January 31, 2005

To the Lighthouse

On June 4th, 1944, the assistant lighthouse keeper on Black Sod lighthouse on the Mullet peninsula (on the north Mayo coast), Ted Sweeney, phoned his weather forecast to London. It forecast weather more suited to winter to summer - high winds and heavy rain. He might have wondered why the meteorologists in London asked him to verify his forecast. He had his answer a couple of days later, when news of the D-Day landings broke. The invasion fleet needed calm seas and clear skies but also required a low tide as dawn broke - in June, 1944, those conditions would best be fulfilled between the fifth and seventh of June. Thanks in part to Ted's forecast, the invasion was postponed from the fifth to the following night.

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January 30, 2005

Clew Bay

A view of Mullaranny Quay and beyond to Clew Bay.

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Oliver St John Gogarty

The Financial Times carries a generally positive piece about Renvyle House in Galway, though the correspondent seems less enthused about the effects of the Celtic Tiger

The Celtic tiger is still burning bright, and he's building himself some fine new lairs. Galway City in the far west of Ireland is now ringed with large, multi-bedroomed, satellite-dished and balconied houses, which have come to be known as "McMansions" - catalogue-bought grandeur. New roads and bypasses are also being built. The poetic west of J. M. Synge, the Technicolor west of The Quiet Man and even the satiric west of Father Ted is getting that bit more elusive as the euros wash over the peat bogs.

The McMansions are grouped tight together like the pristine urbanizacions that litter southern Spain. But eventually you break free and head down the N59. The ground gets peatier, the hillsides steeper, the prospect less promising for developers and more exciting for weekend escapers.

Tut tut…You'd think that the FT would be more enthusiastic about unfettered capitalism. Renvyle House was once the home of Oliver St. John Gogarty, and as it happened, I was driving down the N59 myself last night listening to an archived interview on RTE Radio 1 with Gogarty as he reminisced about his early life sharing a spartan apartment with another aspiring writer in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. Well, not so much an apartment as a gun emplacement, or Martello tower, and that writer was James Joyce.

Full marks to RTE for laying their hands on the interview - it was made by the BBC in the late Forties (apparently, no recordings exist or remain in RTE of Gogarty) - less laudable is the lack of reference to the programme on the RTE website (the search engine is just useless). The interview was recorded on acetate, so it hissed and crackled a bit and Gogarty was in his seventies when he gave it. But there was no lack of energy or fizzle in the conversation - Gogarty was quite a character and I suspect that the stories he told were just the clean ones. Gogarty features in Ulysses as Buck Mulligan, and describes the novel as "the pot in which we [Joyce's friends and acquaintances] were all boiled". He related the tale of why Joyce moved out of the tower. Gogarty knew a fellow studying in Oxford and invited him to stay with them when he visited Ireland. Gogarty describes him as a Gaelic zealot - he would let Joyce or Gogarty shine their shoes because the polish wasn't made in Ireland. When he discovered that the housing on the oil lamps weren't Irish either, he removed them, so that, in Gogarty's words, "we had plenty of smoke but no light". This chap wasn't a light sleeper either - he woke up one night screaming about a black panther, then produced a Colt pistol and fired a few shots at the beast only he could see, before collapsing back on his bed and nodding off again. Fearing a return of either the cat or the gun, Gogarty took the pistol. Twenty minutes later, the zealot woke up again, screaming and reached for the gun. Gogarty, in order to placate him, fired another couple of shots at some tins sitting on a shelf. The next morning, without a word, Joyce packed his things and moved out, never to return. Flatmates, eh?

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January 25, 2005

The Green Circle

At the turn of the year, a single yellow lupin in my back garden illuminated the otherwise gloomy flowerbeds, like a solitary candle in a dark hall, stuttering in a draught. As January progressed, it began to wither, and it has now quenched, joining the rest of the dead stalks in the bed. Amazingly, another lupin has begun to flower (though this morning's frost might arrest that development). This one will have to share the limelight, though. The spring flowers have begun to arrive.

