Those not-so-wild Europeans

Re-creating wilderness on a continent that has almost none

Sierra magazine, July/August 2014

In Ireland’s blustery Nephin Beg Mountains, the state-owned forestry company Coillte is rewilding roughly 11,000 acres of pine and spruce plantation. By thinning the canopy, closing logging roads, and establishing a system of shelters, it hopes to turn this industrial forest and parts of neighbouring Ballycroy National Park into a 27,000-acre recreational wilderness.

Coillte won’t fully liberate the forest to natural processes for another 14 years. But when it does, this will will be a rare parcel of European land unmanaged by humans. “We actually want our landscape to become one where there are no humans driving the changes,” says Bill Murphy, who’s overseeing the project for Coillte.

Nobody is certain how much wilderness Europe has left, but the best estimates say it’s 1 percent or less. Most of this land is in the east, where bison roam Poland’s Białowieza Forest, old-growth trees carpet the Carpathian Mountains, and taiga blankets the Russia-Finland border. The rest of Europe has been paved, cultivated, grazed, logged, urbanized, or otherwise degraded.

Definitions of “wildland” and the laws protecting it vary across the continent. Europe has no shared wilderness literature or history, says Mark Fisher, an honorary research fellow at the Wildland Research Institute; there is no European Muir or Leopold. While America’s early preservationists were idealists who fought to protect wild places from development and safeguard the public’s right to explore them, their European counterparts were instead driven by the science of conserving species and habitats.

The planned wilderness in the Nephin Beg Mountains, called Wild Nephin, is part of Western Europe’s nascent rewilding movement. In Germany, the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is returning vast military camps to the wild, while in Scotland, the nonprofit Trees for Life is restoring Caledonian Forest to highlands. All three projects are guided by the principle that nature can take over again, so long as it gets a leg up.

Up to now, hikers have shared Nephin’s forest tracks with logging trucks. But Coillte plans to cease commercial logging, shut out motorized vehicles, and turn forest roads into rough trails. When rewilding is complete, backpackers will be able to hike through Ireland’s most extensive wild forest, camp in backcountry shelters, and explore a roadless expanse of woods, mountain, and bog with no trace of human habitation or modern infrastructure.

It’s a paradoxic, of course, that such rewilding requires human intervention. But if Europe succeeds, hearts and minds may follow, and Nephin’s resurrected forests, bogland, and rivers could serve as a glimpse of Europe’s modern frontier.

How the mountains saved me

How the mountains saved me

A personal essay on spending time in the Irish hills

Earthlines magazine, May 2013

The remote stretch of coastland on the north-west of Achill Island is sometimes called ‘the back of beyond’. The island is tethered to the County Mayo mainland by a swing bridge that resembles a leviathan’s fleshless ribs. When you come to Achill you enter the belly of the whale.

From Achill Sound you could head across boggy hills to the cliff-fringed south of the island. This little-visited district is Gaeltacht, an official Irish-speaking region, but the language is rarely heard here today.

Or you could head north, where horizontal bog gives way to sand dunes and a chain of north-facing beaches. From the Bullsmouth you could ask a local boatman to take you through racing tidal currents to Inis Bigil, an island-off-an- island, population twenty-five.

Or you could go west, where the Atlantic terminates moodily on the two-mile arc of Trawmore beach by the village of Keel, and bungalows clutter the coast like a messy monopoly board. The road ends with a vertiginous drop to Keem, a beach of calm water and flaxen sand encased by steep hills. Between 1947 and 1975, the landing of twelve thousand basking sharks bloodied the waters here.

Heinrich Böll wrote that on Achill he could ‘play truant from Europe’; it is a wild place with wild planning. A fading holiday home development sits on the side of Croaghaun mountain, approved by god knows who. In Keel village, there’s a gaping pit where the construction of a hotel was abandoned. And high on the Pollagh bog in November 2011, a local developer built his bizarre ‘Achill henge’ monument: thirty concrete columns in a perfect circle thirty metres across. The developer described it as a ‘place for reflection’; many see it as a tomb for the Celtic Tiger.

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The Christmas drink diaries

Note: this is my version. As you'll see the Irish Times's edit made me a sound a bit more repentant at the end than I actually was. 

Published in The Irish Times, January 2011

I spent the holidays at home in Galway as usual. My only drink on Christmas Eve was a glass of white wine, which I used to wash down some crabmeat, brown bread and chocolate cheesecake (though not in the same mouthful) at a friend's house. I planned to soberly spend Christmas Day geeking out over my new David Attenborough DVDs, but my mother had other ideas. "Why don't we watch The Notebook?" she insisted, with my 15 year old sister backing her up. I reckoned my naggin of whiskey and four small bottles of Grolsch would be enough to make the film tolerable. It wasn't nearly. I had pretty much the same St Stephen's Day experience I suspect most people do: pretend to have fun while spending most of the night queuing for the bar or fighting to hold on to an area of dancefloor the size of your foot. Total drinks consumed? Three small bottles of Grolsch and two big bottles of Erdinger before going out, and four pints of Galway Hooker pale ale in the pub.

I spent the evening of the 27th in a bar relaxing over two pints of Galway Hooker and a Hoegaarden while watching the love of my life, Arsenal Football Club, thump Chelsea 3-1. The following evening I stopped by a friend's house with a rucksack full of booze, but only drank one Erdinger and three Grolsch while failing miserably at Buzz Junior, a Playstation game designed for kids aged three and up.

