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1 Nov 2010

The Environmental Movement in Ireland: a postscript

I have just been looking at the online version (which is pretty restrictive, but you get the general idea) of Liam Leonard’s new book ‘The Environmental Movement in Ireland’.  It offers a very well researched overview of the evolution of the green movement politically in Ireland, the rise of protest culture through campaigns such as The Glen of the Downs roads protest, the Rossport 5 and the various anti-incineration and anti-nuclear campaigns.  As such, it is a very detailed and comprehensive look at those aspects of the green presence in Ireland, but it strikes me that one key part of that story is missing.  So far as I could tell, there is nothing that documents the movement that was developing in parallel which focused on solutions, on practically modelling solutions, often at great personal and financial cost.  This morning then, I want to take a stab at what that chapter might have included.

Of course one of the dangers of writing history is the people that you leave out, so I apologise in advance, by its very nature I am scrabbling about in my memory here and this is by no means an attempt to be exhaustive, but from my memories of the period 1996-2005, here are some of the people I think should such a history should record (apologies also for the fact that this is inevitably a pretty Munster-based selection…).  There are the permaculture pioneers, the people who were teaching permaculture up and down the country, often using their own evolving sites as their classroom: Marcus McCabe in Clones, Richard Webb, Graham Strouts in West Cork, Philip Allen in Belfast, Dominic Waldron, the straw mulch man, Klaus Hauschild, and John Dolan, the pond wizard.

In the media there were people who pushed this whole thing forward too, getting stories about what was going on into the mainstream media.  There were the various publications, Don Coughlan’s The Source, which didn’t make it beyond a few editions but was great while it lasted, Sustainability Magazine which also recently stopped publishing, Construct Ireland which has done a huge amount to spread green building ideas in Ireland.  There were the broadcasters, Duncan Stewart who has made very influential environmental programmes for years, George Lee who made ‘Future Shock’ for RTE about peak oil, and writers such as Iva Pocock and Adrienne Murphy who got stories into the press about these things from early on.

There were the ‘Monsanto 6’ who pulled up the first Monsanto trial crops in Ireland, John Seymour, Gavin Harte, Pauric Cannon, Davie Philip, Adrienne Murphy and Richard Roche, who ended up not being prosecuted. Also, in terms of food, and pushing for looking at food in a different way, organisations such as the Dublin Food Co-op were years ahead of their time, and writer and cook Darina Allen has done a huge amount to push the idea of local food in the Irish mainstream.  The Irish Seed Savers have done amazing work protecting the country’s genetic heritage and making it available again to growers.  Madeline McKeever in West Cork is now doing similar things, selling local heirloom seed varieties. Dominick Cullnane ran the Mallow Garden Festival for some years and created a very high profile space for many innovative ‘green’ businesses and craftspeople to read a wider audience.

Then there are the building and construction pioneers.  Architects like Brian O’Brien and Mike Haslam of Solearth Architects, designers of The Village in Cloughjordan and green building pioneers at a time when nobody knew what they were on about.  Other architects, such as Paul Leech, Sally Starbuck, Tony Cohu, Rachel Bevan, who were bringing ideas about sustainability into their work at a time when the national push was for as much construction built as cheaply as possible, usually using concrete blocks.  There are the pioneers of different natural building approaches, Marcus and Kate McCabe who built Ireland’s first strawbale house and are now great hemp advocates, the many timber framers up and down the country who tried to break concrete’s stranglehold, the people who learnt cob building, often at The Hollies, and went on to do it in other places.  There’s The Village project, many of whose members have been involved since 1997, and only now, 13 years later, are actually building their houses.  It is a project that is the embodiment of tenacity and patience.

Brian Rogers, Sligo’s last master thatcher, who has done so much to keep that art alive, and Dan McPolin of Narrow Water Lime Services, who first got me fired about about lime. Christy Collard and Saul Mosbacher introduced the chainsaw into construction, bringing the concept of the reciprocal frame roof forward with each new construction. There was the then Mary O’Donnell (since divorced and I forget her new surname) who did an amazing job in the mid-90s trying to build a methane biodigestor near Skibbereen that would have used local slurry to power a swimming pool and ice rink, many years ahead of her time, and came very close to realising it.  Quentin Gargan and Clare Watson who, among other great work promoting renewable energy and running for political office among other things, built a very well researched and gorgeous strawbale house.

There were those who pushed for a new way of looking at Ireland’s woodlands, for a move away from monocultural forestry to  a more diverse and productive approach.  Jacinta French and Paul McCormick started experimenting with growing nut trees in West Cork, and Mike Collard, whose Future Forests nursery has been a huge catalyst for the planting of broadleaf trees and more unusual productive trees (as well as for the idea that chainsaws can do a lot more than just cut down trees).  Joe Gowran and Mark Wilson’s ‘Coppice Association of Ireland’ did great work promoting the idea of coppicing, and Ted Cooke reconnected people to their cultural connection to the forest through story and through experience.  Ian Wright and the Irish National Forestry Foundation created, at Manch, a series of demonstration trials to show the potential of broadleaves in Irish forestry.  Then there was the woodland survey work that An Tasice did, pushed forward in West Cork by Jacqi Hodgson, Tony Cohu, Joyce Russell and others.