Late November and early December is usually a good time for end of year cleaning in the garden. I've been reluctant to wield the clippers this year, because, at any time, there has always been a few plants that have long outlasted their expected tenure. Until last week, my fuchsia was in flower. Mine is a small shrub that became covered by a canopy of creeping plants this summer. Normally it waits until late summer to make an appearance, but this year, the flowers didn't open until almost New Year's Day. Only a few blossoms appeared and they lasted until the stormy weather of last week. The last of my Sweetpea and Bloody Cranesbill (a stalwart of the Burren) survived until the end of November, and the daisies (including Scentless Mayweed) are still providing illumination to a corner of the garden, though they are looking as bedraggled as wet kittens at this stage.

Camellia in south Galway - photo taken last Sunday.

Three weeks into January, and the regeneration has begun in earnest. The snowdrops and crocuses are flowering, and the legions of daffodils have taken up their positions in the flowerbeds. Some other flowers never went away - a campanula has flowered continuously since I planted it ten months ago, and the gaudy colours of the primulas have remained a constant too.

Other plants are waking from their winter slumber. I have planted a magnolia and a clematis together - both flower briefly but at different times, and the structure of the magnolia supports the creeping vines of the clematis. Both have burst into life - the leaves of the clematis are slowly unfurling, and the magnolia is covered in silvery, furry buds.


It's not just my garden either. On a walk in south Galway on Sunday (on a gloriously sunny and clear day) , there are other early arrivals. Along one hedgerow, sycamore buds are bursting into leaf, and outside one house overlooking Lough Graney, a camellia has begun to flower. The camellia is native to the Himalayas so it's not too bothered by a bit of frost, but the third week of January is about as early as one could hope for blossoms. There was another plant beginning to blossom too - I'm not sure of it's name so I'd appreciate any feedback (pic below). So far, it's been a very mild winter, with very little frost. And though the early burst of greenery warms the heart, I wouldn't mind even a short cold snap, if only to lay waste to the hordes of slugs that will otherwise massacre everything in sight later this year.

Anyone know what this is?

Posted by Monasette at 11:34 PM | Comments (4)

End of the Line

The maritime relationship between Ireland and Wales goes back as far as the beginning of the recorded history of the two places, with St. Patrick probably making the most lasting impression of any Welshman on these shores. In more recent times, many Irish passed through Holyhead on their way to England to start new lives as immigrant workers.

Plenty of Welsh fishermen visit Ireland every year too, but some of them may stay away in protest against what is seen there as poor husbandry by Ireland of a shared resource - the salmon. Fish that breed in Wales and go out to sea as adults must return by the west coast of Ireland where many of them end up in drift nets. icWales carries an editorial on what is regarded in Wales as Irish greed and short-term exploitation. Said one Welsh angler

He saw them as being guilty of milking cows which they neither own, nor have they fed or protected. The cows are merely on the way home and passing them on the road. What do the Irish do? Take them as their own. There is surely something immoral about that.

Posted by Monasette at 11:21 PM | Comments (0)

Just call it the Sudetenland and be done with it…

Limerick and Clare are at it again. According to the Limerick Post,

Cllr Crowe also recently recommended to Clare County Council that it set about reclaiming the Limerick county townlands of Coonagh and Lansdowne which the County Council lost in the 1950 boundary extension. In submitting this motion, Cllr Crowe said that if the Council adopted it, it would help in "putting a stop to Limerick’s colonial tendencies”.

Indeed. This probably had nothing to do with the fact that the mayor of Limerick had just rejected Crowe's suggestion that a new tunnel under the Shannon should be named after Eamonn De Valera, who coincidentally was both a Clareman* and the revered leader of Crowe's party, Fianna Fail. And it certainly had nothing to do with the Mayor's suggestion that Limerick should look for a boundary extension of it's own.

What ever they call the tunnel, let's hope that they show a bit more imagination than my alma mater, University of Limerick, when they named the Shannon bridge on the campus….University Bridge.

*A Limerickman has pointed out to me that Dev was actually a Limerick man. I always make this mistake. His grand-daughter Sile De Valera lives in Clare (and represents the county as a TD), while his grandson Eamonn O'Cuiv lives in Galway and represents all of the West as the Minister with responsibility for the Gaeltacht.

Posted by Monasette at 11:20 PM | Comments (1)

North by Northwest

Relations have broken down too between landowners and Shell in North Mayo, as they seek to enforce compulsory purchase orders to build their gas & oil pipeline across one of the most scenic parts of North Mayo.

