Monday, 9 February 2009
It is said that the future is already here, just not widely distributed yet. It might be the one person on your block who is growing a Victory Garden, the business down the street that switched to solar, the farm that is stockpiling the world’s last seeds of some useful strain of plant, the schoolchildren who are raising money for pen-pals their age in Rwanda. There are millions of people around the world, each with their own jigsaw piece, and on days like today in Kildare town, dozens of them come together at once.
Today was the culmination of Feile Bridhe (FEY-la BREED), the Festival of St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s most beloved icons. Known for helping the poor and standing up to authority, Brigid became a leader in the Irish Catholic Church back when it was largely independent of the Pauline Romans – when they took over, one stops seeing records of female leaders. She founded Kil-dara (Church of the Oak Tree) Abbey some 1,600 years ago, and for more than a thousand years it was a major centres of learning for Ireland and, during the Dark Ages, the world. Its ancient tower, which was being erected as Rome was falling, still stands outside of town – now behind the Starbucks.
The whole town has been celebrating Feile Bridhe with dozens of little festivities – solemn pilgrimages to Bridhe’s Well outside of town, Irish musicians and dancing, school plays and pageants. Today’s event, though, was the annual conference put on by the Irish charity group Afri.
Afri was founded in 1975 to help poverty in the Third World, said director Joe Murray, but in the 1980s turned its attention to the local causes of global poverty. For years they have organized a march to remember the Irish Famine and to call attention to global famine in Africa. In 1993 Afri hosted the first Feile Bridhe, which Murray said was supposed to be one-off event, but was so successful that it has continued to the present.
This year’s Afri conference brought together local organisations with global organizers, about 200 people all told, into the Derby Hotel in Kildare town. Frida Berrigan -- daughter and niece of Catholic priests and activists Daniel and Phillip Berrigan - started off the speakers, and her dense, fascinating speech brought to life the world of the global arms trade, a world we rarely see covered in the media. Expanding on the same theme was native Irishman and former UN official Dennis Halliday, who oversaw the “Oil for Food” programme in Iraq in the Clinton years and left in protest, becoming a sharp critic of the U.S. federal government’s policy in Iraq under Democrats and Republicans alike.
The event brought these well-known figures together with local leaders. I was able to meet Anita and Tommy Hayes, the founders of Irish Seed Savers, whose organization in County Clare is like a global Noah’s Ark of plants. I've visited their land a number of times -- I took a course there two years ago, learning how to build in cob -- but had never met them in person.
Also speaking was Davie Philip of the Dublin-based group Cultivate, which is creating a six-million-euro eco-village in County Tipperary. Jackie Bourke, founder of the Irish organisation Playtime, had a booth about schools growing edible gardens, which teach children horticulture and supply healthy food as well. On a less serious note, Ireland’s resident celebrity chef Richard Corrigan demonstrated how to make a healthy meal fast using only local products.
Various people spoke about the Transition Town movement, a global network of towns planning for a world after peak oil and climate change. The movement began in Kinsale, Ireland in 2005, and there are now Transition Towns in 14 countries, including New Zealand, Chile, Italy and Japan. Kildare Town became one of the latest Transition Towns last year.
Finally, it was time for my group, FADA, to take the stage, and we did something a little different. My colleagues broadcast a news programme from the year 2020, a mockumentary tour of the area from twelve years on if FADA and similar groups accomplish our goals. One member, for example, described St. Stephen's Green in Dublin much as it is now, but with the old electric streetcars restored, Farmers' Markets returned to the area, the Green turned into vegetable farms that fed much of the city, and more bicycles on the roads than cars.
The point was that such changes would require only incremental, attainable changes with no need for new technology, and would leave Stephen's Green (or whereever) looking similar to the way it looks now -- but would turn it into a much more sustainable urban centre, generating massive amounts of food for the city while using little energy. Such skits can give audiences a wholesome, sanguine image of the future we are working toward, and help them see how tantalizingly close it is.
Photo: The road into Kildare at sunset.