The Silence in County Mayo
“YOU CAN HEAR THE SILENCE IN MAYO,” the woman driving the car tells me. I’m hitch-hiking up the South-West coast of Ireland. County Mayo is still far away, still a legend in my mind. Over the years I’ve read occasional reports, seen documentaries, overheard snippets of conversation from those who have spent time in the tiny, now infamous village of Rossport and its neighbouring communities. What possessed this particular lift — a late-thirties woman with pepperings of black through her silver hair — to impart her own impression of Ireland’s most forgotten corner, I’ll never know.
It would be another week before I would hear that silence for myself, hitching up from a weekend in Galway, past Westport and on up the N59, which becomes less like a national main road and more like a country lane the further north I venture. There isn’t a soul now in Ireland who has never heard of Rossport, but most think of the struggle there as something in the distant past.
I mention it casually to a few of my lifts, testing the water. The first time I strike lucky; the red-headed woman with her little girl in the back not only knows about the place, she locked herself to machinery there some years previous. A later lift has a more subdued view: “I don’t know what they’re complaining about. Ireland needs that gas, like.”
As I get closer, people just know where I’m going. Now it seems those supporting the campaign will always stop, whereas Shell workers and supporters drive by fast and stony-faced. This appears to be a community where battle-lines are clearly drawn.
Just a local campaign
I arrive in the passenger seat of a grey-blue van with a man named John, a local. He drives me right up to the camp at the edge of Pullathomas village. The sky is a brazen blue; sheep ‘baah’ in the neighbouring field. The Rossport Solidarity Camp looks something akin to a long, thin allotment patch. Wooden pallets trail a path through squelchy grass, past two DIY wind turbines and a washing-line hung with assorted clothes, to a compost toilet and bender structures draped in heavy green tarpaulin.
The largest structure, closest the road, is a small octagonal wooden house known simply as “the roundhouse.” This is the communal structure, serving as kitchen, lounge, and guest sleeping-space. There are armchairs, a sofa, and a mezzanine with roll-mats and duvets. There is also a kitchen sink with a working tap, a gas stove, and plug sockets wired up to the wind turbines outside.
“Hey there, you must be Jo. You’ve come in time for dinner!” The girl grins at me, stirring a huge pot of pasta. I’m hyper-active from a day of hitching and happy to have something to fill my belly. Between mouthfuls of pasta and lentils I’m chattering away non-stop. I want to know everyone’s names, how long they’ve been here and get up-to-date on the campaign, all at the same time.
This is the latest of nine consecutive camp spaces, including fields and rented houses, that have been set up and taken down since 2005. The original camp was in Rossport, hence the name. It’s due to move yet again, however, since the owner of this patch of land needs his field back for grazing sheep. A chirpy older man named Gerry is offering his field for the next incarnation, a five minute walk away. This means dismantling all the structures and reassembling them there.
“It wasn’t Shell at first,” a camper named Alex tells me, “it was Enterprise Oil. They came in 2001 to start telling people, ‘we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that and blah-blah-blah.’ People started looking into the project more and asking questions, having issues with it — mostly raising it through legal means, but even as early as 2002 people were sitting in diggers and stuff — and that was just a local campaign, nobody had heard of it before that.”
“I think the first thing was blocking the roads,” says a guy called Ben, continuing the story. “They were driving trucks into the Ross Port to dig some holes to do ground surveys and that sort of thing — to see if it was viable to lay a pipe over there. But it’s a really narrow road, so people just started parking their cars on it so that the trucks couldn’t get past, but other traffic could. That’s when the Guarda started getting involved.”
“And then in 2005,” another camper adds, “not long before the Rossport Five went into prison, they did a national call-out. When the Rossport Five went into prison, that’s when the national campaign kicked off.”
“There was up to 6,000 people marching every week. It was huge.”
