In Defence of Kundera’s Absurdity

(Published in Village Magazine, November/December 2015)

Portentousness is the word that best describes most Anglo-American literary criticism. The canon seems to demand erudition and a knowing hauteur loaded with an impression of being slightly jaded by the cocktail party circuit. That at least is the tone favoured by the Times Literary Supplement whose reviewers tend to devour books as A. A. Gill does restaurants.

Attending functions when I wrote for The London Magazine (a lesser breed of the same genus) I encountered a few of London’s bottom-feeding literati, one of whom I bitterly recall communally ordering wine that adorned a list purely to capture the foolish largesse of a patron. Here one of Dr Johnson’s aphorisms seems apposite: “criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” Best to go Dutch at such soirees.

After enjoying without entirely comprehending the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera’s latest book The Festival of Insignificance I noticed a review of it by Michael Hoffman in the Time Literary Supplement. Notwithstanding the mortal sin of referring to another’s review, Hoffman’s excoriation was so venomous that I was inspired to share my own reaction. His article culminates in the assessment that: “It reads like something one of Kundera’s enemies might have written, and passed off as his”. This was a hatchet job of Viking proportions.

Prior to casually dismembering the corpse with the grubby gusto of a journalist on a junket, he dismisses the oeuvre of one of the most original novelists of the last century in surprisingly gastronomic terms as: “addictive, moreish, still fresh, thin textured, a little unsatisfying (perhaps that goes with their addictiveness) and obvious.” It was as if Gill had been asked to assess Nando’s menu.

Perhaps Kundera’s real crime in the eyes of many of the Anglo-American literary elite is to have declared himself a French author, and written a number of novels in that language. With some foundation French culture is now roundly dismissed as decadent and trapped in recollection of past glory, although Michel Houellebecq makes a virtue of this. The idea of an unadulterated émigré Czech writer is far more appealing, but, like Samuel Beckett, Kundera has found expression in the language of his adopted country, and his work may be more interesting for that cross-fertilization.

Like all good (it is hasty to ascribe greatness at this historical juncture) writers of fiction, Kundera shines a light on universal human traits. Eschewing conventional structure in favour of fractured tales, the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. As in real life, grand narratives are not apparent but overlapping, quotidian sequences. Within that schema he distils ideas that shines an elusive light on eternal truths. This might be the addictive quality Hoffman describes but really the compulsion arises from sublime observations on the human experience seemingly obvious but actually quite original.

My favourite example remains his exposition on litost, in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it …”

Kundera expands on its meaning by way of anecdote.

She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student [the boy] made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country road. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face.”

Acute awareness of what he does grudgingly translate as: “a state of torment brought upon by the realization of one’s inadequacy or misery,” helps us understand the origin of so much anger and the antidote to it. Kundera turns an isolated word in a minor European language into a near-universal susceptibility. In literature a mark of genius is to make the original seem obvious. We become one with the writer.

Kundera’s most recent work does leave an impression of incompleteness compared to previous more substantial novels but certainly not to the extent of Hoffman’s outlandish assessment. It contains a number of powerful insights: first there is his development of the archetype of the Narcissus that might serve as a lesson to some clever men who cannot understand how an objective of desire resists their advances.

He writes:

‘When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine, to not give herself without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible …

The Narcissus on the other hand is not proud:

‘A proud man has disdain for other people, he undervalues them. The Narcissus overvalues them, because in every person’s eyes he sees his own image, and wants to embellish it. So he takes care of all his mirrors.

The Narcissus is thus reduced to a person of little significance, the unlikely partner, his skill like that of a successful spy who gets under the covers almost unobserved. He the subject sees a reflection of himself in the object of his desire, and his interlocutor is content with that unchallenging proposition. Kundera fails to say if this works both ways.

Like many of his novels The Festival of Insignificance meanders. Characters pop in and out without a complete picture of anyone emerging: like the failed actor who along with a friend develops a pseudo-Pakistani language complete with a grammatical structure to make his job as a waiter less tedious; then there is a character who for no particular reason tells a friend that he is dying from cancer; we also meet a woman who is saved from suicide and in the process accidentally takes the life of her saviour.

Much of the book defies simple interpretation especially the surreal closing sequence. Perhaps in his dotage Kundera is simply telling us to revel in absurdity, the main forum of which is joking with friends, confiding at one point “in my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: friendship”. One of his characters says: “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.” We might consider this a sign of his Kundera’s decadence, but for Czechs of his generation humour could be an act of defiance against a totalitarian state.

For lurking in the background is the figure of Joseph Stalin of whom we gain glimpses, apparently, from the memoirs of Khrushchev, though it would not be beyond Kundera to make this all up. In his account Stalin spends much of his time humiliating his entourage for his amusement especially the unfortunate Kalinin. But he discovered at a certain point: “nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is.” And in Kundera’s view: “that’s the beginning of a whole new period of history.”

As a Czech born in 1929 and living in that country until 1975 Kundera cannot escape that shadow of Stalinism. He himself had his academic career impeded in the 1950s. He may embrace his less troubled new home but the memory of that fearful epoch cannot be dismissed. The “whole new period of history” are those decades when lightness and frivolity were lost. Perhaps he’s saying that we must uphold that in the face of all the hypocrisy today.

In this short book there are various themes that a reader might be drawn to. Ignored in this review is the attention he pays to the significance of the sexualisation of the navel or how humanity is divided into apologisers and those whose instinct is to go on the attack. There is plenty to muse on and its disembowelment is misplaced.

Moreover, it seems perverse for a critic to read the oeuvre of a writer seemingly with the intention of devouring it, as a defence council would a prosecution case in a court of law. To earn a living critics are compelled to read a book, view a film or eat in a restaurant, but many turn it into an unedifying blood sport.

The poet and scholar Kathleen Raine wrote in Defending Ancient Springs: “The power to perceive the beautiful arises from a quality of consciousness: something forever inaccessible to the apparatus criticus, which can be manipulated by persons who do not possess this quality at all”. She adds that: “At best scholarship, by placing in our hands knowledge which we should not otherwise possess, can fit us to read the works of the poets, to decipher what they have written.” Sadly literary criticism is often a platform for the unbridled ego. Kundera’s latest novel attests to the untamed imagination of the author.

Dining in Dublin: the good, the bad and the inedible

(Lecture delivered in the Little Museum of Dublin, December 2013)

We humans put a lot of store in food and its symbolic value. In fact our picky and refined approach distinguishes us from other primates who tend to retreat into a hidden corner to devour their fare.

But modern technology such as televisions, smart phones and tablets seems to be changing this. The anthropologist Jack Goody is scathing of the modern habit of avoiding social engagement while eating. A solitary form of consumption he says reverses the customary habit of ‘public input and private output’, making eating alone ‘the equivalent of shitting publicly’.

For that reason alone, meals are a crucial component in our lives and it is puzzling that the subject of food tends to be ignored in mainstream history. Although that is changing as historians begin to recognize the crucial importance of this univeral component of all human life. As the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote: ‘it is the common bond which unites the nations of the world in reciprocal exchanges of objects serving for daily consumption.’

Indeed, any religious festival or life event that I can think of is marked by a feast or meal of some description. Food is both symbol and nutrition.

It is interesting to consider the origin of the dining table which is ‘descended from the sacrificial altars that were used to make offerings to the gods.’

French sociologist Bernard Kaufmann argues that its presence in the family-home, dating back to the 18th century, helped to produce the modern family, and certainly the arrangement, often hierarchically and in designated positions, of family members around a single table achieves a sense of togetherness that haphazard seating around a room will never achieve. This is played out in almost every restaurant experience.

We turn now to the emergence of the restaurant in eighteenth century France.

Before it gained popularity there was the simple table d’hote where a traiteur would present a large pot to the assembled diners who arrived at the appointed hour. This presented difficulties as agreed conventions were lacking on how diners would participate. The agronomist Arthur Young, travelling around France at the end of the 18th century, bemoaned the rudeness of greedy table-companions in hostelries throughout that country, saying that ‘the ducks were swept clean so quickly that I moved from the table without half a dinner’. An ascending bourgeois class were looking for something more recherché.

The restaurant was originally a place where medicinal broths were consumed and derives its names from the French verb ‘to restore’ or ‘to recuperate’. These originally specialised in medicinal broths.

The bourgeoisie found the experience they sought through the adaptation of the restaurant In her history, The Invention of the Restaurant (2000), Rebecca Sprang recalls how the restaurants of 18th century Paris differentiated themselves from other eateries by offering sustenance at any time of day, allowing for individualised portions in contrast to the traiteurs. Eventually restaurants began to offer more solid fare, thereby encroaching on the traiteurs.

The strict laws regulating the division of business between the different food guilds in France in the 18th century led to friction, culminating in a landmark court case in which the restaurateurs carried the day. This allowed the restaurant-style of eating, ‘characterized not by commonwealth but by compartmentalization’, to emerge as the dominant form of eating-out in the Western world.

Today, European restaurants invariably ‘plate’ each dish before presentation to the individual customer a style known as service a la Russe which replaced the more medieval display of service a la Francaise at the end of the nineteenth century. The elitist quality of the restaurant experience was part of its appeal. Indeed according to Sprang, the ‘restaurant fantasy implicitly required the presence of somebody outside: some poor devil with his nose pressed to the window’.

Thus, for our purposes a restaurant is more than merely an establishment where food is served. It involves the refinements of individual seating and usually separate portions for each individual. It also involves table service. A restaurant is synonymous with French food, though not exclusively. The dominance of French models is definitely apparent in the early history of Dublin restaurants, though this has clearly changed in recent decades.

Apart from the chefs, waiting staff and often indulgent investors, the most important person to a restaurant’s livelihood is the food critic. A bad review can sink a restaurant while praise can bring customers flooding in to the next big thing.

