Month: October 2014


I was born in Scotland but live in Ireland. When the Moroccan taxi driver found out my nationality he asked, ‘Why did Scotland not vote to break free from England when they had the opportunity?’ He was totally bewildered as I am about the result.

As a Scot living in another country I don’t believe I should have had the right to vote. But should English people who have worked in Scotland have the right to vote if they have worked in Scotland for a twelve month period?

The arguments as to the rights and wrongs of the result will raise voices and blood pressure for years to come.

Was it a missed opportunity or an own goal?

True story of how Irish farming nearly went to the wall

In these dire financial times this story is even more relevant, although it is 12 years old.  However it was revealed for the first time in 2002, twenty years after the events occurred.  It says much for the loyalty of those involved in the IFA that these events were never spoken about publicly prior to that time.

The True story of how Irish farming nearly went to the wall

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In the mid-1970’s, flares and flower power were back in fashion, and another F -farming- was the business enterprise to get into.

Farmers who saw their chance and expanded up to 1977 never looked back. But what a difference a year made. Farm development from 1978 onwards, often involving expensive land purchases, ended in tears for most. In the early 1980’s, interest rates zoomed over 20%. EU price guarantees decelerated, Irish inflation was in the high teens and farm incomes halved from 1979 to 1981. Interest repayments spiralled to 27% of Irish farm income, a disastrous and distressing experience for many farmers. This was Irish farming’s equivalent of the Wall Street Crash. In what looked like a rewarding and promising business, 10,000 Irish farmers were unable to service their debts.

That farming survived, and eventually prospered, is a lasting tribute to the farmers and bankers who brought the industry through, with the minimum of casualties. Amazingly, many of the details have only just come to light of how the Irish Farmers Association led the industry out of its crisis. They have been revealed by the main player on the farmers’ side, former IFA president, Tom Clinton. His account of farming’s Crash of the ’80’s came to be told a couple of months ago at the Rosscarbery Historical Society’s Autumn History School, in West Cork.

To understand Ireland’s farm credit crisis one must picture our agriculture industry of the late 60’s and 70’s. The dairy industry was in its infancy; there was a coastal strip of tillage from Louth to East Cork and some in the south midlands. Cattle and sheep were almost everywhere. Two de Gaulle veto setbacks delayed EEC entry, but in 1973, Ireland went from supplying cheap food to Britain to full market access to 250 million Europeans, backed by intervention price support. Farm product prices increased, up to a 1978 peak. But, from 1979 onwards, the only thing expanding fast in Irish farming circles was debt. If not serviced, the money to be repaid to banks could double in four or five years; a lesson which 10,000 farmers learned the hard way. Some 5,000 of them learned the dreaded new words in Irish farming, “restructuring” and “write-off”. The government recognised the crises, and introduced an interest subsidy scheme, but it was too little too late in a lot of cases, according to Tom Clinton, as farmers struggled to hand over nearly 25% of their shrinking incomes in interest payments. Some worked their way through, but farmers who expanded rapidly, purchased land at high prices, had cattle disease outbreaks or had expensive family settlements never had a chance, particularly so after the EEC introduced milk quotas in 1983.

For IFA, farmer indebtedness became issue number one, and the association’s president, Joe Rea, entrusted a special sub-committee of Frank Masterson, Don Hadden, Pat Butler and Tom Clinton with the onerous task of “managing” the crisis. Clinton had taken over from Masterson as chairman of IFA’s tax and credit committee, the very name of which signified how credit had become a huge farming worry. The IFA met representatives of all the banks, but were getting nowhere in their efforts to ease the trauma for farmers. The Bank of Ireland had been particularly aggressive lenders to farming at the end of the 1970’s and had put up enormous sums for land purchase. AIB would have been the next biggest lender followed by the Northern Bank (who later became National Irish) and Ulster. As the crisis grew, it became clear to the bankers that if they called in all the debts that farmers had defaulted on, or looked likely to default on, they would only make things worse. Land prices would have collapsed and some of the banks’ own equity base would have been jeopardised.

