Dr Alma Clavin and Professor Teresa Dillon. Photo by Paul Moore.

‘Repairing things good for the planet and good for the soul’

Two Kilbeggan natives are spearheading a new project to encourage people to fix their possessions when they break instead of dumping them.

Teresa Dillon, Professor of City Futures, School of Art and Design, University of West England, and Dr Alma Clavin from UCD’s School of Geography, are the people behind Repair Acts Ireland, a project funded by the Creative Climate Action Fund and Westmeath County Council that aims to get people to think more about fixing repairable objects, which in turn will reduce the amount of waste they generate.

In an interview with the Westmeath Examiner, Professor Dillon said that the year-long project looks at how we can foster a more vibrant repair culture in Westmeath and elsewhere.

A repair culture is “an intersection of the things that we own, how they’re made and how we can fix them”, Prof Dillon explains.

“How do we get to fix them? What’s our right to repair? What are the relationships with professionals who are around in our locality who can repair things? How does that link then to the standards that govern those repair rights, and the values that underlie all of that as well...”

Since February Prof Dillon and Dr Clavin have held a number of ‘storytelling and declaration’ workshops, where people spoke about items that they had repaired and shared their memories of how things were repaired in the past.

As part of the multi-disciplinary project, the Repair Acts team have also been researching the history of Westmeath’s repair economy and how that has changed over the decades.

Prof Dillon says that while the number of repair businesses operating locally have remained the same over the last 50 years, the types of repair services available have “radically” changed .

“At the moment, mechanical repairs, and building construction, dominate the types of repair that you get in Westmeath to the demise of clothing or bike repair, or the traditional artisan skills of blacksmithing, or thatching, even stone masonry.”

Historically speaking, these changes have occurred relatively recently.

“You only have to go back to the ‘70s even, and you see a much more diverse type of repair economy in the area… and therefore a deeper relationship with the things that you own and the things that you mend,” Prof Dillon says.

Dr Clavin noted that research carried out on the Dúchas digitised collection of primary school students’ exercise books from the 1930 shows that at that time “repair was definitely a part of everyday life”.

“People just repaired things, it was embedded in the culture,” she said.

As the consumer age moved into overdrive in the second half of the last century, most industrial scale manufacturers introduced what Dillon describes as “radical forms of planned obsolescence”, which has led to the throwaway culture that is responsible for a significant amount of the environmental problems that humanity faces today.

In recent years, activist-led initiatives such as the Right to Repair movement, which in Europe led to the introduction of Right to Repair legislation last year, have been working hard to redress this imbalance.

The Repairs Act team has been crowd-sourcing statements from across Ireland to build Ireland’s first Repair Declaration, which will be launched as part International Repair Day on October 15.

Prof Dillon says that if people have access to more types of repair, it may change their consumption habits.

“... If you know that you can buy it and you can mend it down the road, the chances are, you might think about what you’re buying in the first place,” she says.

Another cornerstone of Repair Acts is the collection of an archive of everyday objects that people across the country have repaired. Through the project website (repairacts.ie) people can upload images of objects they have repaired (clothing, furniture, farm machinery, toys) and tag them with information about the repair, including their motivations and reason for the repair.

The benefits of repairing something you own are far greater than not having to fork out cash for a replacement. That became clear when people told their own repair stories at the different workshops across the county, Dr Clavin says.

“We asked people to bring an object that they repaired or failed to repair. You learn about the emotion associated with the object, but also the sense of achievement and self efficacy that you can get from repairing.

“You feel like you’ve save money, you feel like you’ve achieved something. There’s just numerous dimensions of wellbeing that are achieved through repairing something, both individually and collectively. That has come very clearly in our workshops.

“...Not everybody brings an object, but everybody is willing to talk about something they’ve repaired, it quite often takes them a little while to remember what they have repaired or something they’ve had repaired professionally. But they do get to it eventually and they do like those conversations. People want to talk about repair.”

Dillon says that in the last three or four years she has seen a “sea change” in people’s attitudes when it comes to “repair and healing”.

These changes are coming at a time, however, when in many parts of the country there is a shortage of tradespeople to carry out repairs. Traditional artisan trade skills, such as stone masonry and thatching, which are needed to preserve our built heritage, are also in short supply as many of the their elderly practitioners hang up their tool belts. Prof Dillon says that these developments throw a spotlight on the educational system.

“What are the educational tropes we are valuing? In a way there’s been a massive emphasis on digital skills, digital learning, getting a university education, while there skills are skills we need for a green transition, for a just transition, for a sustainable ecological society.

“To exist we need people to be able to repair things and we need people to be able maintain and keep our built heritage, as well as the associated trades.”

Despite the precarious position that humanity finds itself in, Prof Dillon says that she sees the act of repair as “both celebratory and hopeful” and an integral part of creating a more sustainable future, the benefits of which can be both external and internal.

“If you don’t feel confident about darning a sock or fixing a drain or something like that, there are ways to get into it that help build those confidences.

“There is an awful lot of evidence that shows that when someone slows down time and when they darn or create something themselves, they go into a meditative state. Their brainwaves relax. There are a lot of other benefits that are part of that.”

‘I have fallen in love again with Westmeath’

The Repair Acts project culminates with a varied four-day programme of events in Prof Dillon and Dr Clavin’s home village of Kilbeggan in November.

One of the highlights of the programme is sure to be the première in St James’s Hall on Friday November 4 of a new documentary, Turning the Collar, which on the Repair Acts website is described as “our love story to professional repair practices from across Westmeath”.

On the Saturday and Sunday, there will also a village fête style event featuring many of the groups and repair specialists that have participated in the project. There will also be a “mobile exhibition” throughout various locations in the village.

Prof Dillon, who is curating the four-day programme, says that the “very rich industrial heritage” of Kilbeggan makes it ideal to host the event.

Sustainability expert Dr Clavin says that the Westmeath population breakdown of 50 per cent urban and 50 per cent rural, also makes it an attractive location for a project like this, which she says creates a “hopeful, positive pathway to climate action”.

Hosting the conclusion of the project in their home village is significant for another reason also, Dr Clavin says.

“Teresa and I grew up in the town centre when there was loads of kids living in the middle of that town, and now there are fewer. It’s really nice to activate the town centre and that’s also a debate that’s happening nationally, [about] a different type of repair.”

Prof Dillon says that Repair Acts has helped her reconnect with her home county.

“I would say that the opportunity to work on your local patch, it’s very deep, you really feel it. I have fallen in love with Westmeath again. I can totally say that from not having lived here since I was a child, really. So it’s been beautiful to go across to Fore and Multyfarnham and Glasson, and to talk and meet people and feel the unique character of so many people here and the place as well.”