard and mulch over it, in the hopes of keeping brambles from invading and taking root in the margins. I checked the beehive, to make sure the bees are snuggled up cosy and have plenty to eat, and will be preparing some more sugar-water to get them through the next few weeks before the first flowers.

Finally, this is the right time of year to prune most fruit trees, so that they will put more energy into growing buds, flowers and fruit this summer. It’s also the time to coppice or pollard trees like willow and hazel, so that you can have firewood for next winter and the tree will send up new growth this summer. It’s not much fun to work outside when it’s this dreary, but the work has to be done now if the land is to be lovely and productive when it’s warmer.

This is the right time to cut willow, either to build a hedge, weave a basket or just spread the willow around. If you want to take a row of willows and make them into a hedge, cut the willow partway through the stem at whatever height you need. Cut only partway so that you leave some of the xylum, the inner bark that transports water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, and energy from the leaves to the roots. Then fold the stem above the cut, and weave it around the trees and branches around it so it stays in place. If this is done properly, the tree will remain alive and continue to grow above the cut, and will create a living fence.

To spread willow over your property, cut stems off the tree and plant them in a bucket of water. Wait a few weeks until they grow a shock of white roots in the water, and then dig a hole where you want them to grow. Cut off the roots around the stem, plant them in the hole and refill it.

The days are getting longer again, so it’s a good time to think about what to put in the garden next year. When you plan your garden, try to think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods. Our hazel trees produce nuts, and under them we planted blueberries and other shade-loving plants, and we will have sorrel and other ground crops lower still – multiple levels of crops going upwards.

This is not an easy month to get out in the garden – the days remain short and chilly. Everything remains wet, meaning that a shovelful of earth is much heavier than it should be. The more you are on top of things now, however, the less you have to wait later, and gardeners do enough waiting as is.
Most of the crops left in the garden at this time of year are root vegetables or cabbages -- for us, that means beetroot, parsnips, celeriac and kale. I’ve written before about how to make them into soup or other vegetarian dishes, but they are especially nice as crisps, and while not extremely healthy, they are probably a bit healthier than the store-bought potato crisps.

Take several parsnips, beetroot and a bulb of celeriac, and some kale leaves. Wash everything well and peel the vegetables -- with the celeriac you might have to peel a lot.

Slice the roots with a mandolin, thinly enough that, when held to the light, they are a bit translucent.
Heat a pan of oil to 180 degrees Centigrade. Fry them in batches -- about two minutes for each batch, or until they look crisp but not burnt -- making sure they are covered with oil and turning them frequently. Be prepared to withdraw them quickly, as they keep cooking and turning colour even after you remove them from the oil -- don’t let them get close to burning.

Let them cool and let the oil drain, dash some lemon juice over the lot, and sprinkle some salt and pepper. Some people like to fry up garlic cloves, or herbs like rosemary or sage, for some extra flavour; if you do this, best to cook them first and let the oil impart their flavour to the other vegetables.

You can also turn the kale into crisps. To do so pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it, no more than one leaf thick. Cook for seven to ten minutes until crisp – they burn quickly too, so keep checking on them.

Introduce snacks like this to your kids or your junk-food-eating friends. It won’t turn them into home-farming health nuts overnight, but it does introduce them to the idea that, instead of simply buying fatty, expensive food from a company, they could make it themselves to their own taste, learn a bit of cooking skill, and have fun. It could be a first step to more adventurous experiments down the road.


Saturday, 20 January 2018

Sprouts

This article will appear in the Kildare Nationalist in County Kildare, Ireland next week. 

Supporting yourself generally requires land, tools, weeding, composting, practice, and finally the months of waiting for things to finish growing. There is one kind of food, however, that can be grown by anyone, indoors, in any time of year, in a few days – sprouts.

I don’t mean Brussels Sprouts – nutritious as they are -- which are the buds of a certain type of cabbage. I mean seeds or beans – mung beans, broccoli seeds, radish seeds, alfalfa seeds -- that have been soaked and kept moist for a few days and have begun to turn into green shoots, as they would in soil.

