Public Consultation on the implementation of the UNECE Aarhus Convention in Ireland

If you care about democracy this is important.

Clearing Clutter - the ramblings of an environmental activist

“The Department of the Communications, Climate Action and Environment invites comments from interested parties on the implementation in Ireland of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (known as the Aarhus Convention) in Ireland.

A draft National Implementation Report 2017 has been prepared and comments on this draft are now invited in accordance with the recommendations of the Aarhus Convention secretariat. It is an edited, updated version of the previous first National Implementation Report for Ireland, which was completed in 2014. ”

This is worth some of your time if you value collaboration and the publication right to information and participation.
You can find out all about it here

Please feel free to share this, make a submission and encourage others. We need to shape how governments do collaboration.

Theresa O’Donohoe September…

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Community vs Individualism

The post from Felicity Sidnel about cohousing that I re-blogged recently reminded me of something I read whilst researching the Irish famine of 1845-51. Prior to this traumatic event there existed in parts of the North West of the island a system of communal land occupation and cultivation known as rundale. It had remained unchanged for many centuries¹. It continued even though legal ownership of the land might be vested in a landlord with ties to the British mainland.

The people resided in a cluster of homes called a clachan. The adjacent land radiated out from the cluster and was farmed communally. The right to grow crops on individual plots rotated among the members so that each had the opportunity to use the best land. In some such communities plots were re-assigned every 3 or 4 years by the casting of lots.

Not that any of the land could be described as ‘good’ by comparison with the fertile soils of the Midlands and South East of the island. It was, however, capable of producing crops of oats and barley or rye, as well as grazing cattle. These uses would be rotated around the plots, the period when a plot was used for grazing providing a chance for the soil to regenerate, assisted by the manure deposited by the animals.

Cattle grazing uplands. © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Cattle grazing uplands. © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In many clachan‘s, it was common practice to take the animals to high ground, beyond the cultivated fields, to graze uplands that were incapable of being tilled. In some cases families would have a second, albeit rudimentary, home in the hills for summer occupation by younger members in charge of the herd. In my readings about rundale, I have yet to discover what their diet consisted of in this period. I can imagine they might have taken a supply of oats with them. I think it probable, also, that they would have cooked and eaten edible wild plants such as dandelion and nettle. They may even have caught and cooked small wild animals like rabbits, squirrels and hares.

Open field

Rundale has some similarities to the system of open field cultivation practiced right across Britain and Europe from medieval times. A key difference is that at the centre of each open field community was the manor house. The rest of the community were subservient to the Lord of the Manor. Otherwise, the rotation of holdings and of crops between plots was the same. The plots, however, took the form of long, narrow, strips. This system continued in some parts of Europe until late in the nineteenth century. In mainland Britain it ended with the enclosure movement which gained popularity with landlords (though not necessarily with the peasantry) throughout the eighteenth century.

In the West of Ireland, the arrival of the potato changed this pattern. The potato is a highly nutritious food that is easy to grow on poor soil so long as manure and/or seaweed is available to feed the plants. Such reliance on a single crop was, however, dangerous. There were failures of the crop in some years before 1845. The famines that accompanied such failures were short-lived because potatoes were grown in sufficient quantities the next year.

Repeated crop failure

It was repeated failures of the potato crop over a five year period that created the circumstances in which the Great Famine happened. By then, the same pressures that led to the enclosure movement in England were in operation in Ireland also. Rundale was being replaced by the re-allocation of land to single family holdings.

It is debatable whether such communal systems of agriculture are more or less efficient than single farm holdings. One factor that is very clear is that community based systems like rundale and the open field system are highly regulated. There may not have been a Lord of the Manor to manage the rotation of crops and the allocation of plots in rundale. There was, however, a hierarchy with a leader known as An Ri, or King. It was this man who supervised the casting of lots and organised such communal tasks as the mending of fences.

There is evidence that rundale continued in use in at least one Mayo parish until the end of the twentieth century. The open field system is still practiced in the Nottinghamshire parish of Laxton in England.


