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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Remembering Oscar Wilde at Ashford Castle




Oscar Wilde (extreme right) at Ashford Castle in 1878 aged 23

There are places in the Irish countryside where bird’s voices just rise above a humming silence before the early dawn, when I, as a child, became enchanted by their spell. Shimmering droplets of dew covered spider webs cloaking yellow sage that was everywhere, creating a beautiful bejewelled alien landscape. By mid-morning of that summer day, lambs played in the grass while their mothers looked on in lazy and contented boredom. A mare lounged nearby looking proud and magnificent as she lovingly nudged at her sleeping foal that was her very own creation; well, she did have a little help from a friend. These were sights, sounds, smells and feelings I could not write about unless I was there. A magical place to soothe any tired or aching heart. If I was in doubt, in the shadows behind me lay a cluster of trees on guard beside a pool so still it mirrored their image, that reflection broken now and again from the drops of water gently pulling away from their leaves. Ancient walls and hedgerows cast their mysteries around the ruins of an old castle in the distance, it’s battles and troubles long carried off into the wind tunnels of time. Chiseled stone was all that was left to hint of who might have lived there and a lasting fingerprint of their presence was walked now only by their ghosts. The Castle walls cast shadows over the riverbank that was once its life force, still serving up unwary salmon to men from nearby cottages who fish on their banks; cottages built more recently from that same chiselled stone carved by others a thousand years before. That morning has stayed with me all my life like no other, and here, at a different Castle, Ashford, I ask myself today what inspired the closing chapter of De Profundis by my favourite writer, wit and humanist, Oscar Wilde, and that could only have come from such a place as this.

Oscar Wilde’s father, William, had a holiday lodge near the Castle and Oscar spent many a vacation there. Then the Castle was owned by Lord Ardilaun, son of Benjamin Guinness, along with 20,000 acres of natural woodland, lakes and wildlife. As a boy and young man, Oscar must have felt at home within this great and vast Cathedral to nature, held secret court with its earth, and count among his inner circle here all that lived and breathed. He would always feel safe within its womb. When tragedy did come and his inner desolation was more than a state of mind, Oscar would always remember this place, for his De Profundis letter was more than an explanation to another; to us all it was a farewell to the world. It was in essence his epitaph and one of his finest moments of writing, and the least amount of words was spent to describe so eloquently and fully the healing power of nature at its conclusion:  


‘………..Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I might hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.’ 

Written by Oscar Wilde between Jan and March 1897  

Oscar Wilde
(Born Oct 1854-Died November 1900)


Barry Clifford

A child who gets a good start is a child who has a decent chance


There was huge coverage, and a lot of public discussion. At one level it was very gratifying, at another deeply frustrating. We’ve been publishing these surveys for 10 years now, and in the process generating huge public awareness of an important issue. Everyone listens, and a lot of people get involved.
We’ve been publishing these surveys for 10 years now, and in the process generating huge public awareness of an important issue. Everyone listens, and a lot of people get involved.
Everyone listens, that is, but one. Year after year, the Department of Education turns a deaf ear to something that ought to be blindingly obvious.

The facts are simple enough. It costs around €350 to start a child in junior school, nearly €400 for a child going into 4th class, and not far short of €800 if your son or daughter is starting secondary school. I met a man last week whose three children — all of them still in primary — had so far cost €1,037 to get ready for this year’s education. Like every parent I know, he was feeling the pressure.

I met a man last week whose three children — all of them still in primary — had so far cost €1,037 to get ready for this year’s education. Like every parent I know, he was feeling the pressure.
But also like every parent I know, he was determined to do the right thing by his kids. No parent wants their child singled out because they haven’t got the right books, or because they’re not wearing the uniform prescribed by the school. No parent wants their child sent home with a note in their schoolbag from the school principal reminding mum or dad that the voluntary contribution is overdue.

No parent wants their child sent home with a note in their schoolbag from the school principal reminding mum or dad that the voluntary contribution is overdue.
So parents go to enormous lengths. Our survey found that one in 10 parents go into debt to pay for their children’s school costs, and many more forego paying other bills. The trouble with that, of course, is that an unpaid electricity bill doesn’t go away.
It’s a complete mystery to me that our state, year after year, allows parents to be put under pressure in this way to provide for the most basic requirements of education. In these two small islands, us and our next door neighbour, there are five separate jurisdictions. We are the only one with a written constitution.

Our written constitution says that, while the State acknowledges that the natural and primary educator of any child is that child’s family, the State also requires that every child must receive “a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”. The State requires that, the constitution says, because the common good demands it.
And so the Constitution goes on to say that the State “shall provide for free primary education … and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities”. All of that is to be done with due regard to the rights of parents.

None of the other jurisdictions on these islands — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have a written constitution. Unlike here, no child in any of the other jurisdictions has a constitutional right to a free education.
But in those jurisdictions, education is of course covered by law. In the case of England, for example, their basic education act is a huge tome. The Education Act of 1996 has 583 articles and 40 schedules, covering every aspect of education. In Section 454 of the act, it makes clear that neither a parent nor a pupil “shall be required to pay for or supply any materials, books, instruments or other equipment” used in the school.
In Section 454 of the act, it makes clear that neither a parent nor a pupil “shall be required to pay for or supply any materials, books, instruments or other equipment” used in the school. Later on in the same section it says that no charge shall be made in respect of transport to school.

These same articles are replicated in almost identical terms in the legislation covering Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is a slight difference in tone between the legislation in the other jurisdictions and the constitutional provision here. There, education is seen as compulsory, and parents are seen as having a duty to ensure their children go to school. Here, there is much more emphasis on the rights of parents.