There were the educators too.  Sonairte in Meath was one of the first environmental education centres in the country, as was The Ark Permaculture Centre in Clones, Co. Monaghan.  There are the organic colleges, An T-Ionad Glas Centre for Organic Education and the Organic Centre in Rossinver, as well as the pioneers within the universities, such as Tipperary Institute, one of the first off the block in terms of weaving sustainability into their courses through the work of people such as Seamus Hoyne and Kevin Healion.  There’s Dr. Anne B Ryan at NUI Maynooth, who has researched and published on the whole notion of ‘enough’.  There is the permaculture course at Kinsale Further Education College, started due to the vision of its Principal, John Thuellier, and the ongoing training work done at The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability by Thomas and Ulrike Riedmuller and others.

There were those who argued for treating waste water in a different ways, promoting the idea of composting systems and of reed bed construction, Marcus McCabe, Feidhlim Harty, Olan Herr, John Dolan, often found up to their knees in water, but who did much to shift the idea that the septic tank is king.  Who can forget Marcus McCabe, at a conference in Dublin full of planners and architects, passing a bucket round the audience containing the well-composted output from his family’s bucket toilet system?  There were the economists, people who argued that the financial path being pursued by Ireland in its Celtic Tiger boom was unsustainable, in particular Richard Douthwaite, the only person mentioned here who does get a mention in Liam Leonard’s book.  The pioneers of the early local currency experiments in the country, both LETS schemes and printed currencies.  And of course Dr. Colin Campbell, the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, who gave talks up and down Ireland, and whose presentations to the Irish treasury led to his nickname of ‘Dr Death’.

And then finally of course, there are the networkers, the people who connected all the bits together.  Davie Philip, networker par excellence, initially with Caoimhin Woods, who put on the Convergence Festival every year as a way of networking and building a movement, and who has provided an extraordinary service to it ever since.  They produced the ‘Source Book’, the country’s first green directory, which subsequently moved online.  There are, of course, many many people I have forgotten or never heard of who should be in here.

I think that the work of these, and other pioneers, should not be forgotten in any history of the environmental movement in Ireland.  Of course such a movement needs the campaigners, those who lobby politicians, who mobilise campaigns against environmentally disastrous projects.  But there are also the stories of the pioneers, the craftspeople trying to retain and promote traditional crafts, the people who have often taken great financial risks and leaps into the unknown because they felt that certain things had to be done, allowing those who came after to learn as much from their failures as from their successes.  With the Celtic Tiger well and truly now unravelled, and Ireland staring into a very uncertain future, it may be that much of the work of those mentioned above is finally coming into its own, and deserves to take its place in the history books.

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1 Nov 9:58pm

“And of course Dr. Colin Campbell, the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, who gave talks up and down Ireland, and whose presentations to the Irish treasury led to his nickname of ‘Dr Death’.”

er- I think that should be “Dr. Doom”. Things aren’t quite that bad you know!
Nice review Rob!

2 Nov 7:56am

Ah well spotted Graham! I had in my mind “was it ‘Death’ or ‘Doom’… backwards and forwards… in the end I opted for Death… ah well… thanks for that…

3 Nov 1:14am

Thanks for that Rob, you have an extraordinary memory.

In many ways the folks you mention here were at the forefront of a sustainability movement in Ireland, most never called themselves environmentalists. That is probably why Liam Leonard missed them and of course missed you and the emergence of Transition.


Liam Leonard
6 Nov 2:57am

Why don’t you go to the considerable effort of writing your own book? Mine was never a name dropping exercise, it was something I wanted to avoid.
The campaigns I coverd in my book were chosen specifically becase of their success in mobilizing beyond parochial groups or clicks into actual movements with local, national and global links. This is clearly stated in the opening chapters, if you’ve read it,

8 Nov 11:49am

Dear Liam,
I didn’t mean this post to be a criticism of your book, which I’m sure is well-researched and an excellent analysis of its subject (although at £108 a copy the online contents and index is probably as close as many of us will get to reading it). Of course there is a huge amount to be learnt from analysis of the important campaigns that you look at here. I have indeed been to the ‘considerable effort’ of writing a book, and I entirely appreciate what it entails, and am not in any sense denigrating that.

My point was that I think that while all that you discuss was taking place, there was also another very important process, a movement if you like, taking place in parallel, which rather than being ‘parochial’ and ‘cliques’ is, in my opinion, another fascinating and important strand to the story you, no doubt very eloquently, tell in your book. I felt it important to honour and acknowledge that part of the story too, as it is all too often forgotten. I’m sorry if you read that as a criticism of your work, which wasn’t the intention.