The Irish Times writer Michael Viney, who has died aged 90, worked for the newspaper for more than 60 years, and was best known for his Another Life column. From Brighton in England, he moved to Dublin in the 1960s and to Co Mayo in the 1970s. The column described his life in Mayo, with his wife Ethna and daughter Michele, and their interactions with nature and the environment. It appeared weekly from 1977 to 2022 – and was one of the longest running columns in the world.
Here are three of those columns.
Stormy Weather, November 12th, 1977
WHEN THE ROOTS of an upturned dock are meticulously washed, they are the yellow of Benares brass. I might not have this but for the weather we have had these past six weeks: wave after wave of rain borne in on gales that began with the equinox and forgot to stop.
The dug-over soil of the field has been hammered smooth and the stream growls and rumbles at night, digesting the boulders brought down from the hill. From the top of the mountain to the edge of the sea the pores of the land are full, so that each new down- pour must run off as it falls, flooding the fields behind the strand. The sheep make way for swans on the cold new water.
So we have lost the autumn and are well into the kind of winter that is supposed to wear us down and make us wish we had never left Dublin.
But one advantage of living in an “exposed place,” as the Met Office has it, is that the weather has a saving sense of theatre.
When Belloc dismissed the midlands as sodden and unkind, he was speaking of England. But he might just as well have been thinking of Mullingar on a wet Sunday, or some other place where the sky is trapped in a circle of dripping rocks’ nests.
Here at the western edge, we look out into an immense amphitheatre where the weather can perform in its entirety and do several things at once at different planes and corners of the stage, Clouds pile up into chorus lines, black squalls leap in from the wings, curtains are drawn across by hailstorms or lift from the horizon in magical clearance (Fabergé skies of gold and blue enamel). Highs and lows fronts and troughs – we see them coming and going known the shapes they make in the sky.
So whatever they may be stuck with on the other side of the mountain, we are exposed not only to gale gusts but to all the other dramatic humours of the atmosphere: the weather is a nonstop spectacular.
We follow the radio forecasts, if only to hear the Met Office warning the rest of the country of the weather we already have. As in so much else, Dublin seems to see itself at the heart of the Irish climate, imposing its bright spells and scattered showers on the country at large and sounding quite shocked when a storm insists on barging right across to the capital. But if it sometimes seems to us as if the, forecasts are tailored more to the city commuter than to the countryman or fisherman, there is always the chance that some sun may be tucked away for us in the Icelandic isobars left unread. In practice, we trust our own barometer.
This is supposed to be the time – at least in urban prejudice – when the small western farmer climbs into his long Johns and prepares to hibernate. The long Johns, certainly – I have them on myself – but my neighbours are also abroad in oilskins, working with their dogs. This is the time for breeding, for running the rams with the mountain ewes. One curly-horned stud on his way up the hill made a sudden and prodigious leap into my field, clearing a man’s height of ditch and fence. He was quickly rounded up, but his leap reminded me of one job that must be done this month: the laying of the hawthorn hedge.
This is a job that should be done every few years, but our thorn bushes are scrawny old wrecks, cowering away from the westerly winds and leaning far in from the top of the ditch. When the tractor ploughed for me a year ago, the driver wisely kept his distance from the thorn, so a long strip of good land still waits for cultivation. In laying a hedge, the taller stems are cut half through and then bent down to intertwine with others. The laid stems keep enough sap to send up new growth to thicken the hedge and make it stockproof. I would like to interplant the thorn with the fuchsia and honeysuckle, but that is a long way down the Mist of priorities.
Siff and sore before the frosts come, I must bury the pipe that brings the water from the hill. Then I shall have a system which I know through every inch from source to tap (as I need to – the nearest plumber is 20 miles away).
