When my son Dáire was in primary school, he took to it like a fish to water.
Now he is 21 years old. But I still have a display in my attic (now my off-campus workplace since COVID!) of a number of his Origami creations (geometric shapes, birds and frogs) that he made when he was 10, 11 and 12 years of age.
Tom's Origami hands-on workshops at the annual Galway Science and Technology Festival Sunday Fair on the campus of NUI Galway were always a big visitor attraction. Lets hope that they return in November of this year at a post-COVID festival!
Calling all Graduates of NUI Galway. Vote Mike Jennings in next week's elections for the university's Governing Authority.
On October 29th, President Michael D. Higgins gave a powerful thought-provoking speech to an online (via Webex) meeting of people of all ages drawn from a wide strata of local society on why the movement towards transforming Galway into a National Park City is so crucial at this particular time in human history due to unprecedented Climate Change, biodiversity loss and pandemics, and why it can be a template for other cities in Ireland to follow. His talk was followed by presentations from Dan Raven Ellison, a visionary campaigner who led the successful drive to establish London as world's first National Park City; and from Kathryn Tierney, policy coordinator at the Directorate General Environment of the European Commission involved in the EU’s radical new growth strategy known as the ‘Green Deal’ with its key principles of circular economy, wildlife protection, zero pollution, clean energy, net greenhouse emissions by 2050 with funding being made available towards research, business innovation and community transition. So impressed are all three by what is happening in Galway that President Higgins agreed to become this new movement’s official patron; Dan to be its mentor; Kathryn to be its champion at EU level; whilst Duncan Stewart, Ireland’s most well-known environmentalist, is its national champion.
So what is meant by ‘Galway National Park City’ and why has it so excited these four luminaries?
The aim of this new pioneering initiative is to make our urban environment more healthier, sustainable, harmonious, beautiful, equitable with biodiversity-rich environments of quality green and blue spaces where people value, benefit from, and are strongly connected to the rest of Nature.
Over eighty (and more to follow) individuals and their respective organisations have started to come together over the last few weeks to help facilitate this process. They will form a steering committee representing the widest possible cross-section of backgrounds, professions and sectors of Galway society including education, community, health, medical, arts, environment, youth, engineering, corporate business, small business, crafts, residential neighbourhoods, scouting, direct provision, marine, waterways protection, renewable energies, makers/repairers, cycling advocacy, walking advocacy, life sciences, data science, social sciences, media, heritage, animal welfare, ecology, and urban farming. Each of these persons have in their own professional and volunteering fields been undertaking or coordinating incredible projects in their workplaces, schools, communities and neighbourhoods, sometimes over many years, to enhance and care for the city’s unique natural heritage and to help others to benefit from it. Much of the activities of these local champions often takes place without the wider general public being aware of it. The National Park City initiative will help join up and promote their activities, provide a city-wide approach and inspire others from all of the different sectors to follow suit.
A series of local speakers from diverse backgrounds outlined at the launch some of the current environmental and sustainability activities that they are involved in. SAP staff have transformed, with support from Friends of Merlin Woods, a large sterile green lawn into a lush wildflower meadow at their HQ in Parkmore, the first such conversion within a business park in the region; NUI Galway is implementing a campus wide all-embracing consultative Sustainability Strategy; residents and management at the Eglinton Direct Provision Centre have implemented organic gardening and upcycling programmes; students and staff at Galway Community College have planted a woodland, and developed compost, reuse and recycling projects; Claire Lillis, R&D manager at Aerogen, showcased a video on the Connemara Greenway that demonstrated its economic, social and environmental benefits; John O’Sullivan introduced ‘EcoEd4All’, a new Galway-piloted conservation course for Transition Year students that is being rolled out to schools nationwide; Anne Murray explained how the 2019 Galway Science and Technology Festival was the largest ever event held in Ireland on Climate Change involving businesses, NGOs, schools and colleges; Ríonach Uí Néill guided participants through the ‘Drowned Galway’ outdoor arts mural trail; and Conor Ruane gave an overview of the Galway-Roscommon Local Authority Community Waters programme.
