Cead Mile Failte !

A 'hundred thousand welcomes' to friends of all things Irish, organic, and environmentally friendly. I hope you enjoy my anecdotes and little vignettes. I appreciate comments. If you like it, why not become a follower? Click on Archive and then scroll down to the very bottom for the beginning of our story. Or see: http://Ioncehadafarminireland.blogspot.com/

Thursday, December 31, 2009

More animals and plants

Athblian shona duit! (Happy new year!)

The summer proceeded; our little farm set up grew by a beautiful hairy cat that looked like a grey-striped tiger. A neighbor’s kid that Amy had befriended brought her over. A farm needs a cat like a flower needs the rain. She was young and of the cuddly sort, not the independent kind that scratches and goes missing. We called her Wuschel. Together with Brandy, the dog, she lived in the sheds which we had cushioned with straw and presumably there were plenty of mice to catch. Growing up together made them friends or at least tolerate each other. Brandy didn’t like, however, when Wuschel went anywhere near his food.
The weather went back to normal. Occasional rain watered our little plants in the garden that we had first sown indoors into prepared trays of humus rich soil and then planted outside when they were a several inches tall: broccoli, peas, and carrots. Onions were planted next to the carrots. This symbiosis keeps the carrot fly away and bugs under control.
Since we didn't have our own veggies to eat yet that summer, I had to resort buying from the one little local shop. (We certainly didn't drive 20 km to the next bigger shop. A real supermarket like I knew from Germany opened only a few years later in Limerick- 20km away.) The broccoli they had there came from the USA and the spuds came from Cyprus. So much for Ireland being an agricultural country. No local little farmer produced veggies at that time--because they could "buy everything in the shops now" and also had the money for it in contrast to the old, pre-European Union days.
We looked hard for strawberries, although it was late in the planting season to get them started. Impossible to find as there was only one nursery in a radius of over many miles. “Where do you get the plants? Everybody loves strawberries.” The answer came from our housekeeper’s brother who helped out occasionally doing a painting job on the house. “You can’t buy them. Everybody has them in the garden. “ Then I learned that strawberries multiplied by producing layers running along the ground like tentacles which you have to cut off otherwise they run wild and take over. “Can I buy some?” “No need to pay. People will give them to you for free.”
“For free?”
“Sure, in fact deydumpim.” What? “Dey dump ‘em.” At this stage I need to explain that the local accent pronounces ‘th’ like a ‘d’ or a ‘t’. That clarified, I got a bucket full of layers for free no problem. The plants would only carry fruit in the following year. A local gardener sold Pick your own strawberries and redcurrants as well as raspberries from his garden. That kept us going in the first summer and also provided enough cuttings. These berries – i.e. their shrubs- grow from cuttings.
In the meantime, Amy made great progress at school. I had taught her my version of English which I had learned myself at university, and that was BBC or British Standard English. Her teachers, however, pronounced the ‘th’ in three like t. I heard her constant one-two-tree while skipping. A futile attempt to teach her otherwise. My teacher’s ears flinched but there was no convincing her. 33 remained tirty-tree for many years. Patrick remained silent and didn’t care one way or the other.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our River

The farm we bought had a km of a river without a name, about 10 feet wide, narrower in the summer and swollen during the winter. Well, in my view a brook really, but nobody used that term. The previous owners, an elderly couple that wanted to retire still had experienced salmon to swim upstream for hatching purposes. These people had no children, therefore sold the farm in order to move to a single-storey bungalow with all the mod-cons like central heating and no stairs to climb. (First thing I had done to the house was have a heating system installed when we took it over on a cold November day. While that was put in, I stayed in the hotel.)They must have been the hardy bunch to survive just on the kitchen based coal fired stove. The water heating stove in the dinigroom sent hot water up to the bathroom; heat of some kind but hardly enough for somebody who did not grow up accustomed to frosty windowpanes inside a room- like most Irish had. They were also responsible for the water pipes to be laid from the well to the house, meaning in their first years of marriage they carried buckets of water for hundreds of yards up and down hill.Ironically, they were of German extraction, their forebears came from Palatine in the late 1800's. Their family name in German meant "Miner". As we had downsized considerably from our new German home to this 3-bed house, we referred to it as the "Humble Miner's House" whereas for people in the village it was always the Big House. This was a term usually reserved for really big houses belonging to the Protestant gentry or (hated) English landowners.
Unfortunately, we never spotted any salmon in the river, only some little unidentified fish – but we were not knowledgeable in fishing anyway. The lowest point of our fields had a ford with stepping stones where you could walk through it for most of the year. The word ford still exists in ‘Oxford’ and in the German town’s name of Frankfurt.
A path wide enough for a tractor wended its way down from our house to the river through a big field. It was badly drained and couldn’t be used for grazing until we had draining done a year later. Cattle could get stuck in the mud there. Not pleasant for the rescuers either! For us it was the swampy field.
The by-product, however, was the most beautiful scene of thousands of yellow wild lilies or flaggers, as they are called in Ireland. At the end of May, I had a brainwave and thought I could sell them to the tiny flower shop that didn’t have much of a selection, mostly carnations and plastic wreaths for graves. The children and I picked arms full. By the time we put them into water up at the house, they started to shrivel as one-day creatures do. When Mac decided two years later to have drainage put into the field I quietly cried about the loss of wildflowers and the beautiful scene, sacrificing that to productivity.
Until a few years before we took over the farm, water of the river was connected to the mains and used in the village as drinking water. The pump house was still there but wasn’t serviced anymore since it had been taken out of use. The tap down by the school, however, was still working and supplying people who came to fill empty milk containers, gallons size.
I often sat by the little brook, listening to the gurgling noise of the water. A kind of mediation to ease my mind, communicate with nature, and take in the beauty of my new home- the move had not been totally of my free will.

