Broken down tuk tuks and Chocolate cake

Yesterday’s almost Red Letter Day in Pelawatta was in the end to have a happy ending, although all three happenings to make for my personal RLD occurred by the time I was dropping with tiredness.

Indika, he of metal doors and windows fame, did turn up – very late at almost 9 pm.   Most here are awake at 5 am so our ‘working’ day has shifted slightly.   I didn’t see him but the son reported he arrived in a tuk tuk with said missing windows.  He was full of apologies saying his own tuk tuk had broken down.  The windows lay stacked beneath the curved staircase leading off what will be the sitting room overnight and we wondered how long they would stay there undisturbed.

Indika promised he would return this morning and he did, around 10 am which is very early for him as he regularly appears around 5 pm.  But he was all smiles and is at the moment up in the attic room drilling away.  Some of his workers arrived before him, armed with toolboxes and a sense of purpose.  They knew what they had to get on with and get on with it they did.

The washing machine too was plumbed in last night although we couldn’t use it as they made some sort of concrete gulley and drain channel which was soaking wet when Gate Late explained how the drainage system would work.   The washing machine is now working away on its second load and the new Beko condenser drier is working perfectly too.   There is no space outside for a washing line and with the workmen still painting, surfaces being levelled and tiles being cut, it is more economical to use the drier which seems mad in these temperatures but at least everything hardly needs an iron.

The others have made the trip to Ja Ela to meet the lorry which will bring the last load of furniture and boxes down here.  They will go back once a week to sweep the leaves, feed the fish, birds etc until the property is refurbished and put on the market.

So I am here on my own today but there are workmen everywhere as the final thrust is on to complete as much as they can.  One of the young workmen concerns me.   He has worked mainly outside and wraps his head up turban style in a thick cloth, protecting himself from the sun.  He sometimes also winds a clean piece of white linen around his mouth against the dust.

Everything, at least on this refurbishment is done laboriously.  There is no such thing for instance as a bag of sand ready to use.  My headcloth workman slowly sieves every bit of sand from a pile that has arrived from somewhere and been deposited in a heap on the drive in front of the garage.  Whether it is to be mixed with cement or used as a foundation for the small round pebbles in the courtyard every scoop is painstakingly sieved.  (The small round pebbles are a temporary measure until the black and grey linked block arrive and are laid.)

My headcloth man is at times in another world.  He will lean on the top of the handle of his shovel and stare intently into nothingness.  At times he crouches on the ground amidst raking the small round grey pebbles and he stops mid-task and as if frozen in time remains motionless.

He works long hours and my instinct is he is sick.  He is very thin but most people here are slim and thin.  Carrying excess weight is not comfortable in this heat.  The son agrees the headcloth man is probably sick.

One of the other workers concerns the son because this man is always tired.  He works hard here all day and then sets off to drive a tuk tuk as darkness falls.

Other workmen lay flat on the paved area under the porch canopy and sleep flat on the ground during their lunch break.    Most smile a friendly smile when they first see me and I smile back – it’s the most common language isn’t it.

I am halfway through making one of my chocolate cakes.  The daughter-in-law’s niece was 12 yesterday, (her gift from her parents was a white mobile phone) and we are having a combined birthday lunch on Sunday with the rest of the family.   Tiara is a rower and her dream would be to meet Gary and Paul O’Donovan, West Cork’s Silver Olympians.  Their fame has truly stretched far and wide!

I bought all the ingredients at one of the many local supermarkets and have baked the first half of the cake using what was labelled as ‘cake flour’.  I naturally thought this was self-raising flour so different from the ‘plain flour’ which was the ‘cake flour’s’ next door neighbour on the shelf.

By the looks of the cooling first half of the cake the ‘cake flour’ too has no raising agent so I should have added some baking powder.   A thick layer of chocolate butter icing will cover up my mistake.  I really need to learn Sinhala.