Meanwhile, just off the Mullet peninsula nearby, a couple of islands have gone up for sale. The larger of the two, Duvillaun (Dubh Oileán - the black island), is 250 acres in area and bids of a million euro will be entertained. Given that there is an ancient carved standing stone, I wonder if you can getting planning permission there ? It would be a very expensive vegetable garden otherwise. Mind you, the isolation would come in handy for one thing

Posted by Monasette at 11:19 PM | Comments (0)

Blame the chef's special....

You know how it is when you give up the ciggies - there's that temptation to console yourself with a bout of comfort eating. Well, nearly a year after the smoking ban was introduced, Galway's sewage system is full. The Galway Advertiser reports that there is almost no more capacity on Mutton Island, the city's state of the art recycling plant behind the Claddagh.

There are a few options, though none of them sound too likely:- go back to the old 'method' of just pumping raw sewage into the bay (the EU mightn't be too happy about that), stop building more houses in the city (two chances of that happening) or start building an extension to the existing facility (if it takes as long as the original, there'll be a big demand for chamberpots long before it's finished).

Now if only everyone had stuck to their New Year's Resolution diets...

Posted by Monasette at 11:15 PM | Comments (3)

January 24, 2005

By the old fort

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January 16, 2005

By the waterfront

The Connacht Tribune made full use of its broadsheet format, and devoted a full page to two large photographs of the flooding in Craughwell. Apart from a mysteriously high number of furniture shops, Craughwell is known to most people as the last village (or bottleneck) on the road to Galway from Dublin. Though the worst predictions of last week’s storm thankfully didn’t happen, there was plenty of rain, and lots of fell in east Galway.

The bridge over the Dunkellin river in Craughwell, that was overwhelmed during the week. The white strip under the bridge is a level guage and is a metre long.

The Dunkellin river narrows considerably as it passes through Craughwell village and during the week, the water was flowing into the river much faster than it could be emptied. So it flooded. I didn’t get over there until this morning – and the river level was back to normal. But on Wednesday, the river rose nearly three metres spilling over the bridge and flooding the houses beside the river. It took a full day for the water to subside.

Right across the county, fields are flooded, and turloughs are full to capacity. Good news for migrant birds, bad news for animals (unless you’re an otter). This is a montage picture of a turlough (near Gort – where else?) taken at the end of October, and here is a montage* of the same spot taken earlier yesterday. Spot the difference?

* I use a Canon G3 digital camera, and it has a setting for taking a set of photographs that can be 'stitched' together on a PC using a software programme that is packaged with the camera. I use it to take panoramic views (I haven't got around to buying a wide-angle lenses for the camera yet). The quality of the panoramas is variable - the 'joins' are often very noticeable when viewed on a PC - on the web, it's usually not a problem.

Posted by Monasette at 01:35 AM | Comments (0)

Rolling stock

No longer under wraps - the new metric traffic signs. Fairly complicated, eh?

I mentioned last year how it was impossible to use the train service to commute into Galway (from the east) because the first train didn’t arrive into the city until 10 in the morning. Well, finally, even Iarnrod Eireann seem to have noticed the traffic jams and introduced a commuter service. If you want, you can travel all the way from Athlone and get into Eyre Square by eight thirty, but most of the passengers will have got on in Athenry, foregoing the pleasures of sitting at roundabouts for an hour every day.

From January 20th, all traffic signs will be metric, as opposed to the mix'n'match system that we've had for the last few years. A lot of the signs are still covered in black plastic (I hope I haven't ruined the surprise for anyone) but the gale-force winds of the last week has revealed quite a few.

As usual, the announcement was greeted with plenty of whinging - judging by some of the comments on radio programmes, you'd swear that the signs were going to be written in Cyrillic or expressed as logarithms. And what about all the cars that don't have metric speedometers? Well, mine is one of them, and maybe it's just me, but I don't think it's going to take too long to figure out the conversions. Actually, thanks to Teutonic parsimony, mine doesn't even have all the speeds written on the dial (they were probably trying to save on paint). But somehow, somehow, I was able to figure out that the notch equidistant from the 20 and the 40 indicators on the dial stood for 30 miles an hour, and I could match my speed accordingly.

I think we'll cope.

