Farewell to the life of the rover

“The old ways are changing you cannot deny,
The day of the traveller is over,
There’s nowhere to go and there’s nowhere to bide,
So farewell to the life of the rover.”Ewan McColl, Thirty Foot Trailer

‘They’re all scum’, They’re nothing but filthy knackers’, Look at the state of the place they’re after leaving behind’.

These are typical statements we hear in Ireland all the time. Who are people talking about? Travellers of course, or disparagingly ‘knackers’ (from ‘knackering’ – a trade historically many Travellers would have carried out – acquiring old or dead horses for slaughter) or in older slang ‘tinkers’ (from ‘tinkering’ – fixing tin pots and pans – another trade associated historically with Travellers).

There is much debate about the origin of  Travellers, but it is now generally accepted that they are a distinct ethnic minority (ethnic status was granted by the Irish government only in 2017.) and genetically Irish but became separated from the settled Irish at least 1000 years ago. There are about 35,000 people who identify as Traveller in the 32 counties today, some of the greatest concentration of whom live in Tuam, Co. Galway (about 8% of the population according to Wikipedia). They were traditionally nomadic peoples who carried out trades such as the aforementioned tinkering and knackering  and travelled around in barrel-roofed horse-drawn wagons. Nowadays, many of them are ‘Settled Travellers’ living in houses, or more often in ‘halting  sites’. They have their own customs, often marry young, tend to be religious and have a high birth rate. Although English is their main language of communication, it is littered with ‘Cant’- no doubt from the Irish ‘caint‘ (talk) words (otherwise known as ‘Gammon’/ ‘Shelta’ -possibly from Irish ‘siúltóir’ –walker) – a mixture of Irish, English and some Romani words. Cant often makes use of ‘back-slang’ – taking an Irish word e.g. ‘póg’ (kiss) and pronouncing it (more or less) backwards ‘gop’. Another example would be ‘cailín’, which became ‘lackeen’ in Cant.

Travellers or ‘lucht siúil’ literally ‘walking people’, much like Roma Gypsies on the Continent (and now in recent years in Ireland) are universally hated, looked down on, regarded with suspicion, or at best, patronised if they manage some degree of success in the ‘Settled’ world as a boxer/ actor/ degree holder etc. But is this bad reputation warranted? Is there some truth to the stereotypes?

For sure there are many issues with Travellers – they often pull up on the side of the road with a number of caravans, sometimes with horses, where they stay until Settled people complain about them. Frequently they leave burned out trolleys or even cars and heaps of rubbish behind them (although I could argue that this is a national trait- has anyone seen the pictures of the aftermath of such festivals as ‘Electric Picnic’?). Feuding between families, violence and bare-knuckle fighting are all genuine issues which occur now and then. One of the most notorious incidences was a riot that broke out in D’Alton Park, Mullingar in 2008 involving a feud of around 65 people from the Nevin, Dinnegan and McDonagh families. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my own issues with Travellers too – they are very streetwise and cute and always on the look out for a deal. I wouldn’t be very trusting of some of them when it comes to money and trade, but let’s not tar them all with the same brush. There are quite a few settled bastards out there too….

Their nomadic ways still continue but this custom largely ended with the Irish Government’s ‘Commission on Itinerancy’ 1959-1963. This report led to a policy of assimilation and the building of ‘halting sites’, (caravan sites for Travellers) maintained by local authorities. They include spaces to park caravans and vehicles, electricity and sanitary services, and space to graze horses. Halting sites are often controversial due to opposition from local residents and a belief that such settlements harbour anti-social activity such as inter-clan violence, illegal dumping etc. They are often situated on sites near motorways, dumps and other waste ground.

As I get older, I realise more and more that very little in life is black and white. Travellers don’t have the choices Settled people have. They face constant discrimination, prejudice and bias. They are frequently insulted, shouted at, abused and barred from establishments and unemployment amongst male Travellers is above 70%. According to a 2007 report, over half of Travellers do not live past 39 years. They experience high mortality rates and frequent health problems. Yes –  feuds, rioting, illegal dumping, violence and scamming are all huge issues. If you had your way of life taken away from you (as with all nomadic people), if you were put into ghettoes (halting sites) and if you were constantly insulted and looked down on, how would you react? How would you turn out? Couple all that with the tradition of bare-knuckle fighting, boxing and alcohol abuse and you’re asking for trouble. For many Travellers their only choice is illegal activities, dealing and scamming and making do as best they can. And let me ask you this: how many of you know a Traveller personally, how many of you have ever been in a halting site? I know a few Travellers personally, very very good people, I would trust them as I would trust a member of family. I have also (only once, granted) been in a halting site in a caravan. Ignorance breeds fear.

Incidentally, my name Somhairle means ‘summer traveller’ and I live in a 28 foot trailer. I am a traveller but not a Traveller, if you know what I mean…..

 

Farewell to the tent and the old caravan,
To the tinker, the Gypsy, the travelling man
And farewell to the thirty-foot trailer.

Farewell to the Cant and the travelling tongue,
Farewell to the Romany talking,
The buying and selling, the old fortune telling,
The knock on the door and the hawking.

Farewell to the besoms of heather and broom,
Farewell to the creel and the basket,
For the folks of today they would far sooner pay
For a thing that’s been made out of plastic.

Farewell to the pony, the cob, and the mare
Where the reins and the harness are idle;
You don’t need a strap when you’re breaking up scrap
So farewell to the bit and the bridle.

Farewell to the fields where we’ve sweated and toiled
At pulling and shoving and lifting,
They’ll soon have machines and the travelling queens
And their menfolk had better be shifting.

You’ve got to move fast to keep up with the times
For these days a man cannot dander;
It’s a bylaw to say you must be on your way
And another to say you can’t wander.

Ewan McColl, Thirty Foot Trailer

 

 

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Communication

‘Beagán agus é a rá go maith’ ¹

Communication is something we all take for granted, we say what we have in mind and we get a response. We articulate what we wish to express and hopefully we get our message across. Although, in times gone past when the art of conversation was alive and well in Ireland (pre smartphones and TVs), we may have spoken in riddles so as not to offend / stand out too much in the village or to keep the English landlord guessing.

