The Yellow Flowers of Spring: Cowslip (Irish = Bainne bó bleachtáin)

The Cowslip's Irish name tells you exactly what its association was with in rural Ireland in days gone by. "Bainne bó bleachtáin" means the "milk of the milking cow" and the flower was rubbed on a cow's udder on May Day to protect the milk.
Also known as St. Peter's Wort ('flower' in Anglo-Saxon) or St Peter's Keys, its connection with this most famous of Christian saints, who was given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven (symbolised in the official flag of the Vatican), is due to its pendulous shaped flower grouping on the plant.
The Cowslip was one of the native Irish wildflowers that was an early victim of modern intensive farming. But it is making a comeback on roadside verges and thanks to the efforts of volunteers in planting meadows. It is found across the grasslands and along the outer ring of the woodlands of Terryland Forest Park.

Bluebell Woods: Celebrating Terryland Forest Park 2000-2020.

The photograph shows a beautiful bluebell woods in Terryland Forest Park.
Along with the trees, these wildflowers were some of the thousands planted by many volunteers over many years in Ireland's largest community-local government urban forest initiative. As COVID-19 amply shows, the health of people and of the planet depends on Nature. Post-COVID, the natural world and the environment generally have to take centre stage in all policies and decision making, from international agreements to neighbourhood development.

Tales from the Home Garden: 'Old Ways' have become the 'New Ways'

Tonight and a few other times over the last few weeks, I have managed to make some very nice (I’m bias!) desserts using fresh rhubarb from our own garden. We have been growing it for many years now. Combined with custard and topped with cream and laced with lots of sugar, there is nothing like its bitter sweet taste in the whole wide world!
It is a vegetable that my Dad always grew. From my childhood days living in inner city Dublin to my teenage years in Carrickmacross, he always maintained a garden packed also with cabbages, cauliflowers, spuds, carrots, onions as well as a few gooseberry (yuck!) bushes.
Mom used to send me out every autumn foraging for blackberries and raspberries in the hedgerows along the roadsides. We also picked damsons when we visited our farming cousins in Magheracloone. The end result was we enjoyed for many weeks jams served with lashes of butter on thick homemade bread that my granny lovingly made. One of the great outcomes from COVID-19 is that there has been a definite movement back to growing our own nutritious organic foods. Hopefully when the lockdown is over, we will maintain this new revival of old traditions and not revert to buying off-the-shelf cut-priced non-seasonal chemically-treated frozen foods imported from countries where its cultivation is damaging local peoples and their environments. Remember, ‘cheap food’ comes at a huge price to the health of both humans and the planet.

Tales from the Home Garden: My friend the Robin.

I am delighted to report that, in spite of the great lockdown, we have a constant stream of visitors calling to our home.
But they are mainly from the bird world. None more so than Ruadh the Robin. Every time I am digging or weeding amongst the vegetable plots, Ruadh swoops down from a tree to help himself to a worm or two. He often hangs around for a while, alighting on the handle of a spade or on top of a large stone.
Oftentimes, being a highly intelligent animal and cognizant of government COVID-19 guidelines of keeping clean and washing regularly, he enjoys having a good bath in our little water feature. 😁 In fact he is not the only feathered denizen that has done so- I have seen a thrush, a blackbird and a blue tit in its waters. Though I have to state that, observing social distancing protocol, they bathe singly! 😂
As the weather has been so dry lately, I would recommend people that have gardens to provide a water container of some sort for the birds. But be careful where you place it- you don't want to provide a handy meal for the local cats!