I embraced sobriety on the 29th (or rather I couldn't find anyone willing to go to the pub with me) but made up for it the next night, which started with two pints of Galway Hooker and a pint of Pilsner Urquell at half five, followed by four whiskey and cokes with some friends in their hotel room. Then back to the pub for four pints of Galway Hooker, after which going to a friend's house at 3am for two gin and tonics seemed like a perfectly logical idea.

New year's eve started at a friend's house with three whiskey and cokes and a Grolsch. At 11pm I left for a party outside the city. Most people there seem convinced that getting into the sauna was the best way to start the new the new year — after my seventh whiskey and coke it seemed an absurd suggestion, but after my eighth it made perfect sense.

And that was that. Though my mother has just suggested I join her to watch Poseidon — the remake — tonight (I'm writing this on New Year's Day) so I might still need a last nightcap or two. I'm feeling fairly exhausted, and aware that I drank far too much over the holidays. But gross overconsumption at Christmas gives us the motivation to spend at least the first two weeks of the new year being healthy, before lazily and inevitably regressing into bad habits again. And that's better than not trying at all, right?

Why should the devil have all the best music?

In August, myself, Eoin Bannon and Una McMahon went to the Mad Christian music festival in Wicklow to attempt our best Louis Theroux impression for Totally Dublin. Here are the 2,500-ish words, and some of the photos, that resulted. Words: Eoin Bannon and Lenny Antonelli Photos: Una McMahon

“I saw myself in the mirror and I looked a bit like Satan, to be honest.”  Joe O’Donnell is describing the moment 28 years ago when he found God. “I was drinking in a pub in Coolock – Campion’s it was – and I went into the toilet and looked in the mirror. A twelve by twelve inch mirror. I got a fright from what I saw. Looked old. My face looked rough and my eyes were red.”

The 65-year-old alcoholic describes a drinker’s typical moment of clarity, but for O’Donnell it coincided with an intervention from God. “Around that same time, my wife was ready to leave me. She’d had enough of my drinking. But a voice told her – not a voice she could hear but something in her head – that she should have the strength to stay with me.”

“Within a few days of that I had that experience in the pub, and the next two days I went to mass and didn’t drink.”

The Donnycarney native has been to mass virtually every morning since. He now sings with the Revival Gospel Choir – a multi-denominational group that performs at religious services in Arklow, Co Wicklow, where Joe lives.

The choir is performing at Mad – Make a Difference – a Christian rock and music festival held in the rolling wooded countryside not far from Wicklow town. Now in its third year, the festival was the brainchild of the late agricultural entrepreneur Tim Phillips, once the driving force behind poultry firm Ballyfree Farms.

Tim’s father David left the UK for Wicklow in the early 1950s after selling his patent for the ziplock, a technology still used for sealing plastic. Tim was a keen aviator who hosted air rallies in Wicklow and even raced his own plane. In 1979 he and Goal's John O'Shea persuaded Air Lingus to lend them a fully-crewed plane to drop aid into Cambodia after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.

The Mad website says that in the summer of 2006, Tim "repeatedly had a vision of a huge Christian music festival" on the family land, and aimed at young people. His vision "suddenly burst into life" in the spring of 2008 at a meeting in the family home, and the first Mad was held ten weeks later.

Tim died this year at the age of 71 – his daughter Scarlett Tice now runs the festival. She says her father always dreamed big: "Maybe next year we'll have Bono come and kick us off on a Saturday. You might laugh but my father never took no for an answer. Who knows?"

From a distance Mad resembles any small Irish music festival. The focus of the site is a large big top — It’s never more than half-full, but that leaves room for punters to relax or pray on mats around the edge. The big top is a slick operation, with carefully-chosen graphics on jumbo screens either side of the stage accompanying each song. There’s even room in the budget for a jib, recording footage from impressive angles as it swoops over the stage and crowd.

As well as the big top there’s a children's play area, a second tent for smaller acts, and various stalls — there's the online "music-driven" radio station Spirit FM (coming to the airwaves soon), a "Prayer Pod" where festival-goers can pray with volunteers, a book stall, a table selling God-themed school stationary, various food stalls – including Eddie Rockets – and a tent selling band merchandise.

And the bands are centre of attention. LZ7 are the headline act – their slick mix of pop, dance, and hip-hop thrills the God-loving teenyboppers. The Manchester group’s songs exhort the crowd to love Jesus, hate racism, and transform their lives for the good. Their dance-pop re-working of the first holy communion staple This Little Light gets the crowd jumping, but it’s their I Gotta Feeling / Bonkers mash-up  that really raises the roof. They skip the Black Eyed Peas’ lines telling a girl to “just take it off”,  but the juxtaposition in the mind of the band’s Christian message with Fergie wiggling her ass is unavoidable.

Other acts are in the folk-rock vein we expect of contemporary Christian music. The Rend Collective Experiment, from Bangor in Co Down, sound and look like many acts that grace the 2FM/Hot Press stage at Oxegen, and they’re popular with the young crowd. London “praise band” Worship Central’s exalting-but-bland lyrics roll on the screens as they play, encouraging the crowd to sing along as they bow heads and raise hands towards their God. Electric Picnic regulars the Dublin Gospel Choir add their hymns to the mix too.

MODERN Christian music was partially born in the hippy counterculture of the late 1960s. As the era of free love came to an end, the Jesus Movement blossomed as some hippies swapped the fuzzy spirituality of the peace movement for full devotion to Jesus Christ.