Yet in my family, communication is by no means a straightforward matter. Let me explain: I have a Scottish background even though neither of my parents were actually born in Scotland and both have naturalised Irish passports, (a blog for another day) and our normal means of communication is Scots Gaelic (The Irish would have brought Gaelic to Scotland but at some point Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic became quite distinct, if closely related languages). My parents, however, are not native speakers of Scots Gaelic, they learned the language and in fact met each other at a Scots Gaelic course in Manchester, England to confuse matters further! When they married and decided to have children, they made the decision to bring myself and my two brothers up speaking Scots Gaelic. For a short period, we lived on the island of Skye off the coast of Scotland. Skye is a Gaeltacht (Gaelic speaking area), though more precisely a Breac Ghaeltacht (English and Gaelic speaking area, literally ‘speckled Gaeltacht’ – Scots Gaelic has been in decline on the island for decades. According to a 2001 census, only a third of the island’s inhabitants now speak the language).

We moved to Ireland when I was about 2 years old, so here we are: a family of Scottish descent speaking Scots Gaelic in the Irish Midlands – a tiny island of Scots Gaelic in an ocean of English speakers. Incidentally, the last native speaker of Irish in the Midlands died out in 1914 and this was the grandmother of Paddy Heaney from Cadamstown near the Slieve Bloom mountains – a fascinating local historian who I have had the honour of meeting a few times and indeed, spoke to only recently. I plan on putting a recorded conversation with him up on Soundcloud soon – search for Soundcloud/somhairleschats).

Now, my mother is interested in languages and she manages to get by in a few of them, but really, her talents (of which there are many) lie elsewhere….Her Scots Gaelic is no exception. She speaks it quite well but her vocabulary is very limited (as is mine and that of my brothers) and her general level of the language leaves a lot to be desired. My father on the other hand, is obsessed with languages (a typical conversation at the breakfast table might go as follows: (spoken in Scots Gaelic of course) Dad: ‘Do we have any fruit left?’ Mum: ‘only grapefruit’. Dad: ‘hmmm, grapefruit. That’s ‘toronja’ in Spanish or ‘pamplemousse’ in French. ‘Pompelmo’ in Italian.

But while my father is constantly thinking about words, expressions, idioms, grammar and languages, he is also a pedant – the grammar must be correct. He’s often not really listening to the conversation, he’s correcting your grammar or even his own! (and invariably there’s something wrong with it since we are not exposed to Scots Gaelic outside the family and we all make mistakes, not being native speakers. He continually finds fault with this or that or is wondering how you say that word in Serbian / Norwegian, or Esperanto (another future blog topic?). In addition, speaking English in the family is officially ‘verboten’ – although in practice the odd phrase or word is unavoidable, English being as ubiquitous as it is.

While my father can, on the surface, speak (or at least understand) many languages, he is usually so concerned about whether it is grammatically correct, that he speaks very haltingly and clumsily, correcting himself and others as he goes. My Dad does however, possess a huge vocabulary in Gaelic but bizarrely just uses simple words in everyday conversation, otherwise we ‘wouldn’t understand’!

You can probably guess at the way we turned out – speaking faltering Scots Gaelic littered with English words and composed mainly of ‘mionchaint²’. There is often no flow with the language and because Dad also had a tendency to dominate the conversation growing up, the result was the rest of us keeping conversation to a bare minimum and barely talking at all. Perhaps I’m being unkind. My Dad has mellowed hugely in his old age, he still corrects way too much but I am suggesting to him gentler ways of ‘teaching’. I am hugely grateful to my parents for giving me such an appreciation of heritage, language and culture. They have also given me a great insight into bringing children up with a minority language (no easy feat in today’s English saturated world).

So, would I recommend bringing up kids with Irish or Scots Gaelic? Absolutely – 100%! It is an extremely worthwhile and honourable thing to do to pass on our roots, ár n-oidhreacht, ár dúchas, ár gcultúr³. Nature teaches us that diversity in all its forms is the healthiest. The way the world is going is in so many ways the opposite of this – growing increasingly homogenous and uniform, surely a dangerous development. But I would suggest that if you are considering bringing up children with a minority language, do it bilingually, don’t insist on speaking one language and if it is easier to express something in English, then do so in that language. There are many facilities available for people raising their children through, for example Irish:  http://tusmaithocd.ie/irish-bilingualism/. Make sure the children come into contact with other kids speaking the same language and that they are exposed to it regularly outside of the family (much easier in the age of the internet).

‘Mórán cainte ar bheagán údair’ (A lot of talk about very little) This is all Irish, NOT Scots Gaelic……

¹ Say but little and say it well.

² Small talk.

³ Our heritage, our culture.

Romania

Stereotypes abound about Romania, a country I had the pleasure of visiting recently: Roma gypsies, Transylvania and Dracula, poverty. If you are my age (early 40s) you will remember mention on the news in the ’90s about Romanian orphanages and the reign and subsequent killing of the Communist leader Ceausescu on TV. So the week I spent in the country – more specifically Transylvania (mainly) – was an opportunity to see if there were any truths to these stereotypes and what kind of lasting impressions I would have of the country. Of course, spending a week in a country is only a tiny glimpse into a country and is largely superficial but anyway.

I should point out at the beginning that I’ve been wanting to visit Romania for many years now. My mother has also wanted to visit the country for a long time for another reason – she met a Romanian couple 30 years ago and has wanted to catch up with them again. Since my father rarely travels these days, she bought me a ticket to go with her and I wasn’t going to complain….

I have spent a lot of time living and travelling in Central and Eastern Europe, and Romania is one of the places I hadn’t up to now got round to going to. There are a few reasons this part of the world interests me: the world is becoming more and more uniform and  homogeneous, therefore anywhere that is different or more ‘exotic’ is more interesting. I feel that more and more countries are losing their soul, getting increasingly more materialistic and just becoming boring and the same as everywhere else with the same shops, brands, music, TV programs and even similar mindsets, opinions and perspectives. Theoretically, countries in Eastern Europe shouldn’t be as ‘spiritually destroyed’ as those in the West, they should have more ‘soul’.