A typical cohousing development. copyright UK Cohousing Network
A typical cohousing development. copyright UK Cohousing Network

How do either compare to cohousing as described in Feicity Sidnel’s post? According to the website of the UK Cohousing network “Most cohousing communities have a common house, with shared facilities such as cooking and dining spaces, meeting and playing areas, laundries and guest rooms. Shared outside space for childrens’ play, parties and food growing (my emphasis) can feature in a cohousing project.” This is in addition to individual homes.

However, “The community is governed in a non hierarchical way.” But the item goes on to point out that: “Some communities also require residents to undertake a set number of hours work for the community.” Suggesting that a degree of regulation is needed, just as in rundale and the open field system.

¹Not everyone agrees about the origin of rundale. See Yager, Tom. “What Was Rundale and Where Did It Come From?Béaloideas 70 (2002): 153-86. Web.

Co-Housing and Community – Guest Post…

I lived for a while in the 1970s in a “co-ownership” development. That differed considerably from the concept described in Felicity Sidnel’s guest post on The Story Reading Ape’s blog and at It did mean that residents had to communicate because they were jointly responsible for maintenance.
I also recall the co-operative Giroscope in Hull ( which employed previously unemployed workers to renovate dilapidated houses for their own use.
All private housing developments in Ireland include public spaces and care and maintenance of these is the responsibility of a residents’ association rather than the local authority as would be the case in the UK.
Judging by the contents of the website I linked to above, Co-Housing is a growing trend in the UK. Both the UK and Ireland need more housing to meet increasing demand. And there needs to be a lot more affordable housing. How far initiatives like this can go towards solving the problem remains to be seen. The same difficulties – planning controls, funding – have to be overcome.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog


In this age of immediate connections though the ubiquitous i-phone, Facebook and other media, many people still long for “real community”.

A documentary on the radio today investigated co-housing, an experiment in community living. There are hundreds of projects currently up and running in North America. The particular subject of this programme, was the Harbourside Co-housing for Seniors, in Sooke British Columbia. Denmark first developed this concept in the 1960’s, but now there are many projects of different longevities, and more currently in development, in Europe, the UK, New Zealand, USA and Canada, among others.

Are these the descendants of the nineteenth century Utopian dreams that so often ended in disaster if they got beyond the pages of a book? The founders and members of the co-housing movement are careful to address practicalities. So far they seem to be remarkably successful, proceeding through a long and careful preparation period which…

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Inconceivable Realities: Writing of Past Horrors

Horror is a popular genre. Fantasies involving zombies, mummies or vampires are as widely read today as they ever were in the past. But history is filled with real horrors. Which raises the question: is it ever possible for a novel to do justice to real life horrors such as The Great Irish Famine?

Part of my research for my novel set in the period of the Irish famine of 1845-51 has consisted of reading a massive volume entitled Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine.

Produced in 2012 by Cork University Press, it is a monumental work, consisting of a series of essays by academics, that seeks to analyse the events of that period from the perspective of a geographer. That is not to say that geography is the sole perspective of the book, but it is, as the title suggests, the dominant one.

By studying census returns from before and after the famine, alongside a range of other documents, the authors seek to establish the extent to which each part of the island was effected. The proportion of population lost to death and migration in each of the four provinces and, within those provinces, in example parishes, is exposed to detailed examination.

Simple memorial to those who died in Abbeyleix workhouse, The author’s photograph

At the same time it attempts to place the events in a political, religious and social context with, for example, detailed descriptions of the Poor Law Unions and workhouses. It quotes extensively from contemporary eye-witness accounts. Its examination of the mass migrations that took place during the period does not stop at conditions in the vessels that carried the human cargo. It provides detailed accounts of the immediate destinations and subsequent dispersal within mainland Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Among the 58 contributors is Chris Morash who was, at the time of publication, head of the Department of English at NUI Maynooth. He is now Vice-Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. In an essay near the end of the book, Morash discusses the difficulty of portraying such events as the famine in fiction. He cites an essay by Stephen Marcus. Writing in 1963, Marcus noted a similarity between writing about the Irish famine and accounts of the concentration camps at the end of World War II. “Reality,” he asserted “had grown so monstrous that human consciousness could scarcely conceive or apprehend it.” He adds that “however mad, wild, or grotesque art may seem to be, it can never touch or approach the madness of reality.”

