Christmas in Galway: The School Concert

One of the highlights for many people in rural communities and urban neighbourhoods across Ireland is the hosting of the annual Christmas concert in the local school.
It is when the children become the stars of their locality as they sing, dance, do comedy and tell stories to an audience comprising their parents, grandparents, cousins, friends and neighbours. 

Due to globalisation, mechanisation of farming, a drop off in regular attendance at traditional Irish places of worships and the ongoing population drift to the big cities, the local school is the only glue that binds many rural communities together. These learning institutions are the living active embodiment and repository of all the knowledge, experiences, ballads, poems, literature, arts, culture and history of a local community. If they close the lifeblood and heritage of a locality going back generations can be lost for ever.
The small country and neighbourhood school provides all too rare opportunities for local people to come together and to be involved in their local area.
The Christmas concert is a great example of collective community volunteerism in action. Usually a small army of parents support the teachers by preparing/serving food, selling tickets, securing spot prizes and constructing stage props.
But it is the teachers that are the unsung heroes of such events as weeks of rehearsals with their pupils teaching them to act, to play musical instruments and to sing finally pays off.
I attended the Christmas concert this year in St Theresa's National School in Cashel Connemara where I watched the children perform in the Nativity play and in lots more beside. So well done to the principal Cepta Stephens the teachers, the parents and particularly the boys and girls for a most enjoyable experience.

The Drystone Walls of the Forest.

What is now the Terryland Forest Park was once a mosaic of small fields divided by drystone walls.
In the mid 1990s our local residents' associations campaigned on and ensured that this area near to the centre of Galway city was transformed into a woodland park rather than being covered with a series of housing estates.
For we wanted a 'Green Lungs' for the citizens of Galway.
Though the trees were planted and the pathways laid out, many of the boundary walls remained. Some gradually fell into disrepair, became covered with ivy and got largely ignored.
But over the last year council staff supported by volunteers have began work on restoring some of these walls in Terryland Forest Park to their former glory (see photo).

Drystone walls have been a feature of the Irish landscape for 5,000 years. Most though were built after the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór) of the mid 19th century when the open system of farming was replaced as the Anglo-Irish landed estates were redistributed to the former tenantry resulting in a patchwork of small farms across Ireland.
With no mortar holding the stones together, skilled craftsmen carefully select stones that will balance and sit into the wall.
The gaps between the stones helps stability by allowing the wind currents to pass through, representing fine examples of millennia old engineering.

They also provide habitats for a variety of birds, mammals and insects. The stone surfaces support mosses, lichens and plants.
So these drystone walls that are so characteristic of the West of Ireland are more than just part of our built heritage, they are a vast network of ecological corridors, providing green highways for flora and fauna.
However with the decline of the small working family farm, mechanisation, urbanisation and road development, the small field and accompanying drystone wall boundaries are disappearing quickly from the Irish countryside. The replacement perimeter wooden, concrete, cemented stone and wire fencing offer nothing to wildlife.
So Terryland volunteers are doing their bit to protect our natural and built heritage.
Commenting on the restoration of the drystone wall in Terryland Forest Park, Dr. Colin Lawton of the Zoology in NUI Galway said, "These stone walls are really important for our small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews and stoats. The rodents hate to move across open spaces so dart along linear features such as walls and fallen logs. Shrews like the feeding opportunities all the little nooks and crannies provide and stoats just like holes to explore and features to mark. The switch to wire fencing has had a major impact in the countryside. This is a great worthwhile project."

Muslim & Christian Places of Worship side by side in the Holy Land (Jordan)

Photograph is a composite of two images that I took whilst working in Jordan a few months ago. It shows the Al Bishara Christian Coptic Church and the King Abdullah 1 Mosque which lie adjacent to each other on Abdali Street in central Amman. It represents physical proof, in a time of almost unprecedented levels of human suffering, ethnic cleansing and religious conflict in the Middle East, that Christians, Muslims, Jews and other faiths can co-exist peacefully in this region. The Holy Land (Jordan, Israel, Palestine) , the Levant and Mesopotamia belong to all its inhabitants no matter what their faith, culture or social class are.

I was given the opportunity this year to take on the role of a master mentor in an ambitious coding educational initiative known as Refugee Code Week(RCW). Led by the German software company SAP, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and our very own Galway Education Centre(GEC), this ambitious programme aims to help play a role in overcoming the unemployment, despair, loss of education, forced mass emigration and social/economic/nation meltdown that has accompanied the refugee crisis in the Middle East by starting the process of equipping participants in refugee camps as well as in the schools and colleges of hosted countries with much needed coding learning skills. RCW will continue in 2017 and beyond.
My work has allowed me to teach in Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps as well as in schools, universities, community centres across Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey.