My first impression of the country was the greenery – around Bucharest airport there were countless garden centres and houses with vegetable plots and orchards – trees with ‘white socks’ on them as my mother put it. The trees are painted with some kind of insecticide or fungicide – they are plainly attacked by some insect or disease that doesn’t affect Ireland. The next impression is the amount of trees (and we were still in the capital!) and they were all in bloom – well ahead of Ireland after that unseasonable cold spell we had in March. In Ireland we really are short of trees and more especially forests. Of Ireland’s total land surface area, just 10% is comprised of forests, which represents the second lowest proportional percentage of any country in Europe. Compare that to Romania (by no means the most forested country in Europe) with 28% and there are still wolves, bears, lynxes, foxes and snakes in them! Another impression of the country were the beautiful houses especially in the mountainous areas – they are often with wooden balconies or even wholly wooden and some of the older ones are very ornate. Like any other modern European country, Romania has all the things we take for granted – high speed internet, modern facilities (especially in urban areas), smartphones, plasma TVs, more and more motorways but also things not so prevalent in Ireland: huge advertising hoardings and multi-story communist era apartment blocks.

Bucharest used to be very grand and was once dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ – now it is a great mish-mash of architectural styles – Communist era, pre- and post Communist era. Despite the eclectic mix of styles, you certainly can understand the Paris analogy – the wide boulevards, many grand and imposing buildings and even a mini Arc de Triomphe.  Big cities hold no great fascination for me – Bucharest included. The only real reason at all Bucharest was visited was because we were flying to and from there. We stuck mainly to the Old Town where we drank coffee and ate ice cream while watching the world go by. As Old Towns (or Lipscani as it is known to locals) go in Romania, Bucharest’s is small and not based around a central square unfortunately. It is definitely the place to go f or nightlife though, but seeing as I was with my teetotaler 84 year old mother, there wasn’t a lot of that going on….If I do go back I’ll get a better glimpse of the colossal Palace of the Parliament, the largest administrative building in the world. It was the pet project of the Communist megalomaniac dictator Ceausescu. He levelled a hill, destroyed 7km² of the old city centre and displaced thousands of people to build the colossal structure.

We spent most of our time in Romania in the region of Transylvania and the beautiful city of Brasov which was where our hosts resided. Transylvania is known for the scenery of its Carpathian landscape – the highest peaks were still snow capped when we were there- and in the West is associated of course with vampires due to the influence of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. We didn’t see any vampires but we did visit Bran or Dracula’s Castle. Bran Castle is the main castle linked to the Dracula legend yet seemingly Stoker didn’t know of the castle, had never visited Transylvania and Vlad the Impaler (or Vlad Dracula), who inspired the character Dracula, had only the flimsiest associations with the place. Vlad Dracula was the prince of Wallachia in the 15th century and is considered a hero amongst Romanians because he stood up to and defeated the Ottomans when they attacked and demanded tariffs. Vlad earned his name from impaling his enemies on stakes in the ground and leaving them to die, thus giving inspiration for Dracula.

The castle itself was charming – full of alcoves, nooks and crannies and multiple balconies with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Interestingly there were many Chinese and Israeli tourists. Apparently Israeli tourists make up the largest group of visitors due to the strong links between the countries. Many Romanian Jews fled to Israel,  so many come back to visit and it is very cheap for them (as it is for us for the moment).

It’s worth bypassing all the kitsch Dracula souvenirs and visiting a folk village at the bottom of the hill on which Bran Castle is located. Here simple wooden sheds, houses and barns were situated, inside which was period furniture, weaving machines etc. There was also an old mill, but our highlight of the day was seeing a young fox in the grounds of the folk village!

The next day our hosts drove us to another castle: Peles located about 80km from Brasov. Peles Castle is a relatively new castle, work on which was started in 1875 and it is located amongst some magnificent scenery, courtesy of the Carpathian Mountains. The grand palatial alpine Neo-Renaissance castle was probably the most luxurious, opulent place we had both ever been to. The effeminate guide showed us secret doors, myriad rooms with pretty chandaliers, fake ornate stoves, walnut and oak panelling, Italian marble, gold plated everything….always the best quality material and each room seeming more opulent than the next in diverse styles such as Florentine, Moorish, Imperial, Turkish and French. The castle was the first in the world to be fully powered by locally produced electricity and it was the first building to have central heating.

After visiting some nearby ski resorts (Poina Brasov and Predeal which is the highest town in Romania: 1200m, we had dinner in a highly ornate restaurant with huge fir beams and a mill inside. I choose ‘Sarmale’ (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) with ‘mamaliga’ (polenta which is very popular here). It was delicious even though polenta isn’t something I would eat normally.

Brasov itself is well worth a visit: the Old Town in particular. Surrounding the main square is a church, town hall and other buildings beautifully renovated and as with all Old Town Squares in Central and Eastern Europe and indeed many parts of the West, the area is the place to go to meet people, drink coffee, eat ice-cream, mingle and people watch.  When we were there there were a group of Greek girls dancing ad hoc in a circle – there were a surprising amount of tourists and again, a lot of Israelis. On the same day, there was a Guinness Book of Records attempt – there was a huge queue of people of all ages holding a classic Romanian book of literature. They were apparently taking it in turns to read a passage from the book and break the record in the process for most people to read a classic book in one day or something similar. I have always loved such Old Squares on the continent – we have squares in Ireland but without the atmosphere – although my home town Tullamore actually has two squares, they are used primarily as car parks. Of course, the weather affects the use of the squares at home. Still, despite the rain, I think if we banned cars in our squares and they placed markets in the squares (as in the past – in fact one square in Tullamore is called Market Square) and put more tables and chairs outside cafes and restaurants as well as enough benches, maybe even a fountain,  as in Brasov, it would encourage people to gather together. One aspect that differentiates Brasov with most others is that it is surrounded by some towering peaks covered in dense forests. There is a funicular railway to one of the peaks and a (now closed) restaurant at the top. On that same peak there is a sign, Hollywood style that says in big letters ‘Brasov’. I recommend seeing Brasov from the hills as we did – visible were the town walls, defence towers and the beautiful Old Town with its red roofs. As with our hosts, most people unfortunately live in the altogether much more drab and dreary New Town with its Communist era apartment blocks, all of which look disappointingly similar and soulless. I highly recommend Brasov city park near the zoo  – this has a lake with an island (and a bridge to it) with swan and duck shaped boats for hire. It’s just a very pleasant place to spend a lovely sunny day and there was a great atmosphere. We saw a tandem, people out for walks, couples and kids. There were also two dozen huts or so where loads of people were picnicking, having barbecues and playing soccer. Bear in mind that it was only 11 o’clock in the morning but although it was still spring, it was like a summer’s day: 23C. I left our hosts and my mother and walked up the steep hill to go for a little hike in the forest, something which I was dying to do since I got to Romania.