Monday, December 14, 2009

As Right as Rain

A shortage of water in Ireland - sounds like an oxymoron? There is usually precipitation of some kind and degree every day. Or as the national weather man once forecast, “We don’t know exactly where and when, but we know it’s going to rain tomorrow,” to the utter amusement of our visitors. Indeed it does.
Our house like all other farms outside the village weren’t on the mains. Neither was the sewerage nor the effluent. As right as rain? That phrase never held much water until our well ran dry. The well, our own water supply, was located on the highest field on a little hill and came to our house through copper pipes and by gravity. It had not rained for almost 4 weeks. Water pressure began to decrease and finally was reduced to a dribble. The outside water basin was still full. That water was used for the animals, watering of our new plants and seedlings, and during the last days of the draught for our toilet. I carried about 4 buckets a day upstairs to the bathroom. For our own drinking purpose I went over to the neighbors with a kettle a couple of times a day. This predicament lasted only a few days, but repeated itself that August. More than 2 good weeks a year? Absolutely unheard of but true in 1990 and nobody wanted it that good…
Storing water in reservoirs was a novelty back then. There are 7 reservoirs now in Ireland: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_reservoirs_and_dams). The Water Service Act of 2007 was introduced for times of draught. As of 2010 households on public water schemes will have to pay for their water.
All villages and towns around Lough Derg let their run-off (household and farm) directly go into the lake. The first water treatment plant was built around 2003 in Mountshannon. The popular boating hub on the Shannon, Killaloe, and all tourists on their boats on the lake, discharged their effluents directly into the lake. (http://www.discoverloughderg.ie/MapZone).
From one extreme to the other. If you heard of the recent flooding, the worst in donkeys' years, please have a look at my favorite Irish picture blog done by Paz to get an impression: (http://www.irelandinpicture.net/2009/11/floods-in-galwaya-typical-irish-winter.html).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Brandy- not Whiskey

Before we knew it we had a dog. Every farm needs a dog, especially once you have sheep or cattle. Irish sheep dogs are bred for that purpose in particular, but ours turned out to be a mixture between Border collie and God knows what. The kids were delighted. Our promise of a dog had been a big incentive luring them into this adventure of emigration, something not easy to understand for little ones who had to leave behind their familiar surroundings and friends.
The pup was about 8 weeks old. We named her Brandy although she was more black and white than brown. “So, will the next one then be called Whiskey?”, the neighbor who gave her to us asked in true Irish humor. Brandy turned out to be an excellent watch dog and an expert at rounding up herds. A few months later that autumn, she already was pregnant with 11 puppies. That fertility continued over the years. We kept one of her first litter, Brownie, who became an expert football player, snatching the ball in real goalie fashion. She was useless with the animals however. Patrick loved to play football with Brownie though he found it not fair that she was better at it than him. “No wonder, she has 4 legs…” he groused. Brownie was a devil for following cars down the road attempting to bite their tires and was run over in the process twice. She would retreat to her dog house and not eat for a couple of days but then be at it again relentlessly- or shall I say stupidly?
May weather was beautiful and warm that year promising a long hot summer or so I thought. My enthusiasm was curtailed by the prevailing Irish wisdom, however, that “we only get 2 weeks of summer a year”. That’s it. But it was only May? Wait till you see. By the end of May I had unpacked most boxes and got ready for our first set of visitors. And we ran out of water….