UPDATE January 25th - The Western People this week has a story about an 80 km/h sign erected on a boreen (and cul-de-sac). They probably had one left over...

Posted by Monasette at 01:17 AM | Comments (2)

January 15, 2005

Fortress Down

Some gave all - a plaque commemorating a WWII plane crash off the Galway coast.

On a gloomy morning exactly 62 years ago, Lt. C. B. Collins was lost in the countryside. No matter how often he nervously checked his charts, he couldn’t be sure where he was. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t alone. He was the navigator of a B-17 bomber of the US Air Force, nicknamed "Stinky", that was carrying a special cargo. And everyone else on the plane, including the cargo, was getting anxious not only about where the plane would land, but how they would land too.

"Stinky" was about to come to the premature end of a journey that had taken the plane, and its cargo, over 16,000 miles. The plane had travelled from the US to the Caribbean, down to Brazil before crossing the South Atlantic to Ascension Island. From there, it crossed to the west coast of Africa at Accra, crossing the continent to Khartoum. From there to Cairo and later to Gibraltar, and it was from the Rock that "Stinky" had set off that January morning for an airbase in England.

Navigation was, quite literally, a fairly hit and miss affair for bombers in World War II. It’s often forgotten that the RAF’s original intention for bombing missions during the war was to attack targets such as rail yards, factories and ports using precision bombing missions only. Unfortunately, they soon found that they couldn’t hit much, even on a clear day. In cloudy conditions, or at night, and flying high enough to avoid at least some anti-aircraft fire, the bombs could land anywhere, and often did. So they switched to what became known as carpet bombing. One of the problems was that it was hard for a pilot or navigator to tell exactly where the plane was. There was no radar to speak of on board, and it would be decades before GPS and satellite technology would be available (both made possible, ironically, by the Nazis’ attempt to design a weapon even more fearsome than carpet bombing – the V2). A navigator on a plane plotted his journey much like a navigator on a ship – using a compass, charts and carefully measuring speed. Both the Allies and the Germans erected radio beacons that transmitted signals that navigators could use to find out where they were – they weren’t precise but they did help navigators tell one country from another.

On January 15, 1943, Collins couldn’t pick up any radio signal that would tell him where he was. Instead, he could see farmland below – green fields that could be anywhere in northwestern Europe. Gloomily, the pilot and captain decided, since they were hopelessly lost, they would use up fuel until they they were ready to crash land and take their chances. The important part of crashlanding is not the land part but the crash part. The first step was to get rid of anything that would burn on impact; i.e. the fuel. This involved flying round and round in circles until the tanks were nearly dry. Usually, any remaining bombs would be dropped too, but Stinky wasn’t carrying any. The plane would be travelling at seventy miles an hour as it touched down – not a problem if it was landing on tarmac or a flat grassy strip, but potentially fatal in rough terrain or at sea. By the time the captain, Thomas Hulings, had burned enough fuel to attempt a landing, the crew had figured out that they were near Galway Bay. So he just needed to find a field…

Now, there were no shortage of fields in east Galway, but most of them had been planted with giant wooden stakes to prevent exactly what the Stinky crew were planning – landing a plane (well, the stakes were to prevent a lot of planes landing, such as a battalion of glider-borne SS paratroopers, for example). Hulings did identify a field that hadn’t been staked and picked that as his landing strip. Technically, it was two fields since there was a rather solid stone wall running across it; a feature that would liven up the landing a bit. As the plane came in to land, it clattered into the wall, instantly resolving the question of whether the undercarriage would sink into the field. The plane landed on its belly and ploughed its way across the field, remaining intact until it stopped.

Inside, the crew and their passengers were unhurt, though probably well shaken. Ten hours after they had boarded in Gibralter, they pushed open a hatch and stepped out into one of the fields of Athenry. The B-17 had a full crew of 10 as well as a very special cargo – a number of top-ranking US Generals that had spent the previous month (and sixteen thousand miles) auditing the progress and status of the Allied military campaign in North Africa. Oh, and one more thing. They were stopping in the UK to check on the progress of a military operation that had been planned for a year. It was called Operation round-up and it would be another 18 months before it would be executed. By then, it had been renamed, to Overlord.

