Digging deep for Macra memories in Rathmines

Flatland central was not short of sons and daughters of the soil

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves’. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves’. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

As you probably haven’t heard by now, today is World Soil Day, a UN-designated event to remind us of the importance of the stuff beneath our feet, too often taken for granted.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves”. Or as Henry A Wallace – US farmer, journalist, and vice-president under FD Roosevelt – put it, more ominously: “People in cities may forget the soil for as long as a hundred years, but Mother Nature’s memory is long and she will not let them forget indefinitely.”

The need to remind city people about it (before they die) may explain why the main Irish contribution to the event is happening in Rathmines, a Dublin suburb where visible specimens of soil are scarcer than in most parts of the country, having disappeared under Ireland’s most lucrative crop: rental accommodation.

Not that this is a recent development in those parts. On the contrary, Soilfest 2019, which will take place in the Mart Gallery on Rathmines Road, is already evoking memories of my own bedsit years in Dublin 6.

Whatever about the stuff itself then, the area was not short of sons and daughters of the soil. Rathmines was flatland central, but so were its alliterative neighbours Rathgar and Ranelagh.

And it was from this triangle that arose, during the mid 1980s, a thing called Treble R Macra na Feirme, of which I became a member and even, for a time, chairman.

It was a bit of an oddity: an agriculturally themed club whose membership was almost by definition landless and included quite a few Dubliners who wouldn’t have known the back end of a cow from the front but, having outgrown the official youth-clubs of their suburbs and lacking a similar social outlet for twentysomethings, sought asylum among the rural expats.

Outnumbered

I can say that one of the big attractions for most of the men involved is that we were outnumbered at least four to one by female members. What the women got out of it is less clear, although for many it was a way of killing a night or two mid-week before they religiously caught the bus home on Fridays.

In any case, it was for several years the biggest Macra club in Ireland. And however ineptly, we entered all the many competitions the national body organised. We did well in things like debating, drama, and seven-a-side football. But we struggled at “Farm Tasks” – that’s why we were in Dublin, after all. And our attempts at sheep-judging were an annual embarrassment.

Everywhere we went outside the city, meanwhile, we carried the dubious mantle of Dubs. It didn’t matter where we were from before that.

Visiting Meath or Cork or Tipperary, we were now representatives of big-city imperialism, to be done down whenever possible. I remember finishing third once in a public speaking competition and overhearing one of the runners-up (from Clare), disconsolate in defeat, finding the consolation that “at least we beat those f**kers from Dublin”.

Cross-Country Quiz

Another event I found myself competing in during those years was Cross-Country Quiz, a sort of University Challenge for Culchies. It once rivalled the Late Late Show as among the most watched programmes on Irish television.

Alas by the time we did it, RTÉ had reduced coverage to only semi-finals and final.

Although we reached the quarter finals a few times, like the Irish rugby team, we always lost there. But one of the perks of living in the city is that we were invited out to take part in the “dry runs” – dress-rehearsals before the actual TV recordings – so at least we had the vicarious glory of being put through our paces by Richard Crowley (who had succeeded original host Peter Murphy), as he prepared himself for the proper anoraks.

Another, more traumatic memory of those years that has just resurfaced was of a debate in UCD one night. It must have been against the agricultural science students. But all I can recall of it now is that it was the rowdiest audience I have ever experienced anywhere, before or since.

I only mention it here because today’s event, which runs from 3pm to 8pm, is hosted by the Soil Science Society of Ireland, which is also based in UCD. Still, I’m sure Soilfest 2019 will be a much more cultivated affair – pardon the pun. Full details of the free talks, films, and art exhibits are at Eventbrite.ie

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