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Friday, August 26, 2016

Ireland's Mideast origins for our hunter-gathering genes

Now is the time to find big, ripe, juicy blackberries, fresh and unwormed. Picture: Damien Enright

I wonder were the bones found in a cave in Co Mayo earlier this month those of hunter-gatherers, or are they that old? Once the archaeologist have dated them, the geneticists might decide to DNA analyse them, and find their genetic history. Who knows what information about the journey of mankind to this sacred isle such bones might reveal.
In 2015, study of the remains of a woman who died 5,200 years ago in Co Down revealed that she was of Middle Eastern extraction. She would have been a member of a group of Stone Age farmers, our forbearers, themselves descendants of the first agriculturists in the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that flow into the Persian Gulf. She had black hair and brown eyes, typical of Middle Eastern people. Middle Eastern DNA —perhaps Syrian? — is in our blood.
The first cereals were grown in Syria 9,000 years ago; the first hybrid trees in Jordan, 2,000 years earlier. Her ancestors arrived in Ireland, bringing with them cereals, livestock and pottery, and the colourful, edible snail we find everywhere, but often close to the sea.
The banded snail, Capaea nemoralis, most likely arrived in Ireland with Mesolithic migrants moving west. Evidence of its presence begins 8,000 years ago, and there is a continuous fossil record from that time. Its DNA matches that of banded snails found only in the Pyrenees, on the route Mesolithic migrants would probably have taken to Ireland. They may have carried them as a fresh food source.
In tandem with the study of this Stone Age woman’s remains, the Trinity College/ Queen’s University team studied the DNA of three men buried on Rathlin Island, Co Antrim 1,000 to 1,500 years after she died.
Using a technique called whole- genome analysis to ‘read’ not only the unique characteristics of individuals but to compare the DNA from all four bodies, the scientific teams aimed to arrive at a broader understanding of migration and settlement.

The three men in Rathlin lived in the Bronze Age and were descendants of peoples that originated in the Pontic Steppe in southern Russia, the Baltic States, Poland and Central Europe. That we have some of their DNA sequences is beyond doubt.
They carried a distinctive genetic disorder called haemochromatosis, a hereditary variant which causes the body to store too much iron in the liver, heart and pancreas. The variant is evident in almost all Irish DNA, so universal that it has been called the Celtic disease.
They also carried the gene that allows adults to digest milk —useful in the largely dairy-product economy that Ireland has become. Many other races become intolerant to milk after infancy. They were more like the Irish of today. Their eyes were often blue; their antecedents, the farmers, had brown eyes. Their language may even reflect an early form of our national language.

Early newcomers did not compete with those already on the land but became Irish themselves.
These northern Europeans brought the Bronze Age — bronze ploughshares, metal tools and craftsmanship in gold. By the time of their arrival, the farmers would already have subsumed, or integrated with, the hunter-gatherer population that preceded them.
So, the ‘Irish’ moved from hunting-gathering, to farming, to a metal age culture.
The human story is a narrative of movement and migration, and an exchange of genes and cultures that over-ride border controls.

After the Bronze Age came the Iron Age and the legendary Celts, with their flowing hair and flowing robes. They began their migration out of Central Europe in 1,000BC, possibly under some pressure from the Roman Empire, and began to reach Ireland from about 600BC onward. Before long, the old Bronze Age culture was supplanted but, of course, farming never stopped.
Another migration, another step forward, added DNA and, possibly, hybrid vigour. With the Celts, we became more technologically, artistically and linguistically sophisticated.