“The camp was just getting on its feet when the Rossport Five went to prison. That’s when the camp really built a lot of links with the community, because there was a lot of work to do on the farm. I mean, obviously there was the campaign, but a lot of what the camp was doing at the beginning was just helping families whose fathers and husbands had gone to prison.”
On the anti-Shell side
Over the next two days the wind and rain run circles around the roundhouse. There are various jobs to be done, but most involve a working knowledge of the area and local residents. The rest of us busy ourselves with cooking, cleaning, and reading campaign materials. I’m struck by a passage by Willie Corduff in “Our Story, the Rossport 5,” one of the five men jailed on June 29th, 2005 for refusing to obey a court order forbidding interference with Shell’s work:
I’ve only been out of this place for about a month. I went to Dublin… There wasn’t much travelling about. I mean at most people would go to Belmullet on a fair day by bicycle to get a few things… It’d be a month before they’d go again… We didn’t know about Castlebar and Ballina. You’d hear of somebody going to Ballina maybe once a year. The most would be twice a year. I don’t think I ever remembered Castlebar (the ‘county town’ of Mayo, with a population of around 16,000) when I was young. Castlebar in our time was nearly the same as America now.
On my third and last night at the camp, a group of us set off into the village on rickety bikes. Mine has perfect brakes — almost too perfect, nearly sending me toppling over the handlebars — but gears that grind and snag at the merest incline. The clunk and whir ricochets around the valley, but there it is in-between: that silence.
The road is lined with signs and placards — “Shell to Sea!” “No Consent!” Other than these, all the road signs are in Irish. This is one of Ireland’s Gaeltacht areas: culturally protected regions where Irish is still officially the first language — though those who’ve been here longer point out that less than half the locals they know speak Irish in their own homes.
The night is still and clear above the Sruwaddacon estuary, which winds up from its North Atlantic mouth at Broadhaven Bay to where the Shell compound looms to the east of Pullathomas. Ben points out Rossport village over the other side.
“Before, people over this side of the estuary wouldn’t have met people over that side, but now there’s links between the two. Despite the fact that it totally split the community, on the anti-Shell side — I’ve no idea really what goes on on the pro-Shell side — but on the anti-Shell side it’s definitely strengthened the community in some way. There’s people who would never have met each other who are friends because of it. That’s really amazing. But it’s caused splits as well.”
I mention the passage in Willie Corduff’s book.
“Yeah, I was talking to one of the locals,” Ben tells me, “He was saying that the furthest away from here he’s ever been is Ballina — and he’s what, 45? Ballina is the biggest town he’s ever been to.”
“He’s never been to Dublin?” asks Alex.
“No, and he’s got no interest in it either. He says ‘Ballina’s too big for me’ — he’s happy where he is. Most people would have been away from the area for a while for work, but I guess the generation that’s maybe fifty-odd now would be the first generation where that’s the case. Before that it was a farming community — I mean, it still is — but there weren’t really opportunities to leave.”
To hell or to Connaugh
Inside McGrath’s pub the lights are on, the fire is crackling, but nobody’s home. We’re about to set off back up to the other pub when a man appears. He hurries round and unlocks the door to cheers from all of us. I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting customers. Everybody else orders a pint of Guinness.
“I’ll have a lager,” I tell him.
“A Guinness?” he asks.
“A lager, please?”
Everyone else is laughing. I recognise a framed photo of the Rossport Five over the fireplace from the cover of the book I was reading earlier.
I want to understand better what brings people here. Stories abound of people who came for a weekend of ‘holidarity’ and stayed for months. I remember hearing about a French girl who came through HelpX for two weeks with barely a word of English or a clue what the project was about. She stayed a year and a half.
Ben came to run a wind-turbine course, stayed two weeks and has been coming back ever since. He says he will keep coming back “until Shell fuck off.” This time he’s been here six weeks. Ben describes himself as “pretty rootless” and coming from an environmentalist background. “The only community I have is other rootless activists.”
