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All over the world there are seed saving organisations, each doing its part in safeguarding the seeds which have been grown by farmers and gardeners for decades or even centuries. Ireland has its own seed saving organisation, The Irish Seed Savers Association (ISSA), a non-profit making company set up by Anita Hayes in 1991. It now has over 400 members in Northern Ireland and the Republic, a membership which is growing rapidly. People don't like to see the vegetables from their childhood (or their grandparents' childhood) dying out, a fact which has been borne out by the incredible interest and generosity of people from all over Ireland who have provided the ISSA with seeds and information.
The ISSA exists to cultivate our heritage seeds, distributing these seeds to members of the Association and teaching people how to regain the knowledge of past generations, saving seeds for the future. This ensures genetic diversity and the preservation of potentially valuable genetic characteristics such as disease resistance. Reliance on an ever-decreasing genetic base with less and less variety available can only increase the chances of the failure of an entire crop. The consequences of such a disaster, particularly on a poor rural population, are only too well known in Ireland.
So there are heritage vegetables flourishing in the ISSA gardens. But it's not only vegetables. A major project is underway whose aim is to resurrect the native Irish apple . Ireland used to be famous for its apples, renowned for their tremendous disease resistance and enormous diversity of flavours. There were cookers and eaters ripening at different times, some good for keeping, others best straight from the tree, sun-warmed and delicious.
Many of them nearly died out. English trees became fashionable at the turn of the century, the native trees surviving mainly in the old gardens of rural Ireland. The Ballyvaughan Pippin was one such, discovered in West Clare. The Red Brandy was another, the last tree of its kind still growing and producing apples in Kilkenny. Both of these apple trees can now be found in the orchard planted by Anita and Tommy Hayes, the foundation of a nursery which this year offered nearly forty varieties of native Irish apple. These are the mother trees from which cuttings are taken and grafted, ensuring the survival and dispersal of the old Irish apples.
Up until now the ISSA has been based in Anita's own garden. Her few acres at Capparoe near Scariff contain a Heritage Garden filled with old varieties, with plants which flourish or which are being tested for their viability in the wet and windy West of Ireland. Come there in the late summer and you will see vegetables as you've never seen them before. Six foot parsnip plants, giant pumpkins, lettuces totally unfit to eat. They have all gone to seed and in the past would have been transferred to Anita's kitchen. There they would hang to finish drying, suspended on hooks above the range. Cooking became a hazardous activity as onion flowers tickled your neck and the odd bit of brassica fell into the soup.
However this year the kitchen will be oddly empty. A new drying room is planned, all part of the essential expansion of the ISSAs activities. No longer can Anita's kitchen and garden take the strain of growing out all these varieties, packing them up and sending them out to members. A FAS scheme has started to expand the garden, an office is about to be equipped to deal with all the administration, Leader II money has been granted for major purchases. However, the Leader II money has to be matched (they pay 70%, ISSA pays 30%) and land has to be bought. The ISSA is buying a piece of land from Anita and Tommy Hayes to put the whole thing on a more formal basis and to take the pressure off the Hayes family. They are selling it for less than it is worth, but we still have to raise £20,000. It's a trying time for everyone involved in the ISSA, but with the help of ordinary people our vegetables, trees and flowers can be safeguarded for future generations.