SOPHIE GRENHAM meets PATRICK JACKSON the man on a mission to CLEAN OUR COASTLINES …
While very adamant that he’s not some sort of green guru, writer Patrick Jackson is the caped eco-crusader we’ve all been waiting for. Thanks to his combined passion for education and the environment, and the use of unique, vibrant visual aids to connect with his audience, his efforts have made a positive local impact. It was during a walk on the East Pier in his hometown of Howth, Co Dublin that Jackson had his ecological awakening, where he found a distressed seagull tangled up in fishing line. He quickly enlisted staff from the King Sitric restaurant to help cut it loose. The ungrateful creature drew blood with a parting peck as it flew away.
Soon after that painful incident, Jackson stumbled across a stray litter picker-upper. He instinctively began collecting pieces of trash as he strolled, not realising how this action would change his life. This was the first of hundreds of picking expeditions along the shore, with his collection of interesting findings growing increasingly exotic over the years. To date, he has pulled in rakes of severed dolls’ heads, dog toys, pieces of rope, weights, buoys, bracelets, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and balloons, spades, fishing debris, lobster claws, 1990s phone covers, and even an abusive message in a bottle. Some of his more obscure finds include palm nuts from Central America and three ferry tickets rolled up in a Coca-Cola bottle that floated over from western Greenland. Quite literally, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Every day, the wilful wanderer picks his away along the rugged shores, with particular focus on the smaller rocky beaches of Howth and Doldrum Bay, collecting items to either dispose of responsibly or keep for show-and-tell. Last year, Jackson took his unusual hobby to the next level, when he began stitching his curiosities onto a plain white curtain, to showcase just what we’re putting in the water. This ongoing project, The Cloak of Howth, is a colourful explosion that’s part educational tool, part art installation and part archive. Knowledge of its existence is gradually spreading. So far, The Cloak of Howth has been unveiled in every class at the three local primary schools, but it’s a dream of Jackson’s to travel beyond the confines of the Howth Peninsula with his magical apparel.
‘I enjoy going into schools, meeting teachers, going into classrooms. You feel like you’re doing something worthwhile and the kids’ response to the sight of their teacher wearing the cloak is very powerful and a lot of fun,’ Jackson says, proudly. ‘Because the cloak is strange, it’s more memorable. One’s education is made up of a lot of things, and how you end up thinking is based on a lot of different inputs. Visitors to schools are really important, because they’re out of the ordinary routine. I can remember three or four speakers who came to our school all those years ago, better than some of the teachers. Schools opening to visitors is good for the kids and good for the teachers, who get a bit of a break. The event refreshes the class – it’s good for everyone. We’ve done five or six community beach cleans, but the one that was the biggest success was with the sixth class of the Burrow National School in Sutton. Three hundred people came that day and we got two truckloads of rubbish out of Sutton Creek. That all came through making a connection with the young people in the community.’
When he’s not treading the sand or parading his multicoloured mantle, Jackson (51) is a bestselling author of English language teaching children’s stories and textbooks, which are published by Oxford University Press. An English language teacher by trade, the free-spirited writer has devoted most of his adult life to making language learning an enjoyable, interactive experience for all involved. Some of his own schooling was spent at Marlborough College in England, before studying at Oxford University. A year into his course, he ran off to Pakistan where he spent a couple of years trying to find himself and getting further lost in the process. He then came back to Europe, where he tried his hand as a prawn fisherman and pillow salesman. Needless to say, neither occupation stuck. In the end, he graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a BA in English Literature while working at Mr Pussy’s late-night restaurant, owned by U2. It’s abundantly clear from the beginning that Jackson was destined to be his own boss.