Still, Tom Clinton and his colleagues were coming up against huge resistance to debt write-offs and to allowing IFA to have any role in loan restructuring negotiations. They encountered a view in banking circles that if any organisation was allowed in to negotiate on behalf of farmers, it created a whole wave of new precedents which bankers were most unwilling to contemplate. So there was six months of meetings and stalemate. By 1983, Irish farming debt was a clearly visible crises. There were enormous sums at stake, multiplying rapidly. IFA’s tax and credit committee invited Peadar McCanna and John Clifford of Bank of Ireland to yet another meeting in IFA’s Farm Centre HQ in Dublin. This time, Clinton raised the case of a farmer in Meath, his own county- who had made the headlines because of the amount he had borrowed from Bank of Ireland. The farmer had done his best. He had a large family and was totally backable from an IFA point of view. Tom Clinton asked Peadar McCanna, chief agricultural advisor to the Bank of Ireland at the time, what he would do with the Meath farmer. McCanna said that he would get him to sell the land he had bought, allow him some years to raise his family and then sell him out. Tom Clinton said that he had looked him in the eye and told him “On that day I would meet him at the gate.” Such statements left bankers in no doubt as to the possible repercussions of a hard line approach to debts.

As for Clinton, he felt that this was a defining moment for IFA, for Bank of Ireland, for the other banks and for the farmers in difficulty, ACOT farm advice authority. As for himself, he says it utterly changed his life. Negotiations after that pivotal meeting were still slow, but the lending institutions soon realised that the IFA negotiators were genuinely willing to put their necks on the line. And, most importantly, they learned they could keep a secret, and would not talk carelessly about debt settlements. Bit by bit, bankers and IFA leaders began to thrash out settlements for over indebted farmers. It usually started with a phone call to an IFA negotiator, with information that “so and so” was in difficulty. It was always requested that a farmer in trouble contact a negotiator directly. A meeting was set up, preferably with the farmer’s wife present. Mr Clinton said, “It was always amazing to watch people realise that after bottling up their problems for months or even years, there was someone who understood it from their point of view and were prepared to help.”

The IFA decided that both the lending institution and the farmer involved would have to make sacrifices. Important criteria were the farmer’s age, family circumstances, what had they bought, how much had they borrowed, the pressures that led to such borrowing. The IFA objective was to determine how much of a write-off was needed to leave a farmer hope for the future. As for the banks, the IFA thinking was they should realise they had made a serious mistake and should pay a price for over extending credit.


What were the IFA guidelines in each case? (a) If a farmer had a future, lending institution would accept a lump sum from sale of livestock, land or other assets and lend to that farm at reduced interest rate over 10-15 years. (b) If the farmer was 48 years or over, or if the farm was unable to make repayments the banks would accept a lump sum in settlement. Most of these farmers had then to change banks. Lending institutions in a write-off were not inclined to re-lend to the farmer. The amount written off varied, but it was never below 10%. Each case threw up complex negotiations, traumatic for the farmers. But invariably, within six months, they would appreciate what was done, as the weight lifted off their shoulders, recalls Tom Clinton. He does not know how many individual debt crisis settlements IFA made because all the farmers involved did not come personally to the IFA. But he was personally involved in 1,500 to 2,000. These cases would have averaged at least 100 acres each, involving the Co Meath farmer in settlements involving almost quarter of a million acres. And nearly 2,000 settlements were negotiated by the rest of his tax and credit team. Amazingly, there was little public knowledge of this huge farm rescue operation, farmers having been directed to keep their settlement details confidential. Even the iFA leadership and management were no more than broadly aware of what was being done. No one person knew the overall numbers of farmers involved in write-offs, or overall sums written off.

