Friday 29 May 2015

A Rather Sad Spring Break

The new cat, Soldier, is well settled in at this stage and
exploring the garden. 
It has been a miserable cold wet May and in any other circumstances, a Spring break in the Greek Islands would seem like a brilliant idea. The Med, sun, warmth, café life, ouzo, seafood, maybe a swim, what could be better? For poor Lizzie, though, these are not "any other circumstances" and she must head for the Island of Poros on an altogether sadder mission, to settle the affairs of our late friend Diamond (whom I should probably now call by her real name Diane). More on this mission in a future post.

Local beekeepers say that a good horse
chestnut tree is worth an acre of clover.
This fine example grows right opposite
JD Bob's place.

Heads down feeding frenzy for the Hubbards at 4 weeks+

Release day for the Hubbard poults.

A well stained thumb attests to the fact
that we have been 'shepherding' again. 

Park life?
Meanwhile, after a fortnight of reasonable weather (OK, a tad chilly and prone to showers) we have been hard at it catching up on the garden. I have weeded through the veg patch (which sometimes seems like the Forth Road Bridge; by the time you finish, you have to start again at the start) and we have blitzed the big raised-bed garden and mulched it down with well rotted chicken/goose muck. With the new mower, I have been able to buzz off the pond-garden and the orchard, nicely topping off the plantain and dock flower shoots coming in the latter. It all looks very neat and Liz paid it the delighted compliment that "It looks really neat - like a bit of parkland!" We don't normally aspire to a site too 'manicured' but we both love the current 'deliberate' look, the 'lawn grass' is mowed and the shaggy meadow bits look like they have been left deliberately. Planned!

Plums (Victoria)
Some good fruit-set, especially on the plums which were worst affected by that late frost in April, tell us that we might have got away with it. Obviously, it is only May and no-one is counting any chickens. June-drop is still a way off, but those frosts struck just as these plums were coming to the end of the blossom season and in my memory, that should mean that fruit would fail to set. Here we are, though, with the withered remants of flowers now washed off by the showers and with tiny plums revealed in clusters. Who knows, but we might get some decent crops of fruit this year. It's a promising start anyway.

Baby (Conference) pears forming
Other than that, Soldier the cat is now well settled in and loving it here, the 'Hen with One Chick' fusses on doing a good job of protecting the little one. She even had a go at Liz this morning as Liz tried to nip from kitchen to utility room to retrieve some underwear for the Greek trip. In the goose dept a fair amount of chaos. We had no intention of allowing any geese to go broody this year - we do not want any more geese and I hate having to 'off' them but one out-voted us and yesterday morning she appeared to have been joined by 2 more on the same nest. 2 of these hopped back off mid-morning. It could all end in tears and smashed eggs.

3 broodies?
The bees seem to have given up notions of swarming for the moment, probably due to the cold weather but we will stay vigilant and if the weather warms up, we know what to expect. The pigs thrive on and one of the lambs is coming up to needing his final journey. That will be Feste, our first-born, January 6th baby, ear tag 00001F. He's booked in with Ignatius G Victualler on June 9th after Liz is back from Greece. He will be smaller and younger than lambs we have sent to slaughter in the past, but he is entire, and we dare not allow him to 'get at' Mum Lily as happened last year, but the butchers love that and assure us he will be like a tender New Season Easter lamb in the size of joints and the eating.

We take one final cut from the purple
 sprouting broccoli which has done so
well. The bees can have it now as it
blows away to flower. 
So, fare well then Lizzie and good luck on your rather sad trip to Poros. I know that you will do Diane proud.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Map of Shame. Spoon of Doom.

Roscommon/South Leitrim, the only 'No' constituency
in the state. 
If you have been following the news at all from Ireland, you will know that the Marriage Equality Referendum happened on Friday 22nd with the count happening on Saturday 23rd. By the time it was done it had turned into a massive newsworthy event which was being described as "more a cultural revolution than just a referendum"; the first time such a decision had been made by any state by popular vote. There was a huge turn-out and a massive vote in favour - over 1.2 million people voted yes and there had been a keen surge of interest across the whole country and social spectrum, especially in young people who had not even registered to vote before. There were campaigns running on Facebook and even one on Twitter (where users tag their messages with the hash-tag (#) symbol) called #hometovote, where everyone was sharing their stories of last minute journeys home from all around the globe, delayed planes, frantic taxi runs to polling stations and celebrations of having made it just in time. Many famous influential people had come out in favour of a Yes vote including the well respected former President Mary McAleese and singer Daniel O'Donnell.

