Why I decided to live ‘off grid’ in West Cork

For more than 30 years, Fred Callow has enjoyed an alternative lifestyle amidst the ‘hippy’ community of West Cork. He tells CHRIS DUNNE about his book on being a ‘blow-in’ and living ‘off-grid’, his stance against consumerism, and his hopes that the next generation will take up the baton
Why I decided to live ‘off grid’ in West Cork

Fred Callow of Cool Mountain in Co Cork. Picture: Ellie O’Byrne. 

BORN in the late fifties, Fred Callow was a child of the sixties and became a teenager in the seventies.

Originally from the Isle of Man, he has been living in West Cork as part of the so-called ‘hippy’ community since 1990. His book, Blow-in: Living Off Grid In West Cork, documents his time here.

“One day, I arrived in Ireland to visit friends who had made the journey to West Cork and settled there. I enjoyed it,” says Fred.

“I returned twice to visit the people I had met on that first occasion. I was lacking direction in my life at the time and I felt so enchanted by what I found in rural County Cork that, armed with my self-belief and convictions and music, I came back in the spring of 1990 to live there.”

So he was a blow-in?

“There have always been wanderers and migrants,” says Fred. “If they settle in Co. Cork they are known as ‘blow-ins’. 

Before the 1980s, these people appeared one at a time in small family groups and integrated into the prevailing culture, becoming farmers or housewives or artists, labouring or running small businesses. They had to. That’s all there was.”

Blow-In: Living Off Grid In West Cork documents  Fred Callow's life journey and how he ended up in the West Cork community.
Blow-In: Living Off Grid In West Cork documents  Fred Callow's life journey and how he ended up in the West Cork community.

Fred joined ‘the family’.

“We recognised each other as being part of the same tribe, and indeed often referred to each other as ‘Family’ with a capital F,” says Fred.

“This family feeling united a wide range of people, mostly later teens to mid-thirties in age. What we all had in common was an ambition to avoid conventional lifestyles and a willingness to put up with minor discomfort in our search for something a little more meaningful, a kind of collective compliance. It seemed to matter. It still does.”

Fred liked life in Coolmountain’s ‘hippy’ community.

“We were now in a land of farmers and people who lived in small towns and villages, rather than those who commuted to offices and factories.”

Fred travelled light to West Cork.

“I brought little with me except £30 cash and a small Volkswagen LT I’d owned for a couple of years, containing some musical instruments, home- brew equipment, books, cassettes (remember them?), some clothing and bedding.”

Where did he go?

“I headed towards a remote cottage that had been bought by a friend from my London days. He said I could share his place until I became established,” says Fred. “I had known John in my student days and we’d both lived in London at the same time.

“Over the next few weeks, I found myself in his company quite often, getting used to routines of checking animals, gathering firewood and drawing water, cooking over an open fire in good weather or inside when it rained, on a queenie, a small cast-iron wood burner.”

Fred’s book offers vivid insights into the way of life that exists in Coolmountain, and of people living an alternative lifestyle there.

“Over the next couple of years, I met another dozen people or families living the horse-drawn life,” he says.

“None of them were from Romany or Irish traveller backgrounds; they were the equine wing of the alternative blow-in community, young men and women choosing to live a life to the rhythm of their horses.”

As Fred met more blow-ins, he found many of them were musical.

“They were up for a jam or a new song to share.”

He recounts gatherings celebrating birthdays, solstices and equinoxes, childbirth, or just dole day. “You name it,” says Fred. “Any excuse for a drink, a bit of music in good company in someone’s kitchen or the back of a truck or round the campfire.”

He met locals in neighbouring farms, shopkeepers, or when he was busking in the pub.

“Most were friendly and curious to know about me. The West Cork accent is unique and is different from other parts of the county, with a lilting inflection.

“The ‘hippy’ community were a diverse bunch of individuals, both blow-ins and Irish.”

Fred met Meg, Eth Nick, Whispering Steph, Calamity Jane, and Crazy Joe, who frequented places like the Select Bar and Hitching Post, The Wine Vaults and Brown Pub; Angel, Timmy and Jimmy, Nan Hurley, Chainsaw Jimmy, Doctor Creedon; all were part of the gang.

“I kept away from personalities in the book because I doubt I have the skill to avoid turning strong characters into caricatures of themselves in order to entertain outsiders and that wouldn’t be on at all.”

What did they all do?

“Most of us were gardeners, small- holders, basket-makers, having a little fun drinking and playing music all together on the same journey. In some ways it still feels like that,” says Fred, who went on to build his own house focusing on sustainability in Coolmountain, Dunmanway.

“We were and still are a diverse bunch of individuals with widely differing points of view and backgrounds,” says Fred. “And it felt for a while that we were all on a similar journey.

“I can’t speak for anyone else. I am only attempting to catch some of the spirit of the time and place recalling my own travels. 

"Forgive me if it turns into a self-righteous rant about the state of the world at times, but really it’s in a state of crisis and getting worse daily. 

"And that is part of why we came here. We tried for a while to avoid the worst of all that and lived through some exciting times in a unique and beautiful environment. But we did it our way. And many of us are still here, still doing the same things our own way. Most of the time.” Fred had a determination to opt out of the system and be as self-reliant as possible.

“I still ended up with one leg in the ‘straight’ world, working long hours, paying taxes, dealing with traffic congestion and eating mass-produced commercial food in restaurants and hotels. I made my compromises and am content with them.”

Where did his other leg end up?

“The other leg remains firmly on my little plot of land where I still spend half the year playing ‘hippies’, drinking clean natural water, caring for livestock, eating home-grown asparagus, planting more trees and playing musical instruments.

“It still makes sense to continue to grow some of my own food and keep draught animals, just in case. You just never know,” says Fred.

“At least my children know how to dig a garden. This could be life-saving information in their lifetimes.”

Fred finds solace in aspects of modern life.

“I take comfort from the numbers of younger people who show real concern over environmental issues, those who choose to live off-grid, to protest, to avoid behaving like consumers, to indulge in guerrilla gardening and all other ways of demonstrating non-compliance with the system. Good luck to them all. The future, if there is to be a viable one, is in their hands now.”

Fred says it was fun to live the way he and his companions lived.

“Most of my neighbours talked in terms of us and them, and they felt a personal obligation to try more reasonable and honest ways of being... if we could demonstrate a viable alternative to consumerism, then maybe in a small way we might inspire others to make a difference.

“At least we wouldn’t be guilty of adding to the load on the planet.

“Anyway, it was fun to live the way we did.”

Blow-in: Living Off-Grid In West Cork is published by West Cork-based publishing company, Sweeney and O’Donovan, €16. Available in all good book shops, Waterstones.

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