Sunday, November 29, 2009

First Additions to the Family

Spring eventually arrived. To my surprise, the 1 May is the official start of summer in Ireland, in contrast to Germany where the equinox marks the beginning of summer. To my utter surprise later in the year, while I was still counting on some hot days in August, Ireland’s autumn begins on 1 August already.
Our daughter, Amy, 7, started school locally. She had been in Primary School in Germany while learning English for 6 months at home with me as her teacher. She was almost fluent by the time we arrived on the Irish shores. For our son, Patrick, 4, I found a little Montessori school, a very down to earth little place in comparison to the German Kindergarten he had left behind. My heart almost broke to see him there among other children who didn't speak his language. He had no inclination of learning English. “Why don’t they learn German, or Amy can translate?" So now for you!
Our family grew by four –lambs that is, Michelangelo, Donatello, Rafael and you guessed it- Leonardo. Don't think my kids were young art connoisseurs! That year "The Ninja Mutant Hero Turtles" were all the rage, however, and Amy and Patrick named the new arrivals after them. These 4 high-fallutingly named lambs were the starter of our herd that would eventually increase to about 100. We fenced the house garden area in with electric fence, carefully protecting the flowerbeds and shrubs. They liked to lie under a little weeping willow I had planted the summer before. They were also in charge of the old apple orchard, grazing to keep the grass down which allowed us to forgo buying a lawn mower. Not a bad thing in a country where you have to mow the lawn from February onwards. First, they had to be bottle-fed, however, for a week or so. Later in the summer, when they were stronger, the children had great fun trying to ride on them. Unfortunately, those fleeting moments weren’t caught on camera. Years later, when my kids mutated into teenagers, I called them the "Mutinous Hero Teenagers" in reference to their childhood pets. Those were the days....

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Trip to a Farmers' Market- a Déjà Vu

Yesterday I made a trip to one of the local so-called farmers’ markets that have sprouted in the area. During the week the local radio station had promoted it and others that are scattered all over the city. Where does this fashion-trend come from suddenly? They asked and uttered a caveat: Some produce had been sitting in Californian crates. I had to check it out.
A pleasant outing when the weather is dry and fresh –as opposed to Florida’s humidity in the summer. About 30 stalls were scattered in a park-like area. Mostly artists who made jewelry, dog collars, ceramics, shells-creations, soap vendors, a Gelato man, who was nowhere to be seen, however. Only the generator of his presumed ice-cream maker was purring, four sellers of reusable shopping bags and a weaver. Then there was one baker who allegedly had German breads. That had lured me there in the first place. Two stalls selling home-made jams and relishes. We found three stalls selling vegetables and I struck up my usual conversation. "Do you grow the veggies yourself?” Some did, others got it from other farmers nearby. None grew anything organically.
A good find at the end was a Mark who sold shrubs. He had a cardboard sign: Fresh eggs. Talking to him he said: Organic seems to be the latest! -Thank God, it finally found Florida! I started it over 20 years ago. He used the straw the chickens run or live on, including the manure, as fertilizer for his shrubs. “And we recycle the egg cartons”. I did too when we eventually had enough surplus to sell I produce as a Farmer’s wife including herbs, veggies, fruit and relishes. A veritable trip down memory lane….I went home, planted the arugula I bought and swore to nurse the remaining bell peppers still on the plant, but suffer from sinking temperatures at night and start losing their leaves.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fully Loaded- with Pesticides

In my last posting I mentioned that conventionally grown vegetables mostly retain more pesticides than organically grown counterparts. Here is a list of the top 10 foods containing the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C.
These 10 are considered high-pesticide foods: strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, peaches, Mexican cantaloupes, celery, apples, apricots, and green beans. For more information and possible substitutes that contain less pesticides but make for tasty alternatives check out this website:
Whether you base your planting decisions on this list undoubtedly depends on the planting area available to you and the climate you are in. At the least, it may influence your produce purchasing decisions. If you can’t buy everything organic because it is too expensive, this list helps to set priorities.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Humble Spud

Potatoes were high on our planting list because homegrown ones, organic potatoes do taste different to conventionally grown ones. There is no scientific evidence I can quote, only the anecdotal one. They taste like when you were a child…like real potatoes. Conventionally grown potatoes are full of nitrates resulting from high use of artificial fertilizers that make them grow faster, produce more water in the potato, however, and that waters down the taste. Same is true for mushrooms.
The weather picked up a little bit after Easter so that the Plow & Harrow job, eventually, got completed. I would have planted the first row of potatoes there and then; however, I wasn't the farmer, only newly transformed into a "farmer's" wife. The next step before successful planting was getting a cultivator to rake through the still pretty big and rough ground, generally loosen it up and aerate it, and then rake it. There was still a lot of grass left in the soil because the ground had always been grassland, never cultivated.
If you don't own a cultivator and don't want to spend hundreds of $, tool rentals are happy to take your money, although you never know what you get at a rental place. Ours clearly had some problems. It was self-propelled and ran away with Mac. Many drops of sweat were shed until the joke broke down about 1 hour into the booked rental time. The shop was 30 minutes away; a substitute was procured eventually and the job continued, although not finished before closing hours. It being a Saturday and closing time early, this added another day to our bill as we could return it only the following Monday.
But now the ground was properly prepared. I can only advise to choose a day during the week and test the rental in the shop! We all got down on our knees to help planting the potatoes. Well, the farmer had a tool for it, called potato planter which ‘himself’ was wielding, a manual one. Not unlike your post pole diggers. You open it up like a tong and put one potato in, then close the tong which places the potato in the ground. You pull out the planter and repeat the process. One potato makes one plant which will yield up to dozens spuds. It is more useful for light soil and can do damage to the potatoes, however. For commercial use, there are huge machines available.
Potatoes need to go in about a spade deep, growing well in acid soil with a PH over 4.6. Originating from South America, they don’t like it too cold or too wet. So you want to wait until the frost is over- or take a gamble. Any frost will kill the leaves and further growth unless you protect them with straw or a polyester tunnel. Not being too familiar with the Irish weather yet –when is one ever? - And in order to get started, we took the risk and were lucky.
Potatoes need to be covered by about 8-10 cm of soil which is later heaped up into neat little rows. John Seymour recommends a good shovel of compost per foot. We had no compost here yet- we did have it in suburban Germany- but figured the quality of our soil would be good enough since the grassland had never been used for growing vegetables before. In contrast to later ones, the early potatoes cannot be stored. How to store them? I’ll tell you later.
What next? Which vegetables to go for after the quintessential, omnipresent yet undervalued spud?

