Survival of the fittest: meet Ireland's 'preppers'
After two major storms in six months, many of us are wondering if we are adequately prepared for extreme weather. John Meagher speaks to those who have made sure to plan ahead for every eventuality
It was crude cameraphone footage that went viral. In the days before the Beast from the East and Storm Emma were set to hit - and with Met Éireann warning us to take every precaution - customers in a Dublin convenience store were filmed alighting on a trolley of sliced pans like seagulls attacking an overflowing bin.
Then, when the snow came down thick and fast, another phenomenon could be seen: lines of people snaking out of convenience stores and down the snowy streets. They had quickly discovered that they did not have as much food and water in their homes as they would have liked.
Early this week, when the big thaw had set in, some 'snow tourists' were driving to places like the Sally Gap in Wicklow and getting stuck. Their expensive cars were rendered useless by the weather.
For former merchant navy officer Frank Deegan, the so-called Snowmaggedden confirmed everything he has long suspected: that the vast majority of us would be clueless in an actual emergency situation and would struggle to survive a catastrophe, whether of natural causes or man-made.
Deegan is the co-founder of the Irish Survivalist Group and, along with like-minded enthusiasts, he cares passionately about the need to equip himself with the tools and know-how to give him every chance of survival if our cosseted, urban-oriented and technologically advanced worlds came crashing down.
"Some might think it's a joke to be prepared as best you can for something going badly wrong, but last week's snow showed how out of touch large sections of the population are."
The Kilkenny man first became interested in the area of survivalism when working in the late 80s and early 90s at sea. Exercise drills instilled a sense in him about how easy it is to lure ourselves into the belief that we would fend for ourselves if a serious problem ensued. "To give yourself the best chance of surviving, you have to have to think about it in advance, to learn some basic skills and to understand the importance of having access to water and enough food."
For increasing numbers of Irish, survivalism is not just associated with entertaining TV shows from Bear Grylls. They're making concerted efforts to build up a stock of non-perishable foodstuffs, learning how to use bushcraft knives and even arming themselves with guns to use to kill animals as a source of protein.
They're part of a growing worldwide movement, known as preppers, who don't just regard doomsday scenarios as material for disaster films, but real-life possibilities that cannot be discounted.
Frank Deegan's day-job as an engineer with a multimedia company may seem a little incongruous when compared to his survivalist instincts, but he doesn't see it that way. "It's about being prepared for something down the line and to have the skills to know what to do if an emergency happened, whether that's a weather event or something else."
That something else, he points out, could be the fallout from a meteorite hitting Earth - and he points out that in recent days a meteor passed comparatively close to this planet and it didn't make mainstream news - or, as is more likely, rapidly rising sea levels causing huge flooding issues for Ireland.
"And what if we got a really harsh winter? Last week's snow only lasted a few days and the melting happened quickly because it was March, but what would have happened if it had arrived in November and stayed until January? Judging from the reaction of some people last week, there are many who simply would not be able to survive a situation where they were cut off for weeks on end without being able to get to shops or to stay warm if their electricity went for a long period of time."
Deegan says that just because a brutally harsh winter hasn't happened in recent times, it doesn't mean it won't happen again - possibly next winter. Older readers who lived through the winter of 1962/63 are unlikely to forget the long, sustained cold and the how towns and villages were, essentially, snowed in for weeks on end. It was, statistically, the coldest winter Ireland experienced in the 20th century and several people died of hypothermia.
Historians, meanwhile, have dubbed 1816 'The Year without Summer' in Europe after a volcanic eruption in present-day Indonesia had played havoc with the climactic conditions in many parts of the globe. It resulted in crop failure and massive food shortages in the northern hemisphere.
Deegan says there have been several examples in recent years globally about how natural disasters have impacted on millions. "The tsunami [of December 2006] had a massive impact and so did Hurricane Katrina, which devastated a big city like New Orleans.
"People live with every convenience to hand and they don't have to think about where their food comes from or what they would do if they couldn't get it. There were lines of people queuing outside shops around the country just a couple of days after the snow, but have they thought what would happen if they could not get to the shops, or if the delivery trucks couldn't get there and the shelves were completely bare?"
A Kildare-based survivalist has certainly thought of such a possibility and he has stocked up with food cans with a shelf life of 10 years, ration packs commonly used by armies and a device which allows him to collect rainwater and filter it for drinking.
