‘Back to the Future’- Online Social Media, Video Conferencing & Cloud Computing in 1980s Galway

Technology innovation, communications and learning is so much part of the fabric of modern Galway. Children and their parents are together attending Saturday morning classes to learn how to code; people of all ages are daily accessing online services for hotel bookings, banking details and information services; teenagers are flirting online with their boyfriends and girlfriends in different schools during class time; robotics are taught in our third level colleges; our pre-teen and early youngsters are becoming renowned digital makers who are demonstrating their own programmable automated devices at the Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS; a multi-national Mervue-based company employing over one hundred college graduates is developing a revolutionary new type of search engine; Galway’s high tech industry is creating thousands of jobs that is earning the city a worldwide  reputation for business and responsible for a large slice of Ireland’s export trade. Mobile phones and video conferencing communications are changing the way we socialise and do business.
Whilst these details could define Galway city in 2018, there are in fact stories of Galway as it was during the 1980s! 

Find out more about the city’s proud digital heritage at a fascinating talk by Brendan Smith, curator of the Computer and Communications Museum of Ireland based at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway, that will take place at 2.30pm on Saturday February 24th in the Galway City Museum.

Online Learning in 1940s Ireland!

Whilst most of Europe was experiencing the horrors and carnage of World War Two, Radio Éireann, the Irish state radio broadcasting service, launched a series of bi-weekly lessons to help people across the country to learn the Irish language.

The innovative creators of this eLearning teaching initiative realised that learning a language was primarily about unconsciously assimilating sounds. Pronunciation and fluency comes from the spoken word.
It is lovely to know that eLearning has a strong tradition in Ireland that predates the Internet and television by decades,
The 'Listen and Learn' booklet that accompanied the broadcasting lessons was recently purchased as a very welcome addition to the museum memorabilia.

Could Galway become Ireland's first Urban National Park?

A call for the political, community, environmental, business and sports sectors to work together in transforming Galway into Ireland’s first National Park City has been made by a local science, environmental and community advocate. Brendan Smith, Galway’s current Volunteer of the Year, has said that the city should follow the recent example of London where Mayor Sadiq Khan has put his full support behind ambitious plans for London to become the world’s first urban national park.

“Such a status would not in any devalue the traditional designation of a National Park which is about protecting wildlife in natural environments located in rural countryside or marine areas. It would be a new type of park designation in which people and biodiversity could live in mutual benefit. Galwegians could become world pioneers in helping to create something this is so urgently needed as we are becoming an increasingly urbanized planet with over half of the global population now living in cities and where scientific research is clearly showing that our disconnect with Nature is impacting negatively on our wellbeing as well on the health of the planet.  Many of the serious challenges facing Galway as with many other cities such as obesity, mental health, low community cohesion, poor air quality, pollution, high waste levels, illegal dumping, car-based traffic gridlock, urban sprawl, sterile green spaces, flooding, biodiversity loss and the negative impact of climate change could be overcome by becoming an Urban National Park.

“A ‘Green’ identity for Galway would complement our Arts and Science-Technology characteristics.  The city already has enormous advantages due to its physical and human geography. It is located at the juncture of the Atlantic Ocean, the world famous natural landscapes of Connemara and the Lough Corrib/Mask waterways that reach deep into the hinterland of rural Mayo. It will become the terminus for the proposed Dublin-to-Galway cycleway and the starting point for the Connemara Greenway which is garnering enthusiastic support in the west of the county.  With twenty per cent plus of its landmass classified as green space that comprises wide range of natural wildlife habitats including coastline, woodlands, bogs, hedgerows, farmland, karst limestone outcrops, wetlands, lakes, rivers and canals. There is also still in existence a plethora of almost forgotten rural laneways or botharíns on the outer perimeters of the city, a remnant of its rural heritage that could easily become a network of walking and cycling trails. Just as importantly the city has a proud tradition over the last few decades of community environmental activism that has led to major successes that have helped protect biodiversity and enhance the quality of life of its citizens. 
 During the early part of the last decade, Galway was at the forefront of urban ecology initiatives in Ireland due to an active collaboration based on mutual trust between a diverse range of stakeholders that included Galway City Council, third level colleges, ecologists and local communities. This partnership led to the city in 2000 creating Ireland’s largest urban forest park in the Terryland-Castlegar district that with over with 90,000 native Irish trees has become a major natural ‘carbon sink’, the rolling out of the country’s first three bin pro-recycling domestic waste system in 2001 and in introducing the first municipal cash-for-cans scheme a few years later. 