Only one way to celebrate?
Many people gravitated towards the grounds of Dublin Castle (the National results centre), huge crowds with rainbow flags cheering each result as it came through, building in tempo as it looked like the whole country had voted in favour. Then a huge angry 'boo' for our constituency, Roscommon / South Leitrim when we flashed up red, the only constituency in the state to vote 'No', and a storm of taunts and insults on those same social media threads. Yes, we felt the shame, horror and embarrassment but then took some relief from the more measured analysis that followed. This was a mainly young-people thing and that is the demographic which Ros/SL lacks after years of farming run-down, emigration and rural depopulation. We have no University (or any 3rd level education), no tourism to give jobs and no big urban centres. The national "swing" had affected all constituencies, so that the usual city/rural divide was wiped out and had gone across age groups. It did actually happen here, and the No vote got it by just 1029 votes, so if just 515 more people had changed their minds we would have been 'green' too. We had just started from too low a base. No shame in that and as many people have re-assured us, we tried. Ah well, as one wag said, "At least everyone will know where Roscommon is!"

The new black cat looking a bit beleaguered
down behind Liz's knee. In her right hand (as
well as the wine and ciggy) is the (wooden)
'Spoon of Doom'
So with the politics done till at least early next year (Irish General Election) we can re-focus on things Smallholding. Our key job here at the moment is to bed in the new cat, Soldier and repress the 3-dog, pack-hunting instincts of Deefer, Towser and Poppea. You do this gently with short practise sessions with the cat in the crate/cage, then with dogs on leads, then just grab-able collars. You go from fully supervised to less so and by now Soldier is well used to the place but knows he can flee to the Living room where child-proof stairs-gate will stop the dogs. In the warm weather he has the window open there during the day, so that he can come and go without having to pass through dog-territory (bandit country?).

A new bog-plant on me, the tiny Heath Milkwort
(Polygala serphyllifolia)
Just occasionally the dogs forget what they are MEANT to be doing and try a little chasing, but we have a secret weapon up our sleeves for that, the Spoon of Doom. This is a wooden kitchen spoon which we brandish at them as we charge in roaring theatrically and they remember from puppy days that this is probably a good time to stop. Don't misunderstand me - nobody gets actually hit, nobody gets bludgeoned half to death or any bones broken. The threat is enough. We borrowed this idea from Mrs Silverwood who, when she had 7 by 7-week old pups chasing about and getting up to destructive mischief, she would have at them with the 'Broom of Doom', waggling the business end in between pups and 'prey' or using it like a shepherd's crook to hook pups back along the shiny floor. It works and the dogs stop chasing the cat and head for a safe haven. Soldier lives to fight another day. He has also been out into the 'farm' generally over the last 2 days so is learning sheep, geese, chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys and so on.

Just the one chick for the broody Buff. 
Our broody Buff Orpington successfully hatched only the one chick in the end. 2 others got to full term and almost escaped the egg but were found dead after drying out and the hen came off the nest with her one during the night, so the remaining (5) eggs had chilled right down by the time I got to her in the morning. 4 of these had been fertile but with embryos at very different stages, and just one clear and unveined (and so fresh that it was presumably an egg dropped in by a visiting chicken just before I realised what was happening). Ah well, she is a first-time Mum so one is good and she is now making like the proverbial "Hen with One Chick" - a proper fusspot. They are out and about today beyond the confines of the Tígín - we saw them in the East Field at one stage and round in the Kitchen Garden where Mum was dust-bathing in the asparagus patch while baby stood on a railway sleeper.

The tiny chick follows Mum for an explore
in the wide open spaces. 
Our other 'baby' chicks, the Hubbards are almost 5 weeks old now and fully feathered, so we are fast approaching the time when they will be let out free range during the days and then rounded up at supper time. We are enjoying warm dry weather at present, so that should work OK. We always enjoy the first releases and first tentative explorations by the young ones.