Monday, November 9, 2009

11/9: The Fall of the Berlin Wall- 20 years ago

Apologies if I digress one more time; I'll get on with the farming life without delay, promised!
But this historical landmark just happened before our move to Ireland and the political situation in Germany in the years before had influenced our decision to escape to Ireland.

Ask any American where they were on 9/11, they will now. On 9 Nov, 1989 I was physically absent from Germany, was on a 2 weeks’ vacation playing golf in Tunisia by myself. I was also mentally elsewhere for the months leading up to the events because I had life changing drama going on in my own little world. We were on the cusp of emigrating to Ireland in early 1990. A decision favored and initiated by my then husband, me only willy-nilly supporting the idea and undergoing therapy to get used to this involuntary change in our lifestyle. My now Ex and his mother stayed back in Germany minding our 2 and 5 year olds so that this mother could recharge her batteries and find some peace in herself.
The resort of Port –El-Cantao provided enough distraction, sun, beach, food, and golf. My hotel didn’t have a TV in the room and this was during pre Internet days. What I gleaned from the news in the noisy lounge bar was unfathomable: Hungarian and Czechoslovakian borders had opened to let Eastern Germans leave their country. Calling my husband back in the Fatherland, he was equally doubtful. We both watched developments anxiously. Mrs. Thatcher would rather give up Northern Ireland and let it reunite with Ireland than that the Soviets would tolerate this insurrection and not intervene, was our reasoning. They had done that before in Prague in 1968 and suppressing Hungarian liberation attempts in 1956. Another evening, I fearfully suggested to come home directly to have the family back together at least.
“Let’s watch on TV if there are Russian troop movements, you from there in Tunisia, and we from here. If they are sending tanks west, don't bother to come back to Germany -then it’s time to reconvene in Ireland“, our new home where we had bought a farm a few years back and to which we would move soon in 1990. Maybe sooner now....“The Americans won’t just stand by and watch on.” It had all the trimmings of an escalation. In the 80s, we felt like living on a powder keg during the armament race during the Cold War anyway. That had led us into buying the escapist farm.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Obama Allotment

The previous piece of Irish news below obviously doesn’t carry the same importance here in the USA as when the Obama’s dig up a patch of their south lawn in March to plant veggies, for the first time at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II. Not only has it provided healthy vegetables for the first family but also educated the nation’s kids (or at least a selected bunch of them) about health living, healthy food and the connection to a greener environment as well as the joy one derives from harvesting one’s own, at a time when obesity has become a national concern and rows for food stamps become longer by the week. For me it’s the political and environmental symbolism that counts. The plots were in raised beds fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises helped control harmful bugs.
If you followed the news there, the crop was plenty.
And I'd veture to say Michelle's applaudable enterprise furthered many causes, organic and healthwise.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Allotments back in fashion

On a weekly news round-up "Out of Ireland" that I'm watching here in the US regularly to keep up to date with my former country, I saw a report yesterday on the growing popularity of allotments. Enniskerry started this at the beginning of the year, converting fields into little patches of a few square meters for people who are worried where their veggies are coming from, what insecticides etc. are used on them, or the sheer price of them. Interesting- like back in the old days when people were so poor they had to grow their own. Or is it just happening because the Celtic Tiger is hibernating or comatose?

People who had never seeded anything before were surprised and delighted at the outcome. How easy it was. Nothing like your own grown carrots or potatoes. They taste different. The educational aspect was a joy to see - how parents got involved with their kids in this little project. The autumn crop was good and they were planting winter vegetables like cabbage now.