The fact that this important gathering took place online demonstrates why a united approach is needed to transform Galway to meet the challenges that now face us in a rapidly changing world. A virus, an entity smaller than a human cell, had in a matter of a few weeks brought the most powerful species on the planet to its knees. The coronavirus pandemic is just another symptom(one of many) of humanity’s abuse of nature that is increasingly coming back to haunt us. As President Higgins said at the meeting, mankind stands at a precipice and needs to combine its individual/sectoral talents, and work together like never before in a unity of purpose to come up with solutions to the catastrophic that we have put ourselves in.
This may seem too overwhelming a task for a few thousand citizens of a small city on the western edge of Europe. But we should not underestimate ourselves. For if we combine ingenuity with a common sense practical approach by ‘thinking Global and acting Local’, we can make a significant contribution to positive change. This is what the National Park City Galway is all about.
Over last few months, the natural world came to our aid and gave us clues to what is required to turn things around. In our time of crisis, when we were confined to our homes and locality, the parks on our doorstep that many of us never actually visited before, characterised by the sights and sounds of bees and birds that we never noticed or heard before, became our place of refuge and our outdoor gym providing a ‘green prescription’ for our physical and mental health. Galwegians in unprecedented numbers took to walking, cycling, and growing organic vegetables, herbs and fruits as well as in helping neighbours through a renewed spirit of ‘Meitheal’. We also began to repair home appliances and recycle materials that we may have previously thrown out. Some of us gave a whole new lease of life to old laptops by installing new free open-source software, so that they could be used by school students who desperately required them for the new online education that was suddenly thrust upon them.
Without realising it, we were answering the call from the higher echelons of the United Nations and the European Union to transition from a linear (take, make and waste) economy to a circular economy.
Galway is strategically placed both in human and natural resources to become a world leader in sustainability and environmental repair. Surrounded by ocean, rivers, lakes, mountains, bogs and green landscapes, we can be a global centre for renewable energies, organic farming, green tourism, restoration of natural habitats and carbon retention. But we are also blessed with a creative arts and crafts sector; a vibrant community and environmental sector; a location for some of the world’s leading biomedical corporations whose products are saving lives, and IT companies whose digital technologies are bringing us all closer together; a hub for leading edge life-enhancing scientific, medical and engineering research; a centre for indigenous business innovation; a high level of volunteerism; and a flagship for schools and colleges integrating the Outdoor Classroom and Outdoor Lab into educational studies. The political life of Galway should also be praised, after all it gave Ireland a president that is respected throughout the world for his vision, sense of justice and intellect.
A few weeks ago, a presentation was given on the Galway National Park City initiative to a Special Policy Committee (SPC) of Galway City Council where it received unanimous support from the officials and councillors present. The proposal now goes to a full meeting of the council for discussion. We hope that City Hall enthusiastically becomes a fully-fledged leading active partner in this exciting endeavour to create a city for the future that is ‘Green’ as well as ‘Smart’.
We have serious problems locally including traffic congestion, urban sprawl, housing shortage, pollution and an absence of rangers in our parks. But the council should be praised for making positive strides on key environmental issues over the last few months including adopting the All Ireland Pollinator Plan, appointing a Biodiversity Officer, and putting forward proposals for public consultation on increasing the zones of attractive pedestrianisation within the city centre.
However we as citizens should be more ambitious. A safe city-wide access-for-all cycling, walking and public transport infrastructure is long overdue. The main urban parks and waterways must be connected via a network of ‘ecological corridors’, and wildlife sanctuaries should be established. Planning regulations should encourage the development of ‘urban villages’ and green features such as the use of renewable energies, rooftop/vertical gardens, rainwater collection systems, community green space and native planting areas.
