John Seymour – Godfather of self sufficency

We celebrated the Waterford Harvest Festival recently which had a significant input from the local Grow it Yourself GIY project.  Its a philosophy that I have subscribed to with my wife Deena for many years, and I have my grandmothers generation to thank for that.  But another influence was John Seymour (1914-2004) who has been called the “Godfather of Self Sufficiency” and was the author of the “Bible of Self Sufficiency”.  What many apparently didn’t know, was that he lived locally here in the harbour.

A one man rowed prong on Ryans Shore 

My first introduction to John was as a teenager standing on Cheekpoint Quay with my Father in autumn time.  We stood watching as a Prong approached from Great Island.  It was skillfully handled and because of such expertise, it gracefully entered the harbour in the village.  My father went forward to take the bow line, which was thrown from out of the Prong, and up onto the quay popped an older man, but how old I could not guess. He had a craggy face, tufty white hair with a flat cap covering a balded dome and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“How are you Bob?” was his first words, and although he nodded towards me by way of a hello, he paid no interest in me but continued a wide ranging chat with my father on his spuds, the weather, local fishing and international shipping.  I always marveled at my fathers ability to match anyone for discussion on a topic.

Seymour in later years

Born in England into a wealthy family he got a first class education but “turned his back on it” in favor of agriculture.  At 20 he emigrated to Africa where he tried his hand at various ventures and served in WWII. He returned to England after the war, but was said to be appalled at how farming was becoming an industrial process and he rebelled against it, turning to writing and journalism to give voice to his opinions.  He started a family in the mid fifties and to sustain them, he set up farming again, but on his own terms and under the principals he held dear.  The concepts he espoused were articulated in over 40 books during his lifetime, but I think he is probably best known for his book “The Complete book of Self Sufficency” and here’s a you tube review.  It’s claimed the book was an influence for the 70’s BBC comedy series called “The good life”

It was the first book of his that I read, and I’ve read a few since.  (A full list here) If I was to try and capture the essence of what he had to say it was probably that you need to live in harmony with nature, and turn it to being your ally in the way you work.  Something that is as true for fishing as it is for farming. There were some concepts that I didn’t like, for example he seemed to take a hard line with children in the garden, no messing about, which I would find to be essential.  But even if you didn’t like the concept, or the have any interest in the practices, the book itself is remarkable for the images and drawings used, and for capturing a way of life that is now almost extinct.

John came to Kilowen, on the River Barrow (which is just above Great Island on the Wexford side) in 1981 and there he set up another smallholding from where he ran courses and basically lived the good life.  He continued to write and make appearances (for example Michael Bance from Woodstwon did a number of pieces with him for Nationwide).  But he is perhaps best known at this time for his court appearance with the “Arthurstown Seven”

In 1999, in a direct action response to the growing of genetically modified sugar beet in Wexford, John led a protest against a Monsanto product being trialed in fields near to his home.  It was the first of a number of actions.  When challenged in court he shrugged his shoulders, tilted his head and quipped – “t’was the fairy’s your honour”.  Somehow, I don’t think I’d get away with that defense.

My knowledge of him, his books and the events with Monsanto was yet to come.  As we walked to the top of the quay, Seymour headed towards the Suir Inn for a pint and I think he was disappointed we couldn’t join him.  Once alone I asked my father the inevitable question, to which my father simply replied “a Brit living the good life”.  On further prying they had met whilst sinking a weir up the Barrow and Seymour had rowed across to ask about the process.  Walking home that evening what I had yet to realise was that by Seymours terms, we were already living the good life.  In many ways including growing our own potatoes and veg, catching and eating our own fish, able to freely gather driftwood to keep the home fires burning.

I would come to live through times that would see that all turned on its head.  When as a country we would know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  I can only speculate that Seymore came here because he could sense that the life he thought possible, still existed in Waterford harbour.  In fighting Monsanto he showed his resolve to try and protect his adopted country.  Too bad, those who were born and reared here could not have done likewise.

If you have yet to read Seymour here’s a lovely flavor of his work, titled the Age of Healing

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