Sunday, 24 May 2015

For Love of Trees

For Love of Trees – trees, hedgerows, ivy and the environment. Risteárd Mulcahy. Environmental Publications. 1996 pp 79.

This book was published 15 years ago. Because the ivy situation in Ireland has worsened since my book was published I thought of republishing it in 2012 with some additional comments which had been omitted in the first edition. I had the text added to my computer by my daughter Barbara for this purpose. However, as the additions I had in mind were hardly sufficient to merit a new edition, I thought a rider would suffice which can be added to the early copies which I have left in my library.

Struggling to breath in Ballymore Eustace

I can say at this juncture that my book which was so critical of the excessive amount of Ivy on our hedgerows trees received a mixed reception; some agreed with my general thesis while others believed that ivy is not harmful to our casual and woodland timber; they even deemed it attractive when the tree is heavily laden. Those who agreed with my views, particularly on the aesthetic effect of a heavy growth of the plant, were rarely outspoken or active in discouraging its worst features.  Others were entirely opposed to my view, some of whom expressed opinions denying its harmful and aesthetic effects. Some thought me obsessive in my opinions.  In no case has there been any evidence provided to counteract my views about the harmful aesthetic and functional effect of the climber as it heavily envelops the trunk and branches of our hedgerow and small clumps of trees.

Both trees were freed of ivy 15 years ago. One is re-infested.

I have no reason to change my opinions about the problems created by the widespread growth of ivy in Ireland.  In my chapter The Mechanism of Damage by Ivy, I underline the plant’s roots competing for water and nutrients, and, through the gradual spread of the lateral branches, the loss of leaf production. We need to underline the loss of leaf production as is so evident when the climber has reached the top of the affected tree. It is clearly impossible for the tree to grow in a natural way if it is deprived of its leaves, its source of energy and carbon production. It is also obvious that the normal growth and habit of the tree is changed because of the gradual distortion and loss of the lateral branches.

I had no idea in 1996 why the ivy infestation of our trees has been a very recent aspect of our hedgerows and hedgerow trees. I had been familiar with the hedgerows in Co. Wexford as a youth and recalled them as being rich in trees, and of ash in particular.  The reduction in ash was evident 15 years ago and I can say with confidence that the ivy incursion into our countryside has worsened during the last 15 years since I published my monograph. I was not aware of the cause of the widespread presence of ivy 15 years ago but since then  I have found evidence that goats are being used professionally in the United States to control the spread of ‘’English Ivy’’ and many other forms of brushwood and weeds. This information is available on the web under the headings of goats and ivy. You can look up Rent-a-goat gains a foothold and Fias Co Farm. Herds of goats are hired by landowners and other institutions in the West Coast of America. The goats are proving most effective in clearing brushwood and much more economical than clearing scrub mechanically or by human hand.

Goats have four stomach cavities and are notorious browsers of almost any plant or shrub which they encounter. Goats were widespread in Ireland in the past but are now rarely seen. It is very likely that they may have played a significant if not the major part in the growth and spread of our hedgerow ivy. It is surely the most rational reason we can attribute to the increasing and widespread prevalence of ivy in our countryside.

Near my daughter Tina's home in France
In my chapter Methods of Control I describe the simple method of control by cutting the ivy stems with a sharp saw, secateurs or hatchet, whichever is most appropriate. It is clear however that when the tree is heavily laden the thickness of the ivy stems and their multiplicity are such as to make it more difficult to divide them, particularly when the base of the tree is occluded by scrub and other hedgerow weeds and plants. This is a good reason to attend to the tree before the climber has travelled too far in its journey to the top.

The classification of the ivies is very complex because of their huge variety and their propensity to changes in morphology in response to many factors in the environment. The Common Ivy is spoken about in the UK but the ivy in Ireland is called Hedera hibernica and tends to be large leafed and invasive.  Ivy is found as ground cover on the continent but I had thought that it was only a problem for our trees and hedgerows in Ireland and to a lesser extent in Britain. However I noted some common ivy on the trees beside the railway line from Nantes to La Rochelle last autumn but the plant was far from being conspicuous, and a friend who had been in Portugal and is sympathetic to my views noted some ivy on the trees in Portugal.