One can only imagine the misery of the senior crew. They had only been assigned to Stinky in Gibraltar. I’d say Collins was particularly gloomy – earlier in the journey, one of the Generals had advised him, against his own judgement to veer west of Brest in France – a path that took them away from England. When the backseat driver was a general, there wasn’t much he could do. The name of the general was Jacob Devers, the most senior of the passengers on the plane.

Devers had graduated from West Point in the same year as George Patton and had excelled in a number of administrative positions earlier in the war. After he got back to the US following the Athenry crash, he was put in charge of training the one million troops required for the invasion of northern Europe - Overlord. Ironically, his former classmate Patton was ‘put in charge’ of a phantom army in southern England in order to deflect German attention from the real invasion force. Devers didn’t get a chance to lead those men into battle – Eisenhower was given the command of the invasion, and Devers took Ike’s old job commanding the forces in the Mediterranean. This command took him through the battles in Italy, France and Germany, and he accepted Kesselring’s surrender in 1945.

In all, there were four generals on the plane. Apart from Devers, there was Edward Hale Brook, a veteran of WWI. His 2nd Armoured Division landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and fought their way through northern France – later he commanded an Army Corp during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. There was also the splendidly named Williston Birkhimer Palmer – he commanded troops during the post D-Day battles in France in WWII and also in the Korea War. He shares a headstone in Arlington National Cemetery with his brother – they were both 4-star generals. There was also William Sexton who also was involved in the battle for Germany after D-Day.. Finally, there was Gladeon Marcus Barnes who later led the ENIAC project – one of the first modern computers.

When the Americans emerged from the crashed plane, they were met by a contingent of the Local Defence Forces (the auxiliary force of the Irish Army). The crew surrendered their weapons (they had, after all, crashed in a neutral country) and brought to a local hotel until regulars from the Irish Army arrived. By the end of the day, they had been transported over the border to Beleek, and the next day, they resumed their work in England. Moving the plane was another matter.

All news of the plane crash was censored, and a unit of the army from Galway were despatched to hack the plane apart. However, the plane had crashed in the grounds of the Agricultural college through which the main rail line to Dublin ran, as it still does today. It is said that the drivers of the Dublin-Galway trains would slow down to give all the passengers a good look (I suspect this is just a yarn – the landing site is close to the station so the trains would have been trundling along slowly in any case). The local tinkers were delighted and apparently did a roaring trade in aluminium buckets as did the cook from the field kitchen set up to feed the troops scrapping the plane. Plenty of locals turned up at the kitchen too, and when he got through all the rations a little too quickly, he was sent back to barracks.

The story of how Stinky ended up in an Athenry pasture is told in a book called “Eagles over Ireland”* which was written by local man, Paul Browne. He has given a couple of public lectures on both the story and how it was researched and it was at one of them that I learned the story (and bought a copy of the book). The book was written in advance of the 60th anniversary of the crash, and was intended to do two things; research the tale and record the memories of the locals who witnessed it, and also to use the story to boost local tourism. Apart from the local input, the families of the Generals were very generous – sending over irreplaceable souvenirs such as medals, flags and other paraphernalia. I forgot to ask the obvious question during the lecture – did the entire crew survive the war? The book only mentions the pilots. The pilot, Hulings, lived to a ripe old age. The co-pilot, James McLaughlin, is still alive – he survived 40 missions before returning home to set up and command the West Virginia Air National Guard. Now a retired politician and active businessman, he got married again four years ago. He is 86.

The book has a lot of other stories, and sets the story of the crash against the history of the war and the contribution of the men who flew in Stinky on that January journey. “Stinky” (with a different crew) had flown on one of the first bombing missions by the USAF during WWII – bombing the French in Rouen, as it happened**. Its final mission carried some of the men that would play a significant part in ending the war. The book also contains the reports that Devers had compiled on the earlier part of his survey mission. There is a display in the town museum of some of the artefacts collected during the research for the book. However, let me make a suggestion – if Athenry wants to attract more visitors, why not build a full-scale replica of the Flying Fortress near the rail line in the town?

* There’s no ISBN number but I think the book shops in Galway have copies. Only 1,000 were printed.
** Another bomber of that mission was piloted by Paul Tibbet, who would later lead a mission that helped end the war in the Pacific – the bombing of Hiroshima.

Posted by Monasette at 11:57 PM | Comments (4)

January 09, 2005

Still raining

Shannon Callows in flood.