After our excitement of the swarm by T McC's bees we have been checking on his hives for him and reporting back as he had to return to Dublin for a few days (and to vote!) but we have also been extra-vigilant at our own hive. On the 23rd they gave us a bit of a scare but it was only a false alarm. It was a warm afternoon and at 4pm there suddenly seemed to be way too many bees out of the hive, all over the front and in the air. Liz and I suited up, grabbed the skep, loppers and secateurs and went down to watch. It all calmed down, then, and the bees all went back indoors. False alarm (and nothing since).

If you can't catch a swarm,
maybe you'll catch a cat?
They will not necessarily swarm, of course, they are a new colony with plenty of space and we do not feed them up (as does T) with sugar syrup, so they may well have been building more slowly on just the natural nectar, possibly in short supply through cold early May. No rule says they have to swarm; some colonies do a 'supercedure' killing off the old queen and growing up a new one. It's all part of the fun and interest of bee keeping.

Old and new
We treated ourselves to a new 'toy', a decent lawn mower. My old dog-rough beast owes us nothing. It must be 15 years old and was used for mowing the allotment paths in Faversham. The body shell is rusting through so that I worry the engine will come away blade an' all, the wheels wobble like a supermarket trolley and it rattles and bangs away as moving parts keep hitting off non-moving parts. It just about cuts the grass but no longer does a neat job, so we have pensioned it off and treated ourselves to a new Honda which I am delighted with.

A neat job with no tufts and no wads of cut grass lying about.
This one also has a grass-box, so I can even pick up the wads of damp cuttings for use as mulch and compost. If my old one had such, then I had long since abandoned it and it never came with us in the removal truck. The new one is also an 18" cut (as opposed to 16") so I seem to whizz round in (I guess) 89% of the time cutting wider passes; probably even better with the increased power and sharpness of blade.

Another tiny bog-composite. Mountain Everlasting, or
Antennaria dioica, easy to ID as it has different male flowers
(pink, fluffy) to its female ones (pictured)
Finally, we seem to be enjoying, at present, one of those phases of life where you gather lots of new friends. From the 'Yes Equality' campaign and the canvassing we can now count Tommy R and Steve F. Yesterday we finally got a visit from another of the 'Three Sisters' who sold us the house back in 2011. We are firm friends by now with Vendor Anna, of course, and yesterday she arrived with her sister Marian, hubby Tom and ( grown up) daughter, Sarah. They called by for tea and cake and a good look round, with M fascinated to see what we'd done with the place (where she grew up). Thanks you guys  and do come back again when you are next over.

Sheep liver-fluke meds. 
Then today we got a chance to meet some more small-holders who are over by Ballinagare and from whom we plan to borrow a handsome ram in September to do the business on our two (or three by then?) ewes. These are Sue and Rob and have an amazing place with a mass more stock than we have. They seem to have a gazillion chickens and baby poultry, geese, ducks, pigs, sheep and goats. They have a massive boar named Rodney (Trotter, of course!) who seems to have sneaked a stay as a pet by now. They also have as fairly new hatches, 4 of our turkeys which are doing very well in their Alladin's cave farmhouse kitchen and in another room a huge, upright incubator. Yes, the plan in September is that we haul one of Charlotte's goats across there and return with 'Rambo' in a one-month swapsy, so that she can get some of her she-goats in kid and we can get our ladies 'in-lamb'. I don't know if you read this blog, Sue or Rob, but if so, lovely to meet you today and to get to know you and look round your lovely place. As they say in the film Casablanca, we hope this will be "the start of a beautiful friendship".

Friday 22 May 2015

Goats and Votes

The white goat loaded.
Let me just set your mind at rest - we have not finished today owning any new species. We remain firmly in the 'No' camp regarding the goat species as a good plan. The billy-goats in these pics we were just moving for friends as we have a trailer. Phew. That was close.

Well, THAT was a big busy day for the trailer and even busier in other ways, too. We had three jobs for the beast today - collect pallets from JD Bob, move goats and then go shopping for hay and straw for our horse-rescuing chum, who we will call, for the purposes of this blog, for now, "Murphy's Mum". You may also know that it is voting day for the Referendum and, just to put some icing on an already rich cake, T McC's main hive decided to swarm so we got involved in that retrieval. It's all go.