For one of our bigger journeys, we left Transylvania and made the two hour car journey to the charming town of Sighisoara (North west of Brasov). On route, the towering snow capped mountains of Transylvania gave way to a hilly landscape, a lot less trees and much more arable land. Many of the hills were still covered in dense forests – though more deciduous than coniferous as in Transylvania. The architecture changed as well – less of the wooden mountain houses and more concrete though still often with balconies, and in the villages especially, many vegetable plots and even orchards and fruit bushes. We passed through a gypsy village with its small houses and grinding poverty. As in Slovakia, there is a large population of Roma Gypsies in Romania – similarly with Irish Travellers they usually are quite segregated, have a much lower life expectancy and are universally despised and looked down on.  Yet it is funny how many hate gypsies on the surface but love their music, and back to the Irish example – most seem to loathe Travellers, yet they used to be quite respected when they could make a living making pots and pans (before cheap plastic and mass production put paid to this). If governments allowed nomadic peoples to roam freely and if everything wasn’t made in China, if the dole didn’t exist and people were much more self-sufficient and trusting as in (some mythical period in) the past, you have to wonder, would the relationship between Settled people and Travellers and Roma Gypsies be different. Another fascinating thing for me was seeing storks nests en route to Sighisoara – these were hard to miss since they are so big. I could never understand how it is babies are delivered in Ireland because we don’t have storks in Ireland. You see storks and their nests all across Central and Eastern Europe but not in Ireland. Can someone explain this?!

Sighisoara has many churches – Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical etc. all with their own specific architecture. It also abounds in fortifications, forts and castles and not for the first time, reminded me of Slovakia. We went to the supposed house of Vlad the Impaler (inspiration for Dracula). It was pure kitsch and a waste of time – it’s actually a gimmick to get people to go to a restaurant. The restaurant was downstairs and upstairs was devoted to Vlad the Impaler. Two spookily lit rooms, one of which had a guy in a coffin who pretends to be dead and jumps out at you – you get the picture! Much better was the Old Town Square again with its cafes and restaurants, a place to watch the world go by and enjoy a beer/ coffee/ ice-cream. Interestingly, the Square wasn’t a sterile place just catering for tourists – there were a few schools in the Old Town which gave it a very ‘lived-in’ feel.

A strange phenomenon happened shortly before arriving in Romania – there was a sandstorm in the Sahara desert and sand actually reached Brasov, covering cars and everything else in a coating of sand. Our hosts washed the car but it got covered again the next day. It didn’t last much longer than a few days, but still a highly unusual occurrence.

So, is there any truth to the stereotypes? As I said, a week is only enough time to get a superficial glimpse of a country. On the surface, the country has made great strides and is a very advanced, developed place compared to the Communist era of the past. As with most countries, there is a rural, urban divide with the cities not much different to cities in the West. Of course, if you were to spend time in the gypsy villages or in some of the more remote villages, they would seem (materially) poor, but the richness in the hearts of the people, their heritage and traditions would make you reconsider some things. At least, that is the impression I got from a YouTube video I highly recommend entitled ‘Discover Romania with Peter Hurley’ (an Irish man who has lived many years in Romania) – I didn’t actually spend much time in villages and I was mainly either with my mother or our hosts. We saw primarily the pretty places, the tourist areas. Yes, there are many gypsies in the country, yes, many of them beg and yes the Dracula myth is everywhere (in Transylvania at least), but Romania is so much more than these stereotypes and well worth spending time in (preferably longer than a week…)

I would love to return to Romania, but I will spend much more time in the forests and the beautiful mountains. I always prefer nature to man’s towns and cities, no matter how lovely, but spring is a good time to visit rather than summer which I imagine can get pretty sweltering. Make sure to visit the country before it becomes just like everywhere else and prices inevitably go through the roof!

 

 

 

 

 

Monopolies etc.

Thank Jah for constructive criticism – otherwise we’d never learn anything, we’d never evolve, never change anything. We should always take on board constructive criticisms that friends draw to our attention. But then, nobody has a monopoly on the truth and at the end of the day we must find our own truth, we must go with our own gut feeling.

I’ve been criticised for being too political and giving out too much, being overly negative. But as somebody once said, one definition of political is: ‘where the potential for conflict exists’ – in other words – everything is political. Now, at the same time I have absolutely zero patience and interest in the party political system – it is, I have come to believe, a complete scam, the ‘illusion of democracy’ as Noam Chomsky once said. And yes, I can seem overly negative often – there is after all an awful lot to give out stink about in modern society. But unless we see what is wrong, how can we go about changing things? I was absolutely stunned recently as a friend who I thought was relatively intelligent asked what I meant when I said the world was messed up and upside down. By some miracle he neglected to see that the world was in a pretty bad shape. When we are dealing with that mindset, we need a reality check. Party politics and  governments are universally corrupt, ineffective and rotten to the core in every country I visit. Indeed, it’s built into the system. We live in a system that is wholly psychopathic and openly encourages and thrives on corruption and ruthlessness. It’s time to take things into our own hands, govern ourselves, bypass the system and stop looking towards politicians. Good things only come about by people bandying together, co-operating and attaining their goals.