What these lately-discovered Co Mayo bones will tell us is not known. Perhaps their owners were Stone Age farmers, Bronze Age metal workers, bardic Celts or perhaps they lived in the ancient days of picking berries and hunting giant elk, or knocking trees and creating arable land, like the Ceide Fields in Mayo, 6,000 years old.
Damien Enright

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cost of going to court reinforces inequalities

Like a posh hotel, the civil courts are open to everyone, but only the wealthy can afford to go   there. Michael Clifford highlights some recent cases that show the prohibitive cost of justice

High Court Judge Mr Justice Max Barrett. Picture: Courtpix

Maureen Lawless is in her 70s and in danger of losing her home. She was not among those who made a disastrous decision to buy property during the years of the bubble. She did not drink herself into debt. She is not a gambler.
She did, however, take what in retrospect was a huge gamble. She sought justice through the courts on the basis that she felt she had been grievously wronged. Such a course of action is supposed to be a cherished right for citizens in a democracy. In truth, it’s a sham.
Last month, the High Court granted a judgement against Maureen Lawless for €176,433. This was money accumulated in legal fees by her former solicitor who had taken on her case in 2010. The case involved a land auction in which Ms Lawless felt she had been wronged. The case was subsequently settled. Ms Lawless had made an initial payment of €5,000 to the solicitor, Larry Burke of Cavan firm Burke, Hunt and Co, but hadn’t coughed up anything else since. The accumulated bill also included fees for a senior and junior counsel, coming to about €64,000.

At the hearing in which judge Max Barrett granted the judgement against Ms Lawless, she couldn’t even afford representation, the court heard. Judge Barrett also noted that she was in danger of losing her home as a result of her foray into the legal world. Despite all that, the judge said he was legally bound to grant the judgement. Ms Lawless was a competent adult who had retained legal counsel and that comes with a cost.
However, the judge is not an island and he couldn’t help noticing the injustice of a system alleged to be route to justice. Of the size of the fees he said: “These are enormous, though not at all untypical, fees which point to a continuing deficiency in our legal system… proper legal representation, at least in civil proceedings, is increasingly a boon that is properly affordable by the few who are rich, and a bane to be feared by the many who are not.”

That, in a nutshell, is the kernel of the scandal of legal fees in this country. The courts, like the Ritz, are open to everybody, but confined to the wealthy.
In this, the system in which civil law is administered serves not as a great leveller but an instrument to reinforce inequities in society.
Judge Barrett’s intervention in the Lawless case was the second time in recent months that he referenced the cost of going to court. In April, he ruled on an application for a firm to provide security of costs, which involves putting up money that can be used to pay legal fees in the event of losing an action.
The action involves a Cork-based training company called Euro Safety which is suing Solas, the state training agency which was formerly Fás. Euro Safety claims it has lost business as a result of blowing the whistle on bad practices in Fás in 2002, which led to a damning report on the state agency.
The Cork firm believes it is entitled to compensation for the manner in which its business has allegedly suffered.

In response, Solas asked the court to force Euro Safety to put up €600,000 as security in case it loses the case. This figure includes €220,000 in solicitor’s costs and €108,500 for a senior counsel for an estimated 20-day hearing. That’s over one hundred grand for the barrister for a month’s work.
The judge pointed out that Euro Safety did not have access to those kind of funds. “The case highlights, yet again, the need for a systemic solution to the present crushing cost of High Court litigation,” he said.
He refused the Solas application on the basis that the case was in the public interest. But what of a case that was just in the interests of a private company seeking justice?
Legal practitioners get all sniffy when judges like Barrett comment on what is plainly obvious before their eyes. It’s regarded as letting the side down or, more often, bad grace from somebody who toiled in the lucrative vineyard themselves before accepting a state job and plum pension. An alternative view might be that the bench provides a wider lens to examine what citizens are subjected to when they opt to go to court.
The sniffy attitude was also deployed against former Justice Minister Alan Shatter when he made attempts to reform the system. In parallel to his political career, Mr Shatter had enjoyed a lucrative legal one. And now he was spoiling the party for everybody else. Again, perhaps the former minister was in a position to look at the system from the point of view of citizens, rather than partitioners.
Mr Shatter’s grand plans were shredded through assiduous lobbying by the business and, while the former minister was not up to the job in other areas of his brief, his drive to reform the system was sadly lost on his departure from office. What emerged instead was a watered down Legal Services Regulation Act which is due to come into force in the coming months.