One of the most influential of these “Jesus freaks” was Lonnie Frisbee, who found God on acid and converted to Christianity in San Francisco. Frisbee teamed up with a pastor named Chuck Smith, and the two started a youth ministry at Smith’s Calvary Chapel converting hippies and street musicians and putting music at the heart of their ministry, which turned out to be hugely influential in the genre.

By then the Californian garage-rock band The Crusaders had released Make a Joyful Noise With Drums and Guitars — perhaps Christian rock’s first major album — and Larry Norman had released his first record. Hailed as the father of Christian rock, Norman challenged more conservative believers who saw rock music as anti-Christian. His struggle was neatly summarised in his song Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

For many the genre means bland soft-rock and cheesy lyrics – and on the evidence from Mad, the stereotype rings true. But its themes have spilled into the mainstream. A few people we meet at Mad claim U2 for the genre. In 1981, just before the release of October, the band headlined the Greenbelt festival of “arts, faith and justice” in England.

In the noughties Christian music continued to grow internationally. In 2004, Nielsen SoundScan reported that Christian and gospel music sales had exceeded those for classical, latin, and jazz. But in Ireland the scene is still small.

"It's a nice little community of bands and worship leaders and musicians," Steve Evans, guitarist with Worship Central, says of the UK and Ireland scene. With his long hair, beard and chilled demeanour, he could have stepped straight out of the Jesus Movement.

Steve plays with non-Christian bands too, and while that might mean toning down overtly Christian lyrics, he sees it as a chance to influence."You get to kind of shine in a dark place," he says.

He says he's comfortable with the drink and drugs of a typical club — but he’s not convincing. "As long as you're secure in who you believe in and how you feel about those things it's kind of like...it is awkward” – he laughs – “but it's doable."

Steve describes performing to a Christian audience as “leading worship”, a phrase we hear throughout the day. "Worship is expressing oneself throughout whatever creative means you may have," he says. "Even performing, I would see it as worship because that's where it comes form in my heart."

THE DIVERSITY of people at Mad is striking:  there’s trendy twenty-somethings who could have been dropped in straight from Electric Picnic, teenyboppers dashing to catch their favourite bands, and lots of kids running around who probably think they’ve been taken to a strange funfair with no rides. But there’s more than just young people here: there’s African men in immaculate suits, waistcoats and polished shoes — and their wives with elaborate hairdos, in bright purple and green dresses. Then there’s middle aged men walking about leisurely in panama hats, guys with mohawks covered in tattoos, and quite a few punters who resemble American tourists. And then there’s the bikers.

With his thick beard, stocky frame and leather waistcoat, Mickey Walker wouldn't look out of place at a Hell's Angels rally — until you read the insignia on his back: 'Riding for the son — Christian Motorcyclists Association. The badge on his chest just says, 'Hard Core Jesus Freak'.

The CMA preaches the word to the biker community in 18 countries. "Our bikes allow us into the biker community and the biker community respect us and they invite us in," says fellow CMA member Pat Brown. But he qualifies this: "Some of them do, some of them don't."

Pat and Mickey both ride Harleys. "Bikers have kind of a rough edge," Mickey says.  "Part of the community is definitely their fist-in-the-face type of thing. They call themselves the one percenters. So just because of the mutual interest in bikes they'll often let their guard down a little bit."

The group hand out 'Biker Bibles' and literature at rallies. They hand us one of their pamphlets — titled The Grand Finale, it's the story of a biker who tries a wheelie to impress a crowd only to realise he's forgotten to remove his front disc lock. It continues: "What goes up must come down and he went from a wheelie, to a steppie, to a swan dive to a headstand, to a broken neck to a lifeless corpse in a matter of seconds." It warns most people die suddenly and with no chance to say goodbye to loved ones, or to prepare for "what comes next".  "If you want him to be there for you on that day, you need to make things right with him today," it concludes.

Mickey's had a few of his own brushes with death on his bike. "You remember yourself flying through the air and landing on your head on the other side of a car," he says. "I'm living testimony that biking is in the blood. You lay the ground and the ambulance is coming, and for about five minutes you're thinking, 'Oh, I gotta give this up'. And then as soon as you realise you're gonna live, you start worrying about the bike."

THE CROWD at Mad might be diverse, but the festival openly targeted at youth. Scarlett Tice says her father's aim was to provide hope — and even just something to do — to young people. "Go down to Arklow or Wicklow or Greystones on a Saturday night — there's nowhere, there's nothing [for young people]," she says. "And now more than ever in this recession, even if you go to university you're not going to get a job. It's just empty, it's hollow.”

When she talks about offering teenagers something to do, she's probably thinking differently to the average 17-year-old. "I've got three teenage children. I wouldn't pack them off to Oxegen for a few days — goodness knows what might happen to them," she says. "Fortunately they don't want to go."

She says faith plays a big role in the lives of her kids, and that while they're not angels, their faith means they have little reason to take drugs, get drunk or sleep around.

"If kids all grew up with some moral values, I mean this place would be better wouldn't it? It has to be,” she says. “We’ve just got chaos out there. We’ve got so many broken homes, so many broken families, so many broken everything. I think that going back to the basics and having core Christian values will absolutely impact our country, no question.”

BUT WHAT do the kids think? We meet Emily Stewart 17, and Owen O'Neill, 16, chatting on bales of hay near the big top. It's their third year at Mad — they're enjoying it but say something's missing this year, though they can't pinpoint it.