So, I will continue to love life, listen to music, dance, whistle, sing, get together with friends and party, but also draw attention to those aspects in life that I believe need attention. We live in a hyper ‘connected’ world, always online, virtual, digital and yet more and more inhuman and dystopian. We complain about communism and state monopolies but look where we find ourselves in today’s world – the biggest monopoly of all time surely is Google and its’ parent company Alphabet which seems to own everything…..As Irish people haven’t we learned that over-reliance on one crop during the Great ‘Famine’ or over-reliance on anything at all is very dangerous? And yet 90% of people still seem to use this behemoth despite the well documented fact that our data is collected, sold, analysed and used against us. WordPress boasts that 30% of the internet is powered by said company – surely this is horrifying…? And yet this hypocrite is using WordPress….though can anyone provide me with a viable alternative?

Nature teaches us that diversity in all its’ forms is healthy, yet the internet is dominated by Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter. Yet alternatives exist and they are often owned by much smaller, independent companies: Minds.com, Bitchute, Dtube, Duckduckgo, Startpage and many more. In our everyday lives if we are to halt rural decline, small business closure, mass unemployment and the like we have to stop automatically going with the multinational, big box stores. Less Starbucks, more independent cafes, less Amazon, more kennys.ie, less Tesco’s and Aldi’s, more O’Brien’s and Carroll’s. We must stop complying with the smart everything technologies, go more against the grain, co-operate more, compete less, rely less on politicians, set up co-operatives, organisations. We must put people before machines and screens, we must turn our backs more to these technologies that enslave us – don’t get me wrong, technology is amazing but who is in control of it? Do we have any choice in the matter? If we had a true democracy we would have a choice whether there were more screens everywhere, more smartphones and smart appliances everywhere. In a crazy world, I for one believe that we should so often be doing the absolute opposite of the standard, the opposite of the mainstream. And that goes for everything: shelter, food, culture, work. Just look at the world and tell me I am wrong.

The wit of the ‘Fair City’

As I’ve already said in a previous post, I’m no fan of big cities and I’m rarely in Dublin these days (even if Áth Cliath can’t be said to be very large). É sin ráite / That being said – as the cliche goes, some of my best friends hail from the capital (although admittedly hardly any of them live in the ‘big smoke’ anymore) and I’ve always loved the Dublin wit. Dubliners are quick as lightening when it comes to retorts and every single statue or monument seems to have a leasainm / nickname. It often seems that a work of art is barely commissioned and it already has a funny nickname! Before the ‘Daniel Day’ (the Luas, geddit?) went by Trinity, (a well endowed) Molly Malone statue stood with her wheelbarrow selling her cockles and mussels at the foot of Grafton Street. She quickly became known as the ‘Tart with the Cart’. Other names include ‘the ‘Dolly with the Trolley’, the ‘Flirt in the Skirt’ and the ‘Trollop with the Scallop’.

In St. Stephen’s Green we can see Oscar Wilde’s likeness sitting atop a rock. The famous homosexual was named the ‘Fag on the Crag’ or the ‘Queer with the Leer’. James Joyce’s statue just off O’Connell St. didn’t escape derision either. He’s seen holding a walking stick and so was dubbed the ‘Prick with the Stick’.

Just over the Ha’penny Bridge on the north side, there’s a bronze statue depicting 2 women with their shopping bags. Before long, this was given the nickname the ‘Hags with the Bags’.

As part of the Dublin Millennium celebrations, a number of works of art were built such as Anna Livia Plurabelle, a character from Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, who sits on a slope with water running past her. She has been said to embody the River Liffey and her art-piece could initially be seen in O’Connell St. before the ‘Floozie in the Jacuzzi’ had to be moved after it became a magnet for litter bugs and pranksters throwing washing-up liquid in the water (thereby causing loads of foam and making it seem like a foamy jacuzzi). She now resides in the altogether more peaceful Croppies Memorial Park, opposite the Ashling Hotel near Heuston Street.

The 120m stainless steel ‘Spire’ was also erected as part of the Millennium celebrations, even if was only completed 2 years after the Millennium! This seems to have the dubious claim of having most nicknames of a landmark/ monument in the city. The ‘Stilletto in the Ghetto’, the ‘Stiffy at the Liffey’, the ‘Erection at the Intersection’ or simply ‘Anna Rexia’ (another reference to Anna Livia). A Dubliner told me recently that a clock was placed in the Liffey in 1999 to count down the Millennium- this was called the ‘Time in the Slime’.

Finally, although most monuments and statues are derided and made fun of in Dublin, one statue was shown uncharacteristic respect – that of Phil Lynott, who is seen holding his guitar in Harry St., just of Grafton Street. Phil Lynott of course, was the lead singer and bassist of Thin Lizzy. His bronze icon was labelled the ‘Ace with the Bass’.

Bród, sin an méid.

We live in a funny country – It may well be an urban myth that Freud said ‘The Irish are the one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever’but regardless of whether that statement is true or not, we are a strange nation in more ways than one. For example, we learn metric measurements in school but we all really still think in imperial. We still order our pints at the bar, we get our quarter pound burger once the munchies set in, and afterwards we walk the few (wobbly) miles home. Of course, we inherited our imperial ways from our British colonial masters but then a good while after joining the EU (EEC/ EC), Paddy decides we have to modernise and change to kilometres to satisfy our new (European) colonial masters. So, we changed over – kind of – to metric. For many years we had both metric and imperial road-signs co-existing quite happily. We had speed limits in miles for ages and the distances were (mainly) in kilometres. You still had the odd white one in miles while the green distance signs were in kilometres. Then a few years ago, Ireland really decides to get its act together and put all speed limits in metric – but with a twist – tiny little boiríns that nobody even bothered to put speed limits on previously, suddenly had the limit 80km/h on them. Now, trust me- I’ve tried to do 80km/h on some of these roads (when my banger of a Micra was still on the road) and I can declare that I was taking my life in my own hands at well below that limit on some of them. Some of the other limits make no sense to a European bureaucrat (or anyone) at all at all – 100km/h just before a roundabout anyone? As I once heard an English tourist once say: ‘It’s all a bit Irish, innit?’.