Out frightening voters in Ballaghaderreen with
our new chum Tommy R. Canvassing.
For Lizzie, certainly, the vote was the main event and we were down at the Polling Station nice and early. The turn-out is reported to be very high but even then our tiny local Polling Station had been amazed to have had 48 people through by the time we got there. Liz had been out on the mean streets of Ballaghaderreen, canvassing with our new friends Steve F and Tommy R and I'd even joined them on the Tuesday after livestock lock-up. The feeling was that it was all a bit 50/50 on the doorsteps and we had a superb time at one where the household were even 'arguing' at the front door and using Liz as a referee. We don't know if a high turnout is a good thing for 'yes' or 'no' but it is surely a good thing from the point of view of democracy - the answer they come up with will be more representative of the national state of mind.

The geese may also be voting 'yes'.
The pallets were an easy one. These were some boards on which JD Bob's "bag manure" (as they call it here; it's basically pelletized NPK fertilizer) was delivered to his fields and he knows that we can always use an empty pallet. He can too, but he has an outbuilding full of them. We use them intact for fencing/hurdles, or we use the wood for scrap wood for making things, or in the end for kindling. I just needed to nip out to his field to collect them in the trailer.

Next up were the goats. Another family we are friendly with are selling up and moving back to the UK, so they are off loading as much 'livestock' as they can to make the journey home easier, plus the likely move they will have to make, short-term, into rented accommodation, where pets may not be allowed. We have inherited a new cat, Soldier, of whom more later, but today was all about collecting their two billy-goats, Jean-Paul 'Goat'ier and Sebastian Farquahar. These guys were a pair of boys originally rescued by our chums from the local forestry where they'd been abandoned and gone half-feral but then more recently kept tethered on their grazing to keep the rushes down. Being 2 boys they were kept a bit apart, so they'd not fight and each a bit spoiled with a make-shift weather proof shelter.

Safe at Carolyn's the boys catch up on some horn-clashing
head-banging, grudge-match pecking order stuff. 
Charlotte and Carolyn of the mini-horses are taking these guys. They are well equipped in the horn department and allegedly can be a bit spiteful but Charlotte, not willing to put up with any such nonsense, gave us a master-class in goat-wrangling. You don't need any of this tempting them with feed bowls and leading them - they have blooming great "handles" on their heads by which to grab them and yank them in the direction you want them to go. Something about being used to getting a 600 kg horse to do what it's told and not putting up with any argy from a 60 lb goat.

We inherited this very smart, young cat, 'Soldier' and now
need to settle him in to cope with the dogs. 
We quickly and efficiently got them loaded and home where we steered them by the 'handles' into a bit of Charlotte's yard. No sooner were they in there than they decided they needed to settle all those grudges they had built up by being tethered 30 yards apart in their field, so we all watched an impressive head-butt fight which Charlotte assured us would not last long; they would quickly establish who was boss. I'll take her word for it - they seemed fairly evenly matched to me but it was an impressive battle. The boys would rear up on their hind legs then smash together, often bouncing their back legs off the ground at impact. An impressive noise. They must have very hard skulls!

From there, the car and trailer came home briefly but then had to head for our horse-rescue lady friend's place to go buying hay and straw for the big, impressive Irish Cob gelding (Murphy) she rescued, who is now in a nearby livery/racing stable. At this point there was a brief hiatus when a phone call from T McC told us that he "thought he had a swarm". This from his biggest hive, which we'd actually cracked open yesterday. We'd found queen-cells but had been unable to locate the queen. At the time of his call he'd been imspecting a different hive and had suddenly noticed that the air was full of flying bees - the swarm was on! Now, 'Murphy's Mum' is quite keen to get into bees, so I wondered would she like to come along, out of curiosity, to watch the action, en route to the hay-shop. We ended up being given bee-veils by T McC (and, in my case the video camera) so we rather nervously (aware of our bare arms etc) watched and video'd as he got to work. By now the swarm had coalesced around the queen in a nearby hawthorn tree so we watched (and filmed) a pretty impressive loppering of bush and gathering up of the swarm in a basket, then T walked across to a hive he had ready and tipped the basket full of bees into the hive. We both may be inept beginners who happily laugh at our clumsy blundering efforts but this time it seems he got the queen and the bees in the basket/hive were straight way "fanning". When the workers have landed and are happy with their location they fan off volatile 'pheromones' (scents and chemical hormones) to call all the other bees 'home'. In this case they fanned both their own smell and some queen pheromone (9-ODA) out into the air and quickly gathered all the flying bees and the ones still left milling in the hawthorn bush to them and in an hour or so, seemed to be settled in the new hive, so that T could make his way happily to Dublin to do his own voting. I am going round tomorrow just to check on the new hive and make sure there are bees coming and going. Job Done.