They say being Christian during adolescence is tough. "At my age it's when everyone is starting to get into the whole drinking scene, and it's difficult to try and seriously stop yourself," Emily says. But being Christian makes her stronger in those situations too, she adds.

What about sex? Have the chastity rings of evangelical teens in the US made their way to Irish shores? Mercifully, no."I personally don't think I'm gonna have sex until I'm married," she says. “I don't need a ring to prove it."

Owen says most of his friends don't know about his faith. "Not a lot of people see me as a Christian, they just think of me as Owen," he says. But he's worried his friendships could hold back his Christianity. "They kind of see you as something different if they see you Christian and holy."

Emily says one of her best friends is gay — she hasn't made up her mind whether homosexuality is a sin, or whether it's nature or nurture, but says she's "totally fine with it”. “If they're Christian and they love God and they're true to that and they're gay, what's so wrong with that?"

If Totally Dublin came to Mad expecting to find a deliriously happy and fanatic type of Christianity, most young people here seem the opposite: intelligent, thoughtful and fairly open-minded. Alex Delap, 24, embodies this – a fresh-faced aspiring filmmaker, he’s working in the cafe tent, making coffee and serving brownies. Money raised at the stall goes to a charity that offers support to young people in Ibiza — which includes "running a van to go around the town, taking people [home] who are OD'd on ket or whatever,” he says. A big dance music fan, he’s been over to volunteer.

Throughout our chat he emphasises that Christians shouldn't act as moral judges, and shouldn't aggressively evangelize — he says preaching to others would feel as unnatural to him as talking about his faith with a magazine, which he admits to being a little uncomfortable with.

He reckons churches must revive the sense of community he feels Ireland has lost — regardless of whether those they serve are Christian. "I think that's where God is played out, in people looking out for each other and caring for each other."

He also finds the idea of an insular Christian sub-culture "nasty". "To me being a Christian just means I want to be like Jesus. I loved his way of life, I love a generous way of living,” he says.

To an extent Alex and his cohorts proved us wrong: Totally Dublin went to Mad with its prejudices about Christian music, and while these were largely confirmed by the big top performances, there wasn’t much of the happy-clappy, insular, judgmental sub-culture we expected.

Perhaps sensing our preconceptions, Scarlett – the organiser of this whole jamboree – moves to dispel any myths as we chat. “We’re not weird!” she laughs. “We’re not a cult! We’re not weird!”

Dot com boom

Throughout the day and deep into the night, they welcome gamers and gamblers, immigrants calling home and people with nowhere else to go. Lenny Antonelli spent a week wandering Dublin’s internet cafés Written for The Dubliner, February 2010

Download a PDF of this article, as it appeared in The Dubliner, here: Dot Com Boom

It’s after midnight in an internet café in Dublin city centre. The room is half full; chatting staff ignore the ‘Please Keep Quiet’ signs on the walls. In the corner, a 30-something woman spins an online roulette wheel over and over. Others play games and check Facebook. Some browse sex chat sites. A pounding noise upstairs in the private members’ room shakes the ceiling. “What’s your fucking problem? You stupid baldy c***,” a man’s voice shouts repeatedly. “You stupid baldy c***!”

Staff run up, then back down again to call the Gardai. It seems a man had been pretending to work there, ordering a woman asleep at her keyboard to wake up. Regular customers confronted him and a brawl ensued; one of those trying to help ended up with cuts on his face and torn clothing. The guards eventually found the offender, who had headed off down the street, but no charges were pressed. After a while everything is calm again, and the staff shrug off the incident. Not long later, the man sticks his head back in the front door. “Anyone seen my phone?” he asks calmly.

The action was real tonight, but mostly it’s pretend. At night adult gamers arrive in the cafés, usually to play World of Warcraft (WoW to its devotees), a multiplayer fantasy game that – by all accounts I’ve heard – is highly addictive. It has 11 million players worldwide.

Marco, 38, spends “50 or 60 hours a week” playing WoW here. A former corporal in the Dutch army, he played rugby at the highest level in Holland before a sky-diving accident forced him to quit. He landed a job with an airline in Dublin and took advantage of generous staff discounts – he could fly first class for free.

“Eight o’clock in the morning – open the champagne please!” he laughs. “I saw the whole world for free. You name it and I’ve probably been there.” Venezuela? “Yup.” Hawaii? “Yup.” Fiji? “Yup.” Ethiopia? “No, I didn’t do Africa.” He was made redundant in 2005 when the airline moved its operations to Poland.

Marco says it’s the social side of WoW that appeals to him – talking to other players, usually via a headpiece, is a big part of the game. Another man tells me he’s had “great conversations with players from Israel and Palestine. You meet people from all over the world and talk about religion and politics. The level of intelligence is very high.”

Despite the steady stream of gamers flowing through their doors at all hours, Dublin’s internet cafés are by no means recession-proof. “We’ve probably been hit harder than a lot of places,” says Dennis from Kimmage, who manages a café in Temple Bar. He took the job when a broken leg and quadruple bypass forced him to swap his 24-hour car-recovery service for less demanding work. Up to two years ago, most of his custom came from immigrants contacting home, but many have since left Ireland.

Revenue is half what it was in 2007. Dennis isn’t complaining though. “It’s fun, every day is different.” He has his share of stories: old men coming in to call sex chat lines, a student whose porn habits led to a string of complaints, and a female customer who Gardaí suspected of child trafficking. His favourite, though, is of the priest whose porn-watching prompted a shocked crowd to form at the shop window. “There were 20 or 25 people,” he says. “When I pointed it out to the priest, he was sweating – he got up and left quickly.”

