Given that our theme this month is ‘Celebration’, this feels like a good time to share the story of the oddest talk I ever gave, which took place at a celebration, and which left me with a question I have been unable to answer to this day, one that perhaps you might be able to help me out with. Sometime around 1998, I was invited to give a slide show at a wedding, thankfully not something I have been invited to do before or since.
I was living in South West Ireland, and a couple I knew were getting married at Cool Mountain, a kind of travellers community on the side of a hill near Dunmanway. Locally it was known as a mostly incomer/alternative/’hippy’/traveller community, who lived in an assortment of vans, caravans, temporary structures, but also some very interesting low impact buildings and some great people, on a hillside renowned for its high levels of rainfall.
My friends were getting married (well ‘handfasted’ actually, a kind of pagan wedding), and for some reason, I was invited to give a talk about straw bale building as part of the festivities. It’s certainly the first, and last, time I’ve been asked to give a talk about straw bale building at a wedding. I had recently been part of building the first straw bale house in Ireland, Marcus McCabe’s house in Monaghan (see photo above), and had a slide show showing most stages of the process which I have given a few times locally.
The actual ceremony had taken place in the early afternoon, to be followed by a big knees-up in the evening, and I was asked to come and speak at about 5pm. I turned up, with my slide projector, to an old farmhouse on the side of the mountain, got set up, and then people started turning up to listen.
It rapidly became clear that while about half the people had come expecting to hear me speak, the other half had arrived already expecting the party. Quite a few of them had, we might say, imbibed levels of alcohol more suitable for a party than a slide show about straw bale construction.
One guy in particular was already very drunk. He sprawled on the sofa, but still managed to fix his attention onto the talk, just about. I started by talking about the history of strawbale building before moving onto the story of the Monaghan house. We began with the foundations. I showed how they were built and the learnings from that. The guy on the sofa roused himself. “Foundations”, he just about managed to get out coherently, “foundations are what goes under the walls to carry the weight”, before slumping back again. “Thanks” I said, before moving onto walls.
It soon became clear that whatever stage of the building process I mentioned, our friend had to have an informed (ish) opinion on them. “Walls, yes, that’s what the roof sits on”, “Roof, that’s the bit that goes over the top and keeps the rain off” etc. Each time he spoke he was shooshed by everyone else, and after about 15 minutes, he proceeded to be sick all over himself and left the room.
During the talk more people arrived, the majority of whom were here clearly to party rather than listen to me. At the end of the talk, I came to the bit about how much this beautiful, circular, thatched house had cost to build. “So this family”, I told the crowded farmhouse sitting room, “built a three-bedroom house for just £30,000!”. I had given this talk many times before, and every time this fact generated an appreciative sense that that was quite something, that here, perhaps, was an affordable and technically feasible building solution at a time when conventional construction was out of the reach of many. For many people it was the high point. Not on Cool Mountain.
One guy, who had spent the talk either listening intently or was too drunk to move, it was hard to say, looked shocked at this statement, and his indignation moved him to sit upright. “Thirty grand?” he said with a tone of great disgust. “Thirty grand?? Baz built his house for a hundred quid”. History does not record what Baz lived (or perhaps even still lives) in. Quite what Baz managed to build for a hundred quid will forever be left to future generations to speculate upon. Me, I never found out. As soon as I finished, the partiers were able to finally begin partying properly, let off the leash at last. I headed home, celebrating Baz’s ingenuity, creativity, and, quite possibly, highly creative accounting.