Other eco-initiatives soon followed including a mapping of the city’s diverse habitats, a growing neighbourhood organic garden movement and the mapping of a 25km looped heritage cycle trail along its rural perimeter. Over the last few years eco-initiatives such as Outdoor Classrooms for schools, development of wildflower bee-friendly meadows, restoration of traditional drystone walls and the creation of a series of roosts for bat colonies have occurred due to the energetic work of volunteers. We can continue to harness the enthusiasm and power of local communities, schools, retired associations and youth groups through novel schemes such as a volunteer park rangers and nature trail guides to make the vision of an Urban National Park a reality. But we need to do more if we are to create a sustainable green city of the future. We must become a laboratory for new smart sensor technologies and transform our planning policies in order to integrate renewable energies, a safe walking/cycling/public transport infrastructure, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, neighbourhood farming and urban villages of cohesive communities into our city’s fabric.
Following the example of London, taking advantage of our Green Leaf designation and realising our city must do something radical to protect biodiversity, absorb population growth and secure a quality of life for its citizenry in a time of climate change that could be devastating to the planet, the drive to create a Urban National Park could be our salvation.  
 “At a Green Leaf themed meeting last week attended by city officials, environmentalists and community activists, the idea was very well received. There is a need now for all stakeholders to come together to plan out the principles for such a designation and put together a multi-sectoral team with a unity of purpose to start implementing the process."

Voice of a Celtic Angel is no longer with us

Like so many people across the world. I was shocked to hear of the death last night of Dolores O'Riordan.
On American Thanksgiving Day (July 4th) 1993, the Cranberries played Club Setanta in Salthill, a nightclub that I had named and co-set up in 1991.
The gig was part of a series of 'Indie Rock Nights' organised with my dearly departed and much loved friend Sean Puirséal (Purcell).
The band were starting to chart in Britain by this time but they were still relatively unknown and it was the following year that they achieved international success.
When the Cranberries came on stage, the venue was full of mainly young Irish-Americans and Irish that were merry, boisterous and loud.
The sounds of guitars and drums permeated the hall. Nothing out of the ordinary for a live music rock venue. The lead singer was a small very young looking female with short cropped hair who seemed somewhat out of place in the large, dark cavernous hall. Then Dolores started to sing. Her voice instantly captivated the audience. Melodic, raw, haunting, it delved deep into our Celtic souls. The banshee wail seemed to transport us back in time to the music, songs, bards and rituals of a dim and distant past whilst also giving us a taste of the sounds of the future.
We were spell bound.
Dolores had a powerful magnetic singular presence on stage that night. But afterwards as we sat down and chatted, I found her warm, shy but very friendly with an engaging smile.

Farewell Dolores, you are a legend that will not be forgotten.

Fungi working hard at Christmas in Terryland Forest Park

As this photo shows there is a stunningly unique beauty about mushrooms and other fungi living in Terryland Forest Park. Their colours, variety and texture are truly spectacular.
To me fungi are the often forgotten and unsung heroes of Nature. They are the ones that break down dead trees and other organic material to convert them into nutrients that are essential to plant growth.
They are the dominant decomposers that can be said to transform death into life.
Fungi also act as a communications network for trees.

I took this photo of Velvet Shank fungi living off a stump of a tree in Terryland.

Terryland Forest & Garden Highlights 2017

Lovely to have Felicity Silverthorne and her fellow students, as part of their NUIG studies, undertake a few weeks ago a film documentary entitled (Galway) City of Nature on the importance of nature to urban environments. There was a nice focus on Terryland Forest Park and the Ballinfoile Mór Community Organic Garden that included interviews with Ruth Hanniffy(Vincent Wildlife Trust), Pauline O'Reilly (Galway Green Party) and myself.
I am so impressed by the fact that Felictiy and other concerned young people are prepared to highlight the need to safeguard the wonderful wildlife and green spaces that exist on our own doorstep but are sadly under threat like never before due to built development, pollution and climate change. 
The link to the film is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-ktQ0u4KyU&spfreload=10.
Well worth watching (says I unashamedly!!).