With my wandering mind, wandering further with age, I find myself switching my mind without obvious reason.  In recent years I have collected the nuts of our common and ever-green oaks and some fine chestnuts during my walks in the nearby UCD grounds and in the spacious roads and avenues of our nearby quiet suburb of Ardalea. This year’s plantings were in October of last year. The plastic pots measuring ten to 15 centimetres were filled from my wife’s spare garden soil.  I planted twelve evergreen oaks and twelve chestnuts in separate small pots and left them to winter behind her tool shed. Although I did not see the first appearance until early April (it was a chestnut) I enjoyed a certain feeling of expectation of their arrival long before that date and found myself sneaking out in the early morning and examining each pot carefully for signs of life. It was a daily brief note of excitement during a cold and wet winter!

In Wexford, patiently waiting to be planted.
The first arrival of a chestnut tree in early April was quickly followed by others and to-day at the beginning of May as I write this account I now have the twelve chestnuts but no sign of the oaks. The first two chestnuts to appear measured exactly 20 centimetres (8 inches) by the 30th of April. I fear that my oaks must have been infertile although in past years the common Irish oak which I planted was a welcome arrival in the late spring. So there is still hope.  The holly or evergreen oak is certainly more reluctant to make its appearance. During previous years I had no trouble in reproducing the Irish or English oak which are abundant in the UCD grounds.

The first six chestnuts have gone to my son Richard’s farm and four will be going to cousins in Kilkenny next week. The latter were among the first recipients to receive three silver birches some years ago and they tell me that they are now a trio of more than ten feet high. We will be rewarded by having lunch in their house and by seeing the birches.  Our hosts will be rewarded by thinking of their friends and being aware of our gift as long as they stay in their home.

Lissenfield with some of  it's trees, young and old.
The remainder of our young trees will be distributed shortly by friends and family. Twelve years after my marriage I and my family moved to my parent’s house in Rathmines. We had two acres there and in response to friends and family wishing to mark the occasion, we asked for a gift of a tree. When the house was vacated 22 years later we were left with a small but striking arboretum including a young and sturdy redwood, reaching 30 feet or more but unhappily cut down by later developers.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero. Chris Matthews, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2011. pp 479.

This review was written on November 8th 2012.

Maryann Valiulis presented me with this new biography of Kennedy on her return to Ireland in the summer of 2012. It was her gift to me on my 90th birthday. I have been slow to read it and slower still to comment about it. 

Lt. John F. Kennedy and the crew of PT109 in 1943
I was initially a little put off by the author’s obvious strong
 sympathy for his subject which I thought unusual for a serious historian. And this was accentuated by the quite extraordinary account in chapter three of Kennedy’s heroic exploits in successfully leading and rescuing his comrades when they were fighting the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.

A chronically bad back was one of many ailments
He returned to civil life during the War and was stricken by a chronic illness which was eventually diagnosed as Addison’s disease, a rare and debilitating condition caused by depletion of the secretions of the adrenal glands. At the time it had an adverse prognosis. His chronic health problems were to remain with him all  his life but this did not prevent him from advancing himself and  showing the strong ambitions which were to spur him during his subsequent years.  His periods of illness may have been advantageous to him in terms of isolation and may have   enhanced his innate and gathering political ambitions. He was restless by nature and it is extraordinary that his health problems did not appear to intrude on his subsequent rapid progress in the political world.

In the early years after his return from the War he emerges as an ambitious and somewhat selfish and unattractive figure that could be disloyal to some of his early colleagues when any difficulties occurred between them. He was to show a tremendous capacity to further his political ambitions and in later years gathered together a devoted and loyal band of supporters and workers. He was always careful to acknowledge his Irish and Catholic background although he was able to avoid the dominating influence of his wealthy and conservative father whom he managed to keep at arms length.

From an early date he disapproved of Roosevelt and Churchill in allowing Stalin too much rope in taking over much of Germany and Eastern Europe, and in creating the post-war Berlin difficulties. He was opposed to any form of appeasement but whether this view was retrospective may have been hard to say. He was vocal in his criticism of the West’s earlier appeasement towards Stalin and this might have sown the seeds of his response to Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis. In his first meetings with Khrushchev he was clearly bullied by the latter on the issue of Kennedy’s attempt to agree a policy of nuclear disarmament and on other post-war issues arising out of Russian ambitions. 

WEXFORD, the Virginia estate designed by Jack and Jackie
One’s opinion of Kennedy tended to improve as he acquired more political success and confidence and as he acquired a more gifted group of supporters. He then appeared to show greater loyalty to his friends. He was undoubtedly selfish and never lost his own ability to enjoy his privileges as is evident in the account of his behaviour with his wife Jackie Bouvier. His going on vacation to Italy with his pals at the time of the delivery of her first child and his apparently frequent affairs with other women during his marriage seemed more than unusual, particularly because of his Irish and Catholic background and the widespread  prejudice among Americans towards Catholicism. Jackie surely would have been less tolerant if she were married to a less prominent person.