THE wall behind Leo, a slight young man from south-east China who works in a northside internet café, is plastered with CCTV photos of thieving customers. One of them managed to strike four times, snatching purses and wallets from customers' pockets. Another stole €110 from Leo’s own jacket. The gardaí once had to kick the bathroom door down when a man locked himself in, shot up and then fell asleep.

Leo says that business is down drastically; his boss is struggling to pay the bills. But despite this – and the odd bit of trouble – he says the job is generally hassle- free. He’s glad he made the move from China to study business and computers four years ago: “It’s very different here,” he says. “Life in Ireland is easy.” Ali is equally happy he made the move. This slender, tracksuited 21-year-old spends a few hours each day in a Liffey Street internet café chatting to his parents and friends in Pakistan on Skype. He’s not working at the moment and can’t afford his own computer. Still, life in Ireland is “very good,” he says – “but very cold.”

Dubliner Brian, too, spends up to six hours a day chatting in internet cafés. He returned to Ireland from Canada after five years in September, but his girlfriend and other friends are still across the water. “I loved [Canada] but I was deported. My visa expired and my passport expired.”

How does he find Dublin now? “It’s changed quite a lot. It’s a lot faster, more dangerous. There’s more drink and drugs in the city. One or two of the internet cafés around are [open] 24 hours a day and a lot of people just use them as sleeping houses. The lights are turned down and people just sleep on the floor and in the phone booths.”

Of course many customers come in for simple reasons – to check emails, browse Facebook, chat. And the internet cafés of Dublin are more than a little varied – some are dank and dingy with rickety computers that crawl along; others have big cushy chairs, wide booths and widescreen monitors. But Brian was right – some do double as sleeping dens. At 7am in another city-centre internet café, two men sit in front of computers, sound asleep. Behind them, a young woman is asleep on a desk with no computer. At the back of the room a man is stretched out on the floor asleep, his head tucked under a desk.

In another internet café nearby, men sleep uncomfortably on sparse plastic seats. The lucky ones stretch out across two, buried under blankets. Kevin, a slim man with greying hair and a hunched gait, chats with the night worker and other customers, some of whom are just waking up. He seems to know everyone. “This is what we do,” he says. “Come in here for the night, put the head down for a few hours and watch a good film.” He’s been homeless for three months. “My wife got pregnant with my best friend,” he says. “I lost my job, my home, everything.” He says the lads in the café try to get into hostels, but they’re “too full of junkies,” and often booked out.

Early another morning, a bleary-eyed man in a grey hoody asks me to help him find Metallica songs online. He’s not that familiar with computers. He shows me a blood stain on his elbow. “I nicked a bike from O’Connell Street, but the guards must have seen me because when I cycled past the station they tackled me off the bike.” He gets up to leave. Another man follows him out the door, grabbing his sleeping bag and heading out into the dark street.

Hackers seek physical space in a virtual world

The Irish Times, April 4 2009 Dublin will soon be home to a space for hackers to congregate and get creative, write Lenny Antonelli and Jason Walsh

It's not a word that's used much in polite company – mention the term hacker and it conjures up nothing but negative images. In today's wired world of interconnected computer networks, email, SMS messages, social networking and online banking the stereotype of the computer hacker hasn't kept-up with the times.

At best the outdated image of the 1983 film War Games comes to mind: intelligent kids getting into serious trouble while attempting mischievous pranks. At worst, hackers are only a step away from terrorists, intent on destroying important computer networks and collecting enough personal data to make Google blush.

The reality is, as always, rather different. The personal computer as we know it today would not exist without the work of hackers – mainframe computers share less DNA with a typical PC or Mac than a pocket calculator does and, famously, Apple Computer was founded by a pair of hackers, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, in a Californian garage.  More recently, the Linux operating system currently revolutionising the business world is entirely the work of hackers. So much for tabloid visions of "cyber crime".

Dublin will soon be home to a permanent space for computer hackers to congregate and get creative. Named Tóg, Irish for build, this new space will be Ireland's contribution to the growing international movement of "hackerspaces".

Sat in the elegant, if incongruous, surroundings of Dubin's Westlin hotel explaining their plans to the Irish Times, Tóg's Jeff Rowe and Robert Fitzsimons emphasise that hacking is about curiosity: the desire to understand how technology works and the creative urge to build and modify gadgets. The only legal issue at stake here is the rather prosaic one of voiding warranties.

Fitzsimons is perfectly comfortable with the word hacker: "I'll use "hacker" and somebody else will use it and there'll be a completely different interpretation," he said. "My hacking is out in the open. I have the 2600.ie domain – If anybody wants to find out who the hackers in Ireland are, my name is plastered on the site."

Hacking, Fitzsimons says, is a form of self-education in a fast-moving world: "It's about learning things about the electronic environment we live in."

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the omnipresence of technology today, talk among the group does turns to political issues. Hackers, as a group, tend opposed to technology for technology's sake if it doesn't bring anything to the table. E-voting, for example, has been roundly rejected by hackers as needlessly complex and fundamentally unsafe: "The thing that gets me about e-voting is that these computers are essentially black boxes, but a vote isn't a black box. Physical voting is a very transparent process – with electronic devices it's a bit of magnetism somewhere, it's a bit, a 1 or a 0 somewhere," said Rowe.