A food critic is also known as a gastronome and the first of this kind was Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière who wrote his Almanach des Gourmands in the wake of the Revolution.

He issued his pronouncements in the name of tradition as a member of the departed ancien regime. The son of a rich farmer-general, in his early life he displayed liberal tendencies but became disillusioned with the new order, condemning ‘everything that is despicable and vile; there in two words you have the Revolution’. He asserts: ‘I will never be the friend of a democrat. It is atrocious that men of letters should think as the majority do today (MacDonogh, 1997, p.203)’. According to his biographer MacDonogh (1987 p.41), he began to write about food after being told to write about something harmless or give up altogether. In this medium he ‘masked his vicious attacks behind harmless idioms’. Gastronomy became a vehicle for his reactionary views. An awareness of ‘good’ food revealed the true aristocrat. After the Revolution he founded what he referred to as a Jury des Degustateurs, and between 1803 and 1812 set about writing his Almanach des Gourmands. The aristocratic display of pre-Revolutionary France could re-emerge in the new forum of the public restaurant.

The gastronome in his most evolved form is not a professional cook. He is a man of letters. His real table is not the one where he eats but the one where he writes. It is with the flourish of the pen that they achieve success rather than through the extent of their knowledge as ultimately the gastronome is not the one who knows the most but the one who speaks best.

Curnonsky, the pen name of the great French food critic Maurice Edmond Sailland who was elected Prince Elect of Gastronomy by Le Soir magazine in 1927 describes the role as follows:

‘There are those who stare with gluttonous resentment, and those who snap impatient fingers at every passing waiter: those who flap huge newspapers in their companions’ faces, and those who shake defiant powder-puffs in their neighbours soup; those who devour bread to repletion, and those who chat so gaily, to the restaurant at large. But there are others, a chosen few who, having developed to a fine degree the study of physiognomy and, coupling this with a skilled pen or pencil, combine their talents in lightning sketches on the tablecloth.’

Pascal Ory poses the question “Does the chef make the gastronome or vice versa?

While it is clear is that culinary evolution is largely independent of gastronomic evaluation, without an audience chefs are unlikely to innovate. Just like if we cook only for ourselves we tend not to perform heroics, a cook without a responsive audience might take a functional approach. But innovation and high standards become an imperative when the food critic is there to evaluate. Even if they have nothing but contempt for the breed, virtuoso chefs usually require the validation of critical approval, and boundaries are only broken when gastronomes are there to describe them as such. More to the point, the imprimatur of the critic brings great rewards. Perhaps unfairly the pen is often mightier than the kitchen knife.

This lecture will thus include a short evaluation of the role of food criticism, restaurant criticism in particular, that elevated the standard of Irish food. Food criticism also serves as a vital primary source for what these Dublin restaurants were like.

Now, turning to the subject matter of the history of Dublin restaurants. What does that conjure in our minds?

I must admit that growing up in a reasonably affluent Dublin household I did not have a huge exposure. We went to restaurants or trattoria when we were on holidays in France or Italy, there might be the odd meal in restaurant like Da Vincenzo for a special occasion or the odd illicit and sometimes regrettable Chinese dinner but there was no recognisable Irish food culture evident in Dublin until the 1990s. Hiberno-French restaurants like Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud’s or Thornton’s were not family restaurants, although somewhere like Roly’s Bistro did create a wider diffusion of French dining habits, albeit at prices that would have excluded most. However, as time went by I did encounter some of the more fashionable restaurants and I even worked in one called Mint whose chef Dylan McGrath became the enfant terrible of the Irish restaurant scene before he became the sympathetic and health-conscious individual we know today: but more of that later.

As you will know Dublin was the second city of the British Empire until end of the eighteenth century. After the Act of Union of 1801 many of the prosperous land owners departed the city and, indeed, by the start of the twentieth century Belfast’s population was greater. But it retained a residual aristocracy and gentry who formed the clientele for the few restaurants that did emerge toward century’s end. However, the absence, into the twentieth century of a significant bourgeois class meant there was little demand for restaurants for those on middling incomes.

It is also perhaps unfortunate for the gastronomic inheritance of this country to be colonised by the English who Voltaire described as being a nation of 42 religions but only two sauces. It is also worth recognising that Ireland was a poor country by European standards in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. The Great Famine was among the most devastating of its kind in human history. Perhaps in response culinary celebration was muted.

There were of course places where food was purchased and consumed prior to the emergence of restaurants; many French chefs had already emigrated to Ireland to work in aristocratic households and gentlemen’s clubs by the time the first recognisable restaurant emerged in Dublin in 1861.

The Café du Paris on Lincoln Place was intriguingly linked to a Turkish baths on the same premises. They advertised both dinners ‘a la carte and table d’hote; choicest wines and liqueurs of all kinds, [and] Ices.

Any history of Dublin restaurants must linger longingly in the shadow of the legendary Jammet’s which was founded by two brothers from the Pyrennes Michel and Francois Jammet in 1901. They purchased the Burlington Restaurant and Oyster Saloon on Andrew’s Street in 1901 and renamed it Jammet’s.

Michel had been chef to the lord lieutenant so knew all about what appealed to the aristocracy whose descendents continued to patronise the establishment until its demise in 1967.

In 1908 Francois Jammet returned to Paris leaving his brother in sole charge until 1927 when he handed the reigns to his Belvedere educated son Louis. By that time it had moved to Nassau Street to the site of the Porterhouse Central where you can bop the night away. We can only imagine how Jammet’s illustrious patrons would feel about that.

One observer from the 1940s describes the interior of the restaurant: ‘the main dining room was pure French second Empire, with a lovely faded patina to the furniture, snow white linens, well cut crystal, monogrammed porcelain, gourmet sized silver-plated cutlery and gleaming decanters.’ It was the hangout for artists and the literary set such as W.B. Yeats and the Michael MacLiommar and Dudley Edwards as well as wealthy professionals and men of commerce.

The family first lived in Queen’s Park, Monkstown but moved to the sixteenth century Kill Abbey in the 1940s. There vegetables were grown for the restaurant a home grown philosophy that we are seeing increasingly in Dublin restaurant’s today.

A 1928 article in Vogue describes Jammet’s as ‘one of Europe’s best restaurants … crowded with gourmets and wits, where the sole and the grouse was divine.’

It was during the years of the Second World War that Jammet’s really came into its own as being the location for the ‘finest French cooking between the fall of France and the liberation of Paris.’ Like other Irish restaurants Jammet’s managed to evade restrictive rationing and serve customers the fare they were accustomed to.

According to one observer ‘American servicemen, cigar-chomping and in full uniform, were streaming across the neutral border to sample the fabulous food in the prodigious quantities available here.’

If Jammet’s was the location for Allied excess another long-established restaurant the Red Bank was the place of Axis intrigue. On April 22nd 1939 the German colony in Ireland celebrated the birthday of Adolf Hitler there. The Irish Times records: ‘A large portrait of Herr Hitler occupied special position in the special decorations. On either side of it were swastikas and every guest wore a swastika or Nazi party badges.’

Disturbingly in May 1940 as the Nazis Blitzkrieged through Europe, the ‘Irish Friends of Germany’ (aka the National Club) held a meeting in the restaurant that was attended by 50 people. George Griffin, veteran anti-Semite and ex Blueshirt, spoke on the subject of the ‘The Jewish Stranglehold on Ireland’. Griffin mentioned many Jews by name and went onto advocate that ‘… we should never pass a Jew on the street without openly insulting him’.

But Jewish émigrés were themselves involved in the restaurant trade and could dish out their own retribution. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold but for Austrian Jews Erwin and Lisl Strunz from Vienna it could be salty too.

They escaped from Vienna in 1938 and purchased a premises on Merrion Row which they called the Unicorn. They bought it for a song as Irish people thought the premises was haunted because W.B. Yeats had conducted séances there.

Lisl would cook her mainly Austrian dishes while Erwin entertained at the front of house. He reminisced ‘during Christmas 1940 when all the lights had gone out over Europe I played my guitar in the restaurant and sang Christmas carols and folk songs in eight languages.

But not all comers were welcome. When Edouard Hempel and his acolytes from the German legation visited Erwin became apoplectic with rage. But he kept his wits about him and calmly took their orders. Before each plates was delivered he doused each one with enough salt to clear a frosty driveway. Hempel nearly choked and the whole table walked out and never returned.

After the war the Unicorn was sold to an Italian family the Sidoli’s and it brought exotic ingredients like pasta to its Dublin clientele. It also involved females chefs which was unusual for the male dominated profession in Dublin.

Another immigrant who came to Ireland to work in the restaurant trade was Zenon Geldof a Belgian citizen who set up a restaurant called Café Belge. His grandson Bob retained an ambition to feed the world.

Steeped in the haute cuisine tradition of Escoffier Jammet’s continued to prosper after the war when it was joined by other restaurants including The Russell. Mac Con Iomaire argues that on a per capita basis in the 1950s Ireland was the gastronomic capital of the British Isles. Although this may not have been that big an achievement as by the 1950s English food has reached a nadir. Elizabeth David wrote of her experience in one English restaurant of the time: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’

Standards do not appear to have been that much higher in Ireland. One chef working at that time recalls: ‘The standard of cuisine when I was 14,15,16,-20 was poor. It was very poor. For instance the Clarence Hotel, they used to have pig cheeks on and the clergy used to come in and eat them. Pigs cheeks, and damn it all you’d get was corned beef or some bloody thing.’

Another chef was shocked when he entered one hotel kitchen: ‘It was horrible, it was the dirtiest and filthiest kitchen I had been in my whole life. I don’t know how anyone got away with it! … there were stalagmites of big black fat all around on the floor.’