Mr Clinton said there has been for some time a recognition that the story of the farmers who came to the rescue of debt stricken colleagues should be put on records. The Rosscarbery Autumn School was the opportunity to pay tribute to the IFA members who gave unselfishly of their time, to ease the trauma of crippling debt afflicting Irish farmers. Fittingly, the Autumn School was organised by local historian Fachtna O’Callaghan, one of 15 key people, who Clinton said deserve to be named for posterity. The others are, Pat Butler, Wexford, Don Haddon and the late Larry Cullen, Wicklow, Stephen Liffey, North Tipperary, Dan Ryan, South Tipperary, Eddie Cunningham, Waterford, Michael Coughlan, Cork, Frank Masterson, Kildare, Larry Hannon and Liam Egan, Offaly, Pat Donnellan, Galway, Tom Bradley, Carlow, John Boylan, Monaghan and the late Dee Donoghue in Kerry. He also paid tribute to their wives, who gave tea and sympathy to the callers seeking relief from their crushing debts. “There was total harmony among us” said Tom Clinton of the IFA credit team’s unity of purpose, once they had agreed basic settlement criteria. There were many other farmers involved in negotiating settlements, too numerous to mention, he added. He also paid tribute to the banks’ agricultural advisors who, having given out too much money in the first place, realised that they had a huge problem and helped to sort it out. The length of time to get settlements varied from three to six months at the beginning. In the finish it took from a week to a month to lift the crushing debt burden on individual farmers. The fastest was one hour and Tom Clinton did not meet the farmer involved until many years later. When he heard that Tom Clinton was in his town, he came in to meet him. “I didn’t get home early that night,” says the man who successfully led the IFA campaign against land tax and later became president of the association, but will be best remembered as a saviour when bankruptcy threatened. Carol Gilbert (c) Irish Examiner


And I add my own recollection of  what was said before a stunned audience on that Sunday morning.   Up to 10,000 farmers had their debt written off or set aside in some way, up to one million euros.  The most telling statement for me in understanding the situation at the time was when the man sitting near me stood up and said, ‘You have just explained how my neighbour’s widow and her young sons kept their farm, following their father’s suicide.’

Hard times are upon us again as people lose their homes and farms wholesale – we need another Tom Clinton but this time someone acting for everyone.

Quangos and false impressions

As political parties try to score points against each other in the appointment of a young man to a board – who are they trying to fool?

For any politician to say ‘it’s Fine Gael business’ is naive to say the least in this day of instants  and where lip-readers can bring the dubious remarks made by an equally naive PM to the masses in seconds.

It really illustrates how stupid they perceive us.  And we are absolutely not.

I was reminded of a train journey made earlier this year between Marrakech and Rabat or rather from Rabat to Marrakech.

First of all the story of the journey north when my friend and I had a pristine six-seater compartment to ourselves.  This was first class, cost less than Twenty Euros and the food served on the trolley was fresh, so tasty and presented in pristine paper wrappings.

The journey up was an education in the changing landscape and an education too, as my environmentally enlightened friend pointed out,  of the horrendous method by which rubbish was disposed of – merely ploughed into the land.

It was also an education for two older females travelling alone as we were propositioned by a very handsome young man who spoke French to my friend – asking for her phone number – whilst managing to wink at me and blow kisses to me whilst said friend’s head was turned in the other direction.

There are two train stations in Rabat and our pimp advised us to get out at the wrong one!   He departed from our carriage before the train reached Rabat and we don’t know if he got off the train or had seen more quarry in another compartment.  Another very handsome young man, almost a carbon copy of the first, chose to sit in our compartment within minutes of the first’s departure.

Our day was saved by a third and very studious young man with briefcase and laptop and perfect English who explained we still had two stops before our final destination.   The second young man vanished as we were explaining our predicament to the third.

Our compartment was full on the return journey as it was a public holiday, I think Mohammed’s birthday.  The IMF shared our compartment on the return leg together with two local businessmen.

The Canadian couple were employed by the IMF to investigate money laundering.    When they learned that we lived in Ireland, they said, ‘Well Ireland has done very well.  You have sorted your economy.’

Of course they were quickly informed of the knock on effects and the hardships ordinary people were enduring, the amount of suicides, the stress of people losing their homes, whole areas with no young people between 18 and 30.   They did believe us and were concerned.

So who are the politicians trying to fool?

I think it is set,  game and match, and perhaps game over.   There’s no free channel for the lies any more.


To be or not to be?

When I started writing up these blogs, and some are rejigged work previously  published or unpublished, I was on a huge learning curve.  I am learning slowly the mechanics of posting, tags and titles and can’t thank Perry enough for his perseverance and for being my help line.

I hoped the blog might promote the small business I run, trying to highlight the wonderful food, crafts and products which abound in West Cork. if anyone is interested.  Every tutor in every business course I have done or advice session I have attended has encouraged me to write a blog.