One of the few reforms in that act will ensure that costs will have to be more transparent. No longer will citizens find out well into a process that they have accumulated crippling debts.
The act makes provision for a review of fees, written notice in clear language, and a new set of principles for adjudicating on costs. The whole thing, however, is a long way from the changes initially envisaged by Shatter.
His plans were lifted to a large extent from an excellent Competition Authority report in 2006 which highlighted the problems with the restrictive practices and lack of transparency within the two arms of the business.

Another recent case illustrated another aspect to the charging of fees. Costs in a medical negligence case have been contested in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal over the last year. At issue are elements to the cost bill which include a claim for a solicitor’s instruction fee of €485,000, which the taxing master originally reduced to €276,000. The firm in question, Augustus Cullen Law of Wicklow appealed the ruling in the High Court, where it lost, and more recently in the Court of Appeal, where it won.
Another element of the costs was the fee for the senior counsel involved Denis McCullough. He had claimed a “brief fee” of €125,000, because of the “novelty and complexity” of the case. A brief fee is awarded for reading oneself into the case. Thereafter, his daily fee was €3,500 per day.
The court heard that Mr McCullough subsequently accepted a reduced brief fee of €65,000 and that was no longer contested. So the senior counsel accepted his fee to be about half what he had originally charged. This is not particularly unusual in the Law Library, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with it.

But is there any other line of work where a practitioner simply drops their initial fee by about half for no particular reason other than its size is contested? One thing’s for sure, that’s nice work if you can get it.
Michael Clifford

Remembering John Wayne

"Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."

"I suppose my best attribute, if you want to call it that, is sincerity. I can sell sincerity because that's the way I am."

"Courage is being scared to death... and saddling up anyway."

"Real art is basic emotion. If a scene is handled with simplicity - and I don't mean simple - it'll be good, and the public will know it."

On my tombstone write: ‘Ugly, strong and dignified.’

John Wayne (1907-1979)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

We don't appreciate the gems on our doorstep

How is it that so many people dream of seeing the wonders of faraway places while often ignoring gems which are virtually on their doorstep?

You will meet Dubliners who know little or nothing of the Phoenix Park; Killarney folk who have never been out on the world-famous lakes, or climbed Carrantuohill, and Corkonians who have never experienced the marvel that is Garinish Island.

I recently revisited Garinish, in Bantry Bay, having previously been there more than 30 years ago, and the delights of this island garden, just off Glengarriff, came flooding back. It was a warm, sunny day in August and I could sense it was going to be another special day in a special place.
Our boatman, Kieran, highlighted some of the natural features of this lush corner of Ireland and was soon pointing to a white-tailed sea eagle perched on top of a tree. A pair released in Killarney National Park has been nesting in Garinish for about four years and they recently produced a chick which can be seen flying over the island. The nest can be seen easily, but people are asked not to go too near it or disturb the eagles in any way.

The eagles are an attraction in their own right around Glengarriff which also has a common seal colony. We only saw one seal, a well-fed lazy specimen soaking up the sun on the rocks and oblivious to boats and visitors. Bees were also numerous there as they went about their work of pollination. The late screen star Maureen O’Hara had a home in Glengarriff but the real appeal of this place is its natural environment.

The minute you step ashore on Garinish you sense a sort of latter-day Garden of Eden, with all sorts of shrubs, flowers and trees crowding in on you. You can quickly walk around the 37 acres but it’s best to take your time, breathe the fragrant air and absorb it.
This is a huge ornamental garden of tropical plants, made possible by the humid Gulf Stream climate. The most notable feature is, perhaps, the Italianate garden, the work of the former owner of the island, Annan Bryce, and Harold Peto, an architect and garden designer.
On the occasion of our previous visit, rhododendrons and azaleas were in full bloom, as it was earlier in the year, but this time a kaleidoscope of summer colour adorned the scene. Very soon, the colours will change again with the coming of autumn. Lots of Irish people and overseas tourists were on the island.

The foundations of what’s being enjoyed today by thousands of visitors were laid around 80 years ago. The island was bequeathed to the State, in 1953, and is now under the control of the Office of Public Works. Well worth a visit.
Donal Hickey