Hay for Horses? Murphy's Mum is just finished working.
The posh tweed coat and strappy pink sandals may not be
the most sensible attire - open toes that close to Murphy's
great big hooves!
From there, off to the hay-shop with Murphy's Mum and then round to the local livery stables to meet the famous 'Murphy', a huge Irish Cob she rescued. Poor MM was just out of work and still in her posh dress, coat and strappy sandals, so it might have been a bit unfair to take her off swarm-wrangling and then horse attending but Murphy is a calm lad with a quiet power and does not skitter about stomping on people's feet uninvited. We got him out to the sand-school, delivered the hay, changed his bedding and stabled him up again without drama.

Meanwhile we are having some fun bedding in the new cat. The three terriers are still in 'mink' mode and think that any slinky black furry creature is game for a three-dog assault, so we are keeping 'Soldier' in a separate (locked) room for now and doing the rehabilition in a series of controlled sessions with dogs on leads or (singly) with grab-able collars. The cat has been no problem - Blue and he are now the best of friends and play like Blue used to with the late Rolo, but Soldier has not yet learned of the need to get up somewhere high when the dogs get a bit feisty. It will work, but it's not going to be a quick fix.

Getting into some Greek food care of a Lidl promo.
Clockwise from top, Squid, green beans in tomato sauce,
 filo parcels with feta and spinach, 'dolmades' (rice wrapped
in vine leaves) and garlic mushrooms.
The broody Buff Orpington in the Tígín has had her hatch(es). We have seen her off the nest with one chick and suspect that she may have another under her skirts. Unfortunately she hopped off with these (?) two during the night and the remaining eggs were well chilled by the morning, so that might be it. Still, the one we have definitely seen looks like a pure-bred Buff, so it will be quite charming to watch mother and daughter(s).

The count on the Referendum does not start till 10:00 tomorrow and the results are expected by about midday, so at least we can get a good night's sleep after all this drama and Liz only needs to be glued to the internet and TV for the morning.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

The Complete Tail

Burning the old broken end of your muck fork out of the
metal socket by sticking it in the range over night.
Our cold winds and haily, showery weather look ready to make this the coldest, most miserable May anyone can remember. I don't think the temperatures have topped 12 or 13ºC all month and the bee keepers at our meeting last night in Longford were saying that their hives are not getting any 'flow'. This is the word they use to descibe the huge in-pouring of nectar which foraging bees can bring to a hive when the suitable flowers are out - you get a "dandelion honey-flow" or a "horse chestnut flow".

New toys! Sheep shears.
This year, though, everyone is waiting for the hawthorn (they call it 'whitethorn' here) flow to start and they are wryly commenting that it is 19th May and not a whitethorn flower open yet! So little nectar and pollen is coming into the hives that the nutrition in it is going straight into the brood comb for the young larvae. There is little left over for the bees to stash away in the honey-comb for stores. On the plus side, the colonies will be slower to swarm, if they have that in the back of their minds.

New toys - sheep shears and a butcher's bone-cutting saw.
There is also better weather forecast. I'll be happy if the chilly wind just eases off - I'm not too worried about the showers. I am well set up with my raised beds as regards drainage and not having to walk on the seedbeds, so as long as it has not actually been torrential overnight I can work. I get down there with my knee pads and hunker down in the 'trenches' between the raised beds, protected a bit by the hawthorn hedge and the tall stuff like purple sprouting broccoli, artichokes and raspberries and I'm warm enough. Only when I stand up to lug a full weed bucket to the compost do I get reminded of how bloomin' cold it is.