I am called in the journalistic world, a stringer, i.e., I know nothing, but can write about any subject.  (Eoghan Harris applied this label to me and such is my ignorance I had to ask someone what it meant.)

I love people and love to interview and write up their stories.  Everyone has a story, but when you live in a small and sparsely populated community, you have to be very careful what you write and whom you write about.

I am credited with never causing offence.  Not sure if that is true because there would be some national/government organisations I have offended, mainly because of my dislike of fish farms.  But I never knowingly or deliberately try to offend anyone personally.

I take great care that everything I write is accurate, the information and spellings.

So where to go from here?  Do I write more about my travels, about people and personalities I have met here over the years, about my childhood, or the harrowing two years of nursing someone with cancer?



Kings Canyon, Northern Territories

We’re beginning to feel like seasoned travellers.  Been on the road now for four weeks and we’re meeting Dave the coach driver in the bar.

The bar is full of young back packers and our party is a mix of French, Dutch and German.  One of our party is a young English teacher from Malaysia who speaks five languages and she becomes our translator when our schoolgirl French fails.

Dave points out two young lads at the next table who are helicopter pilots.  Dave’s leading a four hour guided walk tomorrow morning around the Canyon.  We are wrecked with being on the road and partying too much at the casino in Sydney that we decide to blow the bank balance and book a half hour helicopter ride over the Canyon.

We hope the pilots don’t drink too much and stay out too late, but we have a great evening with all the young people.  As we go back to our room, I ask the girl at reception to point out the Southern Cross for me.

We walk to the cafe for breakfast but by the time we walk back temperatures are soaring and the flies are alive with a vengeance.  There’s a dead snake on the road, its outline defined by the hundreds of black flies feasting off its remains.

A strong wind has picked up so we think the helicopter ride will be cancelled, but promptly at 9 am there’s a knock at the door and we are picked up in the minibus.

We pay our money and sign documents freeing the pilots from any liability in the event of our demise.  A mere child takes us behind the office and we see what we think is a plastic bubble car.  This is our four seater helicopter.  The child is our pilot.

I am shoved into the front seat so I sit beside the pilot.  Julie hops in the back and sits behind me firmly strapped in with her fingers in a white knuckle grip on the back of my seat.

We have head sets and microphones strapped on.  I realise I have nowhwere to hold on to, save the handle which will open the door and my feet are placed on thin perspex.  There is nothing between me and outside but thin perspex!

I am terrified.  I can hear my boys saying, ‘You’ve done some really stupid things in your life Mum, but this must beat all.’

I remember the Japanese tourist who died in a helicopter trip whilst we were in Cairns.  I remember Dave saying how these guys love flying so much they are working for less than the dole!  I want to scream, ‘Keep the money.  Just let me get out.’

The child radios in to base and we are off.

It is awful.  We are buffeted by the wind the second we lose the shelter of the hanger building. The air vents at my left hand side puff air through and the pilot has trouble steadying the craft.  As we rise further I am rigid with fear and I hear him speak through the ear phones but when I open my mouth to reply no sound utters.  I am truly struck dumb with fear.

Rocking and rolling we fly over the complex out towards the Canyon.  The pilot radios in to base confirming our position and I know this is because they will need to know where to find the wreckage.

We are now over the beautiful canyon and the pilot points out the pin pricks which are our fellow travellers on the last leg of their walk.  I am too frightened to bend my head down to look as that would be enough to topple the balance of this plastic bubble so try to glance down without moving my body weight.

We were crazy.  We paid for a half hour trip when we could have just paid for a fifteen minute trip.

Again the child radios into base.  This time they will find the wreckage in the desert.  We fly further over the valley and then the pilot spots some wild horses.  I utter a soundless death scream and brace myself against the back of my seat as we dive down and he chases the horses over the floor of the valley. I think we are going to crash into the rocky cliff at the far side, but he pulls up from the chase and we rise above the cliffs with inches to spare.

We turn south and the wind is no longer buffeting through my air vent.  He points out the water source high on the Aboriginal land.  They have been here 20,000 years.  We are shown the sacred place where no women are allowed to go.  It is truly spectacular and a privilege to see.  We have seen a lot more from the air than the walkers would be able to see but I still can’t speak.

