Friday, 17 October 2014

Dublin cafe

I just find this slogan funny for some reason.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Postman

After Mass I talked with our postman, who lamented the changes he was seeing in Ireland.

“People used to gather together every night around here, and in the village, and now they’re all watching the telly,” he said. “It’s getting way too commercialised.” “With the older people I can do what I always used to do, and just open the door to their home and walk in.

‘Hello Paddy,’ I would say, and they’d say ‘Tom! How’re you keeping?’ I ask if they need anything from the store, so when I would bicycle to the houses around here I would bring some food or newspapers too.

We’re all going to be old someday ourselves, God willing, so it’s just respect.”

Why don’t you deliver the post by bicycle any more, I asked?

“Ah, they’re making me take a car,” he said. “And people get big deliveries these days, to a house full of stuff. Not the same as the old days. But the older people still greet me the same as always.”

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Sloes and haws


This Sunday, The Girl helped me pick haws and sloes from the trees that line the canal by our home. Haws are easy – hawthorn trees are as plentiful as willows or birches here, all the more so this time of year, when a single tree can sag toward the earth laden with tens of thousands of berries. Sloes – the fruit of the blackthorn, which we value for making sloe gin – presents more of a challenge.

The trees themselves appear all over the hedges here – I counted several dozen within a few hundred metres of our house – but have no distinctive features, and the bluish-black sloes blend in well with the shadows. For such a plentiful fruit, they are difficult to find, and once found are difficult to gather from the thorny tangle.

The secret, I realised, was to mark the trees in spring, when most trees stand bare and the blackthorn bursts into an eruption of flowers. With this in mind, I could simply set out with The Girl from our house to the nearest landmark and then count the steps …

“What are you doing, Daddy?”

 … counting the steps, I said, to the sloe trees. You keep an eye out for mushrooms, I told her – you’re better at it than I am.

“Look at all those haws!” she said. “They are haws, aren’t they? Other berries are also red, and I wouldn’t want us to be poisoned.”

Check the leaves of the tree they’re on, I said. Yes, most berries are red because they’re meant to be eaten by birds. Birds’ eyes were developed over time to see the berries, and the berries to be seen by the birds.

“But sloes are dark blue.”

And blackberries are black, I said – and there are a few that are yellow or white, but even these stand out against the greenery. Unripe fruit will be green and taste terrible; it’s only when the seeds are ready to stand up to an animal’s gut that the fruit around them develops. Speaking of, I said, these blackberries are ready for our services – would you like one?

“No thank you,” she said. “I never thought I’d say this, but they’re too sweet for me now.”

You’re growing up, I said, and you will find your tastes changing – and not just your literal taste.

"I know, a lot of things about me are changing," she said, and then, "how much of me will change as I get older?"

If we do this rightly, I said -- and so far I think we are -- the child you won't go anywhere. She'll be something you'll be able to build a life on, not something you'll leave behind.


Saturday, 11 October 2014

The old pharmacy


For many decades chemists – what we would today call pharmacists or druggists – created their own materials; they ground, distilled and filtered chemical essences from stones and herbs, using the elegant glassware that has served as shorthand for science ever since. From 1847 until 2009, the chemist for the neighbourhood around Trinity College was Sweny’s, mentioned by James Joyce and since then a place of pilgrimage for his readers.

When it closed its doors as a pharmacy five years ago, they tiny shop – smaller than some toilets I’ve seen -- was purchased by a group of volunteers who maintain it as a kind of volunteer, miniature museum to Joyce, to Old Dublin and to the chemist shops as they once were. The volunteer behind the counter said a group gathers there several nights a week to read the works of Joyce --- a section of Ulysses, a section of Finnegan’s Wake and so on – and then all go out for a pint at one of the local pubs, also looking very much as they did centuries ago.