Picasso’s “Guernica”: grotesque art attempting to depict the reality of war


The writer of fiction about this period, according to Morash, is trapped between two irreconcilable difficulties: if he or she concentrates on the suffering of one individual, or a small group of related individuals, there is a danger that the scale of what took place is overlooked. On the other hand, any attempt to illuminate the scale of suffering runs the risk of failing to give due weight to individual circumstances. And the scale of the 1845-51 famine is such that there could not have been any one of the 8 million citizens living on the Island in 1845 who was not touched directly by what occurred.

Moreover, there were many more in mainland Britain and further afield who knew what was happening, from accounts published in newspapers and magazines of the time, and, in the case of politicians and bureaucrats in a position to influence the turn of events, from reports sent in by officials on the ground.

During the course of the past year or so I have read several novels that contain accounts of either World War I or II. Among them was Judy Picoult’s The Story Teller which contains harrowing descriptions of the treatment of Polish Jews by the Nazis. The narrative concentrates on the life of one young woman and her family, but the scale of the events is made clear by her encounters with others and her progress from relative normality in prewar Gdansk, through small humiliations, to forced removal to the ghetto where the family struggles to survive before being separated and transported to a series of concentration camps. Such events, which were the day-to-day experience of millions in 1940s Europe, certainly fall into the category of ‘inconceivable reality’ identified by Marcus.

My present reading, aside from famine research, is Glory, Rachel Billington’s 2015 novel set partly in Gallipoli in 1915. It includes episodes in the English country house home of a senior officer drafted out of retirement to participate in the ill-fated British and Commonwealth invasion of Turkey. Military hospitals in Egypt and Malta also feature.

Horrific scenes

The horrific scenes of death and injury on the battlefield are offset by the comparative normality of village life in early twentieth century England. But, inevitably, normality at home is disrupted, too, with the family seat converted into a convalescent home for injured soldiers. Once again we are in the realms of ‘inconceivable reality’, both in terms of the horrors experienced by the men at the front, the nurses in the hospitals, and the crass stupidity of the politicians and generals who utterly failed to see the folly of the enterprise.

In her portrayals of the upper classes in World War I England, and the contrast evident with the ordinary working people who volunteered out of a sense of patriotism and, in the case of many young officers, a desire for adventure, she brings to life a world – that of my grand-parents – often romanticised through such literary flotsam as Downton Abbey but in which the reality was far harsher than we can imagine.

That, then, is the task I face in my attempt to craft a novel set in a period of history which has cast a long dark shadow over the British Isles. As I see it at this early stage of development, my central character’s journey must match that of Jody Picoult’s heroine, whilst the context follows a similar path to Rachel Billington’s novel in its attempt to portray both the big picture, including, as it must, the indifference of politicians and officials, alongside the personal suffering.

If reading fantasy horrors, watching zombie movies, or, indeed, the horrors of modern warfare shown nightly on our television screens, dulls our senses, then it is surely the duty of the writer of historical fiction to remind readers of the real horrors endured by ordinary people. We have to make the unimaginable real if we have any hope of ending the indifference, born of a lack of empathy, that made those times so much worse than they needed to have been.

The Trouble with Grammar Schools

Early in 1952 I took, and passed, an examination generally referred to as 11+. This was the method by which pupils were selected for a grammar school education. It supposedly indicated that I had a higher than average intelligence quotient. In the whole of Herefordshire

Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral

there were only two grammar schools for boys, not counting the highly specialised Cathedral Choir School – Hereford High School and Kington Grammar (There were also grammar schools for girls). Both were geographically isolated from our home in the hills above the Golden Valley in the south west of the county.

This presented my mother with a dilemma: daily travel to Hereford would involve a 2½ mile walk to the nearest bus stop and the same in reverse. Alternatively she would have to find a family in Hereford with whom I could lodge Monday through Thursday. Uniforms were another problem for someone subsisting on a war widow’s pension. Her search for alternatives took her to Reed’s School, a boarding establishment in Surrey.