Christmas 2017: Galway's 'Green' Santa

One of the annual highlights at my workplace is the multi-cultural Christmas festival.
For the event, family members and friends are invited along to see and enjoy ethnic cuisine, beverage, dress and images provided by the students that come from across four continents.
A key highlight of the fest is the appearance of Niall O Brolchain as Santa who aided by his trusty elves Anh Thu and young Daniel, happily dispenses gifts to and from students in the lovely tradition of Chris Kindle.
The smartly red-attired Niall was of course Galway city's first Green (environmental) Mayor back in 2006.

Christmas 2017: Our Son’s very special Birthday

On December 23rd we celebrated the 18th birthday of our youngest son.
The beginning of Dáire’s adulthood meant that his male and female friends gathered together at our home to enjoy a lively garden and house party. For the first time ever, we allowed alcohol to be consumed in our place by school-going (18 year old) teenagers. Yet in spite of dire warnings from some parents who had survived and lived to tell the tale of their sons and daughters coming-of-age party nights his friends, whilst loud, boisterous and merry, did nothing untoward and were in fact astonishingly very good. The furniture was not broken up, the house was not destroyed by fire and the neighbours were not attacked.
Whilst proud that Dáire had reached manhood, I was at the same time sad. Both my sons have contributed so much to my learning and development over so many years. Their knowledge, expertise and first hand experience of classroom subjects, pre-teen/teen online social media, films, cartoons, fairy tales, sports/pop stars and the latest fabs played an essential part in shaping the content and deliverability of my Science and Technology school initiatives. I took on the role of a ‘sponge’ soaking up what they said and did without them consciously knowing that I was doing so.
Thanks to Dáire and Shane I saw all the in-vogue films of the DC/Marvel super heroes, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hobbit, Harry Potter, Star Wars, James Bond, Wreck it Ralph, War Horse...
As children they took part in my never-ending cycle of community campaign protests, science exhibitions, coding sessions, retro-gaming nights, gardening digs, forestry plantings, litter picks, art in nature projects, heritage tours and bike excursions. Taking on the regular chores of parenthood along with my ‘O so good wife’ Cepta, I in return chaperoned them to kayaking, hurling, rugby, soccer, art, guitar and school musical concert sessions. I joined in their delight when they excelled in some of these activities and was a shoulder to cry on when things went sour. I empathised with them when, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, their interest in one sport or another waned.
Over many summer holidays spent by our family visiting water-themed parks, I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and pretended to laugh (in reality it was nearly always a scream!) as I fell from the highest, most death-defying dangerous parent-unfriendly water rides that mankind has ever devised. On a more gentle note there were the regular voyages of discovery to the marine world that is Atlantaquaria, to seashore rock pools, to woodlands, to the Dublin Zoo and on trips to destinations across Ireland.
When they became teenagers, I perfectly understood why they no longer considered it ‘cool’ to pal around with dad or take part in his off-the-wall activities or even to acknowledge my presence when I came into their schools. It has thus been the way of teenagers since time immemorial.
However I was thrilled every time they wanted me to go with them to the latest cinema blockbuster, to the gym or to a football match.
After twenty six years the Age of Childhood in our home has finally come to an end. In spite of the few normal bouts of tantrums, disagreements, upsets and pain along the way, I will miss it so much as it has kept me Young at Heart for so long. I have been blessed in being a father of two fine boys.
Photos show Dáire at his second birthday and with his mom Cepta on his eighteenth birthday

Characteristics of a Future City – Wilderness, Farms & Smart.

Thanks to Darragh O'Connor and Cormac Staunton, I recently fulfilled a cherished ambition of mine by getting the opportunity to give a TED talk. 
My TEDx Galway presentation was entitled Characteristics of a Future City – Wilderness, Farms & Smart.
Click here to view it.
The talk is based on my personal experiences of living and working in Galway. It is about the urgent need for humanity especially urban dwellers to bring the rest of Nature back into our everyday lives. We have allowed 'civilisation', urbanisation, industrial farming, mineral extraction, consumerism and technology to scar the planet and to destroy so much of its species and their habitats. 
But even now in a time of accelerating destructive man-made climate change, I see hope in what ordinary individuals and communities in Galway and elsewhere are doing in order to bring the 'Jungle' into the Cities. 
For the first time in our history we should judge and develop technologies primarily on how they improve the Earth, its countless fascinating lifeforms, our own wellbeing and not on such requirements as 'efficiency', 'speed' and 'profit'. Nature is in our genes, and for 99% of our species existence on this planet we were more or less a benign planetary force. It is only relatively recently when we became 'civilised', circa 10,000 years ago with the development of urban settlements, that we started to become a self-centred malign phenomena. 