The Chinese have sprouted for at least 5,000 years, and many Westerners have found growing sprouts an easy source of nutrition in lean times. Captain Cook used sprouting as a source of Vitamin C to avoid scurvy on long ocean voyages, as did soldiers in World War I and Indians during the famine of the 1930s. Sprouts are also high in protein – seven cups have an average person’s daily recommended allowance.

You can sprout the beans or seeds of most edible plants – the only common ones to avoid altogether are nightshade plants like tomatoes or potatoes, whose sprouts are as poisonous as the leaves of the grown plants. Mung beans -- for sale in most health-food stores for a euro or two a bag -- are a common and easy way to begin. School-children are often told to let them lie on a wet paper towel, but I get fine results just from letting them sit in a bowl-sized plastic tub or (unsealed) Ziploc bag.

Rinse the beans first, and then let them sit in a tub of water for about six hours or so. Then drain the water and let the beans sit in the damp tub for the next few days, rinsing them every eight hours or so -- the beans need to be kept moist but not swimming in standing water. Every morning before work, every day when you come home, and every night before bed, fill the tub with water again and then let it drain out.

Take care that the damp seeds do not grow mouldy – I found this to be a hazard with broccoli and alfalfa seeds, but never with beans. In three days or so the beans should have sprouted into white-and-green shoots, at their height of nutritional value. Sprouts can be eaten in salads – I include a couple of recipes below -- and many people eat broccoli, alfalfa or radish sprouts on sandwiches instead of lettuce. Soybean sprouts, popular in Chinese cooking, are the only ones that are better cooked.

Personally, I found that the smaller sprouting seeds, like alfalfa, gave me too little finished sprouts to make them worth my while, and had far too great a risk of mould. The larger beans, like lima or adzuki, tended to sprout more slowly and can often go bad before fully sprouting. Mung beans, on the other hand, tend to work perfectly.

As mung beans cost very little and keep for years, you can get all your protein and many of your vitamins for only a couple of euros a week. You might love them, you might not, but you should have them handy for emergencies.

You can make a sprout salad in a couple of different ways. My favourite is to mix 50g of yogurt, 10g of Sriracha or other hot sauce, 5 ml of lemon juice, 5g of powdered vegetable stock and pinches of turmeric, cayenne and pepper. Mix all these together into a sauce and add 20 grams of finely chopped scallions. Finally, wash, drain and dry 300g of mung bean sprouts, and slowly mix it in with the sauce.

Alternately, you can mix 30g of olive oil, 10g of cider vinegar or lemon juice and mix them well. Add 10 ml of dark soy sauce and add a pinch of salt -- I put in a bit of wasabi for a spicy kick, or you can leave it out. Coarsely grate 100g of peeled carrots, 50g of apples and 20g of chopped scallions, and mix them into the sauce. Finally, wash, drain and dry 300 grams of mung bean sprouts, and mix them in as well.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Wormeries

Several years ago a study commissioned by the United Nations found that, at a time when the world has more hungry people than ever before, one-third of all food is wasted. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food, 222 million tonnes, as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. A previous study had found that British households threw away an estimated one metric tonne of food per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but Nature recycles everything. Dropped in the woods those peelings quickly become food for birds or rodents, which fertilise the ground. If these animals are not around, they become food for insects, which in turn feed the larger animals. Whatever insects don’t eat becomes food for moulds and other fungi, and what they don’t eat goes to aerobic bacteria.

In our modern society, though, we have managed to take Nature’s cycles and slice them into several crises. We use vast amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and water to grow food, ship it around the world, often throw it away uneaten -- and when we throw it away, we often put in in plastic bags.

This bizarre habit has the effect of sealing the food away from the animals -- furry, feathered or creeping - that would eat it, and cutting off the oxygen that would allow fungi and aerobic bacteria to breathe. That leaves only anaerobic bacteria, Nature’s emergency backup workers, who work slowly and create a bit of an odour. You might think that decomposition smells foul anyway, but a well-turned compost actually doesn’t generate much of a smell.