The boreens (country lanes) in the rural areas of the city such as Castlegar, Ballinfoile and Menlo should be protected and promoted as walking routes. The Dyke Road has the unique potential to be an inspiring green/blue hub out of which radiates the Connemara Greenway (by constructing a bridge over the old railway pillars), the Terryland Forest Park, a boreen network emanating out to the rural hinterland towards Coolough, Carrowbrowne and beyond; and a Corrib waterways that stretches to Mayo.
In the past when City Hall came together in a partnership approach with the wider community, extraordinary unprecedented measures were achieved that placed Galway at the forefront of sustainability and environmental care within Ireland. These included the establishment of the country’s first pro-recycling 3 bin domestic waste collection system; the Cash-for-Cans scheme and Ireland’s largest community urban woodlands project (Terryland Forest Park).
In 2020, a united vision and a spirit of togetherness in Galway can help us be part of creating a new more caring post-Covid world where we work with the rest of Nature and not against it.
Brendan Smith, interim convenor, Galway National Park City
But what is even more unusual, and which is unique in Ireland, is that this ecclesiastical building is made from corrugated galvanised iron. Such churches, known as 'Tin Tabernacles', were built in 19th century Britain during the industrial revolution to cater for the huge increase in urban populations caused by the demand for workers in the new factories. These buildings could be quickly erected from factory-made prefabricated metal sheets. They were Industrial Churches for an Industrial Age to serve an Industrial Congregation.
The church was deconsecrated in 1962 and fell into dereliction until an ambitious programme of restoration was begun in 2012 by the recently formed Laragh Heritage Group.
As it was Christmas, I wanted to ensure that I visited a church and I was always enthralled by the beauty of St. Peters.
It was built by the owner of the nearby Laragh Mills, which was the first mechanised spinning mill in Ulster providing employment for c300 labourers, spinners and weavers.
However relations between the owner James McKean and his predominately Catholic workforce was never good. A man of strict temperance and with a strong Protestant religious conviction, he would complain about the drinking excesses of the local people. In the winter of 1884, the workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions as well as time off for the observation of Holy Days of Obligation. McKean refused and locked out the strikers. The Lockout continued until the spring of 1885 with McKean trying to entice Protestant workers from his other mill in Rockcurry to take the place of the Catholic rebels. It might explain why he had St. Peters built- a Protestant place of worship that was constructed within a year due to it being made largely from prefabricated metal sheets.
As aforementioned, Laragh is also the birthplace of General Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the Monaghan Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)who became its Chief of Staff in 1922. He is most famous though as the leader of the short-lived (1932-33) Irish fascist movement known as the Blueshirts
There is a popular misconception though that Halloween is a modern American invention. Not so. Though our American cousins have to be congratulated for making this very special festival a fantastic children-centric occasion nevertheless, as with so many other things that have brought great happiness and joy to humanity for millennia, its roots lay firmly in the culture of the Irish Celts!
(Photo shows my son Dáire & 'friend' that was taken a good few years ago)
Yet in the modern repackaging of this ancient pagan festival, many of the fine traditions that were once such an integral part of the festivities have disappeared. For instance our Celtic custom of placing human skulls with candles at entrances to domestic dwellings in order to ward off evil spirits has been replaced by lights in hollowed-out pumpkins! Likewise the visits of children dressed up in ghoulish and macabre fancy dress going door-to-door looking for gifts of sweets and fruits is a poor substitute for the former visits of the ghosts of our ancestors who used to drop in once a year on October 31st for a nice meal with their living relatives (we would prepare a place for them at the dinner table).
It was said too that live captives were placed in wicker cages above huge bonfires and burnt alive (as portrayed in the classic British 1970s cult film “The Wicker Man”). But such horror stories were originally spun by those nasty Romans when they were at war with the Celts. So it was probably nothing more than malicious enemy propaganda. After all, what do you take us Celts for? Barbarians?!!
