Environmental Showdown on the Irish Coast
Photo by Andrew Beardsworth
Slide Show: The Landscape of Protest. View Andrew Beardsworth's images of Northwest Ireland.
The sprawling seaside villages around Ballinaboy in County Mayo are as close as you will find these days to the sheep-grazing greenery of postcard Ireland. In a country transformed by more than a decade of rapid and sometimes manic "Celtic Tiger" development, this community of farmers and fishermen in the country's remote northwest still resembles the Emerald Isle of popular and increasingly wistful imagination. It is a place where herds of sheep overtake cars on narrow roads, and where the "Land of 100,000 Welcomes" is more than a stale tourism slogan. It is one of the last corners of the country where Irish Gaelic is commonly spoken between neighbors.
But Ballinaboy is not the rural idyll that it appears to be. Since 2000, local residents have been fighting a pitched and sometimes bloody battle against Big Oil and the Irish government. Over the course of this conflict--fought in the streets, in the courts, and on the high seas--the township has become unlikely backdrop to scenes of wanton police brutality; barn-side protest murals of martyred Nigerians; and tall steel barrier-fences mounted with surveillance cameras, which protect one of the most controversial industrial development projects in the annals of modern Europe.
At issue is a state-backed plan by Royal Dutch Shell to exploit the deep-sea Corrib gas field, some fifty miles off Ireland's ruggedly beautiful northwest coast. Shell is now putting the final pieces in place to complete a decade-old plan to pump raw gas along the seabed and onto shore. Once reaching land at Glengad Beach, a high-pressure pipeline would carry the gas under five miles of populated farmland, roads and some of Ireland's most pristine wilderness. The pipeline would terminate at a (nearly completed) Ballinaboy terminal, built on a once-protected peat bog and forest, under which lies a catchment for Carrowmore Lake, the local water supply. Heavy-metals waste from the refinery would track back along the pipe route to discharge into nearby Broadhaven Bay, frequented by whales and dolphins as well as local surfers and fishermen.
"My ancestors built this farmland out of the wild bog, and my family will protect it with everything we have," says Willie Corduff, a subsistence farmer who was imprisoned for ninety-four days in 2005 for disobeying a court order to allow Shell engineers onto his land. "Our compromise offer is to let Shell process the gas at an offshore platform. They are wise to take it."
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The origins of the controversy date to 1996, when the British firm Enterprise Oil, subsumed by Shell in 2002, discovered the Corrib gas field and purchased the development rights. As early as 1999, Ballinaboy was identified as a site for the pipeline and refinery, but residents did not hear of the plans for more than a year. It was then that reports popped up in local newspapers and oil company officials began visiting local pubs and buying rounds of Guinness. The pipeline and refinery, said the oil company reps, would boost the local economy and have negligible environmental impact. They assured concerned locals that the gas pipeline would be just like a water pipe--out of sight, out of mind, and harmless. But the more residents investigated the impact and dangers of the refinery and raw-gas pipeline, the more angry and frightened they became.
Locals were immediately struck by how little the oil company understood the local environment. Much of the land in north County Mayo is comprised of unstable peat bog, which in spots is the consistency of mashed potatoes; the original onshore pipeline route ran past a hillside cemetery prone to landslides. Although the company agreed to alter the route, serious safety and environmental concerns remain: a high-pressure pipeline prone to rupture; the disruption and pollution of delicate marine and land ecosystems, and air pollution from the refinery.
"The original route they had sketched out showed they viewed this community as a blank slate," says Maura Harrington, a retired local schoolteacher and community activist who went on a ten-day hunger strike last September to protest Shell's first (and failed) attempt to begin laying the pipeline along the seabed. "The government told the oil companies that we were a bunch of Neanderthals who'd swallow anything we were told, grateful for any kind of development. This corner of Ireland has been neglected for centuries, and they thought they'd dump this monstrosity on us. They received a shock when we fought back."
On March 11, Harrington was sentenced to twenty-eight days in prison for slapping a police officer after a tense day of protest. In a Stalinist touch, the county judge ordered Harrington to undergo a state psychiatric assessment.
But if Harrington is insane, so may be most of Ireland. According to an admittedly unscientific Irish Times online poll, 84 percent of respondents were critical of the project. Among them is Betty Schult, owner of the Kilcommon Lodge, a local bed and breakfast. "Our greatest asset is the natural beauty of this place," she says. "The area is known for having the cleanest air and water in Ireland. They are putting everything at risk. And for what?"