Moreover, anaerobic bacteria create large quantities of methane, which is a serious greenhouse gas -- about 35 times worse than carbon dioxide, and accounts for about 20 per cent of the greenhouse effect.

Meanwhile, many people would like to grow their own food, but have typical suburban soil -- clay, builders’ rubble from decades before, and in some cases, unsafe levels of petrochemicals or heavy metals. They need good soil in raised beds, just like the kind you can create by composting kitchen waste.

Fortunately, all three of 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.

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.

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 I'm told that seaweed, crushed eggshells or fireplace ash will also help. 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. The liquid is called “worm tea,” and is about the colour of tea – dilute it and use it to water your plants.

I wax eloquent (well, wax anyway) about a simpler life, and we're taking baby steps to get there, but let's be honest -- it will be a lot of work, and none of us are getting any younger. Let's get some free labour where we can.

Photo: Some seeds must have gotten into the compost, and now it's growing nasturtiums. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Scenes from the village


We had a great Christmas; The Girl got a new bow and arrows, to keep up with the passion that occupies most of her free time. She’s been going to archery events across Ireland -- and soon, in other countries -- and coming home with trophies, so I’m satisfied to shell out the money to keep her going. She got me a book that she knew I’d love, and we also got some Hitchcock DVDs -- we watched Rope the other night, and as jaded a 21st century teenager as she is these days, afterwards she said, “That was intense!”
This is always a difficult time of year; the heating never works as well as it should, so we’re relying on the fireplace to keep the house warm. Of course it got colder in parts of the USA where I lived, but somehow it feels colder here; perhaps it’s the fact that it’s damp, or that we live in the giant heat sink of the bog.
Also, as I’ve mentioned, we’re at the same latitude as Alaska, so the winter nights are long and dark. I don’t leave the house unless I have to, and have spent most of the time curled by the fire writing what I hope will be a book.
Still, my elderly neighbours are hardier than I, and grew up in this area before it had electricity, much less under-floor heating. After Mass today I saw my neighbour Liam, haler at 75 than I am now, and he exclaimed, “’Tis a fine frosty morning, isn’t it Brian?”
“’Tis lovely,” I said, “But I’m not suited to it - I’ve spent a lot of time by the fire.”
“I just lit my first fire this morning,” he said.
We talked some more, and I promised I’d stop by for tea, thinking to myself, Remember to bundle up before you go.
***
I went back to my usual schedule this week, returning to my day job in Dublin. Every morning I wait in the darkness for the double-decker bus to come barrelling down the country roads, and stop and pick us up. Also returning to work were my neighbours; Cahil, who works at the hardware store down the road; Sean, a local handyman and construction worker; Betty and her grand-daughters.
Me: How was your Christmas dinner?
Betty: Sure it was lovely, Brian; now that I have daughters to do my cooking, so suddenly I enjoy Christmas dinner a lot more than I used to.
Me: Seeing your children to adulthood should have some rewards. Speaking of, I see your grandchildren around, Lauren and Shannon. I can't tell them apart, but then they're usually well bundled this time of year.
Betty:  Ah, go on - they could be in beach clothes and still look the same, sure they could.
Me: Does everyone in your family look alike?

Betty: Not too different -- I have four daughters and six grand-daughters, and none of the apples fell far from the tree.

Me: In appearance or where they live?

Betty: Aw sure, two live in our village, and two in the next village down. Not a one that can't bicycle to the others' house.

Me: That's great -- and they all get along?

Betty: Completely -- my youngest granddaughter is still in the school here, Rosin.

Me: I know Rosin! If you don't mind my asking, is Martina -- the woman who works at the shop in the village -- her other grandmother?

Betty: (laughs) yes, her son married one of my daughters. We're co-grandmothers.

I suppose it was not too unusual here, but would be most places -- every morning Betty and I wait by the bus stop, while across the road in the village shop she sees her grandchild's other grandmother in the window.