This may have been because there was no serious critique of Irish restaurants until as late as the 1980s. Farmar suggests that an absolute rule among the Irish middle class in the 1960s was never to talk about food: ‘to enjoy eating as such was unbecoming to a serious person’. He quotes an American commentator who claimed cooking in Ireland was: ‘a necessary chore rather than an artistic ceremony and that in restaurants ‘nine out of ten ordered steak every time with nine out of ten ordering chips with it’(1991: 180-182).

But Dublin certainly did have fine dining establishments that were considered among the best in the world. The Russell was one of only eight restaurants that received three stars from Egon Ronay in 1963. In 1965 he wrote: ‘words fail us in describing the brilliance of the cuisine and the elegant and luxurious restaurant which must rank amongst the best in the world.’

Declan Ryan describes his time working there:

‘They [the Russell] were the greatest shower that God ever made. They fought like devils and they cooked like angels … I don’t think you’d get away with the sort of tactics he must have used on those guys today, but they could cook like magic.’

Egon Ronay was also bewitched by the retro glamour of Jammet’s ‘As if by magic the turn of the century as been fully preserved beyond the swing of the door … Space, grace, the charm of small red leather armcahairs, fin-de-siecle murals and marble oyster counters exude a bygone age. Ritz and Escoffier would feel at home here.’

But Jammet’s was not cheap. When John Lennon dined there in the early 1960s he drew a self-portrait and commented ‘the other three are saving up to come here’.

But by the end of the 1960s Dublin was changing as many of the old ascendancy who had been the patrons of restaurants like Jammets were dying out, and moreover, structural changes were occurring as an emerging bourgeois moved to suburban homes where they acquired motor cars. This jeopardised city centre establishments like Jammet’s which did not have parking facilities and it closed its doors in 1967. Unfortunately its hope of moving out to the suburbs to another premises was not realised. A form of obituary was written in the Irish Times from 1967 read:

‘The Dublin that most of know is changing. In some ways for the best; but in the process so much that gave its special character to the city has been allowed to rot or has been swept away. Rumours that Jammet’s was for sale fitted into the sad story …  it was as old as the oldest Dubliner and it represented the best of its kind when there were much fewer restaurants than it boasts today … Many who read the news of the sale of the restaurant here and abroad will be oppressed with nostalgic regret … M. Jammet [was] formerly chef to Lord Cadogan when the last but one of the expansive Viceroys returned to England. For 67 years Dublin has had evidence of how well that pro-consul did himself and his guests.’

The decade of the 1970s with its high oil prices and wealth taxes dealt a series of body blows to high class Dublin restaurants and emphasised what a precarious enterprise it is. It is instructive that only five restaurants Beaufield Mews (1950), The Unicorn (1938 but moved premises in 1960), Nicos (1964), The Lord Edward (1969) and the Trocadero (1956) date back to before the 1970s.

The 1970s witnessed a swing in gastronomic gravity to County Cork where restaurants like Arbutus Lodge, and Ballylickey and Ballymalloe houses pioneered a locavore approach that brought critical acclaim.

But Dublin still had some famous, some would say notorious, restaurants at this time many of them associated with Charles J. Haughey who despite a ‘flawed pedigree’ was a more devoted gastronome than his political rival Garret FitzGerald who claimed to eat no vegetables bar peas and white asparagus.

The appeal of these haute cuisine restaurants lay in their exclusivity, the sense that when one dined there one entered an elite world where money was no object. One restaurateur of the time was taken by surprise by the demand for fine wine: ‘They were drinking vintage port by the bottle, they were drinking 1952 brandy or Armagnac by the glass and we were just staggered.’

Perhaps this can be explained by how in an era of brown envelopes restaurant bills could always be paid for in cash.

The Mirabeau (1972-1984) in Sandycove will always be associated with its celebrit chef patron Sean Kinsella who drove a Rolls Royce and wore Louis Copeland suits. He counted Haughey as a friend and attended Christmas parties in Kinsealy, Haughey’s mansion home. Kinsella chose not to trouble prospective diners by putting prices on his menus, warning them ‘you can get by on £10 per head in The Mirabeau, but if you have to worry about the prices don’t go there.’

Kinsella describes how his restaurant operated:

‘the waiters would take the food in, in its natural state, and then I’d come in, and I’d say Mr Smith you are having your usual wine’ and he’d say: ‘oh yes Sean’ , the bloke wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but around the table, they would be saying ‘oh, yer man is a regular here’ It was psychological, now I was not going to give him a bottle of plonk and he’s not going to worry if he pays fifty or a hundred pounds for it if he is able to reciprocate the treatment that he got abroad. And then you get the other side of the coin, a chap phones me up and says to me ‘I hope to get engaged tonight’ and I say no problem come around eight, and he says there is only one problem, my fiancé and I only eat burgers’, and I say no problem, so they arrived and I told the waiter ‘don’t give them the menu, give them a bit of melon, and the main course, and give them a bit of dinner. And in the visitors book, he wrote ‘she said, yes’, and wrote ‘I’ll remember the burger’

[We might contrast this approach with the response of one famous chef to the request for a plate of chips.]

[(Optional) Kinsella continues:

‘We made people feel that they were coming into somebody’s home, either Audrey would meet them or I’d meet them … If you were there at two or three in the morning, the chairs were not being put up on the tables around you and would you mind paying your bill at the reception … We built up a relationship with customers, and if we knew a man’s wife was having a baby, Audrey would go down to St. Michael’s … with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne.]

Others were less impressed by the vulgarity of the large portions on offer and unfortunately for Kinsella the revenue commissioners may not been impressed by his rather opaque financial dealings. The restaurant went into voluntary liquidation in 1984.

Another restaurant associated with CJ was The Coq Hardi (1977) on Pembroke Road. It drew its custom from an emerging corporate class and boasted a wine cellar which was voted the best in Britain and Ireland in the Egon Ronay guide at one point. This was an excellent business strategy as wealthy customers could entertain clients with stupendously expensive bottles wines which would be put on expense accounts.

The Moriarty tribunal revealed in 1999 that Haughey accumulated huge bills at the Coq Hardi that came out of the public purse, including one year when £15,000 was spent from the ‘Leader’s Allowance’ in the restaurant.

At one point the former Taoiseach spent £500 on a bottle of 1967 Chateau d’Yquem when dining with a group of guests, who included the wine critic of a major British newspaper.

An ‘apocryphal’ story emerged about CJ treating his Cabinet to dinner at Le Coq Hardi. The then Taoiseach chose beef as his main course and when the waiter asked him “And the vegetables, sir?”, he is said to have replied: “They’ll have the same.”

But a new broom was sweeping through the Dublin restaurant scene at this time in the shape of an acerbic restaurant critic called Helen Lucy Burke.

We have discussed the importance of the critic in improving standards, and also providing critical approval for unnoticed chefs. The culinary standards of Dublin restaurants were not high in the 1970s and 1980s: it was common practice for even expensive restaurants to plate vegetables before service and microwave them when required.

Dublin restaurant did not have to endure informed and sustained criticism until Burke’s arrival on the scene. She began writing for the Sunday Tribune in 1985 and later in Magil magazine.

According to one chef of that time: ‘Lucy Burke was writing and she was causing such mayhem that people began to take notice … She was the one that really led. A lot followed you know.’

Burke recalls that she used to have to wear disguises and put on foreign accents to avoid detection. A legendary article in Magill entitled The Peacock, the Critic and the Blind Pussy revealed how even a successful chef like Conrad Gallagher could fret over Burke’s caustic pen. [the blind pussy in case you are wondering refers to the critic’s pet for whom a doggy bag was requested].

She described the offering in one restaurant in the following terms: ‘my plain green salad was tired before I started to eat it and I too became tired and left it … [while] the toast melba was like damp cardboard.

But she would praise restaurants she felt deserved it, describing one encounter as an ‘exquisite event’ and even thanking God for another restaurant she could conscientiously praise.

A favourable review could have customers streaming through the door and her words were used to advertise establishments in newspapers.

One devotee of Burke’s was CJ himself who apparently put a lot of store in Burke’s appraisals. He once met her at a party and told her that he always went to the restaurants she favourably reviewed.

When Conrad Gallagher (whose real name is Patrick – he took the name Conrad from the famous hotelier Conrad Hilton) opened Peacock Alley in 1995 he had most critics gushing with praise.

His fusion cooking breathed life into the Dublin restaurant scene. He rejected the city’s gastronomic inheritance just as many people were beginning to reject stifling Catholic morality; it is perhaps no coincidence that the right to divorce was passed in a referendum the same year his restaurant opened.

He said: ‘I use light Mediterranean style ingredients like pepper, basil, olive oil and garlic. I don’t like using cream or butter or heavy sauces. I also use Californian ingredients like rocket salad.

But Gallagher’s demise when his financial affairs and hedonism caused his restaurant to come a cropper was perhaps a foretaste for the future demise of the wider economy.

Another restaurant that suffered at the end of the boom was the new Unicorn. The Unicorn was to the noughties what Jammet’s was to the 1930s, the place where the great and good assembled, including literary demi-gods like Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Although the standard of its food does not seem to have reached the level of its illustrious predecessor.

Barry Egan wrote a farewell article in 2011

‘Friday afternoons on the terrace of the Unicorn that edged woozily into the evenings became something of an established ritual — Bill Clinton could even turn up — as he did last year. It was all about the interaction between the group. Friends at one table were sometimes joined by others, who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group. There would always be a model or two, a pop star, a visiting dignitary playing out their role on the stage that was the Unicorn. On a good night, and there were many good nights, it was like a rollicking Noel Coward play at the Gate.’

I should add that the restaurant has re-opened under new management.

A restaurant I was intimately familiar with was Mint Restaurant in Ranelagh where I worked for an unforgettable week in 2006. A few months later after the restaurant secured a Michelin star and its chef Dylan McGrath had come to national prominence after a TV show called Pressure Cooker showed him in action I published an account of my time there for the Sunday Tribune.

