A Little Bit of Graft and Grá: A Greener Journey

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20th December 2022

A Little Bit of Graft and Grá: A Greener Journey

Victory Luke, Climate Ambassador, ventures to DIYSOS: The Big Build Ireland

This summer I continued on a Greener Journey, exploring SSE Airtricity projects on the road to Net Zero. I was lucky enough to work with Baz Ashmawy, Carmel Brennan of SSE and the DIYSOS team, along with volunteers and suppliers, as they renovated homes and a community garden in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork for six Ukrainian families. Here’s how it went…

As I woke to the blaring sound of my alarm at 4:00am, I’m not sure I understood or realised the kind of project I was embarking on. We were headed down to Mitchelstown, Cork along with some other SSE colleagues, to film some content centered around the hard work going on at Kingston College for DIYSOS. I got up and readied myself - put on my hard toe capped boots. Ready for the day ahead.

It was strange to see how Dublin recedes and changes from this place of towering buildings, cranes hanging in the sky, and car horns – to a pattern of small cottages, wide and wild fields with cows and sheep roaming freely in the countryside. Yet another example of how we can sometimes let city-life blur our appreciation for what the natural world has to offer, and how we are still so close to it all.

The big build

There is something simply astonishing in the human ability to co-ordinate, to build and to materialize a dream not just for ourselves, but for the collective. From the smallest hut to the tallest skyscraper.

However, in the modern age it is slightly more difficult to put this skill in action. That is why when I could see the tremendous efforts put forward by the those working hard on the DIYSOS project in Mitchelstown – I felt lucky to be enveloped by such a warm, vibrant, and enthusiastic group of people making the dream of a home possible. The wonderful people who were working for weeks on the site were joined by some of the SSE team to get stuck in and share in the sweat, toil and delight taken from such a project.

Biodiversity – restoring a community garden

It’s always a great thing to meet someone who not only has a great fountain of wisdom on all things to do with biodiversity but is also kind and warm – and that is exactly what you get from Carmel Brennan. She is SSE’s very own Environmental Advisor, and though the title sounds quite serious I can assure you that she was the easiest person to speak to on the matter. With a cadence that is as soothing as it is informative, she talked me through all the beautiful plants and fauna coming to fruition in the Gardens of Kingston College.

It was wonderful to see the transformation and effort put in by Carmel Brennan, my fellow volunteers, and the team working with professional gardener, Diarmuid Gavin.

A Masterclass in Crafting Bonds

I realised that the trades were really a masterclass in chemistry, craftsmanship and history - all rolled into one Linseed Oil putty ball. The sash windows were an interesting experience. Handy Marty was our mentor, and I am very unsure if I have ever met someone so passionate about historical buildings and their preservation. He taught us everything we needed to know. He told us of their fragile nature, due to the years of battering rain and summer sun, they needed careful attention and care. Silicone, as he informed us, was extremely bad for them.

“Somehow trying to squeeze from him the memory of their own father’s hand”

It turns out, the man-made stuff was only a quick fix that degraded over time. For me, this highlighted our need to really look back at the ways we survived for so long using the natural ingredients we had at our disposal. That is not to say that modern inventions have not been essential in our development, but perhaps, there is a reason these windows lasted for 200 years.

Whilst I was at work on those windows, I had the chance to chat with Baz Ashmawy, a delightful man, he carried this sense of bubbling joy and comfort – it was no wonder he got on so well with many of the hopeful families. He talked about the little children he had befriended, and how they held on to his hands dearly.

“Somehow trying to squeeze from him the memory of their own father’s hand” he said, it was heart-warming. It was authentic. A good presenter must always aim for the truth and speak the truth, but he was bringing something more meaningful than the truth. Comfort.

After hours of hard work on the windows and a few minutes talking to Baz, the day had come to an end. By that stage, the sky and weather had changed dramatically, from a misty and cool morning – to a sun-stroked afternoon, beaming down on us as if to say, ‘well done.’ We all piled our way out of the compound and down to the local pub, only a two-minute walk away, hidden behind the lined rows of colorful small brick houses.

There we caught up with our other volunteers and shared stories of our little adventures and newfound skills. Between all of us, I think we would make a great team of construction workers. There was music and food, burgers, crisps and beers – all put together for us. Ciaran one of workers on site, put on a small live performance for us. it was brilliant to be in the sun and soak up the sounds of laughter and song. I went to bed that evening feeling accomplished.
I would say that was the same for everyone that evening.

Final Day

Travelling down to Mitchelstown one final time., we had boxes filled with different gifts from SSE to the new residences of Kingston College. In a bag, were the most adorable stuffed animals, one for each child of the six families.

When we arrived, there was a settled atmosphere. Indeed, things had changed. When I looked around, I could not tell which of the houses had been previously derelict. They had elevated the place with love and hard work.

As I peeked into the windows, the houses were decorated with brand new furniture, wardrobes, and light! A far cry from the dusty and empty space it used to be.

Handy Marty’s makeshift workshop was empty. Gone were the windows and the putty. He was now working on something more personal; an old wooden door that he had taken an interest in.

We were all eager to meet the families,to see their reaction and to hear what they had to say. I think a strange and invisible attachment had been formed.

Finally, the time came. Each of them was a stranger to one another before all of this. Now they were going to be neighbours. They spoke to each other as though they were one big family – they had merged and, in their grief, bonded. I believe we all learned that day the many ways to say thank you: Through a hug, a smile, a song or a speech.

We got to hear something from Baz himself. His speech again was filled with real emotion and of course quick wit (I think he will never run out of that – he has it in spades).

Everyone, what I believe to be about 190 people, were more than happy to accept these new families into their community. Although there was a language barrier, much of what was unsaid, never needed to be spoken out loud anyway. It was all quietly and warmly understood.

The families gifted the builders with two cakes – homemade. There is just something about a homemade cake, it is always special. The time, the effort, the care. Everything comes together to say: ‘This is for you. I thought about how much you would like this, and I made this specifically for you.’ For someone to have you in mind with the best of wishes? That must be one of the nicest of ways we gift one another.

A Little Bit of Graft and Grá (Love)

Throughout this Greener Journey, there has been a focus on small changes making a big difference. With DIYSOS The Big Build Ireland, I was shown the power of that statement in action. There is plenty to be said of the power of people when we come together and decide to make something happen. So perhaps we could try to be heroes too, by just simply asking ourselves what do we want to make happen today?

I firmly believe that the world is made better with people – and along my greener journey, I had finally discovered how a little bit of hard grafting, could lead to a lot of grá. I look forward to more adventures on our journey to net zero.