Me: Is Rosin in secondary school yet?

Betty: No, she's a year behind yours, but will be going to the same school later this year. How's your little one finding secondary school?

Me: She's not so little anymore -- we used to do things together all the time, but now she wants to do her own thing. She spends a lot of time doing archery and choir, and I don't mind -- kids can get into a lot worse these days.

Betty: Sure, we all do that for a while. In the end, though, we come back home to our family.

Me: I’ll be counting the days.




Thursday, 4 January 2018

Hay-boxes and tea cozies

Whether you grew up in Texas or Tasmania, Manitoba or Macedonia, you were probably raised in a modernised Western culture like me, with electricity and motorcars and other modern infrastructure. If so, you probably grew up blithely spending massive quantities of energy to do the simplest of tasks.

Instead of boiling water by lighting a fire and putting a kettle on the stove, for example, we might blow up the oldest mountains in the world to mine the remains of forests older than dinosaurs, set those old forests on fire to boil water, and then use the steam to turn turbines to send electricity through miles of cable to an outlet on your wall to power a kettle to boil water. The details might change depending on where you are, but most of us live this way – and so does my family, to an extent. It’s not easy to live any other way these days; one must deliberately and daily choose, on abstract grounds, a life of greater inconvenience, and slowly learn an older set of skills.  

We do this, of course, because we have so much energy at our disposal – the equivalent of 300 slaves by one common estimate, making each of us richer than medieval kings. Of course, we can’t keep doing this forever – there were only so many ancient forests to burn, and doing so has played with the knobs and dials of the world’s weather control panel. Thus, most discussions of the future focus on producing enough energy to meet our escalating needs -- escalating because each generation grows up with more comfort and convenience, and because there are more of us. 

The same is true in our personal lives; most of us fantasize about making more money, not about spending less, even though it amounts to the same thing, and even though your current spending might not be making you happy. Adverts and articles tout new and more fuel-efficient cars, not buying fewer or older cars and driving them more slowly.  A major magazine a few years back showed their concern for the future with an “eco-issue;” I showed mine by refusing to buy the magazine. Most discussions of energy, similarly, ignores the central and necessary factor of making do with less, often by reviving now-forgotten skills.

Take, for example, the old technique of hay-box cooking, done by people here a few generations ago and by the British during the lean times of the Second World War. A hay box is just what it says, a box lined with hay or some other insulating material that will keep heated food hot and cooking for hours. Manufactured hay-boxes were built in the early part of the 20th century, and stores used to sell elegant and decorated models, but to make one at home all you need is a box – or in my case, two smaller boxes, one flipped upside-down and placed over the other – with blankets stuffed around the sides.

To use this method I started by making a few litres of lentil soup with vegetables from our garden, and brought it to a rolling boil. On the stove I would have to cook it for an hour or more until the lentils were soft, but here I only needed to bring it to the boil, take the pot off the stove and place it in the hay-box. I surrounded the pot with blankets in lieu of dry hay – people here make hay while the sun shines, so there hasn’t been much in Ireland this year – covered it over with more blankets, and went to bed. In the morning I took the cool pot of soup out of the box and found it had cooked perfectly, after using a fraction of the fuel.

Another example of using what you have comes in an even more unassuming package, the tea cozie. The Irish are among the most prolific tea-drinkers on Earth, and a “cuppa” is the standard greeting offered to family, friends and just passers-by. Boiling tea cools quickly, and if you like your tea strong – sitting in the pot a while – or want a second cup, you want to conserve the heat. The tea-cozie solves that by insulating the pot like the hay-box insulates tomorrow’s dinner, keeping it hot longer. A thermos does the same thing for a drink on the go.