To my surprise we land safely but I still can’t speak.  The child goes off to the office and the other boy calls us over to the minibus.  Both of us are shaking and laughing and I realise my voice has come back now I am once more on terra firma. We ask the driver to thank the child pilot and explain why we were struck dumb.


Global warming and declining salmon stocks

Declining salmon stocks have finally been linked to global warming.   A recent European Union (EU)-funded research project has produced some surprising results.  SALSEA-MERGE, the European strand of the SALSEA project has made a vital contribution towards discovering why the numbers of wild salmon are in decline and are dying at sea.

The SALSEA project was initiated by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation.  The SALSEA-MERGE team, looked at the migration and distribution of fish at sea in relation to the rivers where they were born.   By examining variations in their DNA and using the same technology used by detectives to solve crimes, scientists were able to identify individual groups of wild salmon.

‘The research team found that a specific set of genes differed among fish from different regions and, for the very first time, it was possible to identify stock groups associated with different parts of Europe.  By reading their DNA, scientists were able to tell which particular region an individual fish caught at sea came from,’ explains Professor Ken Whelan, Research Director, Atlantic Salmon Trust, United Kingdom and SALSEA-MERGE project representative.

Electronic tags built into the fish allowed scientists to trace both their horizontal and vertical movements in the ocean as well as their travel time.  At the same time, the project team collected data on the environmental and oceano-graphic conditions which salmon faced.  Novel high seas trawling technology was used to locate small and young salmon.

Although traditional tagging records existed, all the research work done previously had been with salmon returning from sea, with salmon in fresh water, or with juvenile salmon (smolts) going out to sea.

‘This was the first time the salmon had been tracked on the high seas,’ says Professor Whelan.  Results from marine surveys over the years 2003 to 2010 have revealed important differences in where salmon from different regions migrate.  It was like putting all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together and a pattern began to emerge of difference in the use of the sea by different groups in good years when the fish survived really well, compared to the years when their survival rates at sea were very poor.’

The project team began to map out the ocean into sections so they could better understand the corridors and routes that individual stocks of fish use at sea.

‘Global warming was the finding that went beyond what the scientists expected to discover.  The likely effect of warmer seas and how this changes the type of organisms that live in the ocean meant that as seas are getting warmer the cold water plankton species on which the young salmon or post-smolts feed, have moved north with an estimated rate of 30km a year,’ explains Professor Whelan.

In addition, as seas get warmer the relative abundance of plankton species changes and the species replacing the plankton suitable for the young salmon become more abundant and, in many areas, are quite different from the organisms the fish used to feed on.

According to Professor Whelan, the salmon numbers may continue to decline in terms of overall survival, as they may be adapting to these new conditions.  The most important question at this stage is – will the salmon be able to adapt to these new conditions over time?  This might require them to evolve new patterns of migration and behaviour, something that could take generations.

‘Wild salmon have been around for 50 million years and my bet is that they will be able to adapt although it will take some time,’ concludes Professor Whelan.


Caged and confined

The sun continues ‘to split the stones’ in West Cork and I remain caged and confined with little escape during daylight hours.  Escape is only undercover of suntan lotion because of the medication I am on.

Maybe I should become a creature of the night, but by darkness the day’s rigours have drained my energy and a comfortable bed and sleep is all I can rise to.

It’s an abnormal situation for me.  Being housebound forces me to face up to paperwork which has been gathering dust for months.  The sunlight streaming through the smudged windows, even with blinds partially down, snatches at dust and unwashed sills, skirting boards and a million other cleaning jobs that I have steadfastly ignored.  And I will continue to ignore.

I would like to do some weeding or gardening but it means a complete cover up and it’s quite warm out there still with promise of more to come.  So it is another day under cover and indoors.

I found some WD40 whilst cleaning out the under sink cupboard the other evening.     I had a burst of energy that has been absent for most of this year.

Now WD40 is a marvellous aid and I can thoroughly recommend it.  A few squirts and a wiggle of the window catch means that I can now lock the kitchen window again which has been unlockable for months.

I think that will be my task for today.  With WD40 in hand I will free all the sticky locks around the house, lubricate any stiff handles and hinges and have creak-free doors.

Now that’s enough excitement for anyone.