But if used wisely our human intellect can undo the great harm we have caused.
I hope that my talk will go some way to inspiring people to ensure that the Cities of the Future will not only be Smart but will also contain forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, wildflower meadows and organic farms.

Tanzania – A Tale of African Girl Coders, an Irish Minister & an American Corner

Africa is changing at an unprecedented level. We associate the continent with the big fauna such as rhinos, giraffes and lions; with tropical forests, deserts and savannah; with rural villages and pastoral farming.
But that description would be alien too much of today's African youth who live in mega cities that have sprung up over the last few decades. Lagos and Cairo have populations of circa 20 million inhabitants. Such city dwellers too often only experience the fast pace of a man-made environment of concrete, tarmac and traffic rather than the slow movement of the wilderness and small traditional tribal hamlets.
As a lead mentor of the SAP-funded GEC-supported ‘Africa Code Week’ (ACW) initiative, I have spent much of the last two years working in this new Africa of Cape Town, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Kigali, Cairo and Gaborone. Our task this year was to partner with local NGOs, governments, third level colleges and innovation hubs to upskill teachers and bring coding workshops to 500,000+ children and youth in order to fulfill our mission of helping to empower future generations with the creative technology tools and skills they need to thrive in the 21st century workforce and become key actors of Africa's economic development.
My final destination in Africa for 2018 was Dar es Salaam. With a population of nearly 6 million people, it has all the strengths and weaknesses of a fast growing African urban conurbation. Amongst its key assets are a youth with an insatiable appetite for education who populate the clubs and centres where technology creativity is promoted, coding taught, products made and sisterhood blossoms. This was characterized at my last training session in Tanzania organised at a volunteer club for young women known as ‘Apps & Girls’ in a venue called the American Corner. Funded by the US embassy in partnership with a local educational institution, the corner is a learning, information and programming space located in a public library. Though we mentored coding workshop taht was well received by the participants, we also got to enjoy as spectators a demonstration by enthusiastic young teenagers of a programmable robot used in a clean water project. The guest of honour was our very own Irish Minister of State Ciaran Cannon. I have great time for Ciaran. He is a politician and government minister who truly understands the need to integrate technology innovation into education. He is a coder himself that has over the last four years co-founded many Coderdojo clubs in rural villages and towns in the west of Ireland. He has taken to both his new ministerial roles, namely that of the Irish Diaspora and of International Development, like a fish to water. In the case of the latter, Ciaran sees Africa as a key focus of his ministry.
On my final night in Tanzania I was at a truly remarkable Africa Code Week launch officiated by Dr. Joyce Ndalichako, Tanzanian Minister for Education, Science & Technology, and Minister Cannon attended by the Ambassadors of Ireland and of Germany, the US Press Attaché, Liam Ryan and Sunil Geness of SAP, young innovators and school kids. The words of one young female teenage speaker and panelist will stay with me for a long time. When asked by the MC what has the technology education provided by Apps & Girls mean for her, Lisa said that the girl that she is now is so different to the girl that she was six months ago. Thanks to her found skill of programming she is now full of self confidence, empowerment and positivity.
The music on the night was provided by a steel drum (pan) band from the Debrabant School Saku whose musical renditions, including the German and Irish National Anthem, stirred the heart of many listeners. This educational institution, which I worked in last June, was founded by the current principal Sister Annette, a hardworking Catholic nun from Kilconnel in county Galway. Whilst the Catholic clergy in Ireland has suffered a dramatic fall from grace over the last few decades due to child abuse and other scandals, nevertheless their Irish compatriots in Africa are still held in high esteem due to their educational and community programmes with the less privileged stretching back to the 19th century. Teachers, civil servants and NGO personnel of different religious faiths in South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania proudly told me of their affection for the Irish clergy that provided them with schooling. Being enslaved and colonised ourselves we Irish have a special affinity with the indigenous peoples of the continent. As a member of the anti-apartheid movement in Ireland during my youth, I was inspired by contemporary Africans such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Joe Slovo, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Desmond Tutu.
On a personal note I myself was proud to be part of a very special ‘Team Tanzania’ which included Julie Cleverdon (great organizer and worker), Bernard Kirk(great inspirational speaker), Clara Betis (great social media expert & journalist). Liam Ryan (great visionary), Sunil Geness (great enthusiastic commitment), Davide, Hercules and my two top quality fellow teaching colleagues namely Cristina Antelo and Thais Muniky

Teaching Coding in Al Balqa Applied University, Amman, Jordan

As part of my regular delivery of coding workshops in the Middle East, Africa and Greece within the wonderful Refugee Code Week initiative, I am not only sent to teach in refugee camps but also to the schools and colleges of the host countries. So during this week's schedule, I was assigned to provide Scratch coding sessions in the Al Balqa Applied University in Amman.

