By Willie Drennan
Strange times we live in. We now live at a time when we import much of our basic needs from far out across the globe. We live in a time of global dependency on modern technology: in a world where a global economy is controlled by a global hierarchy. When that global system breaks down the people of the globe are in trouble. Fortunately a group of hardy folk down a wee country road in the middle of County Antrim are on to it. Solutions are at hand.
Head out of Ballymena towards Randalstown and once you go down over the Irish Hill there is a wee road to the right. You might miss it. If you arrive at Slaght Corner you'll know you've gone too far and you'll need to turn back.
The Lockdown of 2020 has highlighted the need for allotments in today's society and Tullygarley leads the way.
In the British Isles people have been growing vegetables since the New Stone Age when farming took over from hunting and gathering. Throughout history and up until the 19th Century most common folk would have grown their own vegetables as a crucial part of their survival. The Industrial Revolution changed things with the mass movement of people to towns and cities and thus the concept of the allotment or garden plot was born.
The First World War saw a huge increase in garden allotments across the UK as food was scarce. The Ballymena Garden Plots Association was formed in 1916. In between the two world wars interest waned but garden plots once again became essential immediately after the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. World War Two was the heyday for garden allotments: for community bonding and inter-dependency.
During World War Two there was a UK-wide Dig For Victory Campaign and Mid Antrim certainly rose to the call. Every piece of spare ground was utilised to grow vegetables out of necessity.
Digging for Victory
Those who wish to beat the Hun
Plant their seedlings in the sun,
Onions leeks and carrots too
Won't they make a luscious stew!
Those poetic lines were written at the start of the 2nd World War by a pupil at the Ballymena Academy, called Donald Fullerton. It appeared in the Ballymena Academy Magazine. The whole community clearly embraced this call to produce their own vegetables during the period of scarcity and hardship.
An excellent publication called, In Wartime Mid Antrim gives great insight into the historic period and highlights the scale of the allotment gardens. It was edited by Eull Dunlop and was published as part of the Ballymena Borough Research Series. If you come across a copy, snap it up. It is a precious read.
Apparently there were 600 new garden allotments created in Ulster in 1941, and 250 were in the Ballymena area. By 1944 there were 345 plots in the Ballymena area: almost 22 acres in total.
Across the UK there were I.4 million plots by 1945.
Rationing books were issued to all households throughout the duration of the war and for nine years afterwards. Rationing only stopped four days before I was born. Which explains why my father was merrily frying up the pan with a free conscience at 9 am: the very moment I was being born in a farmhouse just across the River Maine from Tullygarley. My mother was busy at the time. It was a memorable aroma for the occasion of my debut appearance. Rationed items included; bacon and ham, lard and eggs: essential ingredients for a true Ulster Fry. Also rationed were: other meat, butter, cheese, margarine, milk, sugar and tea.
Cookery demonstrations on how to utilise home grown produce became a common occurrence as folk learned to improvise. Banana sandwiches were all the rage. Well they weren't real banana sandwiches of course.
Before the war imported bananas would have been common enough but there were no such luxury imported food items for the duration of the rationing period.. But they did have lots of parsnips growing all round the borough and when parsnips were cooked and mushed-up they did resemble mushed-up banana.
The parsnip sandwiches, or parsnip pieces, as they would have been called, didn't really taste much like the exotic banana but some very innovative person was able to change that. It turned out that a local chemist shop had a significant supply of banana essence in wee miniature glass bottles. It just required a few drops of the concentrated banana to give their parsnip pieces the taste of banana, so they just called them banana pieces. Later on apparently some people mixed in mushed-up turnip along with the mushed-up parsnips for a bit of welcomed variation. Mind you, they still liked to pretend it was banana sandwiches they were eating.
To date we have survived the 2020 Lockdown without having to resort to such resourcefulness. But then it's not over yet. Hands up anybody who saw the Lockdown coming ….... Thought so. Hands up! Anybody who knows what the next big calamity is going to be …...... Thought so.
Things are not like they used to be, when it didn't really matter too much what was happening in the big wide world out there beyond; when we produced our own clothes, footwear, furniture and even the bulk of our own food. Nowadays the vast majority of these essentials are produced in far-off lands through cheap labour, and often slave labour; shipped in by global corporations who make a mint out of the system they control.
It would take at least one more blog to address clothing and furniture but we can make a start by increasing awareness of the advantages of eating locally grown and locally processed food. Buying as much local produce as possible would be a good start. But developing our own gardens and joining allotment associations would be the ultimate.