The same logic applies to our houses; most of us in the modern world live in homes far larger than we need, and if many people heat their entire homes in winter while wearing summer clothes indoors.  BBC science advisor David MacKay, in his book “Without Hot Air,” writes that British homes in 1970 had an average temperature of 13 degrees in winter – 55 degrees Fahrenheit – and I’m betting that in poorer and more traditional Ireland it was colder still. Yet people got by; they were more psychologically accustomed to colder temperatures, , they gathered in rooms together and allowed their body heat to raise the temperature, they remained physically active, they wore heavy clothes indoors, and they heated certain central rooms and let unused rooms provide insulation

As Kris De Decker notes in Low-Tech Magazine, “the reduction in energy use for space heating thanks to more efficient homes was less than 20 per cent from 1993 to 2005. Lowering the thermostat by 2° C (or 4°F) would thus result in energy reduction comparable to that. Turning down the thermostat from 22° to 18° C would initiate an energy savings of at least 35 per cent.”
DeDecker notes that insulating the body itself is the most efficient option, as there is so much less space to cover. Using American “clo” units, where one clo equals the thermal insulation required to keep one person comfortable at 21 degrees centigrade, he notes that briefs provide 0.05 clo, light socks 0.10 clo, a heavy shirt with long sleeves .25 clo, a sweater .30 clo, and long pants .30.

Someone wearing the ensemble described above would feel comfortable in a home heated to 21 degrees Centigrade – the level assumed for the modern USA by the standards company ASHRAE -- but in just a t-shirt would need 24 degrees. With long underwear they would only need the house to be heated to 17 degrees to feel the same comfort, and since lowering the thermostat just 1 degree C yields an energy savings of nine to ten per cent, such a change saves 50 to 70 per cent on heating costs compared to the t-shirt.

All of these are things we could change quickly in theory, but realistically, they will take time to grow used to – I hail from a hotter climate and am used to blasts of central heating in winter, and shifting away from that was slow and sometimes uncomfortable. In this, as in so many other areas, though, it helps to take the first steps in a different direction and keep going, and then one day you look behind you and realise how far you’ve traveled.


Sunday, 24 December 2017

Father Christmas, homesteader

This post first appeared in December of 2011. 

This time of year, my daughter has one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.

In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.


Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.

What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.

The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here believe Santa lives in Lapland, in Finland, rather than at the North Pole as American children do. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.

Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we would do well to revive.

In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.

As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.

That world was already fading when Father Christmas was published in 1973, and the encroaching modern world seems to confuse Santa. He struggles to find entry into a caravan – a trailer or mobile home to Americans – and he gets tangled in someone’s television antenna. We wondered about things like this as children -- how many of us had ever seen a home with a chimney, much less a sleigh?

The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.

Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.

Yet people can’t completely forget a more traditional world this time of year, not amid so many traditions. It is at this time of year that modern people are most likely to attend a church, visit otherwise distant family, cook their own food, knock on the doors of their neighbours and other once-commonplace actions. It is the time of year when people are most likely to sing, and sing songs meant to be sung by ordinary voices together. Even the black-and-white movies often replayed this time of year, while not as old as Christmas trees or "Greensleeves," hail from the simpler foothills of the energy needle.

When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise there is another source of comfort and joy.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Patty's memories, part 2

Things were very scarce, and money tight. When I was older I met this boy in Sallins, and he used to play in a band, and I often used to go with him, and eventually we were married.

I remember as a young mother of two in ’47, it was a terrible winter. 1933 had been a terrible winter and the snow never melted, and no one talks about that, but 1947 was the worst. The roads were very bad – first it snowed, and then after a while the snow melted and it froze, and it was after the war so there was no coal, and the turf men couldn’t get through with the carts. We used to have rows upon rows of pony carts full of turf, but this time the ponies weren’t able to walk on the ice. I remember putting the kids to bed so they would stay warm. There was no central heating then.

When the turf men did get to Sallins, they charged a penny a sod. The reason they did that is that they had to go slowly – they had to stop and put a bit of hay on the ground in front of the horse, or the horse would be slipping and sliding. It was desperate mean, we thought, but there was a reason for it.

