Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins and Mother Theresa were all incredibly amazing people that I learned about as a child and admired. But the person who gave me those deepest sense of values and ethics was first and foremost my grandmother. I only ever had one grandparent and I always say that she made up for any others that I didn’t get to meet. She was a kind, gentle, calm woman with a deep sense of faith that influenced me from the get-go.
Kathleen was born in rural Ireland into poverty that was the norm in the early 1900’s. Her early memories would have been plastic free, growing up on a small farm and would eventually see Ireland freeing herself from Britain with all the poverty that comes with internal conflict. She went on to have five kids during World War 2 and then lost her husband early, leaving her to raise those kids on her own. Times were hard and those kids had to leave school early, to work and bring in an income when social security did not exist. But they were all hard workers, very capable of teaching themselves new skills, finding decent incomes and having the desire for the next generation to go on to third level education and professional careers.
My family lived close to my nana, who was my favourite person when I was little. As a free ranging, non-supervised child, I would always choose to run around the corner and head straight to her house every day. I loved that her house felt like it dated back decades, for Kathleen was never interested in DIY or how things looked but rather it was neat, tidy and proudly displayed the many gifts she received rather than items she bought. I loved that she saved every scrap of everything and her rubbish would fit into the tiniest of bags. She would never waste a thing. Before bokashi and compost bins, my nana would make sure that little scraps of food were left out for the birds, she combined wee bits of soap to make a new soap and she barely bought anything that I can remember. There was an old sink down the back of the garden for the herbs.
Kathleen was a knitter, making high quality Aran jumpers for the American tourists, getting an income from what she loved most. She taught me to knit complicated patterns and we would sit together chatting about lots of stuff including history, politics and religious matters (remembering it’s Catholic Ireland). She also taught me about propagating plants and gardening - we never went near a shop to get anything but learned to multiply from others.
That’s not to say there weren’t other external influences. I do remember the emergence of cheap crappy Pound Shops that had started to spring up in the 1980’s, where you could shop for the whole families Xmas gifts for 20 quid. In the prosperity of the roaring tiger nineties, I saw Irish people around me suddenly enjoy the feeling of extra income, no longer being burdened by lingering unemployment and high mortgages. There was a desire to spend money, have stuff and to flash newfound wealth through materials. The Jones's mentality kicked-off. When the ozone layer became a problem, and in Ireland river and ocean qualities were being discussed because of dairy and meat farming practices, the myriad of environmental complexities (declining bee populations, soil degradation, loss of bio-diversity, climate change etc ) were not really highlighted – the focus was more on the idea of gaining personal wealth.
Looking back, it was my grandmother and her set of simple values that held true to me. You don’t really need much in life. Just to be loved, to have great conversations, to be healthy (food and fitness) and to have the skills that see you make something from nothing. Obviously, you need food, shelter, clothing and an income that allows you not to worry about the latter. But after that – how much more wealth do you need to attain? My nana had a simple, minimalist life – but she was loved deeply and is missed a lot.