But seriously, it’s boring how every country in Europe and the world is becoming like everywhere else. Surely, we’re allowed our quirks and idiosyncrasies…..

Language is another thing – we have as the first official language Gaeilge, but just as everyone knows that the higher a litter fine, the less likely it’ll be enforced, so everyone knows that (unfortunately) these days Gaeilge is largely confined to small rural areas west of Galway and beyond some windswept valley in Donegal. You can easily survive without Irish in Ireland, but try getting by just through Irish – Manchán Magan tried it a few years ago on telly and that didn’t go well (but it may just be him!?!). But anyway – here are some amusing coincidental (?!) linguistic titbits: ‘Meas’ which means ‘respect’ sounds just like (church) mass although a hell of a lot of priests didn’t show much ‘meas’ /respect to little people over the years. Or what about ‘feamainn’? (seaweed). Maybe if those on the coast had eaten more dilsk (itself from the Irish duileasc) and other seaweed, there wouldn’t have been such a famine (same sound as feamainn). And back to mass or ‘aifreann’ in Irish – this word is so close to ‘ifreann’ (hell), that it really makes you wonder.

We really have to ditch the ‘bagáiste’ and the excuses if we want to stop Irish going the way of the dodo.  And don’t get me started on the ‘cúpla feck all’. We really have to get beyond the ‘cúpla feck all’ .Of the utmost importance is that we take pride (bród – no I don’t mean bród aerach/ gay pride…..- though that too) in Irish – take a leaf out of the Catalonian’s book. They are extremely proud of their Catalonian language. Pride, not some twisted republican notion, but pride/ bród in our oidhreacht (heritage), pride in ‘ár gcultúr (our culture). Irish/ Gaeilge is a vital part of that. The alternative is that we all start talking like ‘Friends’ characters (as many, especially young people, already do). If we don’t safeguard our language, who else will? The Catalonians? Actually – there’s an idea. Get a PR firm from Catalonia to market Gaeilge to the Irish. Or give a load of Polish people jobs in the Gaeltacht collecting ‘feamainn’ on the condition that they learn Irish. That’d work!

Londain, Sasana

These days it’s very rare I go to a large city – I’ve been to too many already – New York, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, Chicago, Frankfurt and many more besides, including London a few times. For me, big cities mean stress, noise, pollution, crowds and lots of expense, so it was with quite a bit of reluctance I visited London again recently, even if I had a good excuse: Kasia, my Polish music teacher friend, from the Kaszub region of North Poland, was bringing her pupils on a school tour to the city. So for a few freezing December days, 30 or so pupils aged 11-16, three teachers and a guide trudged around such sites as the London Eye, Greenwich Village, Buckingham Palace and too many museums to mention (the free ones!), and I joined in for a bit of their marathon so as I could catch up with Kasia.

It was great to see an old friend – it’s funny but in some ways very little seemed to have changed – she has aged very little, she still has that quick wit, biting sarcasm and a wicked smile. In a way, it was as if I had seen her only yesterday and we just carried on conversations like there hadn’t been a gap of many years. (Apart from visiting me briefly in Ireland almost 10 years ago, an equally short visit of mine to Poland to see her and others about 15 years ago, it has been over 20 years since we spent any significant time in each others’ company). What wasn’t so great was traipsing around with a group of impatient, McDonald’s obsessed schoolkids and their teachers. (Although I avoided most of this, only dipping in and out of the tour when it suited, such as when it lashed rain and we ended up in the excellent National History Museum with its myriad exotic stuffed animals and fascinating facts on creepy crawlies and the like).

I should point out at this stage that the average Polish tour is an endurance test, not for the fainthearted. They are at the best of times thoroughly exhausting, trying as they do to fit in as much sightseeing as humanly possible (another thing that has scarcely changed in 20 years!). It’s Tuesday, so we have Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Hyde Park, Madame Tussaud’s, 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square to fit in. It’s Wednesday, so we must be in Belgium, it’s Thursday so we have to be in Germany – kind of thing. You get the picture……As one Polish tour organiser once said ‘ye’ll be so tired from sightseeing, ye’ll sleep on the bus, so no need for so many nights of accommodation’. (!)

No, not for me. I spent a lot of time exploring the greener parts of the city ‘far from the madding crowd’. I recommend the walk by Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock. There are numerous barges along the canal, many converted into cafés and restaurants. Not many people living in them, from what I could see, but then again, it could just have been the time of day – maybe canal fees and London living expenses are so high, that everyone needs to be constantly working to afford that lifestyle. I barely saw a single sinner. Maybe one day I’ll go back when the weather is nicer and I’ll see (what I hoped) hippies playing music on their barges. Another lovely underrated place is Richmond Park (the largest of the royal parks seemingly), full of mature trees, deer, squirrels, stunning views of the city from Richmond Hill and many acres of park to explore.

While in London, I was staying with a friend who has been living in the city for many years near to Portobello Road, which at the weekend is converted into a second-hand and antiques market. This market, along with the Camden Market was one of the highlights of my trip – the sheer variety on sale is astonishing: homemade jewellery from various materials such as wood, metal and ivory, dvds, cds, vinyl, clothes of all kinds, collectables such as badges, war memorabilia, food from around the globe, antiques etc. Wonderful!

My friend had several visits while I was there – mostly from older Irish men, many of whom have lived a long time in the city. One character was a Kerryman who has lived there for 50 years (he hasn’t lost the accent or the philosophical outlook on life, you’ll be glad to hear). I was very interested in hearing their stories – like when they first arrived in London, the only foreigners were Irish and black and how they queued up to get the (once) plentiful jobs in those days of no CVs or ‘Health and Safety’. Another guy (not quite the full shilling) seemed to have Tourette’s Syndrome – he constantly said ‘pink’, sometimes followed by ‘rectums’!

Kilburn and Cricklewood are names very familiar to a certain generation of Irish in London, but now have been largely replaced by other ethnic groups, such as Afro-Caribbean. The different waves of immigration are a fascinating phenomenon – one of the most recent ones seems to be Brazilians if the Elephant and Castle area (named after a local coaching inn which was situated at a famous crossroads) is anything to go by. There seemed to be loads of Brazilian cafes, pubs and shops in Elephant and Castle.