It was and is a fascinating experience. The administrative staff, lecturers and students are so enthusiastic in learning this branch of coding and delivering it to schools in Amman and elsewhere as part of assigned internships later in the year. 

One interesting thing that has impressed me in my work visits to the country is the high number of women undertaking engineering at universities and colleges. The attached photo from today of one of my workshops of engineering students provides ample proof of this.
There are a number or socio-economic factors why this is the case. But it is uplifting to see something so different to my own country Ireland where the numbers of females in engineering is still very low. We can learn from Jordan. So well done to Shoroq Trad, Haya Al-Omari ʚɞ and the other young Jordanian, Palestinian and other Middle Eastern women here in Jordan for taking on engineering and computer science as a future career!

Volunteers are needed in Preparing a Community Garden for its 'Big WInter Sleep'.

Once again volunteers are needed this Saturday (October 14th) from 11.15am to help prepare the Ballinfoile Mór Community Organic Garden for its winter sleep.
Last Saturday lots of great work was undertaken in cleaning up the facility, recognising that as the main crop of vegetables, herbs and fruits had been harvested a few weeks ago and with autumn leaves falling, the trees and plants are now going into hibernation.
 Though volunteers did an amazing amount of work last Saturday we not complete all of the tasks required. So we are back this weekend and your presence would be so much appreciated for digging, trimming, grass cutting, weeding, painting, path making and completing the dozens of other tasks that are needed to be done in order to allow the garden looking somewhat pretty before winter sets in.

As is our tradition, teas/coffee/water and salads will be provided to all attendees.

Terryland Forest Park: A Haven for Bat Species

Thanks to the great scientific research of Dr Caitriona Carlin and Dr. Gesche Kindermann of Near Health NUI Galway and their students especially Ciara Leonard as well as the Galway Bat Group and Dr Kate McAney of the Vincent Wildlife Trust, it has been shown that the publicly-owned Terryland Forest Park is now home to at least six species of Irish bats including the Leisler, Common Pipistrelle and the Daubenton.
The fact that this wildlife haven exists was only made possible thanks to the thousand of volunteers and dozens of council staff who since March 2000 have planted over 90,000 native Irish trees in what was formerly relatively sterile pasture land and converted it into Ireland's largest community driven forest park. 

Last July, volunteers placed 15 bat boxes in the trees of the Liosbaun section of the forest park. The boxes were made by members and guests at the Cumann na bhFear (Men's Shed) on Sandy Road.
The NUIG scientists now want volunteers to help monitor the boxes for bat activity via droppings etc.
Ciara Leonard will visit the Ballinfoile Mór Community Organic Garden this Saturday to talk to the volunteers and bring this exciting Citizens' Science project onto the next level.

Trump- the wrong leader in the wrong place at the wrong time

Fifty nine people murdered and over five hundred injured in Las Vegas by a crazed killer armed with an arsenal of weaponry all probably purchased legally; a season of unprecedented destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean; and devastated US islands such as Puerto Rico screaming for federal government aid.

What hope though from a President whose campaign was funded with €24 million by the National Rifle Association and who opposes any type of gun control whilst 93 people die every day in the USA due to gun violence; who denies the existence of man-made Climate Change in spite of the evidence to the contrary presented by NASA, EPA and other US agencies; who is enthusiastically dismantling the federal government piece by big piece ensuring that the USA will not have the financial or labour resources to handle future crisis.

TEDx Talk - I survived!

What an experience! Having done the 'walk' so many times, I now had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the 'talk'.
To say that I wasn't nervous having to take part in such a prestigious event and summarise such an important topic as I had in 18 minutes would be untrue. To be honest, I was a nervous kitten in the lead-up to the event. So unlike me!

