Some people choose a life of subsistence; for others, it chooses them. This is an example of the latter with a smattering of history, economics, and sociology in there as well. I really enjoy how richly authentic this is written.

Not home educating my children used to feel like the greatest sacrifice I made when moving here.  It was too important to Johnny and me that the children learn to read, speak and write the Irish language as well as possible, and that education was best provided while at school.  I am no longer of that sacrificial feeling, no regrets at all.  They have a wonderful school and all have excellent Irish.  But whenever the subject comes up, I can’t help but wonder what might have been.

Originally posted on Life on the Mill Road:


The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsistence as follows:

– 1. The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself, especially at a minimal level:
the minimum income needed for subsistence

– 2. Denoting or relating to production at a level sufficient only for one’s own use or consumption, without any surplus for trade:
subsistence agriculture

I grew up in a concrete 1950s house in a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants . My childhood spanned the 1950s. I married a man from the countryside near our town. he had grown up on a farm in the 1940s and 50s, and then spent 14 years in the United States. We lived in his family home. From the start, we both liked cattle, and we kept hens. When we had children, they were breastfed at the start. As soon as they needed other food, I began to think about what to feed them, where it came from, was it the best I could get?

We began to keep pigs off and on, for meat and to sell; and goats for the milk.We taught ourselves by trial and error and reading, and talking to people who know, how to grow vegetables. Eventually we were producing a lot of the food for our family.


My husband was very good at making and mending things, home improvements. He could do basic plumbing and electricity, and he could figure out most stuff he didn’t know. So he built many things in our house, to suit our changing needs as our family grew; and he built many sheds, pens, coops etc for the various animals and purposes. We enjoyed producing for our own needs; our children, who were unschooled for the most part, helped out according to their age and abilities, and learned in the process. Family and friends were generous. They sent us large amounts of clothes, books, furniture etc etc that they didn’t need anymore. We were also given many things taken out of buildings that were being renovated – windows, doors and so on. These were up cycled to make sheds and a conservatory.

People were always saying that we were”Self-sufficient”. Well, we were not. Nobody is self-sufficient if they own a car, and we generally did. However, John Seymour’s book “The Complete Book of Self- Sufficiency” was probably the most consulted of the many books in our house.

I could not understand why I wanted to do all this stuff though. And if I couldn’t understand where this came from, our families and friends were quite baffled, and not a little unsettled by it all. But they were tolerant enough, and we persisted.


Eventually I was lucky enough to attend a conversation with Ivan Illich, through the goodness of my friends Dara Molloy and Tess Harper, who lived on Inis Mor. I had already read “Deschooling Society”; I read a lot of his other work as a preparation for the conversation. ivan’s work explained to me a lot of the underlying currents in my life. I am apparently one of many people who are a remnant, a distant memory, Cuimhne – of pre-industrial society. Subsistence was the norm then. But the Industrial era, the era of the dominance of economics and science, is ending before our very eyes. Some people have tried to keep part of their living in the realm of subsistence, while living in the industrial age. They have tried to keep skills alive, to resist commodification, to preserve and rebuild social ties and community, which have been seriously eroded by the industrial way of living. (This social damage is well documented in Karl Polanyis book “The Great Transformation”. ) In addition, pre-industrial people had access to the commons – water, woodland, wild places, to augment their subsistence. However, since the beginning of the industrial era, there has been a strong impetus from the industrial lobby to enclose the commons, to take it away from people and to commodify it – turn it into goods and services that can be bought and sold for profit, and whose monetary value can be gambled on in stock markets. In our era, the modern extensions of the commons – the airwaves for instance, the “information commons” etc have also been encroached on by regulation and commodification. Modern subsistence people are resisting this impulse with initiatives like open-source electronics, co-operatives for benefit not profit, the Peer-2-Peer Initiative and the like.


In my economic geography book at school, in the 1970s, subsistence farmers were patronised, referred to as the wretched of the earth. But I have found in my living that subsistence is hugely empowering. To provide for ones basic needs – food, shelter, entertainment; to dwell in a house; to give birth at home, and mostly educate  ones own children, make for fulfilment and conviviality.

But subsistence living is not amenable to mass rule. it is not taxable. Yet it is economics at the most basic level. however, conventional economics only recognises one value – money and profit; and the market in this mode becomes the ruler, not an adjunct to living.

IMG_1563Vegetable garden 1994


    • As she states, modern subsistence has more supports via cooperatives and various initiatives that bring the like-minded together. It would take a different commitment to live in such a hermetic environment these days. Complete and total immersion would be too much for us as well.



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