I wrote: ‘As the week went by the chefs around me began to greet me with more than a contemptuous grunt. This might have owed something to the fact that I was becoming a veteran. Most new chefs didn’t last the day. Only a chef who really wanted to learn from a master could possibly endure the invective levelled at them. Also, as the week wore on, I was asked to work longer hours as my body adjusted to the bowed back and repetitive chopping, though each night I would still return home to lie on the cold asphalt. But I could hardly complain, given that Dylan and the other chefs worked harder than me. They all arrived before eight in the morning and only finished late at night

By the end of the week, I had come to realise that I could derive no satisfaction from work of this monotonous cruelty. I felt a certain macho pride that Dylan urged me to stay when I announced I was leaving, but this kind of acceptance came at too great a price. I had fallen out of love with food.’

It is hard to chart the future of restaurants in Dublin. There is less appetite for expensive dining but there is at last a discernible middle market and a good array of ethnic offerings. It remains a very tough business with high turnover. Often it is a labour of love or even a vanity project. The history of Dublin restaurants shows how volatile the market is.

There is also a lot more critical appraisal of Dublin restaurants in all major publications and now, increasingly, online. The issue of food is covered more and more in the media as we explore issues like sustainability, provenance, human health and animal welfare.

One exotic trend that we see emerging is an appetite for raw and plant-based food, a further move away from Escoffier orthodoxy. Dublin actually had its first vegetarian restaurant in 1908 but recent years have seen an increasing demand for more healthy offerings. Dublin now has its first fully raw and vegan restaurant Sseduced in Temple Bar.

We have also witnessed the emergence of pop up restaurants that come and go in the space of a few days. One such is called Living Dinners run by Katie Sanderson. It offers a completely raw menu to its patrons including dishes including a living lasagne made with a pistachio pesto and a cashew nut cream cheese. The customer’s of Jammet’s might baulk at that!

But the dynamism and short-lived nature of the restaurant trade means that new ideas will emerge especially as tastes change. And even if the restaurants don’t stick around the appetite for the food will. It’s amazing to think that rocket was exotic in 1995. Now you’d find it in your local Spar.

We now want to know where ingredients come from and increasingly we want to feel restored by the experience of going out for a meal. This brings us back to the original meaning of a restaurant. The excess of haute cuisine is no longer universally desired and we prefer a more affordable version of the restaurant experience where there are less poor devils were their noses pressed against the window.

Excess and hedonism is increasingly reserved for the Christmas jumper brigade.

Happy Christmas everybody.


Environmentalists in Denial

(published in 1/10/13)

George Monbiot wrote an article recently opposing a campaign to turn England’s Lake District into a World Heritage site ( He says we should not celebrate a landscape where ‘the forests that once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green’; by the “white plague” he means sheep which have devoured the woodland native to this site.

He dismisses the description of “a harmonious development of interactions between people and their environment” cited by supporters, despite his admiration for Romantic poets like Wordsworth who eulogized that landscape. He argues convincingly that: ‘Farming has done more extensive damage to wildlife and habitats than all the factories ever built’.

This reminded me of an exchange I had in the Burren in County Clare last year with an environmentalist friend who spoke in glowing terms of the interaction there between pastoral farmers practising transhumance and the craterous landscape which has given rise to a variety of flora not observed in other locations.

But for much of the Burren summit vegetation is deciduous forest, of which little remains due to centuries of pastoral farming. At least a small cluster of hazel trees lie around a grotto associated with Saint Colman, and one can see why the holy man sought the sheltered space below the canopy for prayer and contemplation. Alas, in most of the Burren hazel saplings are removed to make way for cattle, ensuring the landscape remains desolate.

It seems there is little to distinguish between the damage wrought by pastoral farming in the Lake District, and its impact on the Burren.

Indeed, despite a reputation for being a wild landscape the island of Ireland has actually experienced extreme modification to its natural habitats since the arrival of human farming. Prior to this the island was almost entirely wooded with climax vegetation of elm/hazel oak/hazel and pine in upland regions. According to Frank Mitchell in Reading the Irish Landscape: ‘from about five thousand years ago when the first tree-felling axes made woodland clearance possible man’s hands have borne down ever more heavily on the Irish landscape’. Insatiable demand for fresh grazing lands in particular left us with a mere 12% of our woodland by the 1400s.

It seems to me there is a blind spot among environmentalist who harp on about the dangers of climate change but fail to acknowledge the hugely important contribution of domesticated animals. A 2009 study by Goodland and Anhang found this responsible for a shocking 51% of anthropogenic global greenhouse gases emitted, far more than the 18% estimated in the 2003 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

Reducing global livestock numbers would be far simpler than converting to a renewable energy infrastructure which would take at least 20 years and cost $18 trillion to develop according to Goodland:

The government’s recent Climate Change Bill 2013 targets an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. This would leave total annual emissions at 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. But agriculture alone currently accounts for 19 million tonnes. That means with everything else reduced to zero, we would still need to substantially reduce the national herd. Unlike cars, it is not possible to engineer energy-efficient livestock.

Further, the emissions of Irish agriculture do not account for the carbon sequester that could occur through reforestation which would also provide significant resources for generations to come and restore lost habitats.

Irish farming is concerned overwhelmingly with the raising of cattle for beef and dairy. There are 6.8 million cattle in Ireland and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to tillage, mostly crops for livestock consumption. A tiny proportion of the fruit and vegetables available in Irish shops are grown here, and we have no exports to speak of.

Ireland has the capacity to produce a lot more food on less land. Consider that prior to the Famine, without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides it was possible for 3 million inhabitants to eek out a living on 1 million acres of land, often in marginal locations, out of a total potential farming area of 20 million acres. I don’t suggest that the population lives entirely on potatoes but it illustrates the crop yields possible from Irish soil.

There is growing recognition that we need to increase the level of tree cover which at approximately 10% is one of the lowest in the EU. Opposition spokesman Eamon O Cuiv has advocated that farmland owned by NAMA should be converted to forestry ( an initiative that NAMA to Nature, a group I was involved in, began almost a year and a half ago!

The long-term economics of livestock farming in most of Ireland simply do not add up. Despite CAP payments of €2.39 billion, a mere 37% of Irish farms are economically viable with 58% of their incomes derived from the Single Farm Payment last year. For beef farmers it amounted to a worrying 80% of income, and 33% of dairy farmers’.

It is often argued in favour of Irish farming that we earn €9 billion in export revenue through it but we also import €5 billion worth of food to one of Europe’s most rural societies. A combination of import substitution, export alternatives and domestic growing initiatives as well as more attractive landscapes for tourism could make up lost jobs and revenue. We could grow many more crops for the home market by changing our subsidy regime, developing labour-intensive horticulture and raising public health in the process.

The psychology of why many environmentalists do no question our present models of food production may reside in a deep attachment to animal products. This even afflicts climate scientists who should now better. James E. McWilliams states: ‘I can understand climate scientists flying in airplanes to conferences or driving cars to work, because they don’t have the time to walk or bike the distance. But I cannot understand climate scientists deliberately choosing to put meat and other animal foods in their mouths when there are perfectly good, low-impact, plant-based alternatives widely available in every corner of the globe.’ []

The excuse of eating locally ignores that we subsidize certain types of food despite their egregious environmental impact. Studies have shown that food miles are a small percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food.[]

The terrible beauty of the Burren landscape serves as a warning for the consequences of intensive grazing. The rest of Ireland should take note. Mitigating climate change and habitat loss is reason enough to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.


A Recipe for World Vegetarian Day


Nut and Seed Roast

Serves: 8

Preparation time approximately 40 minutes

8 ounces (225 grams) of cooked millet (breadcrumbs can be used instead – rye bread works best)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground seeds (mixture of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and linseed)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground nuts (mixture of peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts and blanched almonds).

1 tbs of tamari sauce (or soya sauce)

½ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of nutritional yeast fortified with vitamin B12 (optional)

1 leek (finely chopped)

Mixed herbs, dried or fresh e.g. tarragon, oregano, basil, herbs de provence (finely chopped)

1 cup of water (between 200 and 250 ml)

1 tbs of rapeseed oil or other oil appropriate for frying


  1. Take one cup of millet and put in a saucepan over a low heat for approximately 5-10 minutes, taking care for it not to burn by stirring regularly.
  2. Add 2 cups of water to the millet and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes by which time all the water should be absorbed.
  3. Wash a leek by cutting a line down the top and run it under a tap to get the dirt out from inside. Remove any parts that are going bad along with the root at the base.
  4. Finely chop the leek and saute over a low heat for about 10 minutes (do this while the millet is cooking)
  5. Finely chop the herbs.
  6. Measure out the millet and put in a bowl along with the ground seeds and nuts, herbs, tamari, water, leek, salt and nutritional yeast and mix thoroughly.
  7. Transfer the mixture into a baking tin, making a smooth top with a spatula (you can decorate the top with a few cherry tomatoes if you like)
  8. Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 180 degrees, or until well-browned.
  9. Cut into 8 portions.
  10. Serve with a sugar-free tomato relish, potato salad, the remainder of the millet and a green salad.
  11. Multiply the ingredients by two or three and freeze a quantity.


Fine Gael did nothing to stop ghost estates

Fine Gael has launched a poster campaign featuring a picture of the ghost estate of Keshcarrigan in County Leitrim. Under it runs the caption: Don’t Let Fianna Fail Come Back to Haunt Us. But such negative advertising reflects an ideological confusion stemming from the failure of a generation of Fine Gael intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s to assert a clear identity. The party could have become a mainstream party on the centre-left and given Irish politics a conventional left-right divide.

The poster may be effective as it preys on the outrage felt at the sight of ruined landscapes. Its chilling effect is enhanced by the structures being half-completed suburban houses – familiar in dimensions to most of us who grew up in one – laid bare to reveal apocalyptic grey brick.

