February 27, 2005

Scary Monsters

Animal bone at Tiraun Point, north Mayo.

Posted by Monasette at 09:39 AM | Comments (1)

February 23, 2005

Cold snap

The cold weather, according to the Met Office, is pretty much par for the course. The east of the country seems to be getting the worst of the snow, but below-freezing temperatures will be a feature of most parts of the country this week. It is frost that is the biggest danger to new lambs - foxes and other predators (such as magpies) tend to target already-weakened animals.

There was a warning on the radio tonight to look after small birds, by leaving out food and water. Of course, if you really wanted to improve the birds chance of surviving February, you should go out and shoot a few cats.

Posted by Monasette at 07:03 PM | Comments (5)

February 17, 2005

Dumping Ground

An article in the Western People sums up the local frustration and anger at the prospect of the location of a cluster of 'dirty' industries in North Mayo.

For communities throughout north Mayo, faced with the prospect of their region being transformed into a dumping ground for dirty industries – which, to date, include the Bellanaboy gas terminal, a foul-smelling plant at Geesala to convert sewage into fertilizer and a proposed asbestos conversion plant outside Killala – such allegations fuel existing public skepticism about the impartiality, probity, accountability and independence of the planning process.

While the article questions the probity of the planning process itself, I suspect that the answer is more straightforward, though no less happy. Like the joke about the two people in the forest who encounter an angry bear and make a run for it. "Do you think we can outrun it?", asks the first. "I only have to outrun you", comes the reply. North Mayo has the misfortune of being a sparsely populated area. Which means that there are less people to protest against an incinerator, an asbestos recycling plant or whatever than in other parts of the country.

Posted by Monasette at 11:01 PM | Comments (1)

Live! Nude! Sheep!

Don't look back - it's the lambing season -these little guys are the first to be born without a price on their heads, due to the decoupling scheme. Won't increase their life expectancy, though.

The Galway Advertiser reports that the national sheep shearing championship will take place in Pearse Stadium on the June bank holiday weekend. At least the sounds of bawling sheep can't be any worse than the racket at the same time last year. And this time, it won't be the audience that gets fleeced…

Posted by Monasette at 11:00 PM | Comments (0)

By any means necessary

Unfortunately, like this wall, the kingdom of Kerry has held firm against western teams in the last few years. Maybe this year...

Unscrupulous characters are stealing ash trees in Clare and Limerick, according to the Sunday Times.

One Co Limerick farmer had 60 trees stolen one night. Another, Con Moloney, said he was shocked to discover that raiders had cut out the bottom of his 50-year-old ashes.
“It’s the last thing I expected to be stolen. You’d be watching out for mixers and hand tools, but not for a growing tree,” the Limerick farmer said.
“When I reported it to the gardai, they told me of two other cases, one in west Limerick and one in Co Clare.
“The trees were cut very specifically. Just about a metre and a half was taken and the rest left on the ground, so I knew instantly that hurleys were the only answer.”

Given that there aren't many hurley-makers in the country, it shouldn't take Hercule Poiret to solve this one. Ruthless criminals or pre-emptive strike? If there are any witness reports of a Cork-registered van driving around ash woods in Limerick or Clare, maybe it's a case of removing the opposition at source (getting your retaliation in early, like). Mind you, if that's the case, we better send a few Galway lads down to Kerry to do a bit of cattle-rustling to deprive the Kingdom of leather footballs. Might be our best hope of an all-Ireland…

Posted by Monasette at 10:59 PM | Comments (1)

Sugar Mountain

Season over for another year - a pile of sugar beet awaiting collection near Corcomroe Abbey in the Burren, Co. Clare.

There was plenty of mischievous comment when An Taoiseach declared himself to be a socialist (no doubt he spent some of his time during his recent trip to China denouncing bourgeoisie lackeys and capitalist running dogs ). The smaller partner in the current coalition government, the Progressive Democrats (PDs), are not known to be left-leaning so God knows what they really thought of his comments. Or maybe they're not sure themselves what exactly is a socialist.

Take Tom Parlon, for example. He is a PD Minister of State, with responsibility for the Office of Public Works. Two years ago, when Eamonn Gilmore (of the Labour Party) suggested that the government should intervene to forcibly reduce the price of building land (in order to cut the price of new houses), Tom blew a head gasket.