Weekday lunches

It’s wonderful weather in West Cork these days. Warm and sunny although it is supposed to change for the weekend.

What is it about weekday lunches that start around 1 pm and you scurry to get home in time for the six o’clock news, although the news today is distressing and painful. On driving home I hear of a settlement to a little boy of €3.5 million for his care for the next five years. The HSE finally admitted responsibility for his paralysis and apologised. His poor parents had to take on the system. Then there are the unknown numbers who have died in the Med on boats which were no more than the coffin ships of the past.

But we have whiled a few hours away in good company, enjoying sunshine in the garden, gathering round a coal fire in the cool of the airy house. The food was pretty incredible too, and each of us were given a doggy bag to take home so supper is supplied.

The UK is in the throes of election fever, Ireland bubbles on with news that Prince Charles and his wife are to visit both North and South next month, and the next scandal will probably be about the properties which were taken over and sold on too cheaply with the Irish taxpayer picking up the bill, but we were in another world.

Back to the lunch – it is so decadent to sit around enjoying good company, great food, pretty magnificent wines and general conversation, catching up with those who have seemed to hibernate this long winter. We are all just that little bit greyer, personally a bit plumper, memories fading, and some with hearing aids sheltering in shell-like crevices.

A charming long lazy lunch on a Tuesday? What kind of people have time to do that? How mad is that, but then how mad is West Cork living. As one companion declared today, ‘You must agree, you have to be slightly mad to live here or you wouldn’t survive!’

And I do agree with her. Here’s to the next time. Anyone for a haggis Sunday lunch? That’s next on my agenda.

Old dog learns new tricks.

FullSizeRenderThey say you are never too old to learn. I probably won’t ever want to copy the new trick my 6 year old grandson taught me on Friday last. Even the procession of sons and grandsons who have been part of my life and who have been up to all sorts over the years, have never done this. I am not sure what it teaches you. The small grandson demonstrated a new way of eating marsh mallows, those tiny pink and white ones which topped his cup of hot chocolate. You need a straw too. His hot chocolate was too hot so he used the straw to sup tiny mouthfuls of the milky liquid and in the process accidentally attached a tiny marshmallow to the end of his straw. He quickly whipped the straw around and ate the marshmallow from the straw. Further lessons were learned as the marshmallows began to melt in the hot liquid. Suck up a dissolving marsh mallow and if it has melted enough you can suck it straight into your mouth via the straw.

Future Chef

Cooking has always been a big part of my life. Perhaps because my mother couldn’t cook, we had to learn fast. In fact my mother couldn’t even make a pot of tea. If visitors came to our house she would offer to make them tea. They might accept on their first visit, but never on their second. She never drank tea or coffee herself and was so heavy handed with tea leaves that the tea would spew from the spout as a thick tar coloured stream.

Being born during the war years, second that is for all the wits out there, sugar, sweets and chocolate were dietary rarities. Even into the 1950s, ration books were the order of the day. I remember being on the lorry which was organised by the local Baptist Church who ran the Sunday school in the village. Those good people were taking us a few miles from home on what would be our only holiday or excursion of the year. We were to camp on the floor of a local primary school in Roslin. There was a role call and round up of ration books before the lorry driver was permitted to take off and I, and some others, were sent racing home to pick up the forgotten ration books as the organisers wouldn’t take us without the precious food coupons on board.

Perhaps it was the lack of sugar and sweet things when I was growing up that made me yearn for sweet things and to make them myself. My mother used to call me, cakey Carol – amongst other things.

These days I have the pleasure of looking after my youngest grandson, now six, one afternoon a week. We always bake and he has become an expert at making pancakes since he was around three years old. These days we have progressed to scones, shortbread, gingerbread men, Victoria sponges, lemon layer cakes, chocolate cakes and his favourite, rocky road. We are working our way through the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and he looks up a picture of a cake he fancies making and we check whether I have all the ingredients in the cupboard and set forth if I have.