Originally founded in 1813 by Andrew Reed the school had begun if as an orphanage in the East End of London and may well have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ ‘Dootheboys Hall’. By the 1950s it had re-located to Surrey and offered a grammar school education to boys who had lost at least one parent. In the 1950s that meant that most of its pupils were, like me, the sons of men killed in World War Two.

There were approximately 150 of us, aged 11-16, with a small sixth form. It is important to remember that back then less than 10% of young people went to university1; there simply were not enough places. Boys and girls wishing to enter the professions often learned ‘on the job’, continuing their formal education via ‘day release’ – an agreement with their employer to allow them one day off each week to attend college to study for an appropriate qualification. They might also attend evening classes.

Narrow curriculum

In the 1950s, Oxford and  Cambridge and a handful of others were the only third level options available in the UK.
In the 1950s, Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of others were the only third level options available in the UK.

Even among the select few who attended grammar schools, most left at 16 having taken the General Certificate of Education (GCE) at ‘Ordinary’ level. Only a handful continued on in the sixth form for the two years it took to study to Advanced level standard, the minimum requirement for university entrance. In my school the available subjects for study was quite narrow. This was a feature of the small size of school. It was neither practical nor possible to employ sufficient teachers to cover a wide range of subjects.

I and most of my cohort took only 8 subjects at ‘O’ level from a possible choice of 10.

Jump forward 30 years to the second half of the 1980s and I am a County Councillor in an area with a population in excess of 800,000, responsible for a large number of schools and colleges. In four years I met many teachers and education administrators, as well as other local politicians, the majority of whom were opposed to selection. During that period the Council embarked on the re-organisation of the schools in one of the urban centres in the county, a process that led to a great deal of debate and discussion centred on the importance of school size in order to achieve a satisfactory range of educational experiences for the pupils. There was, as well, a lot of debate about the importance of providing the opportunity for every pupil to develop his or her full potential. There was then, and there remains, a broad consensus that the comprehensive system is better able to meet both criteria than is a system in which the most academically gifted pupils and teachers are segregated from the rest.

In the 1950s the cleverest pupils – the ones that went on to university – had a very limited range of options available to them. A narrow curriculum at secondary school was not seen as a disadvantage. Given the diverse range of careers available to graduates today, and the equally vast array of third level courses in universities, it does seem to me essential that schools are able to offer a broad range of subjects capable of developing an equally wide range of skills among their pupils. The best comprehensive schools do just that.


Meanwhile Reed’s School has become a fairly exclusive private school that still maintains around 60 places for ‘Fundationers’, children from single parent and similarly disadvantaged households. The fees paid by the 600 or so private pupils, most of whom are day boys and girls from the immediate neighbourhood, help to fund the education offered to foundationers who are enabled to enjoy a broad curriculum with some specialisation. The tennis training it provides was made famous by Tim Henman. The school also offers excellent tuition in music and in Design and Technology. As an ex-pupil I am pleased to see my old school go from strength to strength but I have serious reservations abut its exclusivity.

  1. For university education participation rates see: Education: Historical statistics,Standard Note: SN/SG/4252 Last updated: 27 November 2012. Author: Paul Bolton, Social & General Statistics

Five Top Benefits Of Being A Mature Age Author

I like this post from Australian author Robin Storey. The only quarrel I have with it is her suggestion that ladies of ‘mature age’ still wear Crimplene. Maybe they do down there in the antipodes. I don’t know anyone who does among my contemporaries in the British Isles.

“With Queen Elizabeth turning 90 recently and still looking pretty spry, it got me thinking that one of the secrets to healthy aging has to be a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the mornings. In the case of the Queen, she has commitments – speeches to make, buildings to open, medals to give out. And hundreds, often thousands of people would be put out if she pulled the covers over her head and refused to get out of bed because her arthritis/lumbago/gammy hip was giving her trouble.

The challenge for many people after they retire from the workforce is to keep active and fill their days with challenging and worthwhile activities; otherwise it’s a short slide into a twilight of daytime TV, curtain twitching and writing daily irate Letters to the Editor.

From that point of view there are many advantages to being a mature age author.”

If you want to know what they are you’ll have to click through to Robin’s original post.