I was glad I had read this biography. He emerged as a noble and yet human person who had shown great courage and single-minded judgement at a most critical moment for the United States and indeed for the Western World. His decision to confront Khrushchev was inspired by his own judgement and was contrary to the views of many of his advisers. Perhaps with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, never has anybody of his stature died at the height of his fame and reputation; his reputation was such that all of us who first heard of his unexpected death know where we were at that moment. I answered the ‘phone to be told of the tragedy as I came off the squash court in the old Fitzwilliam Club.

JFK Memorial park as depicted by John Hinde
This very short review touches too lightly on the importance of Kennedy’s career as one of the great leaders of the second half of the 20th century. His close connection with Ireland and particularly to Co. Wexford was to confirm and afterwards augment the pride enjoyed by the people of Ireland in his Irish roots and in his outstanding career, not to mention his tragic and premature death at the height of his fame. The extensive and impressive Kennedy Park which adorns the south westerly part of Co. Wexford is a fitting tribute to his memory and is a reminder of how well served we were by so many of our emigrants who brought fame to this small country.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Try not to get sick...

How Ireland Cares: the case for health care reform.

A. Dale Tussing and Maev-Ann Wren. New Island, Dublin. 2006, pp 434. Price E30

This review was submitted to the Editor of the IMJ (Irish Medical Journal) on 26 March 2007.

This report by two highly qualified observers of our health care system was sponsored by the Irish Council of Trade Unions in preparation for its intended Social Partners negotiations with the Government in the spring of 2006. ICTU represents the IMO, the INO, SIPTU and IMPACT. The two authors were instructed to research the current health care system in Ireland and to make recommendations based on a critical review of current services and about the authors’ views of the system which would best suit Ireland.

How Ireland Cares is just one of several similar reports which have been commissioned and published in this country on health care reform in recent years. The authors underline the many problems which are contributing to the unsatisfactory state of the service and, perhaps most importantly, they include a number of recommendations for reform.

As in similar previous reports, the authors differ with recent Ministers for Health on many issues. These include the iniquity of the current health service, the need for reform of the current consultants’ contract, the privatisation policies and the lack of an orderly and coherent healthcare system. They are highly critical of the intention to build new private hospitals financed by private and institutional investors who will receive generous tax breaks and their criticism in this regard has to be seen against the background of similar views expressed by all the opposition parties in the Dáil and by many other commentators, particularly among health professionals. The minister’s policies will inevitably lead to a shift to an American two-tier system or lack of system of health care, its excessive cost and the gross iniquities which exist in that country; nor do they share a better health record in terms of health and life expectancy.  The authors refer to a fair one-tier system which would be compatible with the systems in the European Union and particularly with our northern brethren and our neighbouring island

Most worrying is the Minister’s decision to allow investors, including doctors, to invest in private hospitals and to benefit financially by their investment. This is surely a serious threat to the integrity of our profession and to the strict standards which are inherent among doctors who have a serious commitment to integrity in dealing with their patients.

The authors support the Hanly recommendations that hospitals should be organised into regional groups with a common board of management for each hospital group. They refer to other compelling needs such as an increase in the number of consultants. In Ireland the number of consultants falls far short of that in other European countries. We need a higher ratio of consultants to resident doctors and we need substantially more Irish medical students to fill places in general practice and in our hospitals.

Another day at the emergency department
This important commentary by two experts with a distinguished research background in health affairs is a sequel to Ms. Wren’s Unhealthy State published in 2003 and to the many other reports and commentaries which have been published in Ireland since the beginning of the new millennium. The intention of the ICTU initiative in commissioning How Ireland Cares was ostensibly to bring pressure on Government as part of the Social Partnership discussions to dispense with the inequities in the Irish care system.

Regrettably the report did not fulfill its objective. The question of the health service was not raised during the negotiations with government. Apart from the financial settlement which was agreed, no mention was made of the inequities in our health service. On contacting the ICTU representative after the negotiations were completed I was informed that the issue would be raised later in the autumn  but I am not aware that ICTU has done anything over and above sponsoring the Tussing/Wren report to influence government and the health authorities about the future of healthcare in Ireland.

Friday, 1 May 2015

George O'Brien and other times

George O’Brien - a Biographical MemoirJames Meenan. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1980. pp 1X+218.

