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Sheep on the curragh

A few days ago, I talked about the village markets people used to have here, and thought I would explain where the animals came from. This is a sheep next to, I think, a meeting-house on the Curragh, used since Roman Times for communal grazing. Sheep, pigs and cows do not belong to massive agribusiness factories here; they often belong to smallholders, and you will see them in the space of a backyard. We drive past our neighbours -- some of whom own several acres, some small plots of perhaps half an acre -- and most have animals of some kind,

This used to be even more common a few decades ago, in the more traditional country that my wife remembers. A reporter on RTE, Ireland's main news programme, recently remarked that the large amount of green space in Dublin resulted from the large number of people who had cows or goats in their back gardens, and cattle drives from our county to theirs were being held into the 1950s.

Council estates, built by the new revolutionary government after the revolution, were the size they were so that every family could have their own cow. Indeed, that's how American suburbs began -- that's the point of having a grassy lawn in front.

Note the size of the smallholdings -- the postcards of Ireland show picturesque and empty fields, but some of these fields are less than an acre. My backyard in Missouri covered perhaps a quarter of an (only slightly different) American acre, and our next door neighbour's was larger still. Most American backyards I have seen could hold animals easily, and remove the need for a lawnmower.

My mother-in-law, who grew up amid the postwar ruins of bombed Frankfurt, said many families in her neighbourhood had goats, even though they didn't have the space to feed all of them. So the children walked the goats on leashes in the evenings, like you walk your dog around your streets, and it would graze the side of the road, the parks or vacant lots, or any number of other grassy spaces.

Neighbourhoods in wartime Britain kept pigs in a lot near their homes, and employed boys -- who might not have been able to find food or shelter otherwise -- to look after them. The kitchen waste from all the homes went straight to the pigs, who turned them to meat.

As more and more suburbanites struggle to pay the mortgages, animals might be a good way to keep the lawns mowed and meat on the table, if only people could get used to the idea again.

Such projects might require some cooperation among neighbours, if only in not protesting when you get your chickens, or in understanding that animal poo is actually a good resource. To keep animals together, as people did in wartime Britain, would also be a great benefit to many people in, say, my native Missouri.

Unfortunately, propose such a project and many people would look at you like you stepped off the mothership. There are no models for such neighbourly behaviour in any of our fashion magazines, our nightly television dramas, or any of our pop culture.

Furthermore, many in my country have a religious belief that neighbours can never work together; it's a theory called the Tragedy of the Commons, which states that, if farmers try to graze sheep in a field, each farmer will try to gain the upper hand, resulting in conflict and control by a few.

I grew up thinking the idea was from Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius, so widely did it permate pop culture, and so reverently was it invoked. I was shocked to find that it dates back two years before I was born, to 1968.

To the author of the Tragedy of the Commons, I present Exhibit A: The Curragh. Used for community grazing continuously for 2,000 years.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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