The provision of quality affordable housing to all citizens is the ultimate goal that the State wants to achieve, and I fully support that. But I believe that weakening private property rights as a means to achieve this goal would be a great mistake.
Such an approach is gift-wrapped in an ideology somewhere left of Stalin, which has no place in a modern dynamic open economy like Ireland.

Yes, that Stalin. I'm sure many younger citizens have only a hazy view of what Stalinism entailed. One of things that was in vogue during Stalin's reign were quotas for agricultural produce. An apparatchik would think of a ridiculous number that would represent the agricultural production target for the next five years, and all the farmers would pretend to achieve it. And of course the price would be guaranteed.

Sounds pretty crazy, eh? These days, in Europe there are still plenty of targets and quotas. However, instead of targets that no-one can meet (with hungry citizens as a result), the farmers of the EU have no problem reaching their targets, In fact, they produce far more than is needed. Since the produce receives a pre-determined and guaranteed price, over-supply doesn't automatically result in a reduced output in subsequent years.

Sugar production is a prime example. There are two ways of producing sugar - grow either sugar cane or sugar beet. Cane requires plenty of sunshine, and is grown in the Caribbean (an industry founded on the back of the worst excesses of the slave trade) and Brazil (the world's biggest producer of sugar). It's cheaper to produce than the alternative - sugar beet, which is a turnip-like vegetable (though it's in the same family as spinach). Napoleon directed large-scale planting of sugar beet at the beginning of the nineteenth century before he became unstuck at Waterloo, but the industry was subsequently developed by the Germans and soon, Europe, and later the United States, would become such large-scale producers that sugar beet accounts for about 40% of the total sugar production in the world today.

So how does one get sugar from beet. Well, the beet is chopped up, and mixed with hot water. The mush is pressed to extract a juice which has the non-sugar elements removed using a process called carbonation. The remaining sugary liquid is then evaporated, to purify the sugar content (in the same way that alcohol is repeatedly evaporated and condensed in the distillation process). This also causes plenty of steam. The resulting liquid is heated again and the growth of sugar crystals is induced. The resulting crystals are dried, resulting in sugar as we know it.

There are two reasons why sugar cane is cheaper than sugar beet to produce. One is that cane can be grown on the same ground over and over again, while beet requires a four-year rotation. The other is more obvious - beet is grown in the US and the EU where unit costs of labour and processing are many times higher than that of the cane producers in the other parts of the Americas. But since both the EU and the US heavily subsides their producers and use strict tariffs to prevent competition from cheaper imports, the industry continues to 'thrive'. However, the US isn't a major exporter of sugar, whereas the EU dumps over five million tons into the international market every year, depressing the market for developing countries. [Using 2002 figures, the average EU price paid per tonne for white (I.e. processed) sugar was 632 euro, when the world price was a more modest 184 euro per tonne].^

In fact, growing sugar is the most lucrative use of tilled agricultural land in Ireland (short of building houses on it), which is why so much of it is grown in Ireland (though it is only about one and a half percent of the overall European output). There is a historical reason too. After the War of Independence, Ireland was practically bankrupt, with agriculture as its principle industry. In an effort to reap the maximum benefit from agricultural output, a number of semi-state food processing companies were set up. Irish Sugar was one of them , with a number of sugar-processing factories built around the country (there was one in Tuam). [Another was a native alcohol industry - since closed- which was designed to use the surplus potato crop. The distillery in Cooley, Co. Louth, which produces Tyrconnell, Lockes and Kilbeggan whiskey was one such factory, and is still known locally as the alcohol factory]. These industries suffered badly as a result of an economic war between Ireland and its primary export partner, the UK, which was as one-sided as any David and Goliath contest where the lil'un turns up without a slingshot.

Irish Sugar was partially privatised in the late Eighties and renamed Greencore. The government retained a share in the new company because the quota that allows Ireland to produce any sugar beet is owned by the State, but devolved to Greencore, which has a monopoly on sugar production in Ireland. That situation is not unique to Ireland - in 8 EU countries, there is a monopoly, and across the EU, four corporations control 50% of sugar production.