When the coal did open up again, one of our neighbours in Sallins said to the turf men got a letter from “I’m five-and-a-half years waiting to tell you that I don’t want any more turf -- you can stick it where the sun don’t shine. You’ll have your sons at Clongowes on our misery with all the money we’ve paid you.” And to think about it, he really was wrong, for those men had terrible work – they had to cut it, and foot it, and dry it, and drag it home, and then drag it to us. So I was sorry for the men.

Me: Did anyone cut their own turf?

Patty: Not around my place, but around the bog some people did have what’s called a turf bag. My husband’s sister married a man called Holt, and he used to cut his own turf. And sometimes you’d get this lovely black turf in wartime, cut with a wing-slane. The breast-slane cut the top of the bog, the soft, spongy stuff, which wasn’t as good.

The day the coal came back, somebody was in Naas and got a package with the coal, and a woman opened the package and held up oranges in her hand, saying “The oranges are back!” and a there was a young lad who came in to us, he grabbed it, and she said “Let me peel it for you,” and he shouted “No, I want to play with it!” He had never seen an orange, and thought it was a coloured ball.

When I got married during the war we were all given a half ounce of tea each, 12 ounces of butter and three-quarters of a pound of sugar. Everything was very hard to get. So they made up this rhyme,

“God bless De Valera and Sean McAtee,
They gave us brown bread and a half ounce of tea.
Bless them all! Bless them all!
So we’re waving good-bye to them all!
When Hitler comes over
He’ll give them turn over
So cheer up he has blessed them all!”

I can remember people singing that.

Me: Was it serious or sarcastic?  

Patty: Well, kind of sarcastic.

Patty: It was a parody of “The Sergeant-Major’s Sores,” a war song sung to the same tune.

Me: So did you have books in the house?

Patty: Oh yes, I was a bookworm, fond of reading. I married quite early, and in three or four months became pregnant, and I was at home by myself – my husband was away often with the band, and there wasn’t much company around. So I read, read, read all the time. I was sorry later that I didn’t take my leaving cert. I would have liked to work in a shop, but you had to pay a big fee.

A factory started in Celbridge in the Old Mill, called Irish Gowns, paying ten shillings a week -- and everybody thought that was grand, and I told them don’t do it, as it wouldn’t keep tires on your bike. My grandmother was all her life a big believer in the aristocracy, in working for the proper people, and not in being a barmaid or working for someone who wasn’t as good as yourself, or going out to a farm and being a drudge.

So she got me trained to be a silver service para-maid with Miss Fowler, and they had swanky friends who worked at Howth Castle, and they got me a job working there, and they made a person out of me. When I was working at Howth Castle, I trained under an English butler and an Indian valet – very strict. That experience stayed with me, and I still demand attention to detail – the people say “Oh, she’s particular.”

I’m 95 now, and if I don’t look it I feel it – and my hearing’s not great, but I still have my brain.

Photo: My neighbour riding her bicycle home from Mass.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Simple years ago

This is part of my recent interview with the wonderful Patty Trabears, who lives in a nursing home near us -- she's 96 years old and sharp as a tack.

***


Patty: Sometimes when you are asked a question, it puts your mind back to something you had forgotten about for years. For example, when you asked that I remembered when we used to say the rosary at night.

There was eight of us, and we’d all say the rosary. And when we were done Daddy would say to us, “that’s the end of that now –say your own little prayers, like good children.” Well all you’d hear was the tick of the clock, the all-weather clock on the wall. And that was all you’d hear was the quiet, but these days everything is buzz, buzz – noise everywhere, and people in a hurry all the time.

I remember well my young days, particularly Black ’47. I’m a child of the state, for I was born on Christmas Day 1921, and the treaty had been signed but not ratified. I made my First Communion on Trinity Sunday 1928. There’s a lady here who was born in ’28, and I think I’m doing better than she is.

Me: So you’re older than the state.

Patty: Well I would say so – you mean from the time the treaty was ratified?

Me: | suppose so.

Patty: Oh, no I’m not then – the treaty was signed on December 6, but it was ratified until sometime in January. It was because of Dev and Michael Collins and all the rest.