Soho, the West End and Carnaby Street, in particular were lit up in spectacular fashion for the Christmas period. Multi-coloured lights, decorations and even exotic birds made from paper/ papier maché were suspended above street level. This, along with the crowds, buskers and myriad street performers created a magical, fairy-tale atmosphere.

The last time I was in London was perhaps 15 years ago, and I noticed one huge change that came completely unexpected – that the place is no longer a low-rise city, especially the former Docklands area. Canary Wharf, for example, reminded me of Manhattan or Shanghai. You step out of the YouTube station (as I call it), and you immediately gaze upwards in a mixture of awe and shock at the towering skyscrapers – another sign of the gentrification (or ‘social cleansing’ as I’ve heard it described) of everywhere. Many of these structures are mega-banks and overpriced apartments for the rich part-time investor dwellers.

But the highlight of my journey was getting to see, hear and dance to the mighty Jah Shaka, a legend amongst dub reggae fans. Dub is a variation of reggae, characterised by its’ soundsystems, plentiful echo, reverb, deep, heavy bass and often quicker tempo. Jah Shaka has been doing what he does best for over 40 years, and his experience showed through with this spectacular gig, which took place in Tottenham. I danced my socks off! A sonic multiple orgasm!! What a way to end a trip…..

So, will I be rushing to go back to London? No way! You can shove your outrageous prices, crowds, noise, pollution and mass tourism. Dub is put on often in Galway and we even have good markets in Tullamore now. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my forests, mountains, national parks and friendly picturesque villages where the likelihood of me being blown up by state-sponsored terrorism is very low, where small shops with staff (not machines) still (just about) exist and where things are largely still paid in cash (as opposed to card and plastic). You can stuff your small cages and ridiculous rents, McDonald’s and Starbucks. I’ll shut up now.  Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh.

 

Tacaíocht do chairde

I have no interest whatsoever in telling people about my day-to-day banal activities – enough of that goes on already on Facebook and other unsocial media. I am, however,  lucky enough to have been exposed to different ways of seeing and interpreting the world from a very young age. I’ve had experiences that were far from ordinary and I’ve had the good fortune to have met – and been drawn to- colourful and unusual characters who don’t do things ‘by the book’. Such people have given me insights into unconventional perspectives and opinions. For this I am extremely grateful and I hope to share some of these alternative ways of looking at things in my blogs.

I also have as some of my friends, people who haven’t followed the usual routes to employment. For some this involves creating things or working for themselves. And so this brings to the topic of this blog – friends and work, supporting our friends:

We’ve reached that time of the year again when so many of us run around like headless chickens, creating stress for ourselves, getting deep into debt to buy things for people that they don’t really need – the annual Consumer Fest, better known as Christmas. Fortunately, we’ve been forced to ‘downsize’ and modify our extravagant spending habits of the short-lived Celtic Tiger era due to economic conditions. And this is my point: if we all helped out our friends more at Christmas, then we wouldn’t have any economic crises in the first place. If we have to go mad at Christmas, then at least support more friends. Most people know somebody who has a business or somebody who bakes cakes, makes soap, gives massages, prints T-shirts, makes jewellery, creates music or knits jumpers – if not a local business, then a small bit of trade on the side. We live in an era when so much our money goes to far off places, to sweatshops in China, to mega corporations such as Amazon and eBay. Sure, I buy from these places too, but even here there are other options. Use http://www.kennys.ie for books instead of Amazon. (They even deliver worldwide for free). Maybe you know someone who runs a restaurant- you could get a loved-one a voucher. Maybe somebody you know hasn’t even thought of vouchers for something they do. Suggest it to them.

While I’m at it- I may as well do a plug for something! I help out at the local Men’s Shed and we’re making wooden toys and presents, so that’s another option for people. We’re based where the old Charleville National School was, so if anyone’s in the area, call in.

Beannachtaí na Nollag oraibh uilig. Bíodh Nollaig mhaith, suaimhneach, síochánta agaibh.

Accept! Do not question!

Why do we unquestionably accept certain things in life? One of these things is ‘economic growth’. Politicians chant mantra-like “We need economic growth”, “We must have more growth”. Why is it we need constant economic growth? What is economic growth and is it really desirable? How can anything grow forever?

Of course, nothing can keep growing forever, yet our entire economic system is based on the assumption that it must, and if it slows or stops, economic stagnation, recession and unemployment are the results. One definition of  economic growth is ‘ an increase in the capacity of an economy to produce goods and services, compared from one period of time to another’. In other words, the more we buy and sell goods and services, the more economic growth, but equally, the more self-sufficient we are, the less economic growth. Hardly a measure of well-being. Yet, GDP or GNP (Gross Domestic/ National Product) or economic growth is how we measure the well-being of a country.

Just to give you an idea of what a nerd I am, as a teenager I read (more than once, I might add!) a book called ‘The Growth Illusion’ by an English economist who was then living in Ireland as it happens, by the name of Richard Douthwaite. He gives the following examples of just how absurd this measure of ‘well-being’ is: if a country were to cut down all its forests and sold them to make tiddlywinks out of them, its GDP would go through the roof. This, although it would result in erosion and would have countless other negative consequences such as decreased soil fertility, decreased biodiversity etc. Similarly, if we lived in the vicinity of an airport and we installed triple glazing just to bring the noise level down to how it was before the airport was built, it would show up in increased GDP. This example in no way gives an indication of an improved way of life, just bringing it hopefully more or less back to the previous state before an airport existed. The author concludes that not only is GDP a nonsensical way of measuring well-being, in fact a high rate of economic growth, without fail, makes our lives more stressful, busy and worse off in multiple ways.

There exist other ways of measuring a nation’s well-being such as Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index which takes into account, health, community vitality and cultural diversity for example.