Which is where we get back to Tom Parlon. Before he was a Progressive Democrat, he was president of the Irish Farmers Association, an organisation not known for its enthusiasm of the free market. Back in 2000, Greenshare (which represents the farmers that supply Greencore) had, along with the IFA, concluded a tough round of negotiations with Greencore on the price of beet. And their conclusion?

GreenShare will challenge the Department on the monopoly processing position of Irish Sugar and will raise the possibility of growers leasing facilities from the company to process their own beet in the same way that power and phones are dealt with under EU competition law.

While there is a certain irony in challenging the monopolistic tendency of one aspect of an industry that only exists due to monopoly, it seems like their challenge came to nought. And when Greencore decided to close one of their sugar beet processing factories in Carlow recently, Tom wailed every bit as loudly as the farmers who supplied the factory.

Y'see, there is another round of EU negotiations on the price of sugar coming up, and Tom is afraid that the closure might undermine Ireland's position. That position is to presumably string out the process of reducing the subsidy for as long as possible. And again, came the call 'to look at' the monopoly position of Greencore. Which won't happen either. Of course, we're all being told to cut down on our sugar intake anyway, for health reasons, so maybe an influx of cheap sugar is not such a good idea anyway. Maybe that's why Tom is against it - it's a principled position…

Another thing that Stalin had an interest in was decentralisation. For example, he decentralised the Chechens to…well, he just decentralised them, and the survivors have never forgotten it. Tom Parlon is less ambitious - he just want to send as many civil servants as possible west, and judging by their reaction, it might as well be Siberia. Such ingratitude.

Take the National Roads Authority, for example. Their new headquarters will be Ballinasloe, and yet hardly any of the workers want to move there, despite the fact that the planning stage of a motorway from Galway to Ballinasloe (and eventually connecting with the Dublin section at Kinnegad) is underway. Maybe they know how long it will really take to build.

The road building programme in Ireland is a costly and slow business, not least because it takes a long time to negotiate with the landowners and other objectors, many of whom are farmers. As Tom is such a firm believer in property rights, I'm sure he doesn't mind waiting. Actually, the landowners don't get much choice in the matter - the state can issue Compulsory Purchase Orders and take the land (a landowner can appeal, but if they lose the appeal, and they usually do, they must bear the legal cost of the State's lawyers as well as their own legal costs). Many of the delays come from other interested parties, such as An Taisce or other protest groups. And while I'd like a motorway as much as the next driver, it seems to me that with a bit careful planning, it's possible to build a road without burying precious antiquities or destroying areas of special environmental interest.

The Galway to Ballinasloe N6 motorway will be a public-private partnership**, which means that a private company will build it and pay for it by charging tolls to use it. This method has been tried before, most notably for the Westlink bridge in Dublin where the M50 motorway crosses the Liffey. There was a protest meeting a couple of weeks ago, led by Senator Shane Ross, who hopes to persuade the government to remove the toll booths from the bridge to speed up traffic***. You'd expect that Shane, as befits the business editor of the Sunday Independent, would be in favour of such private enterprise, but apparently not. Slows down the commuters too much, y'see. There is a buy-out clause in the contract between the toll operators (National Toll Roads) and the government, but it would cost about 400 million euro to buy out. Which is one hell of a subsidy for Dublin motorists. Funnily enough, four hundred million is roughly the cost of the Galway to Ballinasloe stretch of road* too - I know which one I'd rather choose.

^ Figures from Oxfam briefing paper "The Great EU Sugar Scam
" http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what_we_do/issues/trade/bp27_sugar.htm

* http://www.galway.ie/roads/n6_bsloe/news1.html
** http://www.nra.ie/PublicPrivatePartnership/ProjectTracker/N6GalwaytoEastBallinasloe/
*** http://www.shane-ross.ie/m50.htm

Posted by Monasette at 10:58 PM | Comments (1)

February 08, 2005

Sailing to Byzantium

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul claps its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
to the holy city of Byzantium.*

Like a petrified sea, the stone coastline at Tiraun Point** mimic the waves that have carved and polished them over millenia. Beyond this shore lies Inishkea North. Fifteen hundred years ago, purple dye was harvested from dog whelk for use in garments. The cost of extraction meant that only the most regal and noble (ok, the richest) could afford to such garments. According to Mary Mulvihill***, the Inishkea dyes coloured the garments of noblemen (and women too, no doubt) across Europe all the way to Byzantium itself (which the Celts had once conquered, almost a thousand years earlier)

* W. B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

** Mullet Peninsula, North Mayo.

***Ingenious Ireland.

Posted by Monasette at 10:33 PM | Comments (3)

February 03, 2005

Rock of ages

In hard rock terms, this is Lemmy from Motorhead - gneiss rock on Annagh Head, the Mullet, Co. Mayo.