Enniskerry started off with ca. 50, now had 180 and expects to extend this program. Well done, Enniskerry! Close to my heart and home, I lived in Bray, both in Co. Wicklow, until I moved to the States.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Plow and Harrow –not a Pub but the Beginning of Husbandry

April is high time to get the land ready for planting. St. Patrick’s Day in March is often like a hallmark where the weather gods show some signs of benevolence. Alas, that first spring when we moved to Ireland was particularly inclement, cold and wet, so that the plowing for our vegetable patch remained in the planning stages for a while. It was particularly late in the year to get early potatoes in the ground. My Ex (he has a name, but let’s call him Mac), designed the layout of the vegetable garden with great care according to John Seymour’s suggestions regarding which vegetables go well together, e.g. , carrots and onions. This is important to know for crop rotation and minimizing bug infestations. We bought seed potatoes that had sprouted already at the creamery (i.e. farmers’ supply & feed store where small farmers also take their milk each day. Big farmers have their milk picked up by a dairy truck). Normally you can save money and make potatoes sprout yourself by leaving them in a warm place in the house. For convenience sake and in order to guarantee a big enough yield, he opted to plant in rows of 50 m in a corner of a sun facing wide open field adjacent to the garden below the house. It had a gate already for easy access from the road. At the moment, the field was grassland and needed to be plowed before we could seed or plant anything. He had bought a plow and harrow during earlier visits which he wanted to use with one of the two tractors we had schlepped over. I kept myself busy with unpacking the truckload full of moving boxes and setting up the house. Eventually the big day came where he would try to plow, the Saturday before Easter which happened to be his 40th birthday. My idea of a big birthday bash in Germany had been thwarted by his deliberate choice of moving day. Instead he spent the day huddled on an ancient tractor in a rainproof wax jacket jacket and a green woolly Aran cap.First the tractor didn’t start. We hauled it into the village for the local garage to have a look at it. I had never towed anything, never mind a tractor on narrow country roads. When that was fixed, several attempts to turn the naturally heavy, fertile soil failed because the land was still to sodden for the old plow. The afternoon had well progressed when the enterprise was aborted because the light snow flakes –unusual for this time of year- came down thick. Mac stood next to the tractor, smoking a fag, cursing, when a car on the road stopped. Out stepped Phil, the local builder, currently making big bucks in the UK. He was on his way to Mass in his fineries when he saw Mac’s predicament. Maybe stopped out of curiosity. We knew him, because he had fixed our chimney earlier in the year, not totally satisfactorily and there had been a dispute about it.Nevertheless, he climbed over the gate and walked on the wet furrows in his Sunday shoes. Having grown up on a farm, he must have known something that Mac didn’t because he managed to turn the remaining rows within an hour, just before dark. We invited him in for whiskey as a thank you and warm up. He took the glass standing in the doorway, soaked, on account of his shoes being clogged with earth and then preceded to church.I had hoped to follow a German tradition later that evening, the Easter bonfire, to say farewell to winter, but the wood I had gathered was too wet to ignite or burn. Instead I invited the neighbors and their four children to come over for a drink. They sat on our sofas like organ pipes, uncomfortable at small talk, but we toasted the birthday boy. So much for a 40th birthday party which our family and friends in Germany had anticipated. Our adventure was about to begin.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Big Move

We arrived on April Fool’s Day. Actually, it was April 2 when the kids and I made it over by plane. However, nomen est omen! (The name itself is an omen)
My Ex had traveled ahead with his Jeep and a tractor in tow. A beautiful Deutz 54. “Almost the vintage of my wife”, he used to joke. For an interesting viewing of this machine see: http://www.15er-deutz.de/http:/www.15er-deutz.de/. There had been two prior trips to haul over farm machinery that he had bought in Germany, a combine harvester and a threshing machine. The threshing machine was an enormous monstrosity, impractical to maneuver long distance, across the Irish Sea, and on narrow Irish country roads. But it was cheap and it might come in handy, you never know; if not as an actual tool, at least for the agricultural farm museum he was planning. My Ex was a hoarder (pack rat).
In order to handle it, it had to be dismantled. It was a 3-day job for an experienced farm machinery serviceman who was in his 70s. He had worked on these things all his life and his son had many years of experience under his belt too. Two pictures of the joke were taken to be sure to know how to re-assemble the machine in Ireland. And off it went on its emigrational journey.
I’m not giving the punch line away, but you can imagine it was never put together again. This Humpty-Dumpty was either too tricky or too big, parts were either badly marked and nobody around who had seen this type of thresher and worked on it. Or it was outright cheaper to rent a modern one when the time came. Starting the farm and keeping it running as a one man band kept its owner too busy anyway.
An 18-wheeler or articulated truck with all our belongings arrived a few days later at the farm. It had done the 200km journey from the port in Rosslare twice, because the driver failed to have the proper transport papers signed. We waited yet another day in an almost empty house. The huge truck blocked the country road for a full day while we unloaded. Whenever a car tried to pass, the truck driver had to jiggle it a few yards backwards and then forwards again. The neighborhood took to us from the start…

Monday, October 5, 2009

Haunted Houses

This is not a blog about ghosts but with Halloween coming up, I can’t refrain from telling this true one.
Ghost stories stand and fall with the trustworthiness of the person who vouches she knows it on good authority. And that in Ireland is usually the friend of a cousin once removed.
Leaving Killaloe, where we purchased our abode, on the road to Scarriff, there is a 2-story stone house on the left hand side. Its dark bare windows give the property an abandoned, foreboding look while the huge front lawn is always meticulously mown and the landscaping simple but well kept. In full view in front of the downstairs windows are several beautiful specimens of truly blue hydrangea bushes. These caught my eye while we were still farm hunting.