The image’s emotive value might explain the whirlwind success of the NAMA to Nature campaign involving the planting of trees on that very ‘Waterways’ site on which I participated. Our symbolic act of restoring native forest to a famished landscape led, in short time, to interviews on national radio and television, and for the story to appear on the front page of almost all national newspapers. For a short time guerrilla gardening was all the rage.

Sadly, the present government led by Fine Gael has done nothing to remove this toxic eyesore and others like it. If anything its environmental record is worse than its predecessor, especially the cavalier approach to climate change with the expansion of the dairy sector, and another property bubble looms.

Little has been done to prevent schemes of that type from occurring again. Thus, under the Planning and Development Bill (no.2) 2014 the office of the National Regulator is limited to investigating, reporting and recommending as opposed to imposing sanctions.

The ghost estates emerged under Fianna Fail when tax breaks and loose regulations fuelled nonsensical developments. But Fine Gael was the largest party on ten county councils between 2004-2009, a period when numerous dodgy applications were approved.

Leitrim County Council passed from Fianna Fáil control in the first half of that period to Fine Gael. Available records show that the Waterways was planned over five years ago, but not when exactly. Embarrassingly Fine Gael may be using a disturbing image its own councillors bear responsibility for.

Moreover, in opposition at national level the party failed to warn against a property bubble despite assessments to that effect from leading economists and The Economist magazine. They advocated expansionary economic policies before the 2002 and 2007 elections. Tellingly, Enda Kenny sought a contract with the Irish people in 2007 that promised removal of Stamp Duty for first time buyers and reductions in income tax.

The leader of the opposition sought to outbid Fianna Fail by preying on an acquisitive desire to invest in property. During an era of unprecedented prosperity he might have proposed that if elected his government would provide high density social housing built in sensible locations as part of his ‘contract’. Of course we’ll never know how the electorate would have responded but at least they would have been presented with an alternative especially in numerous rural constituencies where the two party hegemony was firmly entrenched.

Fine Gael has assumed the position of the natural party of government by default since the economy unravelled. Dangerously for our democracy, their policies seem to be framed in public relations offices and advancement is achieved within a closely managed system. Meaningful debate is avoided as scripts are stuck to. At the next election fear may lead the electorate to choose their least-unpalatable option.

Fine Gael has seen an intellectual decline since the days of Garret FitzGerald, and under Kenny it was shaped into an alternative Fianna Fail. This is particularly problematic, as noted, in rural Ireland where other parties, apart from Sinn Fein, have been unable to build up a presence.

Fine Gael could have become the mainstream party of the left and real opposition to Fianna Fail if they had accepted principles laid down by the former Attorney General and President of the High Court Declan Costello in his Just Society document. Interestingly this included nationalising the banks which people used to scoff at. Amalgamation with the Labour Party should have occurred.

Instead the party chose to remain a more refined version of Fianna Fail that wrote cheques with gilded fountain pens rather than fumbled in greasy tills. It was unwilling to jeopardise its strong farmer vote that could have been lost if more inclusive and environmentally-friendly policies were pursued.

A generation of left-leaning intellectuals including Garret FitzGerald, Alexis FitzGerald, Michael Sweetman and Jim Dooge, described by UNESCO-HIE as a ‘towering figure and pioneer’ in the field of hydrology, failed to insist on core social democratic values in opposition to the liberal economic policies of Fianna Fail. This made it ripe for successive public relations makeovers, swayed by populist tides and seemingly oblivious to the structural flaws of the country.

The cost of having two dominant centre-right parties is that the country is subject to distressing boom-bust economic cycles and deep inequality. Since Fine Gael has become the dominant centre-right party, Fianna Fail is scurrying to the centre ground where it is joined by a resurgent Sinn Fein. All three parties derive their origins from approaches to the national question (in order: constitutional; slightly constitutional; and unconstitutional) rather than distinctive ideas on social or environmental issues. If only Irish politics could mature to a point where ideological substance rather than snide hypocrisy is offered to the public.


Blight of ghost estates remains three years on

(Published in the Irish Times 9/4/15)

We rose before sunrise. A consternation of alarm clocks calling us to action. The first glitch appeared when the motor on the boat intended to ferry us across the lake stubbornly refused to start.

Most of the group of about 20 would have to proceed by car. I enthusiastically volunteered to row the short distance in a smaller vessel blithely ignoring my complete inability to maintain a steady stroke. Fortunately my companion could and the reduced armada meandered unsteadily across in the pale dawn.

The remote village of Keshcarrigan did not seem to notice the small cavalcade bringing hundreds of saplings through the gates of the notorious ‘Waterways’ ghost estate. Posters outside projected a vision of happy families cavorting on blissful summer days. The reality was an eerie scrapheap of unfinished houses and shattered dreams.

Over the course of the day we planted nearly a thousand mainly native tree varieties. But we had not gone unnoticed. Mid-way through a police van trundled through the gates. As a trained barrister I agreed to plead our case. I told them we were asserting the right of a community to plant trees on common land that had fallen into disrepair.

The site of famished hardcore and errant Styrofoam abetted the argument but really I think the constabulary found the charming smiles of the female conspirators more persuasive. Observing this wasn’t a particularly cut-throat bunch of sans-culottes, they let us carry on.

Three years on it is astounding to consider the media furore our small action unleashed. Within hours of an online article appearing the John Murray Show was in touch looking for interviews. We continued with further actions, planting trees on sites in Wicklow near Rathdrum and then Cherrywood, Dublin where RTE news crews turned up.

I was interviewed with a neck tie wrapped around my head. Coated in dust I looked like a cross between a tramp and the Karate Kid. The Irish Times, Independent and Daily Mail featured pictures of us digging in costumes on their front pages. It culminated in Serena Brabazon delivering a TEDx talk at the Bord Gais Theatre.

We were happy to court publicity and played to the cameras. We chose business suits in imitation of the banking elites that had brought the country to ruin and allowed the landscape to be blighted with unfinished developments.

NAMA to Nature’s success can be attributed to the capacity of new media to transform a small action into a much larger spectacle. Online publication and Facebook allowed us to bring images to a wide audience, and mainstream media was attracted by the exotic phenomenon of guerrilla gardening. It also helped that the participants were well-spoken and possessed a sense of humour.

What also made NAMA to Nature a brief hit was it lifted the national mood during a period in 2012 when morale was in a trough, by offering a novel response to problems that seemed intractable. We showed that you could do something quite easily to improve a local environment.

Beyond the burlesque, what we were doing was actually a serious questioning of the inviolability of property rights. We were tentatively identifying grounds under which a right to property might be set aside for the greater good of the community, and even for the sake of the natural environment.

We were saying that the tragedy of the Irish commons where tax breaks and lax planning allowed developments with no regard to infrastructure could be challenged and that ownership only stretched so far. Without proposing anarchy, we were asserting that communities hold rights over all property in their vicinity. We were also pointing to a consistent Irish blind spot: the failure of many property owners to protect biodiversity.

Those of us who were involved in NAMA to Nature are hopeful that attitudes to the environment are changing and there is a growing appreciation of the intrinsic value of biodiversity.

But shockingly, like many such eyesores around the country, nothing has been done to clean the Waterways site. Many of the trees are growing but substantial debris needs to be cleared.

It beggars belief that a state so keen to promote tourism through images of the natural beauty with which we are blessed allows such grotesque edifices to endure. It demands a response from county councils, and if they fail to act then the national government must step in.

Longer term we should anticipate problems before they materialize: just as tax breaks and lax planning allowed the property bubble to develop, today a lack of restraint on farming with the end of milk quotas is set to cause damage to Irish biodiversity and increase our greenhouse gas emissions.

The popularity of NAMA to Nature attested to a deep attachment to nature and an awareness that over time and especially during the Celtic Tiger we paid insufficient attention to it. But the blight of unfinished estates reveals the ghosts that remain in our midst.


From hardcore to hardwood

(Published in 19/3/12)

On the wall outside ‘The Waterways’ Keshcarrigan, Co. Leitrim a series of images with the caption ‘Boating from your back door’ survive. It features families frolicking on marinas and an overhead picture of how the estate will look. This could easily be the work of an artist lampooning the Celtic Tiger. But there is no irony intended. It is the real deal, an enduring monument to greed, folly and hubris.

Inside, houses in various stages of construction loom, some merely steel girdles, one a completed show house with decking outside which the family boat could be moored. There is no sign of the tennis courts or luxury cars that feature in the pictures.

Much of the area is covered in hardcore, hard-packed stone that does not permit plant life to grow. Here roads were to be built. Giant mounds of styrofoam and heaps of plastic bags complete a sickening picture.

Now even the caretaker’s portakabin has been abandoned with a window smashed in. Inside there is still a radio, a rotting copy of the Yellow Pages and rubber boots that look beyond repair. The Marie Celeste showed more signs of life.

We were building an Ireland resembling 1950s America, and now all that remains is a scene that reminded me of when Charlton Heston’s character in the original Planet of the Apes film encounters a crumbling Statue of Liberty. It is remarkable how quickly the Irish dream dissipated.

The ghost estates survive as a cliché that foreign news agencies use to portray the Irish excess and corruption that almost derailed the European project. They are no longer ‘the story’, but they endure nonetheless, scars on the landscape and an eyesore for communities. What tourist would appreciate the sight of these building sites?

With ‘The Waterways’ now held as security for unpaid debts by the state I decided to join a group called NAMA to Nature. Last Sunday morning we planted over one thousand trees on the site.

I am an unlikely activist and I acknowledge the importance of abiding by the law. But there are exceptions. For example I would steal a loaf of bread to stay alive and the Irish Constitution states that all rights including those to property are subject to the common good. A community can justifiably abate a nuisance.