When Ireland was a land of saints and scholars, monks travelled frequently between Ireland and the isolated islands of Scotland's north Atlantic coastline. When St. Brendan sailed across the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, the windswept land may have reminded him of his homeland - at least the western seaboard of Ireland that is continually battered by sea and wind. The learned monks may have noticed the similarity of the barren rocks in all three places but could hardly have imagined that the rock was, in fact all part of the same landmass. Or rather, it had been, about 600 million years ago.

When I arrived at Annagh Head, on the Mullet peninsula in north Mayo last Saturday, three young fishermen were carrying their rods back to the car. "What are you trying to catch ?", I asked as they filed through the stile separating the road from the coastal path. "Nothing - it was too rough", came the reply. (Notice how they didn't answer the question I asked - some fishermen are more secretive than gold prospectors). They were right about the sea - huge waves were breaking against the rock. It was 4.30 in the evening, the light was fading and the haze would soon turn to drizzle that would in turn to rain. Nevertheless, it is a spectacular scene. In the glow of twilight, the pink, oranges and other colours in the rocks seem to have an iridescent glow. And what rocks. There is no beach as such, just a huge jumble of rocks, some as big as small cars, strewn along the coastline. Welcome to pre-Cambrian Ireland.

If you look at the colour-coded geological map of Ireland designed by the Geological Survey, you'll see that most of the country is shaded blue, for limestone. You'll also see two stripes of pink, at opposite ends of the country - at the south-east tip in Leinster and the north west, covering Donegal and north Mayo. Pink is an appropriate colour, since it stands for a pink-tinged rock called gneiss. The longest, and oldest geological period, lasting from about four billion years ago to about 570 million years ago, is the pre Cambrian period. Gneiss is a metamorphic rock, which means that it was formed by a different rock being subjected to huge amounts of heat and pressure. The gneiss formed on the Mullet peninsula was probably formed from igneous and sedimentary rock, and you can see a small red patch on the Geological Survey that indicates a seam of granite (the Black Sod lighthouse is made of local granite).

If you played a tape back of the Earth say, about a billion years, you'd be about half way through when the solid blob of land that comprised all the landmass of the Earth began to separate and form continents (well, it you were playing the tape backwards, the continents would actually coalesce).* One particular patch of gneiss would drift off and bump into a bigger lump of rock called America. It's Celtic siblings, separated by what would become the North Atlantic, would help form the western isles of Scotland, part of Donegal and an island off the Mayo coast that has, much more recently, become a peninsula - the Mullet.

The gneiss of the north west is the oldest type of rock that you can find in Ireland. The rock in Annagh Head is 1,753 million years old, a shade younger than the gneiss at Inishtrahull, Donegal, that is 1,778 million year old.** I haven't been to the Donegal site yet, but it will be doing well to be as beautiful as Annagh Head.

* This is the theory of Continental Drift, proposed by Arthur Wegener
** Source: Mary Mulvihill - Ingenious Ireland

Posted by Monasette at 11:57 PM | Comments (0)

The Way We Live Now

Nothing sums up the glory of modern life in the west more than the front page of last week's Galway Advertiser. In the bottom corner was an advert for cosmetic surgery - a picture of generous cleavage with the tagline (across the aforementioned mammaries) - "The result might be a handful, but dealing with us is not". (Groan)

And in the middle of the page, a picture of Silver the Wonder Horse that will be the star attraction at the Bogman's Ball, on February 26 in Maam Cross. Well, maybe one of the star attractions. There was rumours that the single ladies who attended last year's event complained that there weren't enough bogmen about last year. This year, we are assured that there will be enough bogmen for everyone this year. As if this was a good thing. The whole event is in aid of Cancer Care West, though marrying one of the boggers might be a greater act of charity. There are still tickets left.

Posted by Monasette at 11:09 PM | Comments (0)