The rather alarming business end of those shears. 
They say you are never too old to learn something new, and yesterday, down in the 'allotment' I took on one more grain of gardening know-how; one of those which is obvious when you think about it but had not occurred. Back in April, with frost forecast, we raced to throw some protection over the newly emerging 'baby' asparagus crowns. I used some hay, being the first thing that came to hand. When the frost was done, I left it there thinking it would do no harm. Yesterday I went to see why the thriving shoots, which I had been so anxious to protect, were not now doing anything and noticed one keeled over with obvious slug/snail tongue-rasp marks. Pulling up the old damp hay, I found, to my horror, Slug-Central - dozens of the little critters hiding under all that nice warm damp hay and presumably feasting on my precious asparagus overnight. Moral: if you use hay to protect plants from frost, take it up again when it warms up.

Mary's face showing her intriguing white eyelashes
New toys for 2015; we have invested in a set of sheep shears and a butcher's bone-cutting saw. I plan to learn to shear this year so that I am not beholden to a neighbouring farmer or sheepy colleague remembering to invite my 2 or 3 girls over to be included in their mass-shearing. People here use traveling contractors who drive from farm to farm with portable pens, shearing 'stages' and shears. They expect to be doing dozens or hundreds of sheep and the economics don't work if you only have three, so small holders like me would normally try to sneak in on shearing day with our few.

Isabelle (nearest camera) and Mary.
This works as long as your host-farm remembers you and as long as you get warning to keep your sheep indoors to make sure they are dry - you cannot shear wet sheep. In the case of Mayo-Liz, we have also been promised that if we turn up on shearing day, the "bloke doesn't mind" showing anyone how it's done and giving them a small master-class training session with plenty sheep to practise on. I am wondering whether to go with that this time for training purposes, or whether to shear mine if I get a dry three days and go for the practise anyway.

The bone saw was a bit of a luxury and quite pricey but anyone who has tried to use a standard carpenter's hack-saw on bone will know that it is very necessary if you want to butcher up your half-carcass in a reasonable time. Hack saw blades quickly clog with bone shards and bits of membrane and sinew. A bone saw blade has teeth of a special size and shape designed to shed this debris and allow the blade to keep working.

A first chick hatches under the broody Buff in the Tígín
We are still very much enjoying the pigs. They are complete charmers. I am intrigued by Mary's face, which has the big white stripe up her snout but also a bright 'spray' of white eyelashes on her right eye. The other side, and all Isabelle's eyelashes are black. Pigs also have a bristly row of hairs above the lashes as a thin 'eyebrow'. I also love their curly tails which are always in motion being unwound and wound up again as they move about and which they wag like a dog to show pleasure. Our Tamworths last year had had their tails either bitten off or docked when they were tiny, so that we only got a few inches of curl, but Mary and Isabelle's are intact.

Thereby hangs a tail.
Finally, 'breaking news' just today, as the first baby chick hatches under the broody Buff Orpington in the Tígín. This is something of a relief, as the girl had cruised past due date (Saturday) and then Sunday and Monday too, looking a bit more agitated but never letting those little cheep-cheep noises out from under her skirts. Today she hopped off the nest to go do her toilet just as I went out for a check, and I spotted the new chick. Unfortunately, there is also one in there who didn't make it - you can see the rather mashed looking egg directly behind the new chick in the pic. This was a fully formed, almost hatched, but dead and stiff chick who never quite escaped the egg for whatever reason. Mum is back on the nest now with the baby but without the dead one, so maybe she will tempt some more out overnight.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Cirrhosis of the River

Sparks and Co take to the water, 2015
Readers who have been with me for a while now, will know of our love of canals and all things narrow-boat; there have been many posts (e.g. from our Kent days covering our family holidays with the Silverwoods in hired boats. We did them every year for a few years and loved every one of them. They are one of the (few) things we miss about our UK 'dinky*' lives. Well, for all of those years and many before and since, bro-in-law 'Sparks' has also been doing the boating thing but his was always Irish style.