I wondered whether it was for sale because it was obviously empty, but I didn’t dare to walk up to the door and find out. The farm buildings belonging to this house are across the road. A huge sycamore tree towers over everything at the roadside gate, the tree trunk protected by heavy steel bars. I wondered what the obviously expensive enclosure was about.

Pauline, the guarantor of this story, my one time housekeeper and later friend, who likes a good yarn but is generally a reliable person, told me about the drama behind this house. She is, by the way, the grand niece of the Irish freedom fighter and hero Michael Collins.
In 1923, the times of the troubles, when Ireland was torn by a civil war, there lived a family of five who were IRA supporters. One dark night when all were in bed, there was terrible knocking of rifles on the door. It was the Black and Tans, the most feared and vicious British brigade, that all but terrorized local communities. Their primary task was to make Ireland hell for the rebels to live in. They meant business. Suspecting traitors in this house, they broke down the door, and killed the whole family bar a son of 9 years of age who manage to scramble out during the bedlam. He stole away and hid across the road in a tall tree, which saved his life. As the only survivor, he takes care of house and lawn and protects the tree in memory of the tragedy that befell his family.
Is the house haunted? Yes, everybody knows that and well, what do you expect after so many killings? Could I talk to the owner? No, he is a bit funny in the head, has never been the same since.
While we didn’t buy that house, I drove by it regularly, and each time couldn’t help remembering the horror that occurred in such a peaceful rural area.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ghost Stories

Well, the ghosts...! It's amazing how many haunted houses there seem to be if you start looking for them. Another estate agent (in Co. Meath) told us wild stories about his vast experience with haunted houses the minute he detected the interest of my Ex in these matters: moving furniture, creaking floorboards, and the chill in the rooms, etc. The usual. Co. Meath seemed to be particularly ghostridden. Since we were genuinely interested in one particular farm, we stopped by the neighbors to suss them out. The farmer's wife, a mother of 5, doubled as a school teacher. We reckoned she had her head screwed on the right way and wasn't into make-believe as such. No, there were no ghosts. Not anymore anyway since Father Gogarty had said mass there. So now for you! A little cottage down the road, abandoned for donkey's years but not in disrepair, sits looming on a curve in the road. An Irish friend, Sheila, explained to me that she saw Little People there at night sometimes when she came home late around midnight. Maybe a case of too much of the brown stuff? Doing my research for this blogs and all things Irish, I stumbled across a book with the title "The Lively Ghosts of Ireland," published 1967, by a German sounding Hans Holzer, an American, however, who traveled to the Green Isle regularly for research on haunted houses. What they often have in common is a tragic death that befell somebody in or around the house. And Ireland history with its 800 year long occupation and subjugation is full of tragic stories.Holzer's psychic travelling companion sometimes is able to set the ghost at ease, to send them home or lay them to peace. Marvelous. The interest in ghost lore -like in UFO's- never ceases. As a regular reader of the Skeptic Inquirer, I see that a lot of debunking is still being done in that magazine and needs to be done. I'll have a real haunted house story for you the next time. With real ghosts in our new home town...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farms including forges, ballroom sized bedrooms and ghosts

We viewed farms that seemed to have good land and where the price was right. Talking to locals and neighbors became an eye-opener. Over a pint of Guinness, we stumbled over little secrets not mentioned in the advertisements. A mansion in Co. Wicklow was appealing to the eye with huge ballroom sized bedrooms, high stucco ceilings, and chandeliers. It had a beautiful, curving staircase with mahogany banisters to slide down on. The caretaker refused to accompany us in and show it from the inside, because it had a ghost. That, however, only increased its appeal to my Ex, “Think of its touristy value!” It gave me the creeps. The Irish are fond of ghosts, leprechauns, Little People, and other manifestations of the Irish spirit. The local banker confirmed the ghost’s existence. However, during the conversation he let slip that some acreage was useless due to flooding in the spring just when one wants to sow.
My Ex fell in love with a place situated on a lake that had its own mill, forge, and power station. It also had about 15 rooms, some cracked windowpanes and miles of gutters that needed replacing. While it would have been an opportunity to run the house as a Bed & Breakfast in addition to the farming enterprise, I could visualize Himself pottering about fixing the place up for years to come. I pointed out the costs for central heating. Oh, there wasn’t any yet, we could install it gradually. Thankfully, this particular gem of real estate – like most property in Ireland − was sold by auction and we were outbid.
Farms high up on hills were too windswept for certain crops and vulnerable in storms. Others had big and functioning outbuildings but the yards were too mucky for my taste.
At the end of our second reconnaissance trip, after an exhausting day and almost disillusioned, we found what we were looking for. The farm was located in a beauty spot near Lough Derg in Co. Tipperary, also within easy reach of Limerick, a university town, and Shannon Airport. From here tourists start their boat trips on the lake up the Shannon. Situated on a small hill, a pink house nestled under protective old trees, mostly beech and ash, and it had a very clean yard. I didn’t get out of the car because my 10 month old was asleep on my lap. “Check it out what it’s like inside and I can settle for it.”
The price was right and it could be rented to interested neighbors until we were to make the big final move. Until then the property yielded a good return on our investment and we could use it for vacations. Take a glimpse: (http://www.irelandinpicture.net/2009/05/boreens-and-backroads.html). It resembles our little boreen, down to hedgerows of flowering whitethorn and grass growing in the middle of the road.
Now we had a farm but we weren’t yet farmers. Not just yet.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Location, Location, Location