Speaking to the Irish Times, technology consultant Colin Sweetman explained the term hackers needs to be approached with caution: "The prehistory of even some Microsoft products shows there were developed by hackers working for fun in garages and then bought-out," he said. "A lot of the actual malicious "hacking" is done by what are called "script kiddies" messing around with software they didn't write and don't really understand."

Sweetman also poses an interesting question about the source of malicious computer viruses and scams: "Nobody knows how many "black-hat" hackers in former Soviet states and in China are actually, at least tacitly, supported by their governments," he said.

Scams, industrial espionage and schemes for geopolitical domination are a world away from the reality of computer hacking as practiced in Ireland. Tóg's Jeff Rowe, who spends his days researching devices for the visually-impaired at Dublin City University, is a walking, talking example of the kind of self-motivated learning and playing that hackers engage in. Rowe's work is useful, interesting, technical and difficult. His play may be less important but it shares all of the other characteristics: he is currently designing an exact replica of a 1980s arcade machine in order to play old video games. "I want it to look and feel authentic," he said. "There's no point in just having a desktop unit. Half of the fun is two people standing up against the unit."

An avid cyclist, Fitzsimons, perhaps unsurprisingly a computer programmer by profession, is working on various gadgets for his bike: "Because I cycle and there's potholes everywhere, I'm interested in putting sensors on my bike so you can measure the road surface and how closely cars overtake you," he said.

Fitzsimons and Rowe are among 16 technology enthusiasts, many of them supporters of 2600 magazine, the technology underground's premier periodical, planning to open the Tóg hackerspace in Dublin – a home for hackers to work on projects, collaborate and socialise.

As unlikely as it sounds, similar spaces have sprung up across Europe and the US in recent years. For Fitzsimons, Rowe and the rest of the Irish group it was a trip to the 25th congress of Germany's Chaos Computer Club, one of the most influential hacker groups, that crystallised the idea.

"It really gave us the final push," said Rowe "We decided to get a group and start planning and get it in motion."

Fitzsimons sees the space being conducive to technological creativity and collaboration, but also a place for hackers to relax: "I'd like to see an area with couches and TVs and X-Boxes or whatever, and you wouldn't necessarily have computers in there. And then you'd have another room with computers; people [will] have somewhere to go and get away from computers."

In terms of technological projects, Rowe stresses it will be a learning curve for everyone. "Maybe just one or two people know how to do complex projects [so] it'll start off with making an LED display that flashes different lights and you can program different messages, and then it'll slowly build up and up."

Fitzsimons would also like to see woodwork and kitchen facilities in the space – allowing members to partake in other creative, hands-on activities unrelated to computers. "Some of us like cooking and some of the hacker spaces even have a Sunday dinner," Fitzsimons said, mentioning woodwork, paper-craft and baking as other possible activities. "I hope it wouldn't be the case where people would just hang out and play computer games and not actually participate in the idea of making something or doing something slightly creative with their time and space."

For now, the group will have to settle for "booting-up" in a single room – with 16 members paying €50 a month towards rent, the group is hoping to find a suitable space in central Dublin by May 1. Once the space is up and running the group will hold weekly public meetings for prospective members. "We're at the point where we feel that no new people are going to join until we actually have the space," Rowe said. Once the space is up and running, the group is confident it can quickly attract new members – and enough income to start looking for larger premises.

At a time when more and more communication is moving online, it is ironic that a group of technology enthusiasts would be so anxious to find a physical space to communicate in but Tóg has a rationale: "The highest bandwidth [mode of communication] is obviously fact to face," Rowe said. "It's all about the community. It's the community that drives all these sorts of things. We'd be nothing if it was just a space and there was no community, and no-one knew each other in the space."

Fitzsimons elaborates: "As Jeff was saying, it's about the community, and about that community building and making and creating. If that involves technology, brilliant. If it doesn't, brilliant."

If the information economy means anything at all it requires motivated, intelligent and creative players, just what Tóg and the hackerspaces movement are intent on creating.

Urbex Factor

For many of us, a day exploring Dublin might involve a picnic in the Iveagh Gardens, or a trip to Glasnevin Cemetery... For others, it means investigating the hidden interiors of the city’s abandoned buildings. Lenny Antonelli meets some intrepid “urban explorers” Published by The Dubliner, April 16, 2010

Most people visit Dun Laoghaire for some sea air, a walk along the pier or a trip to the market – only a rare few go to explore the dark innards of the derelict Dun Laoghaire Baths. Dave is an “urban explorer” – one of a growing number of Dubliners who venture into the city’s derelict buildings, tunnels and other hidden spaces. A young photographer from Tallaght, he asked us not to reveal his surname – trespassing is illegal, after all.

Dave isn’t some strange creature of the night though, just a 20-something armed with the tools of his trade – a camera, a torch and a portable sat nav programmed to his favourite exploration spots. He describes the inside of the baths: a warren of dark passages, rusting stairs and decrepit pools, saunas and changing rooms, with badly painted cartoon characters on the walls and drug paraphernalia scattered on the floor. Once among the most popular bathing spots in Ireland, they closed for good in 1997.

It was here that Dave’s enthusiasm for urban exploration – shortened to ‘urbex’ by its enthusiasts – was born. “Me and my friends were just walking about, we just saw the place and thought we’d head in,” he says. His curiosity was piqued, but he thought there wouldn’t be much more to explore after this. He was wrong. “I’d say we’ve seen about 100 places over the last couple of years.” The photographs that accompany this piece were taken by Dave and Tarquin Blake – more about him anon.