“I came for environmental anti-capitalist reasons and stayed because of the community,” Alex tells me over a pint. “I feel like you can find struggles anywhere, but once you start to live in a place and know the people who live there, it kind of gets into your bones.”
From what I’ve heard during camp meetings, many other campaigns around Ireland now think of Rossport as a losing battle. Some even question the effectiveness of continuing. So what is it that keeps those who have already dedicated months or even years of their life to defending this community coming back again and again?
“I can’t leave!” Alex tells me, rolling a thrifty cigarette. “I try to take a break, try to leave… and I’m just on the Shell to Sea website constantly, every day. I’m more rooted here than I have been anywhere else — where I’m from, anywhere. People take care of each other here. Until now I’ve never been part of a community like that. When I’m hitching and talking to people, or if I go anywhere else, people are like, ‘Oh, you’ve been there for years’ and ‘I should be up there!'”
“Almost like it’s a hard thing to be here,” intercepts Ben.
“Yeah!” Alex agrees, “But like, I feel like I’m here for totally selfish reasons, you know? I’m getting so much out of it and I’m learning so much and, like, being taken care of… I wouldn’t know how to live anywhere else.”
“What about the place itself? How has that affected you?”
“When I’m leaving Dublin hitching I’ll ask for Mullingar or Longford and they’ll say, ‘Is that your final destination?’ and I’ll go, ‘I’m hoping to get to Mayo today,’ and they’ll say, ‘Mayo? — what are you — what? Why Mayo?’ And then, ‘Where in Mayo?’ and when I say Belmullet they’re just like, ‘Oh man… anything past Ballina, that’s just wild country.’ The attitude toward the rest of Mayo – it’s just wild, untouched. I think even during colonialism, there were parts of Ireland that were so far from Dublin…”
“When Cromwell was driving people off their land, the cry was “to hell or to Connaugh” — which is this corner of Ireland,” puts in Ben. “The land here is harsh. It’s not good growing land for anything.”
“All the fields that people are using to graze,” continues Alex, “it’s taken a lot of work to turn it from bog into land that you can use. People have been here basically without government for generations, taking care of themselves and taking care of each other.”
“I think this Shell project sort of represents the first thing that the capitalist world has really tried to get out of this area. There was a peat power station before, but that was really to provide power for the local area. Other than that, I can’t think of anything the modern world has really tried to extract from Mayo. There’s never been anything that anyone’s wanted before. It’s just been left to do its own thing.”“What about wildlife?” I ask, “I read about some endangered species here.”
“There are dolphins and otters and all kinds of wildlife. The Sand Martins are a big thing. They come to nest once a year in the dunes there.” Alex waves a hand at the back wall of the pub’s covered smoking area.
“There’s one particular bank where they nest and that’s the bank that Shell wanted to dig through to lay the pipe,” Ben tells me.
“They’re protected, and the estuary is an SAC, a Special Area of Conservation. It’s like the highest level of protection that the EU can give to environmental areas and Shell is tunnelling under it.” Alex inhales sharply on a roll-up.
“And the dunes are right next to the Shell compound,” adds Ben.
“It’s like a public beach,” says Alex, “but it’s protected. You couldn’t go there and, say, take a bucket of sand. That’s against the law. So basically when Shell had their environmental plan…”
“If the Sand Martins were there they wouldn’t be able to work,” interrupts Ben, “so they hung nets over the bank so that the Sand Martins wouldn’t come and nest there…”
“…so people went to go destroy the nets and cut them up,” finishes Alex with a smile.
As we’re leaving the pub, Alex turns to me and whispers: “See that man over there? He sold his land.” The man he’s pointing at is sitting with a group of other men, two tables away from where the Rossport Five picture hangs on the wall.
I’m beginning to realise how complex this whole situation is. I can understand why after 12 years of struggle, a person might give in to Shell and sell their land. But I can also understand why after fighting hard for years for this community, another person might turn their back on them for doing so.