But surrounded by professional speakers all experts in their own field in such a prestigious venue as the Town Hall Theatre in front of a sell-out audience who I knew would scan a critical eye over word I spoke and every gesture that I made, weighed heavily on me.
Anyway, I gave it my best shot on the night; thankfully I did not freeze or forget my words and so hopefully I gave justice to the hard work of all community campaigners, environmentalists and the socially aware Web/Internet of Things technologists of  Galway city and beyond.

My theme was on the urgent need for cities to be Green and Smart.
My advanced preamble was:
“As the Earth is being transformed into an Urban Planet characterised by an unprecedented growth in human population, energy consumption, technology revolutions, depletion of finite resources, huge mega settlements and climate change, the future of the human species is under threat.  So cities, the new abode of our race, have to radically transform in the areas of energy, transport, health, water, food, environment, social, housing, governance and work if they are to accommodate huge numbers of inhabitants in a way that gives them a beneficial quality of life that is sustainable.
Brendan Smith looks at the need to bring nature back into our everyday urban lives. Using Galway as an example he makes the case that, as well as relying on smart technologies, cities have to be characterised by organic farms, community gardens, rooftop/exterior building vegetation, woodlands, waterways, outdoor classrooms, Greenways and local community stakeholdership. “

The Galway TEDx talks will be up on YouTube in the next few months. In the meantime I will publish a longer written version of my talk in late October (when my travels to Africa and the Middle East are completed for this year).

Finally I would like to give a big public thank you and a traditional Irish ‘Bualadh Bos’ to two brilliant hard working creative gentlemen, namely Darragh O'Connor​
and Cormac Staunton who were the brains and brawn behind TEDx Galway. With a wonderful range of international, national and local speakers and an eclectic mix of subjects, they did a superb job. Darragh- you have a wonderful future ahead of you as a 'Master of Ceremonies' extraordinaire.

Life in the Al Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp

Below is an article that I wrote for the Galway Advertiser earlier this week.
In ten days time I am returning to Jordan to work teaching coding to teachers in local schools and in Syrian refugee camps.

The biggest humanitarian crisis since the aftermath of World War Two has led to an exodus of 5 million peoples from Syria since 2012.
In an effort to help refugees living within the Middle East, a small number of individuals from Galway in February 2016 became part of an ambitious digital learning programme designed to bring computer coding skills to thousands of children, teenagers and teachers living in camps and districts across the region. Known as Refugee Code Week (RCW) the initiative, led by the German software corporation SAP in partnership with the United Nations RefugeeAgency(UNHCR) and the Galway Education Centre, has developed course content and provided teams of IT volunteers from across three continents to upskill teachers from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries in delivering coding programmes to young refugees and the youth of host nations from eight years to twenty years of age.

The Galway volunteers taking part in the programme are Bernard Kirk , director of the Galway Education Centre and co-founder of RCW, Nuala Allen (SAP in Parkmore), Niall McCormick (Colmac Robotics) and Brendan Smith (NUI Galway).

Brendan Smith, who has through his Outreach projects at the university since 2004 worked with asylum seekers in Ireland, was seconded from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway to become a master instructor in RCW as well as in a sister programme, namely the highly successful Africa Code Week that has been operating since June 2015.

Here is his story.

The Middle East has experienced unimaginable devastation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As in all wars, civilians are the innocent victims.  In what was once one of the most modern countries in the region, it is estimated that 470,000 inhabitants have died since 2011, over 7.6 millions are internally displaced within Syria and over five million were forced to leave. Whilst approximately one million are in Europe, most are living in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In spite of the severe strain on their societies and economies, these host nations have responded with amazing generosity and friendship.  Lebanon has 1.2 million Syrians (in a total population of only 5.8 million that also includes 450,000 Palestinian refugees), Turkey has 2.7million and Jordan approximately 650,000.  Many refugees have lost family, friends, neighbours, homes and jobs. Scarred by their experiences of brutality and living in poverty often in enclosed camps in a foreign country, education and careers can become impossible luxuries as they spend their days struggling to survive.

There is a genuine fear that a whole generation of young Syrians will be absent from regular schooling. 