Dave’s favourite derelict building is Bolands Mills on Grand Canal Dock, though it’s now inaccessible. The imposing flour mill was occupied by Éamon de Valera and others during the 1916 Rising; the company went into receivership in 1984. He says that unlike other abandoned buildings, there’s little graffiti inside – and the views from the roof are superb.

“All the machinery is still in place; there’s just a really good history to it. It’s so big you’d spend a whole day there. Every time we went we found something new, a whole new section that we missed.”

Redcourt House in Clontarf, which Dave managed to visit and photograph before it was demolished, has a grizzly past; it was the site of two murders over the years, and was dubbed the “Hammer House of Horrors” by locals.

Dave’s closest brush with the law came at a derelict industrial estate in Tallaght. He and his friends were exploring an abandoned factory when a voice boomed out of a speaker, telling him he was being watched, and that the guards had been called. “We legged it and ran all along the Luas track,” he says. “It’s a shame, there’s no way you can do places like that anymore.”

Although breaking into private or public property is illegal under the 2002 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, Dave makes sure to operate by a simple code of conduct – don’t damage or take anything. The only time he broke this was when he used a crowbar to prise open a window of the derelict La Touche Hotel in Greystones, parts of which were damaged by a fire in 2006. Inside, he photographed the old restaurant, nightclub, conference room and some of the dozens of bedrooms. Others might have been tempted to take some of the valuable furniture; all Dave wanted to leave with was photos.

He’s explored countless other abandoned buildings – Grangegorman Asylum, the Clontarf and Blackrock baths, the Hellfire club in Rathfarnham, Martello towers – but is still keen for more. He’d love to get inside the old mine near Killiney beach – the passage in is small, but he’s heard that there’s a huge cavern inside with a bridge stretching across. He’d like to explore some of the ghost offices and apartment blocks left by the building boom too, but presumes they’re all heavily secured. Dave’s dream exploration surprises me: “The place I’ve always wanted to see is Chernobyl – a whole abandoned city. There are animals living in office blocks and trees growing up through houses, crazy stuff.”

The term ‘urban exploration’ was coined in 1996 by Infiltration, a zine dedicated to the subject, but its history stretches back much further. In 1793, Philibert Aspairt got lost while exploring the Parisian catacombs by candlelight. – his body was found 11 years later just feet from the exit that eluded him, and he’s now considered the world’s first “cataphile.” American poet Walt Whitman described a visit to an abandoned railway tunnel in New York in The Brooklyn Standard in 1884. In the 1950s, a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began exploring steam tunnels and rooftops around the campus, a practice they called ‘hacking.’ In 1994, the Diggers of the Underground Planet – an urban exploration group in Moscow – claimed to have found the city’s fabled Metro-2 subway system, allegedly built so that Stalin and his officials could evacuate the city quickly in case of attack.

In 2001, urban explorers found a maze of utility tunnels under Minneapolis and its sister city Saint Paul – they dubbed it “the labyrinth” and explored and mapped it fully over two years. And during the noughties, urban explorers from across North America organised conventions they deceptively titled ‘Office Products Expo.’ In the past, urban explorers communicated through zines, but the Internet dominates now, with message boards such as urbanexploration.ie, 28dayslater.co.uk and online magazines like Jinx and Explonation.

So far, urbanexploration.ie doesn’t get much traffic, according to Dave, and there’s not a community in Ireland as such – more individuals and small groups of friends who go out together. He’s an old hand at urban exploration at this stage, and is interested in its natural offshoot too – rural exploration. He’s visited castles in the greater Dublin area, and is thinking of compiling a book of his photography. “I went out last week with my dad and went to this place at the back of a housing estate in Navan. It’s like a big mansion ruin, it’s amazing... A demesne, there are derelict farmhouses around it. It’s just crazy that stuff like that is there.”

Photographer Tarquin Blake is an experienced rural explorer – his first book, Abandoned Mansions of Ireland, to be published later this year, will feature photographs and historical background on 50 derelict mansions across the country. Working from old 19th-century maps to find the sites of abandoned mansions, Tarquin was blown away by what he found. “The loss of heritage and architecture is pretty staggering. Some of the mansion houses rate among the largest and grandest ever built in Europe. And they’re completely in ruin now.”

One of the mansions he photographed is Westown House near Naul, though all that really remains now is a shell. “It’s hard to picture the place in all its grandeur, but it was said to be the finest mansion in Fingal.” Built in the early-18th Century, the house was owned by the Hussey family, who couldn’t afford to stay there after the Land Commission took it over in the 1920s. Various tenants rented it in the following decades, including former Fianna Fáil TD PJ Fogarty – they had the run of its 32 bedrooms, three kitchens, orchards and walled gardens. “Apparently a guest fell from one of the upper windows and was found the following morning in a pool of blood,” Tarquin says. “His ghost is said to haunt the place.”

Tarquin started out exploring Magdalene Laundries and asylums in Cork city before switching his focus to the countryside. He’s photographed various Dublin city buildings too, but says rural exploration is a lot more relaxed. “You need to have your wits about you and be a lot more cautious in the city!”

We remind you that exploring abandoned buildings is illegal – do not try this at home please. Tarquin has met enthusiasts more interested in stealing than documenting, but for most urban explorers the goal is simply to capture the history and decline of forgotten buildings, and to record places that we all get close to but never see.

Tarquin is protective of his favourite buildings, and admits he sometimes prefers to be vague about their exact locations to keep them hidden. “I guess the places are special because they have been kind of forgotten.”

Moral dilemma: what will replace the church as our moral compass?