Terror and Liberalism: a book review

Should we be worried? (My answer is at the end of this post)
Should we be worried? (My answer is at the end of this post)

A few days ago one of my Facebook friends shared a meme that listed all the towns and cities in Britain that have Muslim mayors. The clear message was that this is a trend that ought to worry us. I thought of that message whilst reading Paul Berman’s 2004 polemic Terror and Liberalism. He has a lot to say about the complacency of Liberals and their failure to recognise the true nature of past manifestations of totalitarianism.

It is, he acknowledges, easy, perhaps too easy, to attribute the actions of Islamist terrorists to some rational cause. A reaction, perhaps, to injustices inflicted by Western capitalist exploitation. Berman contends that the rise of Islamism is not that simple. Instead, it is yet another manifestation of the totalitarianism that was thought to have come to an end with the fall of the Berlin wall and the spread of democracy into Eastern Europe.

His book traces the history of totalitarian movements throughout the 20th century. The Fascists in Italy, Spain and Germany; the Communists in Russia and its post-WW2 satellites; in China, South East Asia and North Korea. All are characterised by the insistence that the ideology espoused by the state must be maintained at all costs. Millions of lives are sacrificed in pursuit of the establishment of a worldwide system of control.

Liberal democracy stands against such single-mindedness, insisting on freedom of thought, speech and religion, and respect for the rights of others. No single religion or ideology is permitted to have excessive influence over the state. Elections, parliaments with two or more houses, strong opposition parties able to resist unpopular policies, all ensure that the people are governed by consent. It’s not perfect, often subject to the influence of special interest groups, but debate and dissent are permitted, even encouraged. Most importantly, there is total separation between state and Church.

In Britain and Ireland, the two jurisdictions with which I am most familiar, this separation dates back to the years after the English civil war in the mid-17th century. But it is a debate that is much older. Henry II’s dispute with arch-bishop Becket, in the 12th century, was about the most appropriate distribution of power between the Church and the king. The king believed that his will was supreme within his realm. Becket insisted that the king should defer to the Pope. Although Becket was murdered for his views, he won the argument and Henry made penance and sought the Pope’s forgiveness.

Berman cites a number of Islamist texts in support of his argument that it is a totalitarian philosophy, determined to spread a pure form of Islam across the world. A fundamental aspect of this form of Islam is that religion is an integral part of the state and that religious laws are the only laws permitted to prevail. For the true follower of a totalitarian philosophy the greatest honour to which one can aspire is to kill and be killed in the struggle to achieve this objective. That, according to Berman is the only explanation for Islamic terrorism. It is no use looking for rational explanations for the guiding belief is completely irrational.

The book was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and revised shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq which Berman supported for reasons very different from those given by lying politicians like G W Bush and Tony Blair. He believed then, and apparently still believes, that it was necessary because Saddam Hussein was a dictator who exhibited the same totalitarian behaviour as the Fascist and Communist dictators of the past. His hope was that the removal of Saddam would provide an opportunity for democracy to take hold in Iraq. The evidence of the years that have elapsed since the invasion suggests that the opposite happened – the totalitarian Islamist tendency, in the shape of ISIS, has been the gainer. There is little sign of democracy arriving in Iraq or in any of a raft of Middle Eastern countries.

Five years ago, the so-called Arab Spring, with the overthrow of dictators like Qaddafi, might once have been looked upon as a triumph for democracy. Again, however, the result is escalating civil strife in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and, of course, Syria and Iraq.

I googled around to try to see what Berman has had to say about these events and found surprisingly little. His most recent article concerns the French ban of the ‘burqini’ (now lifted). There is one other thing I need to say about this book and its author. My googling revealed many admirers and a few detractors. Most of the latter argue that because he is a Jew, nothing he says about the Middle East can be trusted.

It is not Berman’s Jewishness that ought to concern us. Of far greater importance is his liberalism, a philosophy that I share. Somehow we have to find a way to further the idea contained in his final two sentences: “… freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for freedom for others.”

It is in that spirit that we should respond to the idea that a handful of the people holding elected office in British local authorities are Muslim. We should be proud that it is more than 120 years since the first Asian was elected to the British House of Commons. He was, after all, a member of the Liberal Party.