We left early in the morning, some of us rowing across a lake in the haze of daybreak with bags of compost, spades and saplings. By 8am we were down to work, managing to find sufficient exposed soil to plant 500 alder, 100 silver birch, 100 hazel, 100 ash and 200 willow. What we did was a largely symbolic gesture, tonnes of rubble still need to be removed and the plastics need to be disposed of as a matter of urgency or they could pollute the adjoining lake.

At about 10am two members of the police, An Garda Siochana rolled into the estate in a large transit van, expecting trouble perhaps. When asked who we were and what we were doing we replied that we were private individuals planting trees on public land. The Gardai seemed confused.

Then another car entered the property. The two Gardai briefly left us and had a discussion with the driver who it transpired was the former caretaker. Perhaps he had placed the call. Upon hearing what we were doing he told them he had no problem with it. The developer had left him high and dry. I wonder how many lonely cups of tea he drank in that portakabin before deciding that enough was enough.

The Gardai were still perplexed and the exchanges became increasingly jovial. A Garda took the numbers of three of the female participants one of whom warned the Garda to refrain from any late night texting. The young man, who had the healthy glow of a Gaelic footballer, blushed slightly; the other was finding the whole affair increasingly amusing. The pretty tree-planters would make a good story for the boys back in the station.

A few phone calls were made. We agreed to leave the property if they compelled us to do so. Finally, they decided to let us carry on, expressing their personal support for our actions. The common good was recognised.

We hope that this half-finished estate can one day become a nature reserve, but much work is needed to bring it anywhere close to that point. Perhaps other scars on the landscape can be healed in the same way. When vandalism on this scale occurs the people should have a right to take proportionate measures to mitigate it.

We strongly advise anyone participating in a project such as this to exercise the utmost caution in ensuring the health and safety of themselves and those around them, and to refrain from any damage to the property therein. We also encourage everyone to respect the Gardai and seek the cooperation of the local community if they come from outside it. The objective is simple: help nature restore life by planting trees on scarred landscapes.


The Satements of Osama bin Laden

(Unpublished, 2005)

“There is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe bin Laden is anything other what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who has smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace.”

This encomium to Osama bin Laden emanates from an unlikely source; Michael Scheuer head of the CIA unit charged with hunting him. After seemingly orchestrating the destruction of the Twin Towers, bin Laden has generated an era of uncertainty, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ mesmerising television viewers across the globe.

Above all, bin Laden has achieved his infamy through mastery of the new media of satellite and internet, indeed a Google search throws up over eleven million responses (a similar search for Nelson Mandela offers a mere four million). Therefore, it is long overdue that bin Laden’s writings and broadcasts should be accessible to the English reader, instead of their being presented in distilled sound bites.

Messages To The World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden translated by James Howarth, and edited by Bruce Lawrence contains twenty-four statements attributed to bin Laden, and what is revealed is a polemicist of skill, though prone to exaggeration, who projects a message of implacable hostility to the current world order.

America, as the upholder of this order is the target-in-chief. Already by 1998 he says: ‘For as long as I can remember I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for Americans.’ He also states in the same year: ‘To kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military – is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim in all countries, in order to liberate the al-Asqa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, so that their armies leave all the territories of Islam.’

Bin Laden’s message to the American people is simple; as you voted for the US government you share responsibility. In 1997 he warns ‘A reaction might take place as a result of the US government’s targeting of Muslim civilians… the American people they are not exonerated from responsibility, because they chose the government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and other places.’ Bin Laden thus characterizes Islamic terrorism as merely a response to the aggression of the US and its allies. He draws particular attention to the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the situation in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are thought to have died under UN sanctions.

In one of his last broadsides in 2004 bin Laden seems to confess to perpetrating the September 11 attacks. He states that the idea of attacking the World Trade Centre ‘came to me when things went just too far with the American-Israeli alliance’s oppression and atrocities against our people in Lebanon.’ He continues ‘As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine.’ However, given that the attack on Lebanon occurred in 1982 when bin Laden and his fellow jihadists were in the pay of the CIA fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, this is not entirely credible, but the memory seemed to leave a lasting impression.

Bin Laden revels in the deployment of Islamic sources hostile to those of other religions and creeds. In so doing he occludes the peaceful elements to Islam. He cites the Qu’ran; “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends.” (Qur’an 5:51) but disregards specific Qu’ranic injunctions against the taking of innocent lives. In October 2001 he states: ‘so we kill the innocents – this is valid both religiously and logically, this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone, and there are other writings that uphold it.’

Bin Laden capably rebuts much of the simplistic propaganda that has emerged from the White House since the ‘War on Terror’ began. In response to Bush’s claim that bin Laden and his acolytes hate freedom he responds: ‘Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden for example.’ He also makes light of Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as a ‘man of peace;’ ‘If Sharon is a man of peace in the eyes of Bush, then we are also men of peace,’ and given Sharon’s background as architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it is difficult to dispute this assertion.

Bush’s most seismic gaffe was to utter the phrase ‘crusade against terror’ on the White House lawn after the September 11 attacks. This was an error of staggering proportions given the resonance of that word in the Islamic world. Bin Laden states ‘So Bush has declared in his own words: “Crusade attack.” The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth.’

Bin Laden’s awareness of the extent to which combating terrorism can be achieved through the application of ‘soft power’ is revealed; ‘it has become clear to us during our defensive jihad against the American enemy and its enormous propaganda machine that it depends for the most part on psychological warfare.’ The message seems to be; invading countries won’t combat us. He also advocates that ‘the youth should strive to find the weak points of the American economy and strike them there.’

Bin Laden’s greatest failing in confronting his foe was over-confidence; having witnessed the defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan he felt sure that American wings could be similarly clipped. Drawing on the experiences of jihadists in Somalia he repeatedly portrays the American soldier as weak and cowardly, but failed to anticipate the extent to which the national calamity of September 11 inured the American population to the loss of service men and women on foreign campaigns. He also ignores the extent to which mujahadin in Afghanistan were reliant on foreign patrons especially the United States.

On a conciliatory note bin Laden in an address to the people of Europe commits ‘to cease operations against any state that pledges not to attack Muslims or to intervene in their affairs, including the American conspiracy against the entire Islamic world.’ Quite where this leaves Ireland, which allows US military flights to pass through Shannon, is unclear. Moreover, given bin Laden’s disregard for innocent civilians it would be difficult to take him at his word.

Overall, the impression that emerges of bin Laden from his statements is that of a character lacking in compassion and entirely dogmatic in his views. Bin Laden’s world-view is one-dimensional, involving a crude demarcation between East and West which fails to take account of the millions of Muslims and Christians living on either side, and the extent to which the histories of East and West have always been intertwined, a process accelerated in an age of globalisation.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in order to counter bin Laden’s rhetoric which serves as a clarion call to would-be-terrorists, more careful language and tactics are required. It is also appropriate to concede that he often makes valid criticisms of US foreign policy especially that of the Bush administration.

The last statement of Bin Laden was broadcast at the end of 2004, it may be that a rumoured kidney complaint has led to his death or infirmity, but there is no doubt that his words and deeds continue to influence the world.

It’s all in the mind

(published in the London Magazine, June/July 2012)

The ultimate achievement of reason … is to recognise that there are an infinity of things that surpass it. (Blaise Pascal 1623-62) 

After reading Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene I was a convert to Neo-Darwinian genetics. In that best-selling work life is traced to individual genes each seeking to confer advantage on the ‘replicator’, which carries the genes, in order to survive through reproduction. ‘Successful’ genes are passed on, unchanged, to descendents.

Its title alone reveals an analysis that sees human life, and nature more generally, as characterized by competition rather than cooperation. That my actions, thoughts and emotions were reduced to a battle for expression between DNA sequences generated slight despondency; idealism, morality and kindness are simply ‘memes’: ideas that, like genes, proved durable in evolution.

Intriguingly, The Selfish Gene was the favourite book of Jeffrey Skilling CEO of Enron. He interpreted neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good even for its victims, because it weeded out ‘losers’ and forced ‘survivors’ to become strong.

Over time I developed a more nuanced view of the world. An awareness of the limitation of human intelligence (especially my own) and of the historical specificity of any position made me reluctant to accept any one explanation in full.

A powerful scientific voice has emerged to counter the inheritance of Dawkins. Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion is an antidote to the Selfish Gene. By providing fascinating insights into the new field of Epigenetics he explodes the grim certainty of the Neo-Darwinian analysis.

Sheldrake provides a powerful critique of the present state of scientific research, berating skeptics (including Dawkins) for a dismissive approach to his evidence. He also addresses what he considers the limitations and corruption of Western medicine. Sheldrake’s account, if accepted, may radically alter our understanding of nature.

Cosmic Resonance

It is often suggested that physics through mathematics will ultimately reveal the organizing principles of the universe and all organisms therein. But Sheldrake refers to the uncertainty principle in quantum physics from which it became clear that indeterminism is an essential feature of the physical world, and the apparent incompatibility of quantum theory with the theory of relativity. He quotes Stephen Hawkings and Leonard Modinaw: ‘The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequences of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.’

Sheldrake poses challenging questions to materialists such as: ‘Were all the laws of nature already present at the moment of the Big Bang, like a cosmic Napoleonic Code?’ He argues: ‘The very idea of a law of nature is anthropocentric’, and asserts that ‘eternal laws are embedded in the thinking of most scientists’

His intention is not to dismiss all conventional scientific ideas or cast doubt on every study but instead insists on their limitations: ‘The laws of conservation of matter and energy seem less like ultimate cosmic principles and more like rules of accountancy that work reasonably well for most practical purposes in the realms of terrestrial physics and chemistry, where exotic principles like quintessence and the creation of dark energy can be ignored.’

He contends that we operate in an evolutionary universe in which even the laws of nature are subject to change. He says that the oldest of the constants, Newton’s Universal Gravitational Constant, Big G, ‘is also the one that shows the largest variations.’