Me: You grew up in Sallins?

Patty: Well, I come from farmers from Rathcoffey -- we are an old, old family, and go back there a long, long time. My father had a couple of brothers and no sisters, and he was an eldest son, and left a heap of his own. He married his first wife and was widowed in three years, with two children, one six months old, one two or three. That would be in the early 1900s. He always knew my mother, as they both went to Ladychapel Mass in the one parish Maynooth.

Then the First World War started, and he went over to take part in it -- you had to do three years. I don’t remember, but my father told me he was a tilly steward for a Mr. Ganaher (sp?) on a big estate. My mother was there as well, in one of the child’s houses, the daughter.

He married my mother on the 10th of June 1918. At their wedding she said, “Look at all the flags going – the war must be over,” and he said, “I don’t think so,” and sure enough it wasn’t until that November.

I wasn’t the first baby – the first baby was born dead, and there was one or two misses, and then I was born Christmas Day 1921. Ever since 1921 I’ve tried to live my life; I married quite young, and worked in Howth Castle in Dublin.

Years ago if you worked in a shop then you had to pay a fee. Well there was eight of us – two boys, six girls – and we didn’t have a lot of money then; my father was trying to screw a living from the land. That was before the Land Commission, which brought up those people from Kerry and Mayo and such places. Some people got land and two or three houses and mowing machines and such – and my father did get a divide of land but he only got land. He had to supply everything else himself. 

There was only one big farm and eight children. But he built our house in Straffan on a loan and a grant – he applied for a loan from the Free State government – and that’s where I was brought up – Barberstown, Straffan.

I was brought up in Straffan – but all my family and heritage were from Rathcoffey -- Johninstown, Straffan, they call it.

Me: So you had lots of cousins in the area?

Patty: I had family, but there are also lots of Trabears in the area that aren’t related to us. One of my nieces found that we were actually French Hugenots, and there’s a graveyard near Stephen’s Green that’s a Hugenot graveyard, with quite a few Trabears in it.

Money was very tight now, and you’d be great if you got a penny off somebody. I think I made my Communion around the time Kevin O’Higgins was shot – everyone in school was excited about getting money for their First Communion, but when the time came Kevin O’Higgins had been shot and people could talk of nothing else, and I didn’t get that much money, just a few half-crowns.

When we’d go to school you’d slide a lot -- the winters were harder then, and you’d be breaking the ice on the lochs of water. You could buy oil coming in for the winter, for the lamps, but if you didn’t get there by a certain time by daylight, you wouldn’t get it, for they wouldn’t go to the oil burner at night. It was peculiar.

Things were so simple years ago. Once in a while you’d get a pot of jam and a packet of biscuits, and bread was four loaves was a shilling.

They’d lots of things people used to do. My father had only a small plot of land, and it wouldn’t keep you in it, and he was just one man. So like many, he got paid to be in charge of a stretch of by-road by contract and to patch up all the holes on it, putting gravel in. And he’d have to go to a local pit with his horse and cart, and fill it up with gravel – sometimes the men who worked the pit would just give it to him – and use that to fill all the potholes on the road. If he didn’t, he would get a letter from the County Surveyor saying, “Trabears, such and such a road was very bad – I noticed you haven’t patched it lately,” down by Round Tower or Trabagore, and then my father would have to go and do it. 

My father also did his own bit of farming on 27 acres, four fields, which went down Barberstown road and stretched around the back road behind Straffan toward Celbridge. You’d go around the back of my father’s farm and across a by-road and would be right at the Liffey. There was always a man in the summer time and go swimming – we called it swimming, but it was really just paddling around – and there used to always be a man in the summer time with a scythe, cutting grass.

I remember one day he was making a lot of noise, and my sister Eileen said “That man is trying to talk to you,” and I stood and said, “Yessir?” he said, “Young Trabears, will you get those children out of there – the flood’s coming down from Ballymore, and the Liffey will be rising and you’ll be drowned in the current.” I was the biggest one, so I brought them all home.