But in all cases, the education of children, at least to a basic minimum standard, is seen as fundamental to the common good. That is the primary reason, according to our constitution, why our children have an absolute right (up to the age of eighteen) to a free education.
The great irony — the unacceptable irony — is that in the jurisdictions where there is no constitutional right, vested in each child, the children are guaranteed a free primary education. In the only jurisdiction where every child has a constitutional guarantee, it doesn’t happen. And it’s not because of cost. 

The Department of Education has accepted that research we did last year is accurate. In that research we found that it would cost just about €100 million to ensure that books and transport were free at primary level, and that voluntary contributions would be no longer necessary as a form of school income. €100 million is about one euro in every hundred euro the Department of Education spends. Even in straightened times, it’s entirely affordable.
€100 million is about one euro in every hundred euro the Department of Education spends. Even in straightened times, it’s entirely affordable.

Why does the public good — here and everywhere else — demand that children be given a good decent basic education? We all know the answer to that. A child who gets a good start is a child who has a decent chance. There is a wealth of scientific data that proves these two things.
The first thing it proves is that a child who starts off in school behind is more likely to stay behind, and more likely to finish behind — and to finish earlier than they should. That’s why it’s possible to predict life-long outcomes for children at five or six years of age who are already struggling to keep up with their classmates.

Among the things it’s possible to predict are that the child who starts school behind runs a much higher risk of being dependent on social welfare, or of not being able to hold down a job, or of not being able to sustain good relationships. So the second thing the science proves is that investment in young education — because it helps to avoid all those risks — is repaid many times over by the state that makes it.

But we don’t seem prepared to make that tiny, necessary, additional investment. And the reason? It’s in the language of the Constitution, apparently. Despite appearances, the Constitution doesn’t oblige the Sate to provide free primary education — it obliges the State to provide “for” free primary education.
That little word is the reason the State has always argued that its job is to make the basic infrastructure available, and the rest is up to parents.

We can’t interfere with the rights of parents, nor the autonomy of schools, they say. They have argued that point again and again in a variety of court cases, and have sometimes won.
But when Ireland wins those court cases, who loses? Actually, Ireland does. The stuck in the mud attitude that denies children the basic tools they need to start life on an equal footing is an attitude that, among other things, prevents the talents of thousands of young Irish citizens from bubbling to the surface.

It’s an outdated policy and approach that aims to save pennies at the cost of a better future for all of us, and especially for our next generation.

A child who gets a good start is a child who has a decent chance.
Fergus Finlay

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Mild weather to blame for dwindling bee population

Ireland lost almost a third of its honey bee colonies last winter, and the very mild weather may be partly to blame.


Local bees now have a new home in Limerick thanks to a project that has seen an apiary developed on the UL campus. Picture: Sean Curtin

The University of Limerick, the National Apiculture Programme and Teagasc are working together to find out why Ireland has been losing so many bee colonies.
Ireland’s extremely high bee colony losses emerged from an international survey of beekeepers by the non-profit organisation Coloss (honey bee colony losses).
Coloss is composed of researchers from 69 countries, and Dr Frances Coffey, who heads the National Apiculture Programme at Teagasc is Ireland’s Coloss representative.

Honey bee colony losses have reached worrying proportions worldwide.
Disease, increased use of pesticides, climate change, and decreased floral diversity are all blamed for the bees’ disappearance.

Each year, Coloss issues a standard questionnaire to beekeepers in each country and the latest one covered losses of honey bee colonies in Ireland last winter.
This year, the survey was completed by 450 Irish beekeepers — about 15% of all beekeepers in the country.
Beekeepers generally agree that over-wintering colony losses of 15% are acceptable. However, last winter the national average loss for bee colonies in Ireland was almost double at 29.5%.
Bee colony losses in Ireland were the highest of all of the 29 countries covered by the Coloss network, with average colony losses of 11.9%.

Other significant colony losses were 28.2% in the North, 22.4% in Wales, and 22.1% in Spain.
Over-wintering colony losses are usually higher in Ireland than in other countries studied by Coloss researchers.
Losses during the past winter in Ireland were higher than in the two previous winters at 19.3% for the winter of 2014-2015 and 13% for the winter of 2013-2014. During the 2012-2013 winter, there was a very high level of losses of 37%.

Dr Coffey said the greatest losses of over 30% were in some parts of counties Cork, Kerry, and Kilkenny, but it was hard to isolate a single cause for these high losses.
“The National Apicultural Programme will contact some of the beekeepers involved to ask some extra questions to try to tease out possible causes for this high level of mortality,” she said.
Dr Coffey said beekeepers must remain vigilant and ensure that they carry out treatments for the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor consistently and promptly.

John Breen from the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Limerick said the Irish climate might be responsible for our high bee mortality rate.
“We just had a very mild winter, and that could be influencing the mortality as well,” said Prof Breen. “If there is warm weather the bees fly out and use up their stores of honey.
“In countries like Poland and other south-eastern countries where the winters are colder bees cluster longer and that might be contributing to the low mortality in those countries.”
However, importing bees into Ireland would be frowned upon, and there is also the danger of bringing in other diseases.

“The main thing is to control the Varroa destructor, and the beekeepers are doing that. There are natural products like thymol, obtained from oil from thyme and that causes the mite to fall off the bees.”
Prof Breen said people could also start to garden for their bees. “Not all flowers have food for bees. People should have gardens with lots of single rather than double flowers,” he said.

Double flowers have extra rows of petals instead of nectaries and so produce little or no nectar or pollen.
Evelyn Ring