Hedge and pipe are two of several fairly strenuous undertakings which now queue up for attention. How well does a middle-aged city deskworker, who never played squash with the Beautiful People, adapt to this kind of hard labour? Scarcely a day of the past three months has passed without some kind of physical work, much of it quite taxing. Every morning in that time I have woken stiff and sore, often groaning out loud from some new punishment of back and shoulders, arms and hands. From the start I have tried to save my back – one slipped disc and we’re in trouble.
But it is not always easy to judge if a rock is too heavy to lift alone, or if the time has come to take a break. The scale of effort is so much greater than I have known before.
Carpentry is no longer a delicate affair of batten and blockboard and dinky screws, but rather of six-inch nails and relentless rip-cuts down two-inch planks. And fieldwork here is not gardening, filling the intervals between cups of coffee, but long use of a dry day while we have it.
If it hurts so much, why do I do it? Why not sit in the window and write and earn money to pay to have things done? Obviously because I enjoy using my muscles outdoors in work that helps me and my family. It may not stand economic scrutiny: I am certainly not optimising the market value of my time. But it makes me feel good, the transient aches and pains notwithstanding. Like the kick I get from standing on my own acre, it is probably sheer atavism and none the worse for that.
Meanwhile a friendly reader in Ballina thinks we should buy geese to eat some of our redundant potatoes. He suggests we get 10 of them to fatten for Christmas and the freezer. He also reminds us of a portable henhouse which would move six hens to a new patch of grass every few days and so help provide eggs economically. We’ll find out about it. But if the geese need penning to keep them away from the spring cabbage, will that mean more wire netting? The last roll we bought, of the coarsest mesh, cost £13.25 in Westport for a paltry 50 yards. Geese by all means, but not to lay golden eggs.
A June day, June 14th, 1986
“YOU WRITE about the odd things‚” a reader says, “but try giving us an average, boring old day – then I might know if I’d like it. “ Yesterday will do.
4.45am: We beat the alarm – must be in training. Ethna sits up in bed to write, lost at once in her story. I pad out to the studio to catch up on letters. A still, pewtery morning, islands stretched out in a haze, the surf silent. Write to Norway, to a hut above the fiord, where a young German is translating Another Life for a book the Greens might like. What he needs to know, is what is a JCB? What are sea rods? Some of the headings come out well in German: for “Wimp of the West”, read “Softe Des Westens”.
7.15am: Short jog before breakfast – just as far as Paddy’s silage pit. Jeered by grey crow on an ESB pole.
Try the new batch of rye bread at breakfast. Well-risen but still a bit soggy.
Ethna quite put out. Radio tells about the plan to put mailboxes at the ends of boreens, to save the postman time.
Michael Fergus, just retired used to wade the channel to the last house.
8.15am: Feed hens, collect two eggs; feed ducks, steal one egg. “Steal” because it feels like that: the duck has a drake, covers her egg. has obvious hopes. I sidle by as they shovel up their mash, the egg palmed. Measure the rain in the gauge on the lawn; better than May, 167mm, over twice normal.
8.30am: We are a two-wheelbarrow family. Ethna takes the small one to Bainins field, to shake nitrogen on the bare bits. What isn’t bare he has dunged on and thus won’t eat. We tether him at the gable to eat the lawn until rain has melted the nitrogen: he’ll have to spend his nights in the hen-run.
With the big barrow, I start shifting the last ton of cowmuck we tipped outside Michele’s window. She is in Paris, au pairing to improve her French.
How we gonna keep her down on the farm, after she’s seen Paris? We’re not – or not if she can help it.
Meg runs at my heels as I trundle down and up the path (thank goodness for the slope: the heavy wet manure almost runs away with the barrow). The cats laze among the strawberry flowers, watching. Bimbo and her kitten got into the cold frame last night and squashed the sweetcorn seedlings; they see all the plastic cloches as summer pavilions put up specially for them. Cinnamon gives me less trouble, but he does piss on the turf.
Bumblebees. Take off my anorak – about time! It ‘s June, but where are the flies? Three bumblebees burrow into the catmint, grateful for a decent drop of nectar.