Council bans Citizens from taking part in Cleanups

Galway City Council has sent out a circular in the last hour informing the public that the Spring Clean initiative has been suspended and furthermore asking citizens not to go outdoors to clean up at this time and to stay at home. They mentioned that their staff are currently operating limited hours in order to manage litter bins and emergency issues only.
Unfortunately as there are no bins (council policy) in the city's forest parks and as there is only one (great!) council staff member presently working limited hours assigned to litter management in these parks, this I feel will lead to a huge increase in refuse across our beautiful woodlands and meadows impacting on biodiversity and the public. Only one part of multiple sectoral Terryland Forest Park has a COVID-19 closure sign on its entrance gates (which is ignored anyway).
I totally understand the importance of the restrictions imposed by lockdown.
But I am shocked that the work of dedicated volunteers, working singly and respecting social distancing of park users, and which is essential to park maintenance at this critical time are been asked to discontinue their much needed activities. Key staff have to work in shops, in health administration and in local authority services. Is not the work of these volunteers also critical at this time?
We will of course keep by this new requirement. But the parks need looking after now more than ever as they experience increased footfall, though by people observing social distancing. Unfortunately as we know only too well anti social elements will take advantage of the situation and cause damage to our precious green lungs particularly with littering.
I wonder what is the opinion of our councillors and TDs?
I have to be honest and say that I feel so sad and almost tearful on what may happen to our great woodlands and meadows in the absence of volunteers and with limited on-the-ground parks staffing during COVID-19.

An Irishman’s Journey across Africa: The Botswana Story, Part 1.

Thanks to the fantastic Africa Code Week (ACW) initiative I have, since May 2015, worked extensively across Africa, from Cairo in the north to Cape Town in the south. I have been in places and have meet peoples that have gone beyond my wildest dreams. I consider myself extremely lucky and blessed to have been granted these wonderful opportunities and have been humbled by the encounters and experiences gained.
In my latest short article on the continent that was the birthplace of our species, I throw the spotlight on a country that still vibrates with the pulse of pre-colonial Africa.

Botswana is a place like no other on Earth. With 35% of its territory designated national park and with a small population, there was until recently a strong peaceful cultural harmony between the nation and the rest of Nature. The country is ‘wild Africa at it best’ and is home to a third of the continent’s elephant population earning it the accolade of being the last refuge for this endangered and most iconic of all mammals. There is a saying that many travel to Botswana for its wildlife and stay for its people. In my case it was slightly different; I came to the country for its people (to teach coding) and wanted to remain not just for its remarkable wildlife, breathtakingly stunning primordial diverse landscapes, but also for the warm and gentle Batswana (the Tswana peoples). It is a peaceful society, has a high literary rate, a low level of corruption and a strong justice system. Unlike so many countries worldwide, there is little religious, social, racial or ethnic tensions nor the scar of urban ghettoisation.
In my bias opinion, I am the country’s No 1 fan! But I only found out since my last visit the real reason why Botswana has cast such a spell of enchantment over me. The answer will be given in my next posting on southern Africa!

But Botswana though is not an earthly paradise. Like elsewhere, it has serious economic, social and environmental problems. In a country that is comprised of circa 70% desert, drought and desertification are issues of growing concern exacerbated by Climate Change and huge increases in commercial livestock herding. It has a high incidence of HIV/AIDS particularly amongst the young (15-24 age group) who account for c50% of new cases; and it is where the so-call ‘blesser’ culture still exists in which older rich men use money and expensive gifts to entice young girls into male controlled sexual relationships. There has been controversy too over the handling of the land rights of the indigenous ‘San’ hunter-gatherers. From traditional low levels of elephant poaching, the last year has seen a significant rise.
Youth employment is very high in the country. Whilst it is large at 19% for the total population, it is 34% amongst the younger age group.
The latter is the reason why I have worked in the country on four separate occasions since 2016 and hopefully will do so again in the future. As part of the African Code Week initiative (involving 37 countries), we deliver teacher and mentor training in computer coding, supporting its introduction into primary/secondary school curricula in order to provide its young people with key digital skills for the 21st century. Over the years, this programme has been organised in partnership with local NGOs (Ngwana Enterprises, The Clicking Generation, Techno Kids Center, People-Powered Generation), the country’s mining corporation(Debswana)) and the government of Botswana. There is an enthusiastic appetite for technology and digital innovation amongst students and teachers, and science is being giving increased recognition in the educational system. Young entrepreneurs are setting up their own high tech companies to take advantage of the global web. State policy is to expand the national economic base and its ICT infrastructure in order to provide the jobs that its highly intelligent youth urgently require.
Diamonds and tourism are the country’s two primary sources of revenue. Botswana is one of world’s top diamond producers with the state owning 50% of the mining company responsible, and thankfully not having the associated violence, illegal extraction, criminality and corruption that many other mining countries have suffered from. I have worked in the closed mining town of Orapa, which was an amazing experience. Mining is now complemented by the add-on value of a diamond cutting and polishing industry based in the capital.
In the case of tourism, there is a movement towards diversification. The Okavango Delta is one of the most famed natural habitats in the world and is renowned for its high quality eco-tourism and low ecological footprint. The government wants to bring the Okavango sustainable model, that is characterised by collaboration with indigenous communities, environmental protection and sustainability, to other regions across Botswana. There are proposals to develop a cross-border bilateral approach to tourism such as linking in with Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls. ‘Conference tourism’ in its two cities, namely Francestown and Gaberone, is a new area of development.
I have enjoyed my time working with its young ACW ambassadors. So I extend my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Phatsimo, Mooketsi, Tebogo, Agang, Monk and Kesego for their professionalism and friendship in this most beautiful of countries. Until we meet again, I say to all of you keep safe and healthy.