It's still raining. On Friday night, a flash of lightning and an almighty clap of thunder woke me up in the middle of the night. And then there's the rain. Like many other houses built in the last decade, mine has vents in each room. And like most houses, those vents are constructed by simply drilling a big hole in the wall and covering it with a couple of thin plastic grills. And on windy nights, those vents shriek like banshees. And boy, have they shrieked all last week.

Thankfully, no tiles flew off the roof, no trees came crashing through the wall and no water came flowing through the door. It's one of the benefits of living on high ground. Others are not so lucky. Every inch of 'storm' rain that falls is equivalent to 22.7 thousand gallons of water per acre (that's about one and a half million gallons per square mile) . In Galway city, that's a lot of run-off water. In the rest of the county, the rain has been so continuous that it has overwhelmed the land's natural ability to absorb it, and the volume is so much that rivers can't drain it. The wind is equally destructive, taking down powerlines in Connemara and sending the ice-rink marquee in the city flying into the river. at the time of writing, the Dunkellin river at Craughwell has overwhelmed the road bridge, disrupting traffic between Dublin and Galway. Flooding in Gort is also increasing (though no surprise there).

Posted by Monasette at 10:03 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2005

An Aimsir Caite

I realise, as an Irishman living in the west of Ireland, that I should be genetically engineered to withstand wind and rain, but...am I the only one bugged by the weather the last week or so? I can't see the tiles on the roof lasting much longer if these gales keep up.

Posted by Monasette at 10:29 PM | Comments (4)

Salt of the Earth

Never mind the bullocks...Happy farmers or sad farmers, same end result for these fellows#

There's a birthday bash in the RDS this evening, with President Mary McAleese as the honoured guest. The Irish Farmers Association was founded 60 years ago* and two and a half thousand alumni of the organization will tuck into a big dinner, hear a few speeches and be subjected to the Three Irish Tenors.

The IFA came of age when they led thirty thousand farmers on a march to Dublin in 1966 to protest about farm prices. When they arrived in Dublin, the Minister of Agriculture refused to meet them, so the farmers laid siege to Government buildings for 20 days. That Minister was Charles Haughey who was nothing if not a pragmatist - he eventually met the farm leaders, made a few promises and got his Department building back.

Farmers in Ireland have seen a dramatic change of fortune in the last sixty years - back in 1955, farmers exported twice as much rabbit meat as they did sheep, imported about 5,000 tonnes of butter and almost all agricultural trade was with one country, Britain. That all changed with Ireland's accession to the EEC in 1972. Production increased dramatically - in 1955, an Irish farmer produced enough food to feed about seven people (about 30% of farm output back then was consumed by the farmers' own families) but by the mid-Nineties, an Irish farmer could produce enough food to feed about 50 people**. And therein lay the problem.

As each new country joined the EEC (or later the EU), their farming industry became more efficient, and produced more. For an individual farmer, it was a great situation. Prices were guaranteed, and fixed at a level that made farming a lucrative occupation for large farmers, and a viable one for even small holdings. Thousands of Irish farmers working 100 acres or less could not survive with subsidies, and even on poor land (particularly in the west of Ireland), the per-animal subsidies resulted in millions of sheep subsisting on the most barren and forsaken of land. The downside was that the schemes cost an absolute fortune, and predominately industrial countries (such as the UK and Germany) objected to having to subsidize farmers in France and other countries. Mainly France, though.

The other problem was that the surplus food had to be stored - the so-called "butter mountain", "wine lake" etc. And just like there is only so long that you can leave a steak in the freezer, a lot of the surplus food was either destroyed, sold off at low-cost to places like Russia or used in aid programmes. The Beef Tribunal back in the Nineties unearthed no end of 'irregularities' in the involvement of Irish meat processors in a beef export programme to Russia - though funnily enough, no-one was punished for it.

The backlash began with the milk "super levy" - which effectively fined farmers if they produced above a certain number of gallons of milk per year. [This was the event that drove my own family out of dairy farming]. The IFA, through lobbying in Ireland and Brussels, managed to get a form of exemption (long term farmers were able to produce at near maximum production) for Ireland.