So it is essential that they are provided with the learning skills and knowledge that can offer them some genuine hope for a better future.  Refugee Code Week is part of that vision and commitment, with qualified trainers providing computer coding training to refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.
 I have worked in all four countries. But it was my time in the latter that introduced me at first hand to the sheer scale of this modern man-made disaster.
On my first trip on a small mini-bus packed with volunteers that left the Jordanian capital of Amman for the Al-Zaatari refugee camp located only a few kilometres from the Syrian border, I really was not sure what to expect. 
 Our destination represents the second largest refugee camp in the world. Surrounded by a deep trench, armed vehicles, military personnel, high fencing, barbed wire, with the sound of warplanes overhead, a huge mass of thousands of single-story prefabricatd wooden portacabins populated by over 80,000 confined inhabitants stretched before us.
It seemed to me then that we volunteers were but tiny pathetic dots on a human landscape where our high lofty aspirations would soon be dashed against the reality of everyday lives in an inhuman environment that was beyond our understanding.

But appearances can be deceptive. When it was hastily established in 2012, Al Zaatari was a sprawling tent encampment in a barren desert devoid of facilities, rife with corruption and violence. Most of the refugees that fled to Jordan did so to escape almost certain death or persecution in the Syrian city and countryside of Daraa which was where the uprising against the Assad regime began in March 2011. 
 But the Jordanian government, UNHCR, NGOs and donor countries working with the Syrian residents have together transformed Al Zaatari into a fully functioning city. Drill holes tapped into deep underground reservoirs provide water by way of a fleet of trucks and local storage tanks to the camp’s 14,000 families. It is expected that piped water will be installed in all homes later this year.  As well as nine schools, three hospitals, two supermarkets, and a number of sports fields, one of the most striking physical features of the camp is the large shopping street known by the camp residents as the ‘Champ Élysées’ that is populated with a myriad of Syrian boutiques, butchers, bakeries, food stalls, cafes and bike repair shops.  
The main mode of transport is the bicycle, thousands of which were donated by the Dutch government, from it seems those that they found abandoned outside railway stations across the Netherlands. 

Beautiful hand-painted murals emblazon the exterior walls of hundreds of huts extolling the message of hope, or showcasing the beautiful natural Syrian countryside that residents left behind and hope someday to return too.  But the main theme of the wall art painted by local artists is Education and the benefits that this promises.  

This belief is critical as there are serious problems for the youth of the camp.

Each family is provided with a quota of daily bread and a small monthly allowance.  But to pay for extra food and essentials a high percentage of residents work either with the UNHCR or often illegally outside the camp. Many of these illegal workers are children who can be exploited and abused.  30% of the camp’s residents are of school-going age. But 25-30% do not regularly attend any of Al Zaatari’s nine schools because they work. Hence our role in introducing computer coding into the camp’s schools and in promoting the economic benefits that this should entail for child refugees is something that we believe strongly in.

The students teachers that we taught came from many different career backgrounds but all were warm, gracious, creative men, women and children that had an appetite to learn, to overcome the circumstances that had befallen them and to teach the new language of coding to the children of Al Zaatari. 

We also provided a Syrian female organisation in the camp known as the Tigers who organise social and educational projects for girls with programmable robot kits. Because of the circumstances that they find themselves in, being confined within a small geographical space, there was no doubt that many of the camp’s female teenagers were getting married younger than would been the case previously when they probably would have had the opportunity to continue on into further education.

The UNHCR personnel such as Abdul Qader Almasri welcomed us with open arms and provided laptops, rooms and translators.

There were some cultural differences though to get used too. Whilst it was okay for me to shake hands with my male students, this was not the case with regard to females.  Instead I would place my hand above my heart and gently smile when we were being introduced or when leaving. Though most young women I taught wore the veil known as the Hijab, some wore the Nijab which covers all of the face except for the eyes. As a teacher from Ireland, this took a little getting used to!

But a sobering thought for me of my time in Al Zaatari and elsewhere in the Middle East was that many of the friendly kind-hearted Syrian people that I taught, met and now consider my friends would have been tortured, enslaved, conscripted into armed groups or killed had they stayed in their country.

Note: I will be organising an exhibition of murals and paintings by Syrian artists from Al Za’atari in  Galway later this year.

Classic Games Galore for Culture Night

 25 vintage consoles, arcade cabinets, microcomputers offering nearly 1200 classic games.
Step back in time to the early days of computer gaming and enjoy the sights and sounds of the great classics of Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pong, Pacman, Super Mario, Tetris, Fifa 99 and Sonic on renowned vintage consoles such as Atari, Nintendo, Sega Mega Drive and Playstation 1.