Another thing we accept unquestionably is interest. We take out loans and we pay  loans back with interest, even though in both the Christian and Muslim traditions theoretically interest (or ‘usury’) is immoral and unethical. Now, I’d be the first to say it’s a good thing that we no longer follow religious doctrines (for the most part), but hey, we may as well keep the good aspects of religion (and interest is certainly of no benefit to anyone except those in the banking system). In fact, unbeknownst to most people, we live in a completely interest/ debt based society. Our economic system as it stands, cannot function without debt and interest. Yet, surely this is something that must be radically altered if we are to have any chance of living free from poverty and all the troubles associated with it.

Insurance: We all complain about insurance but put up with ridiculous premiums (instead of getting together to form a group to put forward real reform). Meanwhile, insurance companies continue to rake in millions every year. But rarely is the question asked: do we really need insurance, and if so, why do private companies monopolise it? Let’s face it- insurance is one gigantic scam. As a friend put it: ‘It’s like legalised protection money’. Instead of an illegal mafia getting protection money, it’s the insurance company racket that legally gets money off us – for nothing – as those of us with years of ‘No claims bonuses’ will attest to. Surely if we have to have insurance, the state (or even better- the community) should provide it on a non-profit basis.

What else do we accept without question? Borders, passports, visas anyone? Any further ideas/ suggestions?

 

Tá ‘chuile rud bunoscionn

I’m looking for a job (again). I’m one of these people who can’t easily hold down a job. Either the boss is a bastard, the work hours are ridiculous, you’re treated like dirt or it’s yet another crap job. The best jobs I had were working in vegetable gardens – and they weren’t even ‘real’ jobs, but looking today at the jobs list: ‘scrum master’, ‘java technician’ – they’re not even English! In the crazy world we live in, computers are much more important than food production (because food production has been taken over by big business). This is madness- we cannot eat computers…..I am reminded of the Michael Ellner quote:

“Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.”

And so it is. Everything is ‘trí na chéile’ and ‘bunoscionn’. From birth to death. It is very easy to point out what is wrong with the world, however. It is not so easy to offer solutions, but they are all out there and if the profit motive, vested interests (and private property, I would say) were taken out of the equation, the world would look very different. I’m not going to look at these solutions in depth for the simple reason that I know little about most of them but I can make a list.

Birth: home births. Our hospitals are becoming more and more like giant impersonal factories and of course, there is an awful lot more money to be made from sickness than health. I know nothing about home births but it’s an alternative and if carried out with a good midwife, maybe it’s kinder and more humane than some hospital births. Somebody mentioned water births but I’ve yet to give birth so I can’t comment!

Education: How can a system that has a hierarchy of subjects – maths, science etc be fair since we all have different abilities? How can an education system that promotes left brain subjects (rational, logical- maths, science) over right brain subjects (creative, intuitive) be good for kids? We use both parts of our brains, even if some people think more with their left than with their right, and vice versa. Any education system must reflect this. Surely it takes ‘a village to raise a child’? Surely we learn better when the generations are mixed? How is a class of 30+ to be taught? Surely tiny classes are preferable? Why are we obsessed with competition in schools as opposed to co-operation? There are alternatives: Steiner schools, Educate Together, Reggio schools, home schooling. Listen to Ken Robinson on Ted Talks.

Work: What do we mean by work? By occupation, by job? Most of us work in soulless, boring, repetitive, soul destroying, mind-numbing jobs that just make money for big international corporations. ‘How do you occupy your time?’, I would suggest is a better way of asking ‘what do you do?’ (as Americans always do) Do we work to live or live to work? Why do we need 9-5 jobs? In many traditional societies, work was done when it needed to be done- e.g. the harvest was brought in together and songs were sung during it, and then a celebration and dancing took place. Most jobs in Western society don’t actually contribute anything to society- insurance, stocks, bonds, etc. As somebody said to me recently “There are few jobs, but no shortage of work to be done”.

Health: we live in an extremely sick society- it’s enough to look at the size of our hospitals. Illness is big business and there is of course no money to be made if we are all healthy and not suffering from something. I really don’t believe that it’s an exaggeration to say that if people aren’t sick enough, certain vested interests would collude to make us sicker.  Do I need to persuade you? Look at the evidence of the sheer amount of needlessly harmful chemicals and technologies when almost always there are alternatives – pesticides, chemicals, fluoride, chlorine, plastic etc. Why do I have to go out of my way (and spend more money) to purchase benign/ safer/ harmless products? Why are these being produced in the first place?

There are many alternative medicines and complimentary health practices that, while they may not all work, at least they have very few of the horrific side effects of mainstream medicine. Homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, the list in endless. Prevention is surely better than cure and let us allow food to be our medicine. How many of us consistently eat genuinely healthy food (that is: grown by us or down the road, not sprayed, cooked from scratch, without GM, minimal processing)? Why are these poisons being produced in the first place? Investigate herbal medicines- after all, so many of our modern medicines derive from plants or are synthetic versions of those occurring in nature.

Shelter/ Housing: there is more than one way to build a shelter/ house. Yurts, mobile homes, cob houses, straw bale houses, hemp and lime, timber frame etc. Often, (especially if we draw on help from friends and/ or use second-hand materials) we can build houses for a fraction of the cost of conventional houses. Why do we need to get mortgages (which means ‘death grip’) and get deeply into debt to buy four walls and a roof?

I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. Everything we do and take for granted should be questioned because we live in a world that is ruled by competition (as opposed to co-operation) and profit is king. If profit is primarily what matters for companies and dictates more and more of all governmental activities also, it follows that everything is suspect, since those low prices must be achieved regardless of the cost to society, the environment, the workers and animals. The system has it built into it that it blatantly encourages companies to exploit everything and everyone. Otherwise, the shareholders won’t be happy and/ or another company will take that ones place.

Back to work-  I’m still looking for work. If treated right, I will work hard. You respect me, I respect you. I’m reliable, honest, I keep good time and I am good at taking initiative…..Gis a job! But no! No experience – no job, no job – no experience- the age old dilemma, except that now employers are spoilt for choice.

To be honest, I think we need to create or invent our own jobs and future work has to be natural, clean and healthy. All products, services and jobs must reflect this. What’s the alternative? We can’t go on doing/ eating/ behaving/ buying as before. Let us start by questioning everything and exploring the alternatives.