In recent years, other quotas have been introduced, and each year, more and more farmers leave the industry; i.e they retire and their children choose another career (the EU introduced a farmers retirement scheme which sped up that process). The latest curb on agricultural subsidies is a scheme called "De-coupling". From the beginning of this year, EU grants are decoupled (I.e. separated) from the amount of output that a farmer produces. So a farmer that produced 100 head of cattle, for example, and received a subsidy of 5000 euros (50 euro per head) in return last year would receive the same subsidy this year, irrespective of the number of cattle that he produces. What? Sounds like money for old rope?

Well, not quite. The de-coupling means that there is no incentive for farmers to produce more food, since producing more grain or more cattle or sheep won't attract any subsidy. Since it is unprofitable to produce more agricultural output without subsidy, it's likely that most of them will reduce production. Their income is effectively frozen at a level determined by the EU. If the income remains at the same level, inflation will effectively reduce the income level over time. But no-one expects even the de-coupled subsidies to remain in operation for more than a couple of years. Once the wrangling at the World Trade Organisation is done, the EU will probably permit developing nations in Africa and Asia to sell agricultural produce into the EU market. Low cost food from developing nations will do three things; firstly, it will dramatically improve the economies of poor countries which is generally a good thing; secondly, it will rapidly reduce the cost of basic foodstuffs in the EU, which would also seem a like a good thing; and thirdly, pretty much destroy the existing primary agricultural industry in the EU since it will simply be unprofitable to produce anything other than niche products. It won't destroy the food processing industry (which is far more lucrative than going the raw materials anyway) but Irish food companies will be able to import their raw materials more cheaply from Mozambique than from Meath. It would be a bitter irony that the farmers in Eastern European countries to discover that, having clamoured to join the EU to gain access to subsidized markets, the EU would much prefer their old Iron Curtain price levels.

The IFA won't disappear any time soon. There are still plenty of farmers, though many of them hold down other jobs too (de-coupling allows farmers to reduce stock levels to a point where they can do other work too). Even as farming as an industry continues to decline, farmland will still have to be managed - otherwise the west of Ireland, for a start, will become an impenetrable jungle (though at least a jungle without sheep, thank God). The various REPS schemes pays farmers in Ireland millions of euros to maintain their farms in a traditional way (I.e. maintain hedgerows rather than using barbed wire fences, etc) and these schemes will enable farmers to remain 'on the land' in some form.

One of those two and a half thousand invites for the bash tonight went to one of my own extended families, who was active in the IFA for years. He couldn't make it on the march in '66 (he had cows to milk) but his brother went instead, and had a foretaste of his future career as a chef by spending his time cooking for the marchers. Alas, he didn't get an invite. It's like being in a band - no-one remembers the drummer.

* (it was called the National Farmers Association back then)
** Stats taken from IFA website.
# I originally posted the wrong version of this photo, incase you're wondering why it changed. Original is here.

Posted by Monasette at 10:15 PM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2005

Tuam Ponies

Earlier this year, there was a catchy song on the radio that I'd hum along to. One of the reasons I noticed it was because I thought the chorus included the line Stranded in Tuam, which would have explained the melancholy voice of the singer. As it turned out, I'd just misheard it, and though the singer in question did visit Galway, she managed to get out again. And never went near Tuam.

Not to be confused with Dustin the Turkey's song "I've been to Tullamore but I've never been to Meath"* which is a horse of a different colour.

* Warning - cheesy synth ahoy!

Posted by Monasette at 09:55 PM | Comments (1)


Beside this cross in Galway lies a cairn that marks the grave of Princess Cesair. According to Irish legend, she was the grand-daughter of Noah, and she fled to Ireland to avoid the Great Flood, having been forewarned. Who knows the origin of such stories, both of Cesair and that of Noah himself - no doubt some ancient natural disaster, long forgotten except as a cautionary tale for future generations. 2004 was book ended by two disasters of Biblical scale - the earthquake in Bam, Iran at the beginning of the year and the tsunami that devastated the coastline of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand just last week. And alas, there was no forewarning.

Posted by Monasette at 09:40 PM | Comments (1)

Miracles of Knock

All services available, spiritual or material...

If you've ever wondered why there are so many statues of the Virgin Mary in Co. Mayo, events in Knock might go some way to explaining it.

Posted by Monasette at 09:29 PM | Comments (0)