This review was written in August 2003

George O’Brien was the only son of Richard O’Brien by his second marriage. Richard O’Brien was the founder and owner of the Wicklow Hotel towards the turn of the nineteenth century. It became a well-known hostelry in Dublin and proved a successful commercial venture. George was never interested in the hotel business and initially trained as a barrister. His career in law started promisingly but failed early because of his inability to cope with the stresses of a legal life. He became Professor of National Economics in University College, Dublin from 1926 to his retirement in 1961. He was a well known figure in the professional, academic and political life of Dublin from the foundation of the state in 1922 to his retirement from his chair in 1961 and his death in 1973.

The former Wicklow Hotel
O’Brien was a prolific writer of books, articles, reviews and essays on a great variety of subjects, mainly related to economics in the widest sense, and his appointment to the university chair was gained through his early writing and not through any academic training in economics. He was elected to the Irish Senate by the National University graduates in 1951 and he retained his seat until 1965. He was a member of a number of national commissions and acted in an advisory role to the Free State and Fianna Fail governments. His early conservative nationalistic views were in the mode of Home Rule and changed late and rather reluctantly to the more radical views which inspired the Treaty. He became a strong supporter of the Treaty and was in favour of retaining a close relationship with Britain. He was a regular columnist of the Economist for many years and of other British newspapers, including the Times. He was comfortably off because of an income through his mother and the proceeds of the sale of the Wicklow Hotel, and, despite many periods of unemployment up to his appointment to the university chair, he lived the active social and gregarious life of a bachelor. He never married and lived with his mother and a chronic ailing relative in Dalkey.  He led a very active social life in the clubs and pubs of Dublin; his home life was more that of a lodger than a family member.

The book is interesting to read for those of us who lived and remembered Dublin and UCD during the 30s, 40s and later years. It was a small world, at least in terms of the coterie of intellectuals, academics, professional and business people who frequented the Arts Club, the Bailey, Jammets, the Unicorn and the few prestigious tennis, golf and sailing clubs in the city and county. The Protestant and the emerging Catholic middle class were gradually merging and living in Donnybrook, Ballsbridge and the outer southern suburbs, and, with time and common interests and the break with the British administration, the wide denominational divide became more and more blurred. The social, political and cultural after-effects of the civil war were still palpable, particularly to one of my generation and background, but despite the bitter divisions which existed and which lasted for much of the following years following the war, a certain buoyancy and optimism emerges when one reads about the friendships and the new freedom of those among the new intelligentsia in the universities and the young state.

2nd from left as cox of Maiden Four in UCD
The picture of UCD which emerges accords exactly with my impressions when I was a student there from 1939 to 1945 - overcrowding, limited facilities, under funded (a state grant of £82,000 remained unchanged from 1926 to 1947), poor staff/student relationship (with a few exceptions, including O’Brien) and little to recall Newman’s concepts of  university life. The popular appellation in my time of a glorious technical school was exaggerated by the adjective. I thought that few professors shared O’Brien’s attributes. He had a warm interest in his students and not infrequently he entertained them socially. As a confirmed bachelor his preference for younger men was understandable but always honourable. He claimed to be a teacher rather than a preacher. He was conscientious in carrying out his lecturing duties and was proud of his role as a student advisor. He was described by Meenan as articulate, audible and incisive, and in those attributes he was far removed from some of the lecturers I encountered during my six years attending Earlsfort Terrace. 

UCD, Earlsford Tce. during my time there.
My most abiding impression of my undergraduate years in the university (but not in the hospitals) was the poor delivery of our lecturers, their uncertain attendance, and the wide gap between the students and the faculty. There were exceptions but in my last year I found it more profitable to spend the hours in the library rather than the lecture theatre, which certainly contributed to my greater success in the final examinations. Perhaps it was difficult to deal with my own class of 140 students, mostly callow youths with a small smattering of modest maidens who kept a low profile.

O’Brien was pragmatic in his concepts of economics and he was little impressed by those who held rigid theories on the subject. His concept of economics fused imperceptibly into the regions of politics, social life and human affairs. He had a practical outlook on economics and on life in general, which included an appreciation of the Victorian virtues of a self-made man.

O’Brien had a tendency to depression and suffered a few serious breakdowns during his lifetime. He was unduly sensitive about people’s perception of him and this led to many unhappy moments and to numerous squabbles. However, his great accomplishments as a writer, a patriot and a teacher endeared him to many people and ensured that he had many friends and loyal admirers, and junior colleagues who appreciated his genial personality and his many contributions to the university and the country.