Oisín - he doesn't want his second name used due to his work in a financial services company - believes that it makes sense to think about the long term, and not blithely assume that everything will just tick along without a problem.
"The snow last week showed just how unprepared so many are," he says. "It was bedlam in the shops as people were trying to get the last loaf of bread, but you'd even see people out in the snow who weren't dressed properly for it at all. Many of them didn't have the right footwear or a proper coat to protect them from the wind-chill. And what happened last week was mild compared to what could happen, potentially."
Oisín's interest in the area - although he says he wouldn't refer to himself as a 'prepper' - begun when he joined the Scouts as a boy. "I don't know anybody who was a scout that doesn't still have a love of the outdoors now that they're adults," he says. "Once you get out in the woods or mountains, and camp and learn to build a fire and cook food, it stays with you. And it's something I want to do with my own children. My oldest is seven and I can't wait to take her camping this summer." He says he used to go camping religiously every weekend before his children were born.
Oisín, who is in his early 30s, says he believes it is essential that children be given a love and appreciation for nature. "It's not just good for honing their survival instincts," he says, "but it also gives them a true sense of where their food comes from and how food is so seasonal.
"But it would also play a big part in tackling the obesity crisis," he says, noting that Irish children are on course to be the fattest in Europe by 2030. "When you're in the great outdoors, you're constantly moving - it doesn't even feel like exercise - and if you've a greater sense of where food come, especially if foraged or grown seasonally, you'll be less likely to opt for highly processed foods that's part of the diet of so many children today."
Frank Deegan concurs and he says children love getting the chance to safely roam in the wild. "We had a class from Blackrock [in Dublin] at one of our courses recently and while they might have felt like fishes out of water in the first day or so, by day three they were loving it. It's an opportunity to get close to nature that not enough children have anymore - and not just those who live in big urban areas. Even children growing up in small towns might not get out into the countryside as much as you might think."
Deegan believes the school curriculum should include basic survival techniques and designated time with experts in a wild location. "Even a week would be enough," he says, arguing that not only would they learn how to start a fire and make river water potable, but they would learn key leadership skills, too. "It's about not taking the everyday stuff for granted and knowing that you could fend for yourself if need be."
He says exposing children to the wild will likely imbue them with a lifelong love of the outdoors and he says there's nothing he likes more than to escape with wife Bríd to Kerry for four or five days and not to see another soul. The couple hike and canoe and sleep in the wild with a simple tarpaulin for cover. Being one with nature drives them, he says, although he admits that both he and Bríd enjoy some of life's luxuries, too.
Like a number of his friends in the survivalist community, Oisín, has a firearms licence and carries a basic shotgun. It's used for hunting rabbits and other birds and animals that can legally be shot here. He is at pains to point out that Irish survivalists are a very different breed to their US counterparts, and don't share the views of the extremist fringe of the movement on the other side of the Atlantic.
"We're very different," he says. "At a most basic level, we're people who love to spend as much time as possible in the outdoors and keep a stock of long-life food in the event of an emergency. But most of us live normal lives and do normal jobs. We're fully part of the wider community, we don't isolate ourselves from that."
He says the 1,000-strong membership of the Irish Survivalist Group boasts a wide range of people, from those who merely like to go camping in the mountains every so often to people who have stockpiled their garage with cans, water bottles and army rations.
Leaving the rat race
Sven Ridgway sees the whole gamut of the movement in Ireland. For the past four years he has been running the Irish Prepper and Bushcraft store in Mallow, Co Cork, and he says demand for his goods is rising.
"More and more people are becoming interested in prepping," he says. "Some of them are turning their backs on the rat race and looking for a lifestyle that's more in tune with the land. Some have gone completely off-grid. They've tuned out of the constant pressure to make money, take out huge mortgages and pay the bills. They're looking for a much simpler life - and they're finding it."
He says the prepping community often comprises people who have rejected the status quo. "Just because everyone else feels that they need a three-bedroom house made of bricks and mortar doesn't mean they should too. I've a friend who doesn't have to worry about power outages because they use a diesel generator and get their energy from solar panels. Those sorts of people would wonder why more don't take their lead."
Ridgway says a desire to live a more environmentally sustainable life is a driver for many. It's about using your hands, he argues, and not just to strike the keyboard of a computer. And, he adds, some preppers "are sick of the news and want to disconnect from the propaganda of the mainstream media".
"They're doing things their way and they believe it's a better way," he says.