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As you will have discovered if you have been following my ‘Monday Memories’ series I have, throughout my adult life, done stuff other than paid work. There are hundreds of organisations without which much of what we take for granted in our communities would simply disappear. Every one of them depends on people giving their time and talents free of charge. So I was delighted to see Sally Cronin’s blog post yesterday in which she extolled the virtues of volunteering. If you didn’t see it on her site, here is a link.
Sally included a link to the website that acts as a ‘clearing house’ for voluntary organisations in the UK. My ‘Monday Memory‘ yesterday included one to Volunteer Ireland. Wherever you live in the world, entering ‘volunteering’ into a search engine will take you to a host of opportunities from which you can choose one that suits you.
The shabby treatment meted out by the UK government to migrants who came from the Carribean and elsewhere in the years following World War II and worked for decades has dropped out of the headlines. I recently came across another example of a group of people who, despite having dedicated their lives to serving the UK government were, nevertheless, denied the right of permanent residence in the country for which they were prepared to risk their lives. In this case, the policy was changed thanks to the intervention of a well known and loved actor.
What has this to do with the good news that #WATWB is dedicated to spreading? Quite simply because it forms the background to the heart warming story to which I am inking today. A story that, for me, illustrates the sentiment of the Welsh anthem “We’ll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside” and, with it, the importance of welcoming all comers where ever they are from and where ever we are.
It’s quite long and comes from Wales on line.
Have you got a good news story to share with the world? Here’s how to join in:
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3. No story is too big or small, as long as it Goes Beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://cohousing.org.uk/what-cohousing. It did mean that residents had to communicate because they were jointly responsible for maintenance.
I also recall the co-operative Giroscope in Hull (http://self-help-housing.org/case-studies/case-study-1/) 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.
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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Many people who have retired from full time employment find renewed fulfillment by volunteering their time and skills to organisations working to improve their local communities. Everything from running a “meals on wheels” service to maintaining flower beds in your local shopping centre can be done by volunteers.
Are you approaching retirement and wondering how to fill your time? Or maybe you are retired already and starting to suffer from “cabin fever”. Have you considered volunteering? There are lots of organisations that involve people like you providing services for others. Some of them are near you.
What do volunteers do?
Maybe you want to let people benefit from the specialist skills you developed over a long career in a profession. Many organisations need legal or financial advice, for example. Most have volunteer management committees for whom such administrative skills are vital.
Perhaps you could teach art or craft to people with a disability, or computer skills to people in your own age group who have yet to discover the magic of internet communications. Assuming you are still able bodied, you might consider helping people much older than yourself with simple “DIY” tasks like basic plumbing, gardening or decorating.
Do you see retirement as an opportunity to do something completely different? You could decide that, after years of sitting behind a desk or computer screen, you would like to work outdoors. Your local “Tidy Towns” or “Britain in Bloom” group will welcome you as a part-time gardener.
These are just a few examples. The truth is that whatever you fancy doing, the chances are there’s an organisation near you that needs it doing!
How much will I have to do?
None of these organisations will ask you to do more than you are willing to do. Most will provide support and training. What they will expect in return is a commitment to turn up at the agreed time, with the agreed frequency, and to provide as much notice as possible if you can’t. Always remember that other people – often vulnerable people – are dependent upon you. So commitment is the important thing, not the amount of time you put in. Whether you’ve agreed to do 2 hours or 10, weekly or monthly, you must be prepared to stick to that.
What will I get out of it?
By its very nature, volunteering does not offer financial rewards. For retired people, it’s much more about continuing to feel useful after the world of work has dispensed with your services. Volunteers, and the work they do, are highly thought of in their communities. You will meet new people with a shared interest and enjoy a reinvigorated social life. And although you won’t be paid, you shouldn’t be out of pocket as most organisations will refund expenses necessarily incurred whilst volunteering for them.
How do I find an organisation that involves volunteers?
Within the United Kingdom voluntary activities are co-ordinated by separate agencies covering each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, Volunteer Centres Ireland maintains a database of organisations and helps with recruitment, selection and training.
It’s a good idea to buy and read your local newspaper. Such publications often print stories about voluntary and community groups in their area. And the groups use such opportunities to appeal for new volunteers. Parish magazines also often list contact details of the voluntary groups working in and around their district.
What restrictions are there?
Anyone who plans to work with vulnerable people – and that includes the very young and the elderly – will need to undergo a DBS check (the new name for a criminal record check in the UK) or Garda vetting (RoI). All of the standard health and safety rules that apply to paid staff also apply to volunteers. You can expect to be provided with training to enable you to recognise, and deal with, any such risks that may be encountered.
Talking of risks, the biggest risk you are likely to face in retirement is boredom. So why not go for it? Volunteer today. You won’t regret it. If you are already a volunteer please share your experience in the comments.