O’Brien as a professor believed that he was a teacher, not a research worker in a laboratory nor was he necessarily a deep original scholar. I often wonder whether the modern professor of medicine or surgery is not too often concerned with research rather than teaching and good communication with staff and patients. O’Brien was not inclined to worship gross economic growth and he distrusted planning and economic programmes. He believed the function of economics was to use limited resources efficiently in a society where personal initiative was encouraged and where success depends on the character of the people. It was also interesting to read that, because of interests well beyond economics, he was asked by Methuen to write a history of Ireland since the Union.  He refused this commission and this book was subsequently written by P.S. O’Hegarty (a book which I think is an important source of our history from the Act of Union to the founding of the Free State. I have a copy in my father’s library. I bought a second copy about four years ago in Greene’s for £40. P.S. was a nationalist, a protestant and civil servant who was opposed to violence. He was a revisionist in relation to 1916 and the War of Independence. He thought it unnecessary in achieving independence and he deplored its effect in leading to the civil war. He might have been correct in his view but, as my father records in his memoirs, the war was inevitable because of British intransigence and harassment of the Sinn Fein deputies and supporters after the 1918 election).

O’Brien believed that economic growth had to be seen against limited resources and he was critical about the phantom of plenty -- a reminder of George Bush’s political philosophy and his obsession that the necessity of improving the standard of living of the American people took precedence over such vital considerations as the environment and the population explosion.

Speaking of the Inter-Party government, O’Brien was not opposed to the rescinding of the External Relations Act but he deplored Costello’s decision to leave the Commonwealth. These were also my father’s views if one is to judge by his policy statement when he was elected president of Fine Gael in 1944. Unfortunately my father did not protest about the decision and he was at fault in this regard.  He probably did not wish to rock the boat and was anxious to maintain the new government at all costs against Fianna Fail. As noted by me previously in my memoirs, Dad always showed a strict Victorian sense of loyalty to his superiors. In this case it was Costello. It would prevent his raising the matter. He drove down to Cobh with Paddy Lynch, one of Costello’s close advisors, to meet Costello on his return to Ireland from Canada where he made his declaration. According to Lynch, his only comment about the decision to leave the Commonwealth was to say jocosely that Costello must have had a drink before he made his statement!

I believe my father’s intervention might have lead to a reversal of Costello’s decision without upsetting his colleagues or the opposition, but I am afraid that by this time, Dad, buried as he was down in the Department of Education in Marlborough Street, had lost the initiative to influence policy. O’Brien, in the Senate, questioned the implication of the declaration in terms of Irish and British relations, but surprisingly neither he nor any other supporter of the Fine Gael party opposed the decision. O’Brien, in his later reflections of his life, remarked that Ireland was in a unique position of influence in the world because of the great dispersion of Irish graduates to many other countries and the unique meeting of two great traditions here, the Roman Church and British democracy.

Meenan succeeded O’Brien as Professor of Economics at UCD. He
Self in 1941as a student in UCD
was the eldest of Prof. James Meenan’s four children. Prof. James Meenan held the chair of medicine in UCD and St. Vincent’s Hospital. It was his sudden and unexpected death in January 1951 that created the vacancy at the hospital which I succeeded to. His three other children became doctors, two of whom, Paddy and Charlie, were later to join the staff of St. Vincent’s where they gave long and distinguished service to the hospital.

28 Fitzwilliam square, a very familiar door
James Meenan was a very clubable person, like O’Brien and many of those whom I knew in my early years. He remained a bachelor until his late marriage but he never lost his urbanity and his gregarious habits. He had all the attributes of a gentleman. He was a well known member of the Stephens Green Club. As a student he had been a member of UCD boat club during the 1930s, about five years before my time. He continued to support the club as an alicadoo for many years afterwards, and, like O’Brien, he always enjoyed the company of young people. After every regatta, and following six to eight weeks of arduous training and abstention from tobacco, alcohol and association with women, we would let our hair down, drink pints of Guinness to the point of gastric or cerebral exhaustion, and continue our celebrations well through the night. We were always accompanied by James during these sessions and as often as not we would finish in the return snug of his father’s house at 28 Fitzwilliam Square in the early hours of the morning where he maintained a generous supply of the black stuff. He must have had a very understanding and liberal father, well steeped in the traditions of a university although not necessarily as conceived by Newman.