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.”