Sheldrake’s ‘big idea’ is the hypothesis of morphic resonance. He suggests that the habits of nature, organic and inorganic, operate in non-material morphic fields. Ken Wilber defines the concept: once a particular form comes into existence, it will have a causal effect on all subsequent, similar forms; and thus the more a particular form has been replicated, the more likely it will be replicated in the future.’ This idea is unsettling to pure materialists as it resurrects pre-Enlightenment ideas such as vitalism which suggests the existence of soul apart from our material bodies.

Sheldrake outlines interesting phenomena that lend weight to his theory. Referring to ‘habits of crystallization’, he argues that ‘the more a compound crystallizes, the easier its crystals should form’. He gives the examples of Xylitol which was believed to be a liquid until 1942, but subsequently crystallized at successively higher temperatures. When each new temperature for crystallization was reached this pattern repeated itself in other laboratories and the old crystals did not show up again. He also refers to Ritonavir, a drug used against AIDS, which baffled its developers by morphing inexplicably from its original form, and has continued in that pattern since.

He cites evidence from ‘one of the longest series of experiments in the history of psychology that rats do indeed seem to learn quicker what other rats have already learned’. He attributes observed improved performances in intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, to morphic resonance.

We might identify morphic resonance in human history with the independent emergence of agriculture in different continents in close time proximity to one another. Or, more compellingly, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified what he called an ‘axial age’ during which revolutionary ideas such as Platonism, Confucionism and Buddhism emerged simultaneously. On a more basic level, most of us have probably said: ‘I was thinking just the same thing’.

The idea of morphic resonance coheres with Karl Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, and even more strikingly with the Taoist idea of Qi which is seen to define all physical reality. According to Ted J. Kaptchuk ‘Qi is the thread connecting all being. Qi is the common denominator of all things from mineral to human. Qi allows any phenomenon to maintain its cohesiveness, grow and transform into other forms.’ The action of ‘resonance’ is also apparent: ‘The ability for one thing to influence another is called in Chinese gan ying, which is usually translated “resonance”. If Qi is the link, resonance is the method.’

Sheldrake’s hypothesis can thus be situated within a broader constellation that has long been accepted by important and enduring philosophical schools in the East and West. But what is interesting and indeed remarkable about Sheldrake is that he is a professional scientist with more than eighty articles in peer-reviewed journals, including several in Nature.

Unusual Phenomena

Sheldrake enjoys drawing attention to phenomena that seem to debunk established scientific ideas. In response the online Skeptics Dictionary assert: ‘although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned conventional science in favor of magical thinking’.

The first law of thermodynamics says that change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to that system. Thus the ‘closed system’ of a human being (that doesn’t photosynthesise) cannot draw energy or ultimately survive without food (heat).

But Sheldrake draws attention to the case of Indian yogi Prahlad Jani, one of numerous individuals through history who have claimed to live without food, a phenomenon known as inedia. Jani says he has lived without food or water since 1940 owing to the intervention of the goddess Amba. He was put under continuous surveillance by a team of 35 researchers from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Applied Sciences (DIPAS) in 2010 for a period of two weeks.

He had several baths and gargled, but the medical team confirmed that he ate and drank nothing, and, remarkably, passed no urine or faeces. A previous medical examination in 2003 had given similar results. The director of DIPAS said: ‘If a person starts fasting, there will be some changes in his metabolism but in his case we did not find any’. Most scientists would dismiss this evidence as an impossible transgression of the first law of thermodynamics. This leads Sheldrake to ask: ‘Is science a belief system or a method of enquiry?’ While inedia is rare and controversial there is at least a possibility that human beings can actually draw energy from willpower alone. Scientific research should be alive to that possibility, rather than dismissing it as ‘magical thinking’ because it does not fit with accepted tenets.

Sheldrake also shows how many pets display psychic connections to their owners, and provides empirical evidence for telepathy in humans, including uncanny abilities to determine the identity of the person from whom a phone call is received.


The field of Epigenetics upsets established Neo-Darwinian ideas. It originates in the research of Dr. Lars Olov Bygren a Swedish preventive health specialist who explored how the health of grandparents continues to influence their grandchildren. This has been described as ‘ghosts in our genes’ and was hailed by Time magazine as one of the top ten scientific discoveries of 2009. Bygren and other scientists gathered historical data for famines and periods of over-abundance and showed how these environmental conditions continued to affect the life-expectancy of their children and grandchildren even after adjusting for social class. This astounding research is being used to explain trends in human longevity and supports Sheldrake’s argument that genetic codes are not the full extent of inheritance. Orthodox neo-Darwinism particularly that associated with Richard Dawkin has been cast in serious doubt if not superseded.

Moreover, doubt has been cast on the whole field of genetics by the limited insights of the human genome project. Sheldrake gleefully seizes on this: ‘The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings’. Recently, he entered a public wager with an eminent biologist on whether with the genome of a fertilised egg or an animal or plant we will be able to predict in at least one case all details of the organism that develops within the next twenty years.

Will Power

Sheldrake acknowledges the contributions of Western medicine to human longevity citing the example of Edward Jenner’s discovery of the Smallpox vaccine but asserts that the ‘rate of discovery is slowing, despite ever-increasing investment in research’. He suggests this is a product of tunnel vision that afflicts many scientists who see the body in terms of its component parts rather than as an integrated whole. This is contrary to the Chinese approach which sees pathology in terms of a web of phenomena. In Chinese medicine an illness may be expressed in the liver but the cause may lie elsewhere, even in the mind. The Western approach is usually more successful than the Chinese at least in the short term, but it tends to address the symptom rather than underlying causes, arguably leaving greater likelihood of recrudescence.

He says that ‘the failure to recognize the power of minds means that Western medicine is weakest when dealing with the healing effects of beliefs, expectations, social relationships and religious faith’. This is despite medical research acknowledging the power of the mind in the placebo effect, but he says that attachment to a Cartesian, mechanistic view hinders exploration of perhaps non-material phenomena. Many doctors will disagree profoundly with Sheldrake’s analysis.

Sheldrake also draws attention to the disturbing corruption of the pharmaceutical industry: he show how prominent scientists are gifted large fees to put their names to articles that have been ghostwritten; the multi-million scale of lobbying to the US Congress; the self-regulation of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK leading to delays in the inclusion of safety warnings (by 21 months in one instance); and the profitable and usually unpunished sale of drugs ‘off-label’.

Most controversially he contends there is ‘overwhelming evidence that scientists’ attitudes and expectations can influence the outcome of experiments’. If correct this has profound implications for our understanding of medical research. We already assume a researcher hopes a hypothesis – say that a pill will have a certain effective – will prove correct. If he is actually ‘willing’ a certain outcome on the participant in the study then we are entering new, slightly troubling, territory. Sheldrake advocates double-blind testing as an important safeguard.

Rather than funding hugely expensive genetic and molecular studies into the causes of diseases he argues that more attention should be paid to social factors that lead to pathologies. He cites research showing that those who pray or meditate remain healthier and survive longer than those who do not, and wonders why more prominence isn’t given to this. He argues that research into genetic or microbial drivers of obesity should be abandoned in favor of focusing on the social factors of a condition already costing the US taxpayer an estimated $160 billion each year.

He argues in favour of complementary and alternative therapies, attributing their efficacy to the time their practitioners spend with patients compared to conventional doctors who work under greater time pressure; and the unhealthy preoccupation of many conventional doctors with prescribing drugs; many doctors will disagree with the latter contention especially. He refers to a review by the WHO of 293 controlled clinical trials of acupuncture that concluded that it is an effective treatment for a wide range of conditions.

A Moment in Time

It would be churlish to dismiss the benefits of Western science. The natural sciences, including medicine, have improved the quality of our lives, raised life expectancies, and generated fascinating insights into the natural world. But its aspirations and blind spots give increasing cause for concern.

The attitude of many scientists towards genetic modification, invariably motivated by corporate aggrandizement rather than genuine necessity is a particular concern. One of the editors of Nature proclaimed that by the end of the twenty-first century, ‘genomics will allow us to alter entire organisms out of recognition, to suit our needs and tastes … [and] will allow us to fashion the human form into any conceivable shape. We will have extra limbs, if we want them, and maybe even wings to fly’.

The Science Delusion exhibits phenomena that belie what are considered the eternal laws of nature. Doubt is cast on established ideas in genetics with important lessons. Perhaps Sheldrake takes his arguments too far at times and undoubtedly skeptics will dismiss his conclusions, but he does adduce empirical evidence that is worthy of open-minded analysis. This open-mindedness to new, even shocking, discoveries is an important prerequisite for all intellectual enquiry. Spirituality, often disparaged by rationalists, may yield important insights. We have much to learn about our cerebral capacities; Iain McGilchrist estimates that there are ‘more connections within the human brain than there are particles in the known universe.’

Six hundred years ago the Catholic Church claimed to understand the workings of the universe, and most people subscribed to their analysis. Today most of us scorn the preposterousness of their infallibility. Perhaps in six hundred years time our descendents will chuckle at certain established ideas of the present time; unless in the mean time scientific advances bring about the untimely demise of human life on the planet.


Medieval Lessons on the perils of Genetic Modification

(Published in the Sunday Times, September 2015)

Dante Algheiri (d.1321) as the pilgrim in his Divine Comedy encounters a soul who warns him: “the vision granted to your world / can no more fathom Justice Everlasting / than eyes can see down to the ocean floor: / while you can see the bottom near the shore, / you cannot out at sea;” [Paradise, Canto XIX, lines 58-64 (Mark Mussa translation, 1984)]

It might seem perverse to introduce a discussion on the genetic modification of crops with a quote from a medieval poet. But Dante’s belief in the limitations of the human mind has a timeless validity. That is not to say we should invariably refrain from launching ships into deep waters, but caution is advised, especially if consequences are irreversible, and effects global.