Irish Times, 19 January 2010,

Interviews by Jason Walsh and Lenny Antonelli

GERARD CASEY Professor of philosophy, University College Dublin

“I can’t understand people losing faith because of scandals. I’m not making light of what happened, but for me it’s not where faith comes from. Religion and morality are not the same thing, but for most Irish Catholics the two are one and the same. When you tell them the moral code associated with Catholicism is pretty much the same as in any religion, they find it hard to believe. “You have to get morality from reason – morals are either a set of conventions in a utilitarian way or a real code to live by. The problem with utilitarianism is that morality only survives when the going is good, otherwise it’s every man for himself. There is nothing specifically Catholic about natural law. When you look at what human beings are, you see they have needs and that means we know the kind of actions that are [morally] destructive.

“A classic way of looking at morality is from Confucian philosophy. “There are four concentric circles. The innermost circle is the basic, natural state where we individually are the centre of the universe. We understand this in children and find it quite cute, but it would be sinister in an adult. The next circle is the utilitarian level: we still want things for ourselves, but have to at least simulate an interest in others.

“The breakthrough comes at the next moral level – this is when you recognise that other human beings are exactly like you: each has hopes, dreams and fears. There can be a sense of shock when we realise this.

“The final circle is the transcendent, where the human world is understood in a larger context. Traditionally this has been religious, but it can be other things, such as politics, for example – anything that says there is a dimension above us.

“The key for us as individuals is to match up the emotional and the intellectual sides of our lives. It’s a developmental process and, to some degree, a pattern of habituation.”

ANN JAMES Secretary, Humanist Association of Ireland

“People are beginning to see that morality can’t be institutionalised, and to give power to an institution that claims the moral high ground is a mistake. Morality should be discussed and argued, otherwise society becomes closed. We’re seeing the whole of Irish society opening up to other views.

“I think there’s a basic morality aligned to empathy. The law is there to protect everybody, and quite clearly it has failed – nobody should be above the law, but also nobody should be beneath it.

“There are certain things that are pretty universal, such as measuring harm: if something does no harm, that’s a simple ‘good’. I want life to be good, so the best way to do is to make the lives around me better.

“Even on the issues that are the source of disagreement, such as abortion, there has to be an openness to discussing the morality of it. I just want a morality that respects people’s right to think for themselves, and doesn’t place one value system in law above one another.

“I regard it as unethical to try and take away freedom of speech, as the Government is doing with its blasphemy legislation.”

AILEEN FYFE Historian of science, NUI Galway

“In the 19th century, the time of evolutionary theory and thermodynamics, people like the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley were arguing strongly for science’s role in society. In Huxley’s time, it was widely accepted that morality stemmed from religion, but he was an agnostic – he actually invented the term – and wanted to show people that it was possible to say no to religion but still be an upstanding, respectable citizen.

“Today, morality and religion can be separated, and Huxley’s fears might seem paranoid. One reason for this is that as soon as Europeans discovered more about the rest of the world’s population, they started asking questions about what moral code people outside Europe had.

“The early missionaries sought to ‘convert the heathens’, but those who stayed abroad began to realise that while other cultures might not be Christian, most still look after their families, take care of older members of the community, and have restrictions on killing.

“This got early anthropologists thinking that morality might be a human construct rather than something that comes from a universal religious truth.

“Huxley believed in the idea of a non-religious moral code for society – and he believed that such a code would probably look quite similar to Christianity. One reason Christianity has been successful is that it helped meet the needs of human society. But, for him, ideally you wouldn’t base such a code on stone tablets, but rather look around and ask what is the best way to live.”

DAVID McCONNELL Professor of genetics, Trinity College Dublin

“Isn’t it remarkable that so many different societies have similar morals? What we call Judaeo-Christian morality is effectively universal. As a humanist, this says to me that it’s not that God created man but that man created God.

“Science has a lot to teach us about morality, but it has to be thought about. You can now construct a family tree of all life on Earth, for instance, and all people have a common human relative just 200,000 years ago. We do have a lot of information that says genetics affects behaviour, [but] I don’t know of a direct genetic explanation for ethical principles, and any that are found are unlikely to be predictive.

“Ireland has been dominated by Catholic ethics and, for the most part, they’re good ethics. The problems arise when we try to prescribe ethics in too much detail and exclude personal responsibility.

“The most difficult, and interesting, areas are when good people disagree. For example, there are two archbishops of Dublin, and one would allow for abortion in certain circumstances and the other would never allow for it.

“My thinking on this is that you must allow for substantial personal discretion – you can place various constraints on things, but each situation is actually different and must be analysed and thought about by the people most involved.”

MARTIN DOWNES Professor emeritus of biology, NUI Maynooth

“In many ways the church has been effective at giving guidance on specific issues, but not so good at encouraging people to develop their own sense of right and wrong. There’s been a lack of emphasis on the notion that in the end it’s the individual who’s responsible. I’m inclined to think individual conscience has to replace the church as our moral authority, though it seems an awfully big job to ask a nation to suddenly engage with questions of ethics that it hasn’t before.

“Is there some way that a country trying to underpin its economic, social and political development with clear principles could go about it? What would happen if the Government tried to get general agreement on how we are to proceed in terms of morality? Science changes our choices by producing more information, and the hope would be that by doing that it can enable us to make better ethical decisions. I don’t think science can provide much with regard to how you go about making decisions, though it may be that science has something to contribute, in terms of psychology, on where we get our sense of right and wrong from.