As with so many other annual family festivals, Halloween has become so commercialised by 'Americanised' popular culture that its true origins and religious aspects have long since being forgotten.
So here is the true story of 'Féile na Marbh' (Festival of the Dead'):
Christianisation of 'Samhain'
Yet modern-day Americans were not the first people to re-brand the festival. In the middle ages the Catholic Church created the Christian festival of 'All Hallows Eve' or 'All Souls Day' when people were asked to remember and pray for their dead family members.
This event was superimposed onto the ancient pagan Celtic festival of 'Samhain' which marked the end of the summer season characterised by heat & light and the coming of the dark cold barren winter months.
Typical of many agricultural societies, the Celts had four major annual festivals based on the cyclical differences experienced in the changing seasons of nature and their corresponding weather patterns. The other three were 'Imbolc' (spring) 'Bealtane' (summer), 'Lugnasa' (autumn). The latter was associated with harvest time.
Samhain was a time when food was hoarded as people prepared for the cold season when no plants grew. While many domestic animals such as cattle were brought indoors for the winter, others were slaughtered and most of their meat salted for storage whilst the remainder was cooked for the big feast. As with all Irish festivals, communal bonfires were lit as people gathered together at warm fires to socialise and to give thanks to the deities. Bones of the slaughtered animals were thrown into the fire as symbolic gifts to the gods, an action which give rise to the term ' bone fires' or 'bonfires'. Embers from this sacred fire were taken by local people to their households to light their own domestic fires.
Antecedents to the Pumpkin & 'Trick or Treat'
But Samhain was also a time when creatures from the supernatural world could enter into the world of mortals. 'Fairies' (Irish='Sidhe' as in ‘Banshee’/‘female fairy’) and the spirits of the dead would walk the earth. Many of these beings were benevolent and the spirits of dead ancestors; so families laid out extra food and set aside a table space for their ghostly visitors. This metaphorised into the custom of today's children dressing up as demons and witches & calling to the neighbours' houses to receive presents.
But there were spirits that came on the night of Samhain that were malevolent. Candles were placed in skulls at the entrance to dwellings as light was feared by these dark foreboding creatures. This protection against evil became transformed in modern times into the positioning of hollowed-out turnips and later pumpkins with carved out faces and internal candles at windows and doorways.
Centuries-old party games of trying to eat an apple lying in a basin of water ('bobbing') or dangling on a string tied to a ceiling ('snapping') are still popular festive past-times with Irish children.
Fortune Telling at Halloween
Central to the Irish Halloween is the eating of a fruit bread known as 'Barmbrack' from the Gaelic term 'Báirín Breac' (speckled or spotted top). It is still a popular festive food today.
Various symbolic pieces were placed in the dough before it was baked such as a ring, a pea and a stick. When an item was found in the slice when it was being eaten, it told of the future that awaited the recipient. For instance, the 'ring' signified marriage within a year; a 'stick' represented a bad or violent marriage; the 'coin', wealth and a 'pea', a long wait before marriage.
Irish Export Halloween to North America
The Irish emigrants of the nineteenth century introduced Halloween and its rituals to America. Within a few decades, the festival was transformed into the fun and games event of today.
Significant Irish Contributions to World Culture:
No. 7642- 'Dracula'
Considering our national passion of asking the dead to resurrect themselves & drop into the house for a late night meal & party, it should come as no surprise that the world's most well known vampire Count Dracula was the creation of an Irishman, the novelist Bram Stoker in 1887.
His inspiration though was Carmilla, a book about a lesbian vampire created naturally enough(!) by another well known Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu.
(Photos from Macnas Halloween youth parade in Ballinfoile, Galway City)
"From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us" was the sorrowful prayer of Celtic monks at night times in centuries past. The traumatised denizens of our garden would if they could utter the same despairing plea today.
For nearly two months, our garden has been sporadically raided by Vikings who under the cover of darkness enter its hallow grounds to steal and to kill innocent residents.