Yesterday was a rocky road day and he duly smashed the Crunchie Bars in their wrappers, smashed the digestive biscuits until they were crumbs, added the melted chocolate and stirred the mixture before adding the tiny pink and white marshmallows.

I tipped the mixture into the prepared tray, smoothed it out and put it in the fridge to set. Meanwhile he licked the bowls, spoons and spatulas before taking his chair up to the sink so he could wash up. He only used half a bottle of washing up liquid, announcing, ‘See Nan, I have left you some.’ There have been times when he has used a whole bottle and the soapy suds have flowed all over the sink, counter tops and the floor.

He had to change his teeshirt which was soaked through, but had brought spares with him in his clothes bag, and insisted the chocolate stained wet one was washed in the machine before his mother collected him.

The only other drama yesterday was him accidentally locking my bedroom. Thankfully he was in the hall and not in the bedroom. He used to lock the bedroom doors and the bathroom door regularly when he was around 3 or 4 and at times locked himself in the bathroom. One time when he locked the bathroom door from the outside and was running around with the keys hanging out of his back pocket, I asked him how the gardener would get into the toilet. ‘It’s okay Nan. He just has to ask me and I will open the door for him!’ was the response as he patted the bunch of keys in his pocket.

So I removed the keys and hid them safely away a few years ago.

Still he managed to lock my bedroom door yesterday without the keys. ‘It’s okay Nan, you can sleep in the bedroom next door if you can’t find the keys.’ was his helpful advice yesterday. Neither a knife, screwdriver or any of the variety of spare keys in the kitchen drawer would work yesterday. Eventually I discovered the hiding place of two years ago and found the original keys so was able to unlock the door.

Whether I will be able to leave the keys in the room locks is another matter as I now have a granddaughter, his little sister, who is eighteen months and has a perverse interest in following in her big brother’s footsteps.

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.

The Real Harvest Festival

It’s an event that happens each October in Skibbereen.  The celebration of bringing in the harvest in this rural community is marked on a Friday in October in Abbeystrewry Church of Ireland.  The church community provide a Turkey Supper which is enjoyed by hundreds and often into double figures.   Five hundred takeways are packed and carted off as soon as the side doors of the hall open at 5 pm.

For the rest of us there is a steady queue outside the front of the church hall as we line up in the hope of sitting in.  Inside the hall  rows of tables are set up horizontally across the room from one end to the other.  Along the left hand wall of the room long thin trestle tables are weighed with mis-matched dishes each piled high with food.  There are heaps of home cooked turkey, hams, potato salad, coleslaw, a medley of vegetables, salads, pastas, cous cous, in fact a rainbow coloured display of different foods which are stacked on to proffered porcelain plates.   In fact some people’s plates are piled so high with food, one couldn’t imagine that anyone could eat that much, but they can and they do!

We sit where we can fit in and amiably engage with others who are at a more advanced stage of their Turkey Supper.  The ladies of the  Church weave in and out and around the tables, topping up plates of soda bread, scones and cakes, refilling cups of tea, jugs of milk and guiding the lonesome into the company of others.

When the heaped plates are devoured, it’s time for dessert.   There is every kind of home cooked dessert imaginable from trifles, jellies, cheesecakes, meringues, gateaux of all descriptions and the good news is that seconds are permitted, that is if you have room.  And most people do!

Tea and cake and chat, a glass of wine if you prefer and the evening has just begun.   The ticket price for the meal includes entrance to the dancing which will kick off around 10 pm in the West Cork Hotel.  So perchance to dance away the night and dissolve the extra pounds consumed earlier.

Abbeystrewry Church of Ireland Turkey Supper is a fundraiser for the Church.  Church members, cook, make, bake, pack up the takeaways, prepare the tables and chairs for sit down, serve during the meal and do the wash up and clear afterwards.

I really enjoy the Turkey Supper as I think it is one of the best community events in the town.