An unimaginable task?

Tony Emerson asks what the recent past can teach us about a fair and sustainable future.

If there is one thing that both many climate activists and climate sceptics agree on it is that the transition to a sustainable society would involve a mammoth, almost unimaginable transformation.

I don’t challenge the belief that it’ll be very difficult.  But is it unimaginable?  Because many of my age group, and many people from ‘less developed’ parts of the world, have experienced a way of life that would satisfy most criteria for sustainability.  In this article, I describe the society I grew up in*, attempt an appraisal of how sustainable it was, and leave you with some questions as to how ‘the best from the past’ might be adapted and built upon to create a sustainable society in 21st century Europe.

I’ll discuss Ireland from independence (1921) up until 1963.  I only lived in the last couple of those decades, but Ireland changed very little over the whole of that period.  I choose 1963 as I think that was a very significant year in Ireland’s transition to a ‘modern state’.


Eamon De Valera had been Prime-Minister or Taoiseach for most of the era from 1932 (when the dust had settled after a dreadful civil war) until 1959 when he retired from government to become President.  His government aimed for self-sufficiency: to be a nation of God-fearing people, proud of its culture and traditions and genuinely independent of Britain, its large and powerful neighbour which had been its colonial master for many centuries up till 1921.  Independent in every way – and economically independent in particular.

‘Burn everything British’ except their coal was the mantra, and indigenous energy industries were developed.  Traditionally Ireland relied on a combination of imported coal, and ‘the turf’ – peat from the bogs in the more rural area. Families were allocated a patch of bog where they could cut and save enough peat for their own use, with a few selling the surplus to their neighbours.  After independence the Ardnacrusha hydro power station was set up on the river Shannon, which was a main power source for the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) set up by the government.  This eventually enabled a full rural electrification programme.  As a small boy in the far west I recall ESB men coming, blasting holes in the rocks in the fields to put up their poles – great excitement!

Food: taking the four LOAF principles (local, organic, animal-friendly, fairly traded) in turn, food was very much locally produced. What people did not get from their own fields or gardens they bought from local shops which would have been supplied by nearby farms.  Unfortunately, in the west where I was brought up the crofters didn’t have great growing skills, and diets tended to be spuds, cabbage, carrots and apples.  I was fortunate in that both my parents were from gardening families. Our meat came from Toby Joyce’s farm down the road, via Francie Mannion, the butcher. We had chickens in the back yard.

Organic? I’m not sure the term was in use in the ‘fifties.  Crop rotation was the norm, cow dung was used as manure. Throughout the fifties various sprays and other chemicals unfortunately came into use, and questions have been asked about how much testing was done.  Animal friendly? The sight of my dad wringing the neck of a chicken on a Friday may not have seemed too friendly, but the end for the poor bird was instantaneous, and she fed a family of seven for Sunday dinner, then leftovers for another meal, then a chicken broth.  Meat was consumed very economically. Animals were reared outdoors with freedom to roam and live natural lives.  Fairly traded? The country imported very little food, but I’ll discuss questions of economic justice later.

clifdenTransport offers one of the greatest ‘then and now’ contrasts. My home town of Clifden  (pop. 961, but went up one when Mrs O’Toole had her baby, down one when old Pat Conneely died…) had five cars in 1955: the taxi, the doctor, the vet, the parish priest – and one belonging to Toby Joyce, a farmer who was also an officer in the Irish equivalent of the territorial army.  I used to recognise the sound of his car when he got to the top of the hill near our house.  Then he’d turn off his engine to save petrol and free-wheel down the road to his farm. There were one or two vans or small lorries too. One was the hearse.  John Mannion the undertaker who was a cousin of Francie the butcher (who also had a pub.)  The locals didn’t die that often so the hearse was a multi-purpose vehicle. It could have a coffin in it, sometimes a barrel of stout (Guinness), sometimes a carcass of meat.  Some people did complain about the taste of Mannion’s lamb from time to time but we won’t go there…

A daily return bus ran to Galway, the regional capital, 50 miles away.  ‘Overseas travel’ was for many people the annual return trip to England for work over the winter months, or a more permanent trip for many.  The emigrant boat to the US was just that, often a one-way trip.  Of the seven of my uncles who went to the US or Australia early in the last century only two ever returned even for a holiday. The carbon emissions from this level of transport were probably well within sustainability boundaries – in contrast to now with almost universal car ownership, very high car usage, and overseas holidays almost the norm.

Pre-1960 people lived a much more localised life.  Grocery and drapery shops (before the advent of supermarkets), hardware stores, pubs and the aforementioned butchers; local societies like the Irish Countrywomens’ Association, the Patrician society (a Catholic discussion group), sports clubs, choirs and of course churches.  People supported these local activities, there was little to distract them in this pre-television era.  Travelling to a bigger town for more sophisticated leisure activities was out of the question.  The parish priest or the curate often played an important role in the organisation of the clubs and societies.

On economic justice, this was a poor society, very poor by modern standards.  Social snobbery was also rife – as expressed in the saying ‘tuppence halfpenny looking down on tuppence’!  But I found quote from Taoiseach Eamon De Valera when he was launching the constitution of the new republic in 1943: ‘No man should be paid more that £1,000 a year’.

In other words he believed in an upper limit for the earnings of one person!  Suggesting a belief that the cake was finite, and no one should have too big a slice. Imagine the outcry now if Jeremy Corbyn or another political figure regarded as ‘ultra-left’ proposed an upper limit of say £100,000 a year (perhaps the modern equivalent). Yet De Valera, generally regarded as an arch-conservative, could do so 75 years ago.

I’ve little recollection of the church of the time raising economic issues and the need for greater equality. Matthew 19:24 or other scriptural references to the difficulties of rich people getting to heaven were not often heard from the pulpit.  I’m afraid the church leaders themselves did not give great example in this regard. For instance Bishop Browne of Galway had a quite luxurious bishop’s palace on Taylor’s Hill, the ‘nob’s road’ in Galway. Is this inequality one of the reasons for the demise of the church in Ireland?

The modern era

Some very important events occurred in 1963, including the death of the great reforming Pope John 23rd after five years in post, and the assassination of John F Kennedy, the first US president with Irish ancestry.  Both had profound influences in Ireland.  The Republic of Ireland was 95% Catholic, and nearly every Irish family had a relative in the USA.

Their influence was mainly to the good, as Ireland started to become more tolerant and open-minded.  No longer would it be sinful for Catholics to attend services in Protestant churches, no longer would unmarried mums be denounced from the pulpit. However, the command ‘love thy neighbour’ had not been interpreted to include ‘all mankind’.

The social changes were largely to the good.  But with a relatively new government under the leadership of new Taoiseach Sean Lemass Ireland was becoming more economically liberal as well as socially liberal. The Lemass government brought in economic reforms to enable Ireland to export and import more, and thereby become part of the global economy.  They also encouraged firms from the US and Europe to set up plants in Ireland.  Ireland was on its way to becoming part of the global economy, an economy in which its people undoubtedly benefited up to a point.   But an economy, as we all realise now, which has no concept of ‘enough’, in which a great deal of production does little for our well-being and a lot of harm to our natural environment and to the fabric of our society.

Back to a better future?

But can we now learn from the past?  Can we identify the features of this type of ‘less-developed’ society that might be revived and built on?

And what would we not want to go back to – other than perhaps Mannions’ hearse!  Are there particular ways in which we need to become more socially conservative in order to be more ecologically conservative? Without going back to the bigotry and much of the unnecessary restrictiveness of old, there is room for a conversation among Christian theologians and ethicists on this.

Undoubtedly it would be better to revive the strong local communities, and the smaller scale local production for local need.  How might they be done better, perhaps, with developments in education and in technology?

For instance are there not now significant developments in agricultural ‘know-how’ that can be used to develop organic farming?  Combined of course with restrictions on factory farming and ‘industrial’ agriculture, and on imported food grown unsustainably.

What can be done at the policy level to foster local voluntary organisations of all types?  The church still plays a great role in this, as it did in the Ireland of my youth.  My ‘pet idea’:  a campaign from the pulpit against second-home ownership – nothing takes away more from making a contribution to your local social economy then heading off every break to the gite in France.  Measures to restrict car and air travel, as well as directly contributing to emission reduction would also benefit the local economy and community activity.

What do you think? What can the past teach us about a fair and sustainable future?

*Tony Emerson published the fictionalised family saga Looking Down, Looking in earlier this year. Email for copies. All proceeds will go to Green Christian and Joy in Enough.

  • Photos from Clifden and Connemara Heritage Society, and Google Streetview.

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