The Yellow Flowers of Spring: Gorse

Gorse, Whin or Furze (Irish = Aiteann) is a very common bush characterised by sharp green spines and yellow flowers with a very strong fragrance that normally bloom in April and May.
It is most often found on low quality grounds and thrives along the rough ground on the River Corrib side of Terryland Forest Park. My friend Maírtin O'Ceidigh reminded me of the old saying, "Lovers will stop kissing when the gorse goes out of bloom. Because it grows on poor soils and can survive droughts that means never!
It was in former times extensively used as food, bedding and shelter for livestock during the autumn and winter. Gorse flowers are edible and can be used in salads as well as to produce an alcoholic beverage.
In Ireland the bush served as the traditional fuel for the bonfires of Oíche Bealtaine or May Eve (April 30). In the Celtic calendar, May 1st was the first day of summer and was celebrated as the festival of Lá Bealtaine (Beltane) and marks the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In the Irish language, the word Bealtaine translates as the month of May.
Gorse was also placed around milk, butter and beds to ward off fairies.

Nature in COVID-19: You Were Never Lovelier!

With humankind's hand and footprint so much reduced on the surface of the planet due to COVID-19, the rest of Nature is making a comeback.
The air is dramatically cleaner over China, the dolphins are reappearing in the canals of Venice, the cougars are walking the streets of Santiago and in Galway city, due to the absence of traffic noise pollution, we can actually hear the beautiful melodic sounds of the birds!
And Terryland River (photo) in Terryland Forest Park has never looked so pretty!
So post Covid-19, let's ensure that we learn the correct lessons from this pandemic and not adopt a 'Business as Usual' attitude with all of the mistakes that such a way of life was characterised by

New York: Art of the Subway


Unbeknownst to many, the New York City transit subway system is one of the greatest public art museums in the world, with its stations and carriages featuring an amazing collection of visual art done primarily on ceramic tile but also on stained glass, metal, stone and poster that reflects connections with sites, neighbourhoods and people.
The subway system has been wonderfully transformed from when I worked as a student in the ‘Big Apple’ during the Age of Disco. 

A New York Subway carriage in 1979
At that time the underground world, starved of public funding, was too often filthy, decaying and dangerous with the trains covered in spray-can graffiti some of which was indeed attractive ‘urban street art’ but most was aggressive, ugly and sometimes gang-related.
In 1985 an Arts and Design unit was established by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to aesthetically improve the network as part of a massive new capital investment programme undertaken to reverse years of decline. 

The arts is now an integral part of the ongoing enhancements and rebuilding projects. There is live music and inscriptions of poetry on display (‘poetry in motion’) but it is the visual mural arts that takes precedence. 
This includes the rehabilitation and preservation of original materials and artworks. For the founders of the subway system, which opened in 1904, cared passionately about making the stations attractive places for commuters as well as ensuring only the best of materials and craftmanship were used. They wanted the passengers’ journeys to be delightful travel experiences. 
Today the transit system is a showcase for local and internationally renowned contemporary artists (see Yoko Ono’s murals at 72nd street subway station) and a memorial to the vision of the original architects and the skills of the early crafts artisans.