I have witnessed at first hand the best of humanity- the UNHCR workers, the refugee camp residents volunteer, the SAP/GEC team and the Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Jordanians and other nationalities who give so much to help others. These ordinary everyday people are the unsung heroes of our time.
I have walked with many of my newfound Middle Eastern friends through the streets of Amman, Beirut, Sidon, Istanbul, Cairo and Nabatieh
My earnest wish is to witness the dismantling of the refugee camps that I work in as its residents return home and to some day walk together with the same people through the streets of Aleppo, Dara'a, Palmyra, Raqqa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Mosul.
May I extend my best wishes to these friends during Christmas, a time associated with a message of a future peace and good will to all men and women.

The 'Holy' Tree of Christmas

The approximate100,000 trees in the community-initiated man-made Terryland Forest Park are native Irish species such as ash, alder and oak. Not only do they provide rich havens to a wonderful diversity of wildlife, these trees have special religious and mythological associations with our Celtic pagan and Christian religious traditions.

Of special significance at this time of the year is the 'Holly' (Cuileann in Irish) tree. In Christian folklore it is associated with being a 'Holy' plant. Irish homes in times past were decorated with its branches at Christmas as the prickly leaves symbolized Christ’s crown of thorns and its bright red winter berries the drops of blood that he shed during his crucifixion. 

My parents told me that as children they never saw a Christmas 'pine' Tree in their homes. Instead the walls were decked with boughs (branches) of holly, nailed to wooden beams or hung over picture frames. I continue this family tradition in my own house with branches cut from trees from our own garden as well as one solitary branch taken from Terryland Forest Park. I always make sure that I leave loads of berries on the trees for the benefit of the birds.

In the pagan Celtic period, this tree was identified with warrior prowess, the sun god Lugh and the harvest festival.

Community & Environmental Campaigners Agree to Support Green Leaf City status for Galway City


In spite of the decision of Galway city council last week to sanction a road through Terryland Forest Park and to allow building construction on a meadow in Merlin Park Woods, local environmental and community campaigners have agreed to work with City Hall on developing a series of eco-initiatives under the banner of its status as the European Green Leaf City for 2017.

According to Brendan Smith of the Terryland Forest Park Alliance, “At the annual plenary meeting this week of the Galway City Community Network which represents over one hundred community and volunteers organisations, there was a deep sense of anger and betrayal expressed by many speakers over last week’s decisions by Galway City Council to ignore their own long standing environmental, social and health polices as contained in previous and current development plans as well as the advice of its own consultants’ report in order to sanction road and building construction in such sensitive green areas as Terryland Forest Park.  It was a slap on the faces of the thousands of volunteers who have given their time and energies free of charge since 2000 to create woods, meadows, nature trails and other wildlife habitats. Combined with confirmation at a meeting in City Hall a few days ago that officials have, for what they call budgetary constraints, pulled the plug on the multi-sectoral Terryland steering committee that includes representatives from the HSE, GMIT, NUI Galway and schools, last week was a dark week for the local environmental and community movement.  Our vision of creating a network of linked forests and natural heritage areas that would make Galway the envy of the rest of Ireland was dealt a mortal blow from those we considered our partners. 

Yet it was unanimously agreed to warmly welcome the long overdue appointment of a coordinator for the Green Leaf City 2017. Sharon Carroll, who will take up her appointment full time on January 1st, is very well respected amongst the city’s community, schools and environmental sectors especially for her work in a previous role as the city's Environmental Education Officer.
For the sake of the health of present and future generations and to enhance biodiversity in our city, we intend to actively collaborate with Sharon on developing an ambitious eco-programme that we hope will include the Outdoor Classroom, the Outdoor Laboratory, neighbourhood organic gardens, nature walking trails, a proper collection facility for hazardous waste, greater public access to and staffing of local authority parks as well as securing significant citizens’ involvement in the management and planning of our urban green spaces.

However we will continue our campaigns to reverse the recent decisions of City Hall to pass death sentences on some of the city’s major woodlands. In the case of Terryland we are considering bringing the issue to the European Commission as we feel that the proposed road construction is in contravention of the terms that the EU funding was granted for this park in the late 1990s."