10.30am: The postman’s van at the gate. Among the mail, a Dublin housewife with two daughters wants to say how much she enjoys WWOOFing – Working Weekends On Organic Farms.
WOOFERS would shift this muck for me, but we’re not the hospitable outgoing kind: I should have a beard and play the tin whistle.
11am: A young neighbour arrives with an American cousin: could they take Bain in to ride? Keep him for a week, we say (but no one has that much spare grass).
Noon: A farmer and his collie gather sheep in the rocky field across the road.
I lean on my fork to watch, taking pleasure in the work of an intelligent dog. But the sheep are unco-operative and keep breaking as they near the gate.
Another neighbour, passing in his car, pulls up and gets out to help in the last push. I feel mortified, as usual – I was just standing there. Nine years alongside farmers and I still never know when to offer a hand.
1pm: Egg salad for lunch. I could eat fresh-laid eggs at every meal – before cholesterol did people worry? The hens have another two when I take them their feed. Rooks and jackdaws perch on the fence, waiting their turn at the bowl.
3pm: Finish the muck at last and turn to planting out winter cabbage. On my knees, scooping holes, when a strange sound rasps out from the field-banks beside me: not quite a belch, not quite a growl, but a beastly, mammalian sort of a sound. I creep close and peer into the dark behind the nettles. It comes again at intervals, but its source eludes me. Settle for a hedgehog – perhaps a family? Creep away again, delighted.
New machine 3.30pm: Ethna has been trying to mow the steep bank of The Hollow, across the stream where the pony won’t go. She is using our new Italian machine, but the growth in this sheltery place keeps choking it into silence. I am appealed to: “I’ve been waiting years to mow that grass!” I take down the scythe and open up an arc into the soft, green stuff. Finding my rhythm, I begin to enjoy it ... swish ... swish. The sun comes out and sweat begins to drip from my eyebrows – which, I suppose, is what they’re for.
4.30pm: Fish van at the gate: spotless, well-iced, worth a medal from BIM. Our own ray in the freezer is almost gone, we can’t start fishing with the spit let until we’re on top of the planting. We buy plaice and cod and fresh mackerel. Do we eat the mackerel or freeze them for bait? Prudence wins.
5pm: Too sunny now for planting (the seedlings wilt). Start hoeing weeds off a bed, to plant out French beans under plastic, but decide the hedge needs cutting back first. Get out electric hedge-cutter – not the luxury it seems when you have six-foot hedges within hedges, like Hampton Court maze. Plug in 200 feet of cable, bring end over right shoulder where it won’t get cut, and prepare to concentrate. Goes through fuchsia like butter – “Magic!” as Selwyn Froggjtt would say. Get carried away and do the next hedge as well.
6pm: Dinner. “How is it,” asks Ethna, “that however many potatoes I do, there are never enough left over for potato salad?” Night chores 7pm: Night chores. Bring in sack of turf to fill the box and bucket of clods to bank down range. Take Báinín down to the hen-run, close in hens. Lure ducks into shed with bowl of mash. Passing belt of infant sitkas (for more shelter), start pulling grass from round them. Stop after a dozen: the back’s at me.
8pm: Nothing on RTÉ – is there ever? Take Meg for walk round the boreen. Thorn hedges withered by the Big Wind, willows barely in leaf, ferns just uncoiled above the primroses. Fields green but cattle come running to me, mistaking my figure. The hay lorry swoops down the hill, blowing its horn like a French camion.
“I don’t see any dead beasts,” I said to a neighbour a week or two back. He looked at me quizzically. “Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note – do you know that one? We buried him darkly at dead of night, the sods with our bayonets turning.”
9pm: To bed, with the London Review of Books.