There is also an interesting hidden side to the subways. A few of the early stations and underground commuter routes have been closed off for decades leading to the original art being beautifully preserved in what can only be described as ‘time tunnels’. Guided tours by the New York Transit Museum are offered of the Old City Hall stop at Centre Street in lower Manhattan where its breath-taking domed ceilings covered in mosaic tiles, ornate chandeliers, and stunning glass skylights seem to be frozen in time.

P.S. I only returned to Ireland from New York City on March 4th. So I delayed my original intention to post up a series of articles on the ‘Big Apple’ online. I considered it inappropriate to do so due to the sickness and death arising out of COVID-19 that it has endured since my departure. My brave cousin Ed Eccles is working every day in New York during this critical time (more on Ed in my next posting) But now on reflection, I feel that I have a duty to remind us all of what a great cosmopolitan urban hub it is and how much it means to people everywhere across the global. It recovered from the devastation of September 11th 2001. It will do so again.

The Yellow Flowers of Spring: Primrose

Growing in woodland clearings of Terryland Forest Park, there are many examples of the flower that symbolises the beauty of fairies and female Christian saints.
The Primrose (Sabhaircín in Irish) is a native perennial plant that also favours damp soils in hedgerows, meadows and roadsides. It normally blooms in February to May with beautifully scented flowers. In some sheltered locations though it can bloom as early at December. Its early bloom probably explains its name ('primus' = 'first' in Latin). Stalks grow to 15cm.
Like so many other native Irish wildflowers of spring such as lesser celandine, daisy and daffodils, the primrose's colour gives a wonderful yellow hue that contrasts sharply with the green of its leaves and the background of grasses and woodland floor.
In February it was used to decorate churches in honour of St. Bridget and in May to populate alters dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was also made into 'posies' by children to decorate houses, to ward off evil spirits and, in the process, fill homes with its beautiful aromatic scent

Multi-tasking: Just like a Woman!

Over the last few weeks I, like many others, have rediscovered the use of skills that long ago I stopped using. The COVID-19 lockdown has been a wake-up call to so many of us about what really matters in life and in Nature. The consumer society that we live in has lulled us into a false sense of security and encouraged us to contract out to others what we should be doing ourselves. It meant in the process we became disempowered not being able in some cases to do simple things like change an electric plug or repair a bike puncture.
So during the lockdown, I have baked apple tarts, prepared and cooked vegetable soups, painted and given a new lease of life to old furnture and fittings, made celebration cards, fixed fences, cleaned up (not just in Terryland Forest Park but in my home!), and dug up and planted a new vegetable garden. I am doing the things that my wife Cepta does every day. I have become a multi-tasker -just like her!
Okay they may be not the best soups or tarts or cards- but I am trying!
Next week, I intend to be even more useful to family and society! For I will do some car mechanics, bake bread, sew, darn....This is a new me!!!

The Yellow Flowers of Spring: the Dandelion

(Irish = Caisearbhán)
The name comes from French 'dent de lion, meaning "tooth of the lion", referring to the coarsely toothed leaves.
The flower is found all across the meadows and along the edges of the pathways of Terryland Forest Park.
A member of the daisy family, the dandelion has distinctive large golden flower-heads which are also clusters of tiny flowers and toothed leaves. In Ireland it was a flower that symbolised the beginning of Spring and once more associated with St. Brigit/Brigid, Ireland's first female saint (women were very powerful in the early Celtic Christian church), and with the pagan goddess of the same name.
The dandelion was recognised as a very important herbal food plant up until a few decade ago. In earlier times, the dandelion was recognised as a very important herbal and food plant. Containing vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc, it was used as a cleansing agent for the body and for a variety of ailments including liver complaints, upset stomach, bowels, gall stones, hemorrhoids as well as for jaundice (root) and warts (sap).
The flowers can be made into dandelion wine, which has a reputation as an excellent tonic, and the dried roots, when roasted and ground, make an effective natural substitute for coffee.