Totally cannibalistic, they gorge on the snails, slugs, worms and caterpillars that live there. Wearing the most sophisticated body armour, these vicious raiders are more than a match for any local garden resident who dares to attack them.
Feared by mini-beasts but beloved by most humans, the savage creature is none other than the hedgehog.
This mammal first arrived to our sacred Emerald Isle on board Viking ships, brought here by Scandinavian warriors as a food source. Though an invasive species, nevertheless they have like many human invaders to our shores, become more Irish than the Irish themselves, adapting well to our climate, fitting nicely into most (though not all) local ecosystems and are an integral part of the countryside.
Unfortunately their numbers, based on anecdotal evidence, have declined dramatically in recent years due to intensive farming, use of pesticides, habitat loss and traffic. Until last year the only hedgehogs I have seen for many years were dead ones lying on roads, the victims of car traffic.
But this adorable mammal has benefited hugely, as with so much flora and fauna, from the development of Terryland Forest Park since 2000. Its woodlands, meadows, hedgerows, wetlands and connectivity to the Corrib waterways have provided a lifeline and sa anctuary for biodiversity to thrive. The hedgehogs that arrive in my garden at night come from the nearby Suan-Sandyvale sector of Terryland. As Dr. Colin Lawton has said, “Build (the forest) and they (the wildlife) will come.”
Dr Elaine O’Riordan of NUI Galway is presently coordinating a survey of Irish hedgehogs in association with Biodiversity Ireland to find out about the distribution and population status of hedgehogs across the island of Ireland. If you see this mammal (dead or alive) please register it at https://bit.ly/38TMo2q
The protests against the dictator Alexander Lukashenko represent the most female-driven political revolution that I have ever witnessed.
Due to these endemic problems, the destruction yesterday means the country is facing a huge humanitarian crisis. We need to send support immediately. Hopefully we can find out soon the NGOs that we can send funds too. Probably the Lebanese Red Cross and Lebanese Red Crescent would be recommended.
The workshops will take place at the Data Science Institute subject to COVID-19 restrictions then current. If this cannot happen, we will host online workshops using virtual console simulators and reschedule the ones using the vintage computers to a suitable time in 2021.
Back to the Future - the 1980s revisited
Today so many good-minded tech savvy educators are working really hard to promote computer coding amongst our young people through coding clubs such as Coderdojo and by campaigning to have it accepted as a curriculum subject in schools. We see it as our mission to transform our kids from being passive Computer Users to active Computer Creators. Coding is a skill set that is increasingly beneficial in so many professions and will be even more so as the century rolls by.
But in some ways it can be seen as a ‘Back to the Future’ saga. For during the 1970s up until the mid 1980s, using a computer was synonymous with knowing how to code one. It was a programming language called BASIC that introduced personal computing. In a time when few people ever saw a computer let alone use one, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College USA designed a language in 1964 that allowed everyday people to have computers carry out many different tasks from writing letters, undertaking research, solving problems and playing games. The language was known as BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and had commands with easy-to-relate to English words that related to their functionality (Print, Goto, If___Then, and later Input). Programming had lost its elitism (for mathematicians only) and could be understood and programmed by ordinary people. But what truly made it accessible to all was the invention of the microprocessor, which formed the basis of the first fully-assembled personal (table top) computers that started to appeared from 1977. The Commodore Pet, RadioShack Tandy TRS-80 and the Apple 11 that were launched that year were off-the-shelf low cost computers aimed at the ordinary consumer and schools. All three came bundled with BASIC. Within a few years the standard version of the language on most computers was Microsoft Basic invented by Bill Allen and Bill Gates.
Schools all over the world started to teach programming. By 1983, most secondary schools in Galway had computer labs populated with computer equipment donated by Ballybrit-based Digital Equipment Corporation(DEC) where students learnt to code. The demise of BASIC and indeed programming in general across educational establishments happened with the rise of application software or what we know call apps from the late 1980s.