As any realtor will tell you, this is not a troll’s truism regardless of what type of property you are looking for. Searching for a suitable piece of land, our choice was influenced by a couple of criteria. For my Ex, the soon to be farmer, it was the quality of the land. For me it was the accessibility. Obviously farms are in rural areas and this city girl wanted to be within a reasonable driving distance of a city, schools, and airport, not totally in the sticks. For the farmer, it had to be good arable land which is considered to be suitable for any type of farming whatever you go into. We were looking for more than the aforementioned 5 acres, which according to the Seymour-Bible, were enough to sustain a family.
Soil conditions in Ireland vary considerably. The midlands have the richest, most fertile conditions. This is the region to grow grains, an indicator for its quality. Farm prices reflected this fact. The further north you go (Clare, Galway, Sligo, or westwards towards Kerry) the land becomes stonier and less suitable for multipurpose agriculture. While the countryside is beautiful with its dry stone walls, i.e. without mortar, the ground becomes stonier too. The walls, by the way, were erected by laborers in previous centuries that picked up the stones from the fields. They stacked them up into walls that created fences and boundaries around fields. Labor was cheap in those days.
We traveled pretty much all over the country, starting off on the East coast in Dublin. Heading west, the rolling countryside of Co. Kildare, home to stud farms, was very lush but unaffordable. Farm value is calculated per acre. If there is a house on it, it’s thrown into the bargain. So it was an extra bonus if the house was livable or even in move-in condition.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A sneak peek of topics

What you will find here in the next few weeks about our endeavors:
-Location: how to choose your land wisely; water supply; fencing
-grow veggies in crop rotation: cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, eggplants, cucumbers
-raising and plucking chickens and geese; organic feeds
-dealing with weeds and pests
-composting; kindling and firewood; making hay
-calves, calving, lambing
-AI (Artficial insemination); children and the facts of life
-making preserves, jams and tomato ketchup; freezing
-dealing with abundance
-growing mushrooms
-homebrew; baking bread
-recycling, and many more topics as they come up.
I will not endeavor to teach you how to harness a horse, milk a cow, slaughter an ox, cure a ham, salt beef, brew beer, churn butter, press cheese, keep bees, track game, set a snare, bat a hook, skin a rabbit, sink a well, build a barn, mend a wall, fire bricks, dress stone, spin flax, coil pots, weave a basket, thatch a roof, construct an oven make fuel, generate light, harness the wind. We didn't get round to that! (All of that can be studied in Seymour's books), but "follow the seasons, respect the land, reap the harvest, waste nothing, stay healthy and live well."
“We are intended by nature to be diverse, to do diverse things, to have many skills.” (John Seymour). So get ready.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Getting started

Coming from a city in Western Germany, my big concern was that self-sufficiency –farming meant going back to a lower standard of life. The idea and my ex’s expectation, however, was that it enhanced it: by growing and consuming our own produce, by harvesting the fruit of our land and hands. We didn’t know that it would also take up most of our waking hours and continuously occupy our thoughts caring and worrying about animals that depend on you; that even the weather would become a major concern to us.
In Ireland, they called us organics, alternative life-stylers ‘the Birkenstock wearing , muesli munching crowd.’ Wellies or Wellington boots were more practical though, given the climate conditions.
Before you make the big move and opt out of the rat race and become a back –to- the-lander, you may want to experiment and practice a little on a smaller scale. Convert a big ornamental planter into your first herb garden, dig up a patch of lawn at the end of your back yard (the front stretch might offend your neighbors), convert a flowerbed into a vegetable patch, or turn a piece of ugly waste land near the garden shed into something productive. Allotments used to be popular in the olden days, often of economic hardship and as a getaway for city dwellers.
If you live in suburbia, as I do now, you should check with your CDD or HOA. I’ve seen rooftops verdant with beanstalks, zucchinis, and tomatoes. You want to check the weight capacity of your roof though. If you really want to grow your own, you’ll find a way. When we bought our farm in the West of Ireland in the 80s, our cattle raising and dairy producing neighbor proudly announced, “We don’t have to go to all that trouble anymore. We used to do that when we were poor. Now we can buy fruit and vegetables in the shop.” I’m proud to say, within 2 years of watching us, she had parsley and strawberries going successfully.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The self-sufficiency guru

