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Saturday 3 December 2016

Books: A shepherd's tale that looks set to endure

A Cumbrian farmer's memoir was one of the publishing highlights of the year

Joe Barry

Published 16/12/2015 | 02:30

The Shepherd's Life author James Rebanks on his sheep farm in the Lake District, England. Photo: Christopher Thomond.
The Shepherd's Life author James Rebanks on his sheep farm in the Lake District, England. Photo: Christopher Thomond.
IFA The Path to Power
ICA Book of Christmas
Straw, Hay and Rushes.
Around The Farm Gate

Every cloud has a silver lining. Sceptics might laugh at this but in general, if we have the right attitude to life, we can always turn difficulties to our advantage in some small way.

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The recent awful weather is a good example in that when we have finished the essential tasks around the farm, we can always reward ourselves by quitting early and settling down by the fire with a good book.

There are few pleasures to equal reading at the fireside when the wind is rattling the frames and rain is battering against the window panes.

Cookery and lifestyle books are always popular at Christmas time and one of the nicest I have come across is A Greener Life by Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott.

Their love of country life is evident where they write about proper sports like ratting with terriers and their appreciation of good meat that has been home reared, or fresh vegetables dug from the garden.

Clarissa, who sadly has since passed away, was a renowned cook and the chapters cover everything from wild food such as game, mushrooms, fish and hedgerow fruits to pork, chicken and red meats.

There are sections on pickling, jam making, home brewing and wine making, rearing and slaughtering your own livestock and even how to make soap. This is a book for people who like to produce and prepare their own food rather than cut it out of a plastic packet.

It is beautifully illustrated throughout and while first published in 2005, is still available online or from good bookshops.

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I reviewed The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks some months ago but it is worth revisiting as following publication it deservedly won a 'Book of the Year' award and was one of the most entertaining and interesting books I have read in a long time, especially from a farming perspective.

The author left school not knowing how to read but, after teaching himself to read using children's manuals, entered Oxford University in his 20s to study history. He excelled academically, winning honours and offers of a career in academia, but it was not the life for him.

He comes from a long line of farmers who have worked the same land in the Lake District in Cumbria for over 600 years and despite the obvious hardships, would not exchange their life for any easier occupation.

The writing itself is exceptional, wonderfully descriptive but also at times blunt and tough and the book is a fierce defence of small-scale farming. This is in no way the musings of a dreamy environmentalist nor is it some sort of sentimental memoir. Rebanks tells it like it is, from his childhood to the present day, writing of both the hardships of the shepherd's life in winter followed by occasional rain ruined harvests but also the joys of a fine spring and early summer when the flocks are returned to the hills.

Published in 2015, it topped the bestselling lists for three months and will be enjoyed by people of all ages and all walks of life.

Oliver Rackham was perhaps the outstanding botanical and landscape writer of his generation and his final book The Ash Tree published in 2014, is of especial interest now that ash is under threat from Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback.

Rackham had for years been campaigning against the globalisation of plant diseases and the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the world in commercial quantities.

Here in Ireland we are paying the price for this but hopefully some trees will prove resistant and from them we can rebuild our stocks.

In the meantime it is fascinating to read how the qualities of ash wood have been appreciated throughout the centuries, beginning with our Neolithic ancestors up to the present day.

Ash was the wood used for warriors and hunters spears and its strength allied to its flexibility has made it the material of choice for numerous more modern uses.

Nowadays it is highly valued for quality furniture manufacture and of course hurley sticks.

Many other tree species along with their pests and diseases are also dealt with in detail. The Ash Tree is the perfect book for anyone with even a passing interest in trees, history and silviculture in general.

Finally, in no particular order here are a few more titles I especially enjoyed reading or re-reading this year.

Roy Foster's Vivid Faces is a brilliant examination of the revolutionary generation in Ireland from 1890 to 1923. Many of them come across as being truly eccentric.

This is a terrific overview of all the main players and the conditions in Ireland at the time.

Among the titles I have been revisiting are Nostos, the monumental autobiography of the Kerry mystic. It's a challenging but very rewarding reading experience.

And finally I must mention one of my all time favourites which is now in its umpteenth reprint and worth reading Woodbrook by David Thomson.

THE IFA'S PATH TO POWER

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The year ended in turbulence for the IFA but it began with much fanfare as the Association celebrated its 60th anniversary. This lavish 200-page history of the Association, edited by Matt Dempsey - former editor of the Farmer's Journal - offers some great insights not just into the IFA, but also the development of Irish farming over the decades. We have certainly come a long way from the 1950s when, the text notes, 'the export of rabbit meat exceeded in value the export of butter and cheese combined.' Illustrated with hundreds of evocative photos, this is a fine production which also serves as a reminder of why Irish farming needs a strong and united organisation to fight its cause.

IS SANTA REAL? THE ICA HAS THE ANSWER

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By Ann Fitzgerald

The Irish Countrywomen's Association has made a good job if reinventing itself in recent years and recently launched a Book of Christmas.

Edited by Aoife Carrigy, this is a beautiful, high quality, wholesome hardback containing recipes, advice and traditions for the perfect Irish Christmas, that have been submitted by members of the ICA's 518 guilds.

These are interspersed with lovely photos and some seasonal poems and stories; among them Limerick's Peg Prendeville's 'Is Santa Real?' and the colourful retelling of Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha's tale of Jimín and the gander and the whiskey by Peggy Lynch from Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim.

Then there are some of the superstitions related to bringing foliage into the home this time of year.

Some say that if the holly is the first evergreen to be brought indoors, the man of the house will get the upper hand for the year to follow, "leading some women to instruct their children to bring the ivy first."

Retailing at €19.99, the ICA's Book of Christmas is sure to light up many a dark day.

A celebration of Ireland's  earthy crafts and folklore

It is sometimes easy to overlook the most common of objects and the careful craft that went into making them - objects such as a St Brigid's Cross, the wicker basket topped with turf or the intricacy of a thatched roof.

Straw, hay and rushes were utilised throughout the centuries in Ireland for a myriad of such practical uses and rituals.

From there developed domestic and agricultural objects abundant in function, folklore and beauty.

Anne O'Dowd's new book Straw, Hay and Rushes in Irish Folk ­Tradition (Irish Academic Press, RRP €45) celebrates and explores the history and tradition of this craft, and also features hundreds of rare and unpublished images.

The thousand or so objects made from straw, hay and rushes held in the National Museum of Ireland's Irish Folklife Collection in Castlebar, Co Mayo forms the basis for this beautiful book and its richly informative content.

Born in Dublin, Anne O'Dowd recently retired from National Museum of Ireland, where she was a curator for more than 30 years. Her previous work includes Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers - History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Worker in Ireland and Britain.

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The book's cover features the late Bernie Winters, Clare Island, Co Mayo; (above) Laurence Mulligan, Killoe, Granard, Co Longford making a hen's nest in 1969; and a group of girls wearing straw bonnets decorated with flowers in the early 1900s

COUNTRY CLASSICS

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PJ Cunningham, who spent many years in the Irish Independent, has in recent years branched out into publishing.  The result has been a stream of bestsellers, among them some titles with rural themes. One of the best is Around The Farm Gate, an anthology of  50 tales 'set at the crossroads between tradition and modernity in the latter part of the twentieth century.' It's essential reading as is PJ's own new title A Fly Never Lit, the final part of a trilogy about growing up in the rural Ireland in the second half of the last century. It follows on The Lie Of The Land and The Long Acre which last year was shortlisted for  Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Of The Year in 2014.

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