Monday, February 18, 2013

Co. Mayo: Conflict of the Shell Corrib Gas Project

Almost everyone I talked to in Dublin described Mayo as “wild country.” Being close to the coast and subject to any storm that crosses the Atlantic, the weather can be volatile. We were lucky and only experienced a bit a rain during our visit. The main purpose of going to Mayo was to study the conflict brought on by the pipeline project implemented by Shell Oil Company. Before I came to Ireland, I was completely oblivious to this issue, which is unbelievable to look back upon now that I’ve seen the land, met some people involved, and heard their stories.

During the past week, I have been on a rollercoaster ride of emotions listening to history, “facts”, personal testimonies, walking the land, talking with Shell representatives, touring the construction sites, and being physically present in an area that will be a place of unrest for many years to come.

The parish we stayed in is called Kilcommon, a predominantly rural and isolated area located on the Erris peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. The controversial Corrib gas field is located 80 kilometers off the coast. The pipeline has been laid offshore from the wells to Glengad. Shell plans to run the pipe from Glengad, beneath Sruwaddacon Bay, to the onshore refinery at Bellanaboy Bridge. The construction directly affects the Kilcommon parish community, but also impacts those who live outside the construction area.

Hostel we stayed in owned by Betty 

Beauty of the Bay
During our first full day in the area, Simon Sweeney, an environmentalist with a special interest in marine life, took us on a walking tour along the coast of Broadhaven Bay. Simon’s respect and knowledge for the land radiated through his descriptions about the many ways in which the locals interact with the land including the use of vegetation found in the bog and on the shore or special sheep grazing tactics. He also told us stories about the delicate balance that must be maintained in order to preserve the fragile area. Broadhaven and Sruwaddacon Bays have been declared Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) by the European Union in order to protect birds, fish, and reefs that can be found just off the coast.

Hike with Simon

Sphagnum moss found in bogs was used during WWI
in place of gauze

Sheep, sheep, and more sheep.

The communities that make up northern Mayo, like many other rural communities throughout the country, are rich in history and heritage. Some families have been in the same community for generations, while others are relatively new. Regardless of how long they have lived in the area, many people we spoke to expressed the feeling of having deep ties to the land. Farmer Willie Corduff was quoted as saying, “I was born and reared on this farm. It’s memories that are making us do what we are doing…They’re the memories you have and the memories you have to keep. To see someone coming in now and trying to destroy it, as Shell is doing, it kills you. Our footsteps are around the place since we were able to walk.” Willie was one of the Rossport 5, a group of men who went to prison for defying a court order which permitted Shell to work on their land. The motivation behind their protest goes much deeper than property rights: it cuts to the core and deals with the ideas of identity and heritage.

Green fence and yellow backhoes in the distance mark
site landfall site

Overlooking the bay where the pipeline runs

One of our lecturers, author Michael McCaughan notes, “This is a community which takes pride in mapping out local place names and restoring gravestones, maintaining a connection between past, present, and future.” In an area possessing so many layers of history, it is impossible to unravel the past from present day. We spoke with retired school teacher Micheál (pronounced: Mee-hawl) O’Seighin and he noted that the echos of the past are important for daily life. The presence of the past can be physical, with ancient ruins dotting the landscape or gravestones placed a few years ago. But the past is also present in the retelling of stories and in the mindset of the people and is often awakened in times of struggle. Michael is a soft-spoken former teacher who was one of the Rossport 5 and spent 94 days in jail. Remarkably, he didn’t own any land affected by the pipeline, but he told us he went to jail because for him it was the completely logical and rational thing to do. Michael is not a radical, tree-hugging, granola-eating hippie (I know at some point reading this you thought about it…). He is a man who has strong ties to his family, the land, and has a deep sense of place.  

To the people living near the Shell project, the structures of society (police, judical system, government representatives) which ideally were created to protect their rights could no longer be trusted. Betty Schultz, a resident of Kilcommon wrote, “My elected representative lies straight to my face...I experience hostile response from all authorities. I witness the judge in court not batting an eyelid when listening to blatant purjury by the police.” Micheál pointed out that with the threat of the Shell project and the failure of the legal system to protect their rights, arose the feeling: “The only thing we could depend on was what stood the test of time before.” 

At the dock area. The fishing industry was
hit hard by the pipeline project

Protesting sign on a building in the middle of a field
Some people we spoke with believed that out of this conflict arose a newfound sense of unity within the community. In the initial stages of the project, many came out in protest, spent time discussing the project with neighbors, and participated in community forums. One could argue that this conflict has pulled Mayo into a much more global community with a concern for social justice and environmental protection. The creation of the solidarity camp is a perfect example of this global community. The camp is currently composed of people from Ireland, England, France, and Germany and has housed people from an even more diverse list of countries in recent years. Each individual comes to the camp for different reasons, but their purpose is to unite with the local community and work with them to make their voices heard. Kate, a longtime member of the solidarity camp told us that people throughout Ireland and the world have contacted local residents in search of advice in creating protest campaigns. Mayo has become an example (whether it be good or bad) for the world to reflect on.

I am a firm believer in the idea that in order to truly understand a place, you must spend time there. But after many experiences both home and abroad, I have found that sometimes understanding cannot be reached until you have removed yourself from the environment. This has been the case with my trip to Mayo. Now that I have had the chance to reflect, I realize that I have taken so much away from our short time in Mayo in terms of environmentalism, social justice, and conflict studies: all of which I hope to apply in other areas throughout the program, especially as I prepare to depart for Northern Ireland,  as well as in other areas of my life. In a written piece by our friend Betty, she identifies Shell’s presence within the community as occupation, which I believe to be a fitting description when I think of historical parallels. My first thought went to the occupation of France during World War II and the introduction of the Vichy regime. It is hard to believe that I am attempting to compare WWII to a small rural town on the coast of Ireland, but the two conflicts do share uncannily similar themes of confusion, lack of authority, collaboration, resistance, feelings of defeat, and a strong sense of memory. Northern Mayo may be a small area with a small conflict, but to the people in the midst of it all, it is a continuous battle and it is anything but insignificant. I believe Patrick Kavanagh captures this sentiment best in the last line of his poem titled Epic:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided, who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul!"

And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen

Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -

"Here is the march along these iron stones."

That was the year of the Munich bother.
Was more important? I inclined

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.

He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row.
Gods make their own importance. 

More information on the Shell project in Mayo:

Video produced by Shell provides the corporate perspective.

Documentary The Pipe uses real footage from protest and town meetings combined with interviews to depict the feelings of residents living near the pipeline project. If your interested, it's definitely worth a watch.

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