John Seymour, the guru of self-sufficiency, was then a man in his 70s when we stumbled across his books that changed our lives. On one of his trips between Germany and Ireland, hauling over some farm machinery, my Ex visited John on his farm in Killowen, Co. Wexford and had tea with him. He came back impressed about the set-up, how well it worked, how relaxed and unpretentious the old gentleman was, etc. What impressed him most, I guess, was the fact that John had a girl-friend/partner who was at least 30 years his junior. Hence his fervour for organic farming? Who was first, the chicken or the egg?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I once had a Farm in Ireland

Memories of that previous life are still vivid in my head as if it was yesterday, although not in cinematographic ochre and amber but all shades of green. Ireland is high on the list of many tourists who wish to visit it for its scenery, folklore, and the “Million Welcomes” of its people. It is also the country many Americans trace their roots back to and longingly dream of. Farming is a life style and never ending work. Farming can be somebody’s dream –as it was for my ex− and the nightmare of others.
Interested in farming, producing your own produce and foods, and an alternative lifestyle? This column of an ex- farmer’s wife (or is it farmer’s ex wife?) can shine some light on life on the farm through anecdotes of her previous experience introducing organic farming to rural Ireland.
We’re talking Irish farms here, not American multi thousand acre agricultural operations. We’re talking self-sufficiency. Ours had 127 acres. (For city dwellers: 1 acre=4,840 sq. yd.) For Irish and organic farming standards this is a big chunk of land.
How does one get into it? Either you inherit it or dream of living “the good life”. With the current recession, job losses, and stock and property markets crash investment advisors these days recommend to invest into gold and diamonds – or farming. At least grow your own vegetables.
In my case it was the danger of another environmental disaster after Chernobyl in 1986, and the nuclear threat was motivation enough for us to opt out of the rat race and get started. After Chernobyl, in Germany fall out levels were dangerously high. The government discouraged people to feed milk to their children, and our new Geiger counter measured excessive radiation levels in our children’s sandbox. Ireland had escaped almost unscathed due to the prevailing weather pattern in the 2 weeks after the disaster in Ukraine. That was it for us. If some of this sounds vaguely familiar to you and resonates with current developments in an increasingly environmentally challenged and endangered world, you may want to read on.
Another driving factor was a book that topped the bestseller list in Germany in 1980: John Seymour, Self-sufficiency on the Farm: The classic guide for realists and dreamers. It became our bible. My ex had no background in farming. He learned what he needed to know from this story-book look-alike that contains specific instructions and cute drawings. Invaluable advice also came from a friendly elderly neighbor, a life-long farm laborer who scratched his head watching our humble attempts at farming.
So here’s what you need: a little nest egg, or preferably a biggish pocket book, or better still an inheritance to buy yourself into farming , Seymour’s book maybe, and enthusiasm; in fact tons of it. Throw in a dose of practical realism with your dreams and you can farm away.
According to this bible, you need about 5 acres. Small is not only beautiful but is also viable. If you can still lay your hands on a copy: (New-Complete-Book-Self-Sufficiency). Also see Seymour’s Killowen Smallholding project at http://www.self-sufficiency.net).
With farming you step back in time; something that a shopper at popular farmers’ markets doesn’t necessarily realize. A life close to nature awaits you. You work with your hands, are exposed to the elements, and you bond with your animals, as well as your neighbors whose help and advice you’ll learn to cherish. You synchronize your life with the sun −some even with the moon (http://www.biodynamics.com/biodynamics.html). You will experience life and death from close up and will value clement weather and the peace that surrounds you. Coming from Western Germany, the sticks of Ireland were a huge change and culture shock for me. In spite of recent the mega changes occurring in Ireland commercially, also known as the heydays of the Celtic Tiger, rural Ireland remains widely untouched.
Farming keeps you on your toes around the clock –literally. We only achieved part of Seymour’s self-sufficiency (and skipped the tool and furniture making): We farmed, grew our own vegetables −more than we could eat. You can grow everything yourself, weather and climate permitting. Having previously cut our meat consumption to a minimum whilst living in the city, we raised our own meat. Organic food in the early 80s was still in its infancy and buying it not really an option. On the farm we had chickens, geese, pigs, and cows. Naturally organic. Otherwise we couldn’t be bothered and it is the more viable option to make the enterprise profitable. I baked our own bread and cakes- after grinding the wheat.
For almost 10 years, we nearly killed ourselves producing healthy food.