An article in the August edition of the The Scientific American by Stefaan Blanke came with the title: Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe. He asserts that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows GMOs are safe to eat and good for the environment. He believes new methods must be found to shift the ill-informed masses from their misconceptions.

Blanke claims popular resistance to GMOs arises from flawed understanding of DNA as being unique to individual organisms. Any DNA code can have wide application. Thus the gene of an Arctic fish that is transferred to a tomato should no longer be identified with the aquatic life form, it simply generates a particular characteristic.

But perhaps what Blanke dismissively refers to as “intuition” and “emotions” is a reasonable reaction to the hidden depths that lie ahead. Just as the human mind cannot fathom “Justice Everlasting”, nor can we easily predict the long-term consequences on ecosystems of altering organisms in ways that would not be possible through conventional crop breeding.

This extent of the potential danger is a explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb the influential author of The Black Swan which examines the extreme effect of rare and unpredictable events. He and colleagues at New York University recently concluded that “Genetically modified organisms represent a public risk of global harm’’.

A change in the nature of one organism in an ecosystem can have quite unexpected repurcussions. Taleb argues that the potentially global reach of GMOs should be treated differently from repurcussions that are localised.

We cannot easily predict the long-term consequences of wholesale-adoption of genetically modified crops. Advocates of the technology, many of whom are not disinterested parties, point to the benefits of Golden Rice which has been engineered to contain Vitamin A. It is claimed that this has saved thousands in the Third World from blindness caused by malnutrition, but this assumes an absence of alternatives to alleviating nutritional impoverishment.

There is compelling evidence that genetically modified crops have indirect effects on human health which Blanke grudgingly concedes. This applies to the utilisation of herbicide-resistant (or Roundup Ready) corn, soya and other crops which have been developed by the Monsanto Corporation. The widespread application of these glyphosphates appear to harm individuals and their descendents living in parts of the world, especially Latin America, where they are grown.

The impact of glyphosphates may extend to those who consume these crops. The US Environmental Protection Agency increased the legal limit for glyphosate residues in soybeans from 0.1 milligrams/kilogram to 20 milligrams/kilogram in 1996. This subsequently became the international maximum residue level.

Evidence suggests that one percent of the glyphosate remains in the body a week after exposure. Because glyphosate is so widely used, most people are frequently exposed to it. But according to a report from the Heinrich Böll Institute the effect of: “exposure to glyphosate, meaning long-term uptake in low doses, has never been investigated.”

As things stand in the EU if the content of a product contains more than 1% GMO ingredients it must be labelled as such, but no labelling is required on the meat of animals that consume GMO feed.  There is no mandatory testing in the EU of glyphosate residues in meat.

Doubtless, a response to this argument is that the fault does not lie with the modification to the crops themselves but the prevailing economic system where a large company can hold a monopoly on the technology. But this is a feature of the ecosystem that encompasses human life too. Reducing the argument to a discussion on the proximate effect of genetic modification of crop varieties is unsatisfactory as it ignores outcomes further down the chain.

We cannot ignore the terrific demands on the world’s resources caused by the explosion of the global population from 1.5 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today which, purportedly, genetic modification can address. The reliance on fossil fuels in agriculture to feed the world cannot endure. But more than half of all crops are grown to feed domesticated animals and expensively converted to meat: a pig converts 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat; 13 percent for sheep; and 6.5 percent for cattle. Worldwide 57 percent of the output of barley, rye, millet, oats and maize are fed to animals, as well as 45% of EU wheat. Direct human constumpion of crops would be far more efficient.

Viewed in this light, genetic modification perpetuates a problematic global system of food allocation. It would make far more sense, on many levels, for human beings to be encouraged to shift towards plant-based consumption rather than risk the unexpected outcomes of genetic modification.

Recognition of the need for a worldwide shift in diets is overdue. We might learn a little more from The Divine Comedy in which Dante writes: “Blessed are those in whom / grace shines so copiously that love of food / does not arouse excessive appetite, / but lets them hunger after righteousness.” [Purgatory, Canto XIV, lines 151-154]. Having regard to the unexplored environmental consequences of GM technology and potential contamination through meat consumption, right-thinking people might favour a shift in approach.

Say hello to the Frankenstein-potato

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2012)

In 1935 Scientists from Queenland’s Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations released into the wild what became known as the Cane Toad, a species native to South America. They were attempting to introduce a predator for the native Cane Beetle which was reducing sugar cane yields. The toad has since multiplied, evolving long legs to travel significant distances. Its population now stands at 200 million with a habitat stretching from Darwin to New South Wales. This amphibian proved ineffective in controlling the beetle but has caused untold ecological damage.

Some years ago avocado-picking near Bundaberg in Queensland I encountered these foul-looking creatures that secrete a poison harmful to most species including humans. These are tough buggers as an Aussie would say. I remember a local jumping on one and pressing it with his boot into the ground only for the toad to hop casually away.

Ireland could have its very own Cane-Toad-moment if Teagasc has its way. The Environmental Protection Agency will make a determination in May as to whether trials on genetically modified, blight-resistant potatoes are conducted in Ireland.

The Irish population, along with fellow Europeans, exhibit a deep suspicion of genetically modified foods. A 2010 poll conducted by the European Commission  ( revealed that only 21% of Irish people believe that GM food is ‘safe for them or their family’, and a mere 17% disagree with the assessment that GM food is ‘fundamentally unnatural’.

Yet a state agency is pursuing a policy completely at odds with the assessment of most of the population. A healthy democracy should not allow this to happen. An issue as important as this should be put to referendum.

In 1998 when Monsanto conducted trials on genetically modified sugar beet in Wexford activists ripped the plants out of the ground. The boys of Wexford might be out in force again. One hopes that activists in any forthcoming encounter are not spied upon as was alleged at that time.

The problem with genetic modification is its unpredictability. Doubt has been cast over the whole field of genetics by the limited insights gained from the human genome project. As Rupert Sheldrake put it: ‘The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings’.

Moreover, the field of Epigenetics indicates that heritable changes in gene expression are caused by mechanisms apart from changes to DNA sequence. The genetic fundamentalism espoused by Richard Dawkin in The Selfish Gene has been superseded.

It seems that characteristics of offspring are dictated by DNA codes and traits acquired by parents and even grandparents over the course of their lifetimes. This iconoclastic research was initiated by Dr. Lars Olov Bygren a Swedish preventive health specialist and is now entering the mainstream. The simple equation contained in Leaving Certificate Biology textbooks: Genotype + Environment = Phenotype no longer applies. The serious implications of the emergence of the field of Epigenetics for genetically modified organisms has not been examined.

The scientific establishment is uncomfortable with research that confounds established ideas, and tends to dismiss outsiders who have the temerity to enter scientific debates. Yet intuition can be as powerful as a scientific hypothesis. The laws of physics, let alone biology, are not fully understood and never will be.

Opponents of GM are routinely dismissed as Luddites who ignore the utility of genetically modified foods such as Golden Rice. Professor Harmey of UCD in a letter to the Irish Times argued that genetic modification is a natural process because gene transfer occurs in microscopic organisms.

Humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. This is based on observable patterns rather that are isolated and gradually enhanced. Most of the results have been beneficial to humanity although certain plants and animals (such as wheat) have been over-bred to a point where they are highly productive but potentially harmful.

Genetic modification by humans is fundamentally different: it involves the immediate formation of a new organism that we cannot understand. The slow process of breeding is bypassed in favour of a quick fix. The outcome is unknown and the logical extension of Professor Harmey’s position is that there is no limit to this ‘natural’ process, so long as there are potential benefits to humanity. We might justifiably start tweaking our own genetic codes.

Scientists cannot predict what will emerge when species are merged unnaturally. The Frankenstein-potato might turn out to be poisonous as a monstrous pea-bean developed by Australian scientists proved: The point is that the genetic code provides only a limited preview of what an organism will become.

The effect of introducing genetically modified crops may be irreversible if genetic contamination occurs. Even if blight-resistant potatoes prove ‘safe’, we won’t know what hybrids will emerge. Just as the Cane Toad developed long legs and was not content to feed on the Cane Beetle the Frankenstein-potato might evolve in unexpected ways. Insofar as possible, genies and genes should be kept within bottles. Besides, there are already blight-resistant strains of potato under cultivation.

Perhaps scientists in Teagasc want to condition us into a permanent acceptance of GM. GM blight-resistant potatoes could act like a gateway drug seducing us into further encounters. It is vital that a precedent is not set and Ireland does not get hooked on GM, not least for the sake of the international reputation of our agriculture.

The development of GM plants is motivated by lucre rather than an altruistic spirit of scientific enquiry. We have ample food in the world. There are currently a billion people obese. Up to half of all food is actually wasted. Golden Rice does not ‘spare’ millions of people in the Third World from blindness as Professor Harmey suggests. Increasing crop diversity and reducing poverty would have the same effect; famines, as Amatyra Sen has pointed out do not occur because of lack of food but from inequalities built into the mechanisms for distributing it.

A far better use of government resources than the proposed Teagasc adventure would be to assist people growing their own vegetables including potatoes, and to encourage bio-diversity such as that found on the few biodynamic farms in Ireland. Alas, the trend in Ireland is towards satisfying the demands of agribusiness and the interest of large food retailers rather than producing healthy food.

The major problem with modern agriculture is a lack of diversity. As Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food put it: ‘Nature is most resilient when it is diverse’. Over-cultivation in the nineteenth century created the conditions for widespread blight infestation which caused the Great Irish Famine. Similarly, planting vast fields of potatoes makes the crop vulnerable to blight due to a lack of ecological diversity. The quick fix of genetically modified blight resistance could generate unpredicted results in our ecosystem, just as the Cane Toad caused unexpected damage.

Considering our special relationship with the spud surely it should be treated with greater reverence. The proposed trial of genetically modified potatoes shows a complete disregard for the wishes of the Irish people.