How does an 81-year-old with no faith in an afterlife keep his sense of humour? February 8th, 2014
In the month of my 81st birthday (please don’t bother, but thanks anyway) it rather seems that the future has arrived without waiting till I’ve gone. How much longer can my polytunnel go on bucking on its arches like a frightened horse without taking to the sky or tearing itself into shreds – this my plastic palace, seat of music and meditation, my place of trust in tomorrow and the springing of green leaves?
How long before the 20-year-old greenhouse (built with concrete pillars, half-sunk into the ground, buttressed against the house and given a sheltering hedge of its own) finally succumbs in a squall of shattering glass? What do we do with all the bits? But that is to anticipate.
Unlike the unfortunate people on the western and southern estuaries, we are lucky to live high on a hillside and can watch with simple awe as the tide sweeps into the freshwater fen behind the dunes. In appropriate lulls, well anoraked, I go for my daily march. The boreen is lined with flailing briars, never so blackly and thornily stripped of leaves. I look in vain among the mosses and ferns for the first bright glint of lesser celandine, but it needs the sun, the sun! And don’t tell me about all your early daffodils: a hungry badger has found my best bulbs and ploughed them up to eat.
Thus my February blues, unleavened, as I write, by any “pet” day of gilded calm.
Quite often, given the usual lead time of this column, just discussing the weather is enough to change it by the day my words appear: I sometimes feel I should apologise.
But we are now talking about climate, not weather, and this winter has fulfilled – even, indeed, excelled – the dire promises of the modellers. Hurricane gusts, 20-metre waves, surging tides: it’s all happening.
In response from the human world, of course, nothing commensurate is happening.
It probably never will until, cataclysm piling on disaster, governments are besieged by a panicked populace – all, by that time, too late and to no purpose.
Most people now, even in the biblically deluded, anti-science strata of the US, accept that climate is changing. But far too many still hold, irrationally, that we had nothing to do with it. In the meantime a warming of two degrees, once felt to be the tolerable limit, has slipped forward half a century. Now the heat is being turned up; four degrees by the end of the century is the outcome advanced in the latest report to the World Bank.
For the slow awakening of popular knowledge, the media have much to regret. News and comment thrive by confrontation, so any assertion with dramatic significance must immediately be matched with someone to deny it. Counterarguments are offered in challenging tones by presenters pleading “balance”.
Thus a worldwide scientific consensus has had to struggle with the appearance of debate where none should now exist. On the dangers of our present path, now rehearsed in one “extreme” weather episode after another, no credible room remains for denial.
(For further insight and instruction, go to realclimate.org, a website on the sensible side of science.) Given all that, how does an 81-year-old with no faith in an afterlife keep his sense of humour? With some desperation at times and perhaps especially in February with another storm due. It is sad to conceive of a west of Ireland whose more exposed coasts could become virtually depopulated, at least in winter, not so much because of storm damage – farms and sheep will adapt – as because of the stress of unrelenting wind and rain. Perhaps the people of Shetland or the Faroes are made of sterner stuff, or don’t have polytunnels and greenhouses.
That thought took me, of course, straight to Google, and discovery of the Shetland invention of the “polycrub”, a polytunnel made by recycling old salmon-cage pipe (of which there now is a lot to spare, apparently), its arches covered with storm proof twin-wall polycarbonate.
The Northmavine community – Shetland is good at community action – made land available and used money from Scotland’s Climate Challenge Fund to build 12 sturdy polytunnels to grow fruit and veg (northmavine.com). Even redundant salmon-cage walkways have been rescued by the tonne to serve between the beds. Connacht, perhaps, please copy.
So it’s not just the jokes that keep me going but a restless curiosity about the natural world and the human role within it, at once so clever and creative, so greedy and self-deceiving.
I would love to come back at the end of the century to see how it all works out: whether migrants from Africa have fetched up in Thallabawn, whether the rich have built their new forts in Greenland. But then, when I was small, 2014 belonged on comic book covers, with everyone in flying cars, zooming between the skyscrapers.
Back, next week, to the world as we thought we knew it.