Ballinfoile Mór Residents reactivate Community Centre protests

Please join residents from the Ballinfoile area as they protest for the second time this week outside the gates of the Ballinfoile – Castlegar Neighbourhood Centre angered that the facility is still not open for public use. The protest will take place at 9am this Friday (Sept 22nd).

Never in our worst nightmares did we expect to find ourselves in September 2017 standing outside the Ballinfoile – Castlegar Neighbourhood Centre with placards demanding its opening for use by the local community.
A number of us protesting this week had ‘hung up their boots’ last November believing the words of the council that the opening was only weeks off. We felt that our role had come to a successful conclusion and that it was  henceforth a question of administration rather than campaigning. But we are back this week because this sadly has not happened. Since last week, the facility is open for two and half days per week to gauge local interest for its use.
This is so insulting and disrespectful to members of the local community. We have shown time and time again in so many surveys over many decades that in one of Galway’s largest suburbs there is a need for such a sports and community facility amongst all ages.
After two years of campaigning, the local authority confirmed in 1989 that the centre will be built. Finally in May 2016, the long awaited state-of-the-art facility was officially opened by the Mayor. Three mayors on it is still not open for use by the local community.
In November 2016 it was confirmed at a council meeting, and later at a council meeting in January 2017, that it was to open in January 2017. It did but for only one day on January 26th to facilitate a public consultation of the Kirwan Roundabout.
At a public meeting in the Menlo Park Hotel in May we were told that the facility would be fully open by August 31st at the very latest, in time for the beginning of the school year. We were told then that it was expected that the management contract between Galway City Council and SCCUL would be signed the following week. Now we are told that there are still issues of the centre’s maintenance to be sorted out by the council before any agreement can be signed.  Understandably SCCUL will not sign a contract until they are made fully aware of maintenance costings.

There is now a breakdown of trust between local residents and Galway City Council. To us, this opening to gauge local opinion is nothing more than a delaying exercise. If the €150,000 allocated in this year’s budget is not used up by the end of the year, it could well be taken away and used by the council for something else. We are calling on all public representatives especially councillors to get council officials to rectify the situation immediately. Otherwise another year will have passed without the local community getting use of this much needed indoor resource. We intend to keep protesting every week until it is opened.

Traditional Mowing of a Meadow- the Return of the Scythe

For the second year in succession volunteers are asked to participate in the mowing of a wildflower meadow using traditional hand-held implements. As part of the Galway Fringe Festival, starting at 10.30am on Saturday July 22nd  members of Conservation Volunteers and Cumann na bhFear(Men’s Shed Galway city) will use scythes to cut the long grass in a grassland of Terryland Forest Park near the Quincentenary Bridge.

Since 2015, volunteers have planted thousands of the type of native Irish wildflowers that once light up the Irish countryside in a mosaic of colours in two former sterile lawns in Terryland Forest Park.  Planting yellow cowslip, red poppy, purple clover, pink ragged robin and other plants has created what are known as 'meadows', which were in former times fields set aside by farmers for the growing of long grass which was cut during the late summer and autumn months to produce one or two crops of hay to serve as winter food for livestock. Because no chemical fertilizers were used, these meadows became important habitats for an array of colourful native wildflowers and would be alive with the sights and sounds of many varieties of bees, moths, butterflies and other pollinators. Our aim is to re-introduce meadows back unto the city and provide nectar-rich feeding havens for bees in particular which are in a serious decline worldwide due to industrialised monoculture farming, pesticides, habitat loss, pollution and climate change. Bees and other pollinators are essential to the survival of humanity as the plants that they help to reproduce are responsible for one-third of all foods and beverages that we consume. 

Scientific research in Britain is also showing that animals which graze on meadows of herbs, wild grasses and flowers eat far more minerals, amino acids and proteins are therefore a lot healthier. With their meat more nutritious, the benefits to consumers are obvious.
We hope that our actions will encourage other local community groups and schools nationwide to start re-establishing the meadows as a key part of Ireland’s countryside and natural heritage.
Cumann na bhFear is also committed to preserving and re-educating the public in traditional Irish rural skills and crafts that still have an essential role to play in today’s farming because of their social, health, economic and environmental aspects.
So we are asking people to come along on Saturday July 22nd to take part in this ancient rural hay-cutting in action and to take part in planting nearly a thousand more wildflowers. Light refreshments will be provided to all volunteers.