In 1997, after a year of running his own late-night restaurant called August, Jackson moved with his wife Yuko to her native Toyota City, Japan, where he taught English to school children. By a stroke of luck, he published his own series of storybooks and songs called Potato Pals (2006), which are basically about children in potato form doing everyday things. The charming volumes are now used all over the world. Jackson isn’t actually sure precisely how many countries his books are sold in, but it’s a very good sign that he’s lost count. He eventually progressed to more advanced work with the comprehensive Everybody Up (2011) and Shine On (2016) textbooks for primary students. More recently, he has authored a series of environmental readers including one where seagulls decide to clean up a littered beach themselves, and another where a family of cats learn the hard way about the dangers of overfishing.
After over a decade in Japan, Jackson returned to Ireland with his wife and young children, and moved into his family home with a glorious view of Dublin Bay. There’s almost different air up here, with antique rose bushes lining a healthy green garden, despite the recent drought. At the moment, Jackson’s days are a combination of writing, working as Head of Content for e-learning company KnowHowDo and facilitating foreign students on study abroad programmes – and of course, his environmentalism. He fully acknowledges his advantages as a self-employed person with an enviable seaside address and the privilege it affords – an easy connection with nature – something that a lot of people stuck inside all day or living in the city can miss out on.
‘If you don’t have time, because you’re so busy working to pay your bills, it can be easy to lose touch with nature,’ he says, regretfully. ‘I’ve learned a lot about sea life through picking up litter. That means when you see sewage being poured into the sea by Irish Water, on top of a place where there are seals and curlews, oyster-catchers and heron – that makes you angry. We need people to have more time to be out and about and create a meaningful relationship with the environment. As you go through Dublin Airport you see dozens of pictures of beautiful Ireland, beautiful nature, beautiful coasts – it’s a double standard. If we love and appreciate nature so much, then we shouldn’t contravene EU regulations on emissions and agriculture and coastal cleanliness. It just makes the whole country a hypocrite.’
Jackson believes a litter picker-upper should be as important an item to bring on your walk as your house keys. However, it’s evident that a junk-laden beach isn’t the only issue weighing on his mind. He informs me that thousands of gallons of raw sewage are being pumped into the sea every day through an illegal outfall at nearby Doldrum Bay, a situation that’s detrimental to our health and safety. ‘There are people swimming within a hundred yards,’ he says, growing incensed. ‘Fingal County Council and Irish Water have been in breach of their responsibilities. I’ve been part of a group campaigning about this for years, writing letters, doing petitions and using social media. There are lots of people who are outraged and this is going on all over Ireland. There are much bigger wastewater violations than Doldrum Bay, but this is near to where I live and in direct contravention of Irish Water’s own commitments. It’s in direct contravention of EU law, it’s in Howth’s Special Amenity Area, it’s in the Dublin Bay UNESCO Biosphere. It’s something they promised to fix by 2011 and they didn’t – and they’re still faffing around. Doldrum Bay is something I feel very strongly about and I’m dying for the day that it’s sorted.’
Until the ongoing sewage problem is resolved, what would Jackson like to achieve? He is working on a new project at the moment that he says is going to bring his various passions together. Picker Pals, to be launched this autumn, will combine storytelling, litter picking, social media and junior environmental activism. Jackson’s message is simple: get out there and start picking, as this gesture is not just good for the coastline – it’s great for the soul.
‘Get a litter picker-upper and get to work in your local area. It will change your life,’ Jackson says, smiling broadly. ‘You’ll have a great time, meet great people and then, mysteriously, great things will start to happen. You can get picker-uppers in any hardware store or online. If you want the Rolls Royce, go to The Helping Hand Environmental Company – they’re beautiful!’
Jackson is a keen participant in An Taisce’s Clean Coasts, Seastainibility and the annual Coastwatch Survey, all of which he recommends to people as ways of getting involved.
‘Every time you go for a walk on the beach, you’re taking from nature. You’re receiving a share, you’re getting beauty, you’re learning, you’re getting exercise, you’re getting lots of things. You have to balance that by giving back to nature and the environment, by leaving it better than when you found it.’
Photographs by Eoin Rafferty
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