On the counters lie books of many Irish poets and authors, and all along the walls sit the same bottles as fifty or a hundred years ago – lovely crafted, grooved and embossed glass with labels like “Spirit of ammonia,” “Liquor of digitalis” or “Essence of mercury.”

“The ones with the grooved sides are the poisons,” the man said. “They had to go to the cellar with a candle, and pick a bottle in the near-darkness, so they needed to know poisons at a touch.” 


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Dairy boys

In 1978, Irish radio interviewed a man who grew up in a Dublin dairy, in a family whose daily routine was ruled by the needs of cattle udders and local babies. About his early life in the 1930s and 40s, he said:

"The noise of wheels on cobbles, the crunch as it turned to clay outside our lane, the sound of the tumble churn, the jingling of harness, hobnail boots, the smells of horse sweat, cow dung, new milk, wet grass, sour milk, buttermilk, bacon and porridge.

Our house was like a railway, people coming and going at all times ... Even when someone died the blinds were drawn but the door stayed open. The 'boys' who did the milking were kings of the neighbourhood, all wearing the same clothes like a uniform."

Photo: Boys gardening in an Irish school, courtesy of www.irishhistorylinks.com

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Vertical gardening

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



Most of us would like to grow some of our own food, for several reasons. For one thing, we wouldn’t waste our precious fuel supplies bringing apples in from New Zealand. We’d be able to select crops and breeds suitable for our climate, rather than have every apple in stores from California to London be the same few breeds chosen for long shelf life. Finally, we’d have the best-tasting and healthiest kind of food, food that doesn’t know it’s dead yet.

Most of us, however, have only limited space. Many of us live in estates or other such houses with small gardens, surrounded by walls or fences that limit light and warmth. Our towns are a maze of similar walls – the sides of houses and sheds, stone garden walls, wooden fences and other such boundaries, and we each live on a small plot in the middle of the maze. What could allow many of us to grow more food, however, is to think of the third dimension when planning our garden, and to emphasize crops that climb up.

Vertical gardening could be done with many of our human-made structures. Your house or apartment building has sides, as do your sheds, shops, schools, churches and highway overpasses. Not far away you likely have telephone poles, fences, walls, signs, gates and, of course, trees, any of which might be covered in productive garden plants.

Beans and peas might make a good start – they grow easily in many temperate regions, make beautiful flowers, add nitrogen to the soil, and offer a high-protein, easily stored crop. Tomatoes and cucumbers climb up sticks, although they like some warmth, and depending on your situation might need a poly-tunnel, or might do fine with just a south-facing wall.

Japanese wine-berry has both looks and edible berries, as do grapes – if you can grow them here – and kiwis. Roses other thorny plants not only provide shoots, flowers and fruits, but a natural security fence against human or animal intruders.

If you want to give this a go, first pay attention to what kind of climber you have. Some, like ivy, sink their roots into bark or masonry, and should probably have a trellis if you are putting it on the side of your house. Roses and other scramblers, which have hooks or thorns that latch onto other plants and allow them to pull themselves upwards, would also require support. Twiners like wisterias twist their tendrils around trees and other structures, while beans whip their shoots around looking for something to latch onto.

The hedgerows that line the countryside are a good example; they might serve first as boundary lines between fields, but they can be as productive as the fields themselves – and in all seasons, not just at harvest time. Hawthorn shoots and dandelions for salads and nettle and bramble shoots for tea in springtime, then linden leaves, then elderflowers, then rose hips and blackberries, with sloes going into winter.

Such hedges of climbing plants add variety to fields that would otherwise go sterile. Each plant adds its own chemicals and removes its own nutrients from the soil, so fields of monoculture need to be continually fertilised. Single crops provide our bodies, too, with a single set of nutrients, and only at certain times of year. They also encourage a glut of certain animals, like pests that eat our crops, and offer no homes to the birds and insectivores who would eat the pests. 

Boundaries like hedges offer fields a needed balance, a wild river through human land that can soak up our excesses and give us a reservoir of food and fuel for lean times.