Entering the Albert Lock on Jamestown Canal. 
No narrow canals here and few decent wider ones, so here they take to the huge and long River Shannon and, instead of our 7 foot wide, 56 foot long 'buses', they go out in enormous gin-palace look-alike River Cruisers. Sparks and a gang of his work mates (not always the same lads; they tend to rotate in and out of the idea) have been doing this now for 14 years or so, always in May. When they started these were, apparently, rather lairy 'booze cruises' and became known as the annual "Cirrhosis of the River" trip. Now, of course (cough) they are all much more sensible and mature, have kids, families, mortgages and a reduced ability to recover from 'benders', plus they are all mad keen foodies and cooks. They compete with each other to serve up the best food in the galley and chug down stream as a group of gourmets, snacking on home-made pork-crackling and the like.

Crazy fools let me steer!
One of these trips coincided with the end of the house-build here and I can remember us putting in some 15 hour days trying to get some jobs finished in time to let Sparks away to Carrick for the start of it, and he has asked us every year to come and meet them at the boat's latest moorings. So far we had not managed it even though, as they pass through Carrick, they are only half an hour's drive from here. This year we determined to correct that and finally got to see them, look round the boat and, absolute icing on this boaty cake, joined them for a bit of a cruise up the river.

Familiar role. Liz waits while the Lock fills.
Our job was to arrive at the Albert Lock on Jamestown Canal at 3 p.m. on the Saturday (16th May). We decided to come provisioned up, so we packed bags full of eggs (goose and chicken), chutney, tomato and chilli 'jam', honey and a specially baked honey and orange polenta cake, plus called by Tesco to get them a bottle of red and a bottle of white. They seemed quite pleased to see us (!) - no seriously, the lads welcomed us aboard enthusiastically and were immediately great 'craic' and excellent company. We left the car at the lock knowing that the 45 minute cruise up into Carrick could be 'undone' by a 15 minute, reasonably priced taxi ride. These hire boats, even opened up on the wide river where nobody cares about wake and wash, will still only do about 7 knots, so you don't get far from your car even if you go at it all afternoon.

An apéritif on the 'sun deck'? It might look warm but that's
a chilly wind across that open water.
So, full of nostalgia for the gazillions of do-it-yourself locks on the Pennines, we entered the Albert Lock and waited while the Lock Keeper secured everybody to his satisfaction, took their money and then did his thing with gates and sluices. We were off up the canal and then out into the hugely wide, open river, the lead boat of a little short-term convoy of 3 boats from the same hire company (Emerald Star). When signed up 'Skipper' Tony suggested I take a turn at the driving, I was in like Flynn.

I used to do 99% of the 'driving' on our narrow boat trips (I was always 'volunteered' but I wasn't complaining) so I spent 99% of the time we were in motion standing up at the back of the boat, a noisy diesel yammering away just below my feet. tiller in my hand, open to the elements; lovely in the sunshine but get that poncho/cape on a bit quick if it started raining. I did plenty of driving while soaked to the skin. These river cruisers are a completely different kettle of fish. You get to steer using a big, chrome steering wheel, in a comfortable seat and at the front fo the boat. You have a choice of driving seats - up aloft or down in a cozy, waterproof cockpit with a proper windscreen and even windscreen wipers. The lads had even developed a code for 'take over below' when it rained - drop the joystick into neutral and thump twice on the deck with your foot. Then you can nip down the companionway and out of the rain. Luxury!

Sparks at the 'indoor' controls.
So, we had a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday afternoon messing about on the river, picnicking on fine cheese and wine with the lads and just enjoying the company and relaxation of superb people. Thank you very much Sparks for letting us on board and we hope you enjoy the remainder of your break. We bade them farewell as they snatched a public mooring right in the middle of Carrick and they wandered off into town, amused by the 30-40 party-dressed young ladies tottering off a hire-able party-boat in their heels and short skirts, clutching part-drunk pints of lager, part of a Hen Night which looked like it was already well under way at about 5 pm. We headed for the nearby big hotel in pursuit of a taxi to take us back to the lock.

Chased up the Shannon by two similar hire-boats.
We are determined to do it all again next year if Sparks is 'playing' and the tradition of Cirrhosis of the River makes it to 2016. Even though we are not now in a position to do the old style family narrow boat weeks or fortnights (finance and livestock 'babysitting') we do dream that one day, in our dotage, Liz and I might nip over there and hire a little 2-berth from Shire Cruisers of Sowerby Bridge, who served us so well for many years just has Sparks has been looked after by Emerald Star of Carrick. If you've not tried these holidays but always hankered after a bit of river-based 'messing', then do yourself a favour and sort one out just so you know how much fun they can be.

