If I were a young man, hungry for the buzz of urban living but not the indifference of a big and boundless city, a student spell in Galway and then a job there would seem ideal.
Even as traffic clogs its roundabouts, and the old limestone heartland darkens again with rain, Galway’s relationship with landscape and ocean is rare and right, its nautical mood an uplifting span from the worst of the modern world.
It also, of course, has a vibrant cultural pulse, a university tuned to the wild nature on its doorstep, and an appetite for youthful ideas. An impressive range of these is gathered in the 100 pages of A Vision for Galway 2030 (avisionforgalway2030.wordpress.com). Launched by the mayor before Christmas and now smartly packaged and linked online, it is the work of Transition Galway, an environmental group with a gift for engaging the public in "solutions" for a low-carbon urban future.
Its eight chapters, on everything from energy and economics to fishing and transport, reflect much graduate expertise from the lead authors of Transition Galway. The one I headed for holds the broader “green” ideas on food production and local self-sufficiency. It took me back to the 1970s and my own small experiments on the land. How long all these sensible notions have been around! How enduring, inspiring – and how slow to take effect, short of today’s climate crisis.
There are exceptions in almost half a century. Moving to our Mayo acre, we had a good friend in Michael Dillon of Co Kildare, a familiar farming voice on radio and television. Organic farming, as he saw it, would just split society into those who could afford free-range eggs and those who couldn't – without battery hens the poor would starve.
He had a point. But “organic” is everywhere in the Galway vision for food production, as it is in today’s supermarkets.
So too are more allotments, vegetables in back gardens, on balconies, windowsills and rooftops, even “edible” public parks with food plants and fruit trees for everyone to harvest. (“Dig up the lawn” was my own urging in a column of the mid-1980s, an earlier point of national misery.)
When I first confronted the acre’s thistles, in the late 1970s, something called “permaculture” had made its way from origins in Australia. It offered – indeed still inspires – the intelligent use of productive space and clever designs for sustainable food supply. I wish I’d followed its principles (there’d be fewer weeds), and here it is again as anchor to the Galway vision.
Here too is bringing back horses for “renewable, low-impact, alternative energy” on small-scale farms (and renting out for weddings and funerals). And composting toilets for useful fertiliser. And growing hemp and flax for natural fibre, moon-led biodynamic farming and quiet public places for pauses to clear the mind.
So many hardy notions, once the province of “hippies” and counterculture ecologists, have endured through the slow awakening to environmental threats. They make even more sense now, with so much energy spent in transporting foods, for greedy supermarket seasons, from every corner of the globe.
Offstage in the Galway document, but linked through associated films (transitiongalway.wordpress.com) is Rob Hopkins, charismatic founder of the Transition Towns movement. Born in the UK but with seven years teaching permaculture at Kinsale Further Education College, in Co Cork, he has been a leading activist promoting local "resilience" to peak-oil and climate change.
His Kinsale permaculture students have produced a low-energy plan supported by the town council (transitiontownkinsale.org) and then, in 2005, Hopkins moved to Totnes, in Devon, to promote similar action there (transitiontowntotnes.org).
This was the focus of his 2011 PhD study on “how to get stuff done”. The problem was not a suspected lack of skills or community cohesion but the gap between people’s declared sympathies and intentions and what they actually do.
His movement’s main contribution, Hopkins concluded, was in selling resilience “not as a state of preparedness for disaster, but as a desired characteristic of a sustainable society . . . more in control of its food and energy production [and enabling] inward financial investment”. Local, self-reliant food and more jobs were what, in particular, made sense to many.
In Galway, the Galway City Community Forum acts, remarkably, as the collective, representative voice of 245 community and voluntary organisations. In the “Vision” ideas, this forum would be expanded and have a greater role in council policy. The city council would, as in Totnes, adopt a motion to become a “council in transition”, with resilience and sustainability central to all its work and planning, and specialist training for some of its staff.
Is this how the counterculture goes mainstream? It does seem to leave aside the Irish political scene as we have known it. But, on privileged occasions, I have loved watching the Corrib river rush under the cathedral bridge, and bright salmon pushing their way against the flow.
Michael Viney's Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks