Friday 17 November 2017

All Washed Up

Years ago we bought a Ford Focus that turned out to be a bit of a pup. With 20/20 hindsight, it had plainly been clocked - the floor under the pedals was worn to metal but the milometer only registered 100,000km. ANNyway, a few months later, the car blew up between Rosslare and home. I'd taken all three of my offspring to England to visit the rellies, so we called The Beloved to airlift the kids and the recovery service to take me and the dead car back to the dealership . . . in Duncormick., Co Wexford [sample property shown R]. As we puttered along through the countryside, one of the recovery lads turned to me and said "Duncormick, Co. Bosnia". To him, the village was a beat-up backwater like something he could barely remember from Ireland in the 1960s. The only contemporary reference point he had was Bosnia which had just emerged from a devastating civil war. And it was so, the car dealership had filled the original cobbled village street with wrecks and there was a ruined bicycle shop, with the door off its hinges, filled with a heap of fire-damaged bicycle parts. It was an unpretty grim metaphor for the parts of Ireland that had been left high and dry by the Celtic Tiger.

I hope he'll forgive me, but this is what surfaced in my mind when I finished Andrew Doherty's book Before the Tide Went Out [prev]. That and a dull throbbing anger at how the rapacious pursuit of profit can just casually brush to oblivion a whole section of the population, not to mention billions of by-catch discarded fish. As SS Ireland whored herself out to Multinationals, the fisher-folk (and agricultural laborers, Castlecomer coal-miners, Carrickmacross lace-makers and Donegal tweed-weavers) were packed away in the hold because they were not wanted on voyage : first clothing, then pharmaceuticals, then computer hardware, then call-centres and now every major software company that you've heard of: Google, LinkedIn, Amazon, Facebook, Etsy, Twitter, Stripe, Eventbrite. Ordinary people making a living in ordinary ways had no place to work, and increasingly no place to live as starter house-prices in Dublin rose to 10x the average industrial wage.

Before the Tide Went Out is a memoir: of a boy growing up in a fishing village in the second half of the last century. From a Now perspective, life then was somewhere between simple and brutal: three rooms, parents and five childer, an outside tap and a bucket in the shed for the toilet. The windows leaked, the roof leaked, the very walls leaked. You get the sense that people would go out on the river to fish because it was more comfortable in an open boat or at least crowded. In 1972, the family got a council house because in those days, poor as the country was, there was a sense that nobody, certainly no family with small children, should be left to exist in such a cabin.  In a sense that was the high tide of prosperity for the fishing communities round Ireland. Nobody claimed it was an easy life, but it was a living.
But the stocks of salmon, which had been sufficient and sustainable since forever rather abruptly started to dwindle. It was easy to blame the local river drift-netters, whose practice really hadn't changed for hundreds of years, rather than German fly-fishers, agricultural run-off, raw sewage discharge, or the fact that farmed salmon in every bay and estuary were a hot bed of sea-lice Lepeophtheirus salmonis which hitched rides on passing wild salmon. But whomever you blamed for the fall-off in salmon stocks, the bottom fell out of the market because consumers didn't know or care about the difference between wild salmon and farmed salmon. It was the difference between venison and chicken but "chicken" was waaaay cheaper and didn't taste so eeeew fishy. A friend of mine, PhD in Genetics, secured a job in the salmon trade as wild salmon started to be displaced by farmed. A large part of her work was measuring how red farmed salmon was [R] and devising genetic schemes to make it redder. That sole Solea solea attribute was used as a tawdry surrogate for Quality: omega three fats, taste, firmness, mineral richness were irrelevant because not easily measurable.

In Ireland, we are talking large but doing little about the plight of refugees from Syria. These are people who, through no fault of their own and minding their own small businesses, have found themselves underfoot as competing geopolitical ideologies have fought to control their country. When elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers. It is essentially the same for the fishing families of Waterford Harbour who have become economic refugees in their own land since salmon fishing was switched off with a stroke of the legislative pen in November 2006.  With the Syrians it is recognised that we have no need of muezzins, carpet-weavers, or artisan coffee-pot makers in Ireland. And actually we have enough gynaecologists and engineers as well. Therefore, in addition to English (and Irish for the kids!) lessons, some effort is made to retrain the adults as call-centre techs, shelf-stackers and milk-parlour operatives. I'm not kidding about the last: I heard about 2 local Romanians who spent several months driving to the next county for work-experience [unpaid, of course] as milkers: there are no paying openings in the field anywhere in the country. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar scheme of desultory, half-arsed 'training' was offered to redundant fishermen ten years ago on a take it or leave it basis.

The author of Before the Tide Went Out wasn't prepared to sit on his thumbs waiting for the next compo/dole cheque, he sold his boat, got on his bike, and found a landsman's job. It takes a special sort of courage to re-invent yourself as an adult when all your accumulated knowledge, your tricks-of-trade, your comradeship and rivalries have been swept into the dustbin of history. Hats off !

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