Sparks and Liz (Tony behind) moor the boat up in Carrick at
the end of our little outing.
* DINKY - Dual Income No Kids (Yet)

Friday 15 May 2015

Yes Equality

"Yes Equality" badge (in Irish)
Be my guest. You may read this blog from 'cover to cover', from November 2006 to now if you insist, but you will find very little politics in it. I have posted recently that political issues do not get any space here although, behind the scenes, Liz particularly can sometimes get quite engaged and does the all-nighters on election nights. Full engagement does happen occasionally - we are not hermits and we feel acutely our democratic responsibilities. Liz went marching round London for the Not-In-My-Name anti-war demos, for example but these are the exception rather than a full time 'hobby'.

At the 'Yes Equality' open public meeting.
I make an exception this time for an issue which has us both engaged, that of the imminent Constitutional Referendum on Equal Marriage rights. I should quickly add that I am no expert and am only recently 'over here'  and, further, I am here giving you my own personal opinions which may not match even Liz's, let alone our wider circle. Feel free to comment on this blog if you like. UK readers may also be unaware that this republic, unlike the UK, has a written constitution agreed and installed in 1937 which can only be changed by a Public Referendum in which the government itself cannot even take sides.

Ireland has been chugging along following the rest of Europe through the stages towards Gay Rights and modern marriage law (legalizing divorce, allowing Civil Partnerships and so on) but is always held back by a strong Catholic Church influence, with congregations of Mass-goers often being preached at from the pulpit about which way to vote. Homosexuality was only de-criminalised as recently as 1993 and the Divorce Referendum finally squeaked through positive by a margin of 50.3% to 49.7%. Currently if you are gay, you are allowed to have a Civil Partnership but not the full monty, actual 'Marriage' as defined in the Constitution. These referenda have lately gone with the youth-filled cities voting one way, while the rural areas have often resisted the changes and our local bar-man was chatting to us last night about how all the young ones had left the village for Canada and Australia so that it'd would have to be a "city vote" again to count.

The Church is hanging onto its waning influence as hard as it can but the country is slowly leaving it behind and it has done itself no favours in terms of clinging to the moral high ground with the recent revelations about the appalling treatment of single mothers by the "Magdalene Laundries" and the official cover-ups of child abuse by priests. The Catholic church was never an official 'Established' church but it has been to all intents, so that Government leaders have become anxious to distance themselves - The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) says he is a Leader who happens to be a Catholic, rather than a Catholic Leader.

As with all these issues, one big problem will be voter apathy. Liz was showing me that even in the UK General Election just passed, the result went the way it went largely because the Labour voters did not bother to head for the polling stations; the maps of who DIDN'T vote constituency by constituency were as revealing as the maps of who did! That is where we might come in. I am a Brit. so I am not allowed to vote in this one but we are allowed to fight for 'our side' by supporting their efforts and canvassing to try to get the people out who are wavering on whether it is worth voting.

The beech trees in the pig area come
into full leaf.
We have gay friends and gay relatives as well as knowing plenty of young ones who might turn out to be gay and/or who will have children who will inherit the results of these votes. We can not bear that anyone is treated as a second class citizen; lesser people if you like. "We are straight and have designed this Marriage thing but it is too good for the likes of you, so you can have this nearly-as-good Civil Partnership?" In the Constitution, Marriage gives many rights, especially around those of bereaved or separated partners, which are denied to Civil Partners. Civil Partnership is a construct in Law outside the Constitution. As Kevin Cross, the Chair of the Independent Referendum Commission says, "Civil Partners only have legal protection. Legal protection is something that can be changed, amended, whittled down by act of the (Government)". Many people would be thinking that you would only need a Catholic 'fundamentalist' to get into a government position and suddenly their 'piece of paper' is in shreds. So the Referendum is down to one simple change, that the Constitution be changed by the addition of the sentence, "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex". Polling is next Friday, 22nd May. We will be watching the count (on 23rd) with interest. What ever next - voting rights in Referenda for we 2nd-class non-nationals?