It's not just that eating freshly harvested vegetables is the most natural and healthiest option. Gardening keeps you fit as well. And perhaps most important of all: gardening can be very therapeutic, no matter what ails you.
Getting your hands into the earth, breathing in the fresh air, smelling the herbs and flowers is all good for your soul. Even just smelling the earth after a shower of rain can transport your mood to loftier realms of thought. And that's not all. Some folk do ecstasy and cocaine but down the Tullagh Loanen they just have to breath in the air and occasionally drink tea.
Being part of an allotment garden group also means you get to share the experience and share ideas with other like-minded people. They tell me in Tullygarley some of the problems of the world have been solved while harvesting spuds. Or gaitherin prootas as some folk might still say. They just need to find a way to let the rest of the world know about it. Especially now that the rest of the whole wide world appears to have gone totally mad. I've just written a song about that. Probably not helpful though.
Potential pandemics, lockdowns, world wars, sea borders within the UK, man-made disasters, natural disasters and solar storms are all good reasons to grow your own vegetables. Yes folks, solar storms. Solar storms that could shut down our electricity and internet connections is a thing. Check it out on the internet if you don't believe me. The last big one, which apparently wasn't really that big at all, shut down parts of Canada and northern USA for 9 hours in 1989. I was there at the time. There have been much larger solar storms in historic times: but before dependency on electricity it didn't really matter too much. Before global dependency on computers and modern technology they were just spectacular shows of light across the sky that folk stood and marvelled at. We're due another one of those according to experts I heard on the wireless recently. This time it will likely shut everything down, including supply chains of food from out beyond. The system won't know how to cope. We could even run of toilet rolls for real ..
But Tullygarley will not starve. Down the Tullagh Loanen they are ahead of the game and they can help show you the way.
The allotments in use in Tullygarley today have been built up on 3 individual sites over the past 7 or 8 years.
At the moment their garden plots are all spoken for - but there is a good possibility that this group will find new plots to develop in other areas - should the need arise.
In 2021 they plan to expand their connection to the wider community by firstly selling flower, vegetable & tomato plants and hanging baskets in springtime. And by early summer they will have boxes of fresh produce available for purchase. These must be pre-ordered and will be available from a recently purpose-built shed at the gardens.
At various times of the season you can expect: potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beetroot, courgettes, onions, garlic, leeks, celery, lettuce, spinach, chard, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, chillies, strawberries, cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And I know I'm forgetting something.
Various local groups are already affiliated to the Tullagh operation. They include: Brookville Enterprises ( a social enterprise organisation), Harryville Men's Shed, and the Raglan Community Development &Renovation Society.
The Scullery O'Tullagh
One of this
outfit's latest achievements has been the publication of a brilliant
wee, very artistically designed, recipe book. Twenty three recipes in
total with simple instructions that even novice cooks can follow.
Many of the recipes refer to the garden produce, but there's also a
recipe for Sadie's Madeira Cake. One day I happened to visit the
allotments just as the kettle was boiling. I was offered a mug of tea
and a big slice of Sadie Millar's madeira cake. It is worth buying a
copy of this wee book for Sadie's Madeira Cake recipe alone.
The Recipe Book was made possible through the support of the Get Ready to Grow Programme, funded by the Co-op Foundation, delivered by Co-operative Alternatives.
Fo the benefit of people reading this from beyond a ten mile radius of Tullygarley: the old local Ulster-Scotch word for the townland of Tullygarley is Tullagh, and scullery means kitchen.
For anyone interested in the Tullygarley Project, or keen to get involved in gardening for the first time, I would recommend following the recently established: Scullery O'Tullagh Facebook Page.
Billy Millar modestly refers to himself as the co-ordinator. He is actually the mastermind behind the operation: the man who keeps all the parts oiled and greased. The man with the vision. The man who has developed the infrastructure and continues to pursue innovative ways for expansion.
Another important man is Tommy Johnston. Who some say is the brains behind the actual gardening.He knows what to plant: and where and when. And he'll soon let you know if you plant something upside down.
Looking forward to Tullagh's Tam The Gardener being published soon. Tommy was in the same class as me at school. He is, at least, as brainy as I am.
There is no doubt that the work and enthusiasm of the Tullagh folk are an inspiration to us all in this crazy time to be alive. Other characters who have been involved in the gardens in 2020 include Denver, Harry, Bill, Hannah, Rosie, Chrissie, Andrew and Dorothy.