Solo exhibition at Signal Arts Centre, Bray, showcasing a series of photographic images depicting the Corrib gas controversy within the landscape of North Mayo. The exhibition title is a nod to traditional and art historical depictions of the West of Ireland landscape by painters such as Paul Henry.

Protests in Rossport often started early in the morning before dawn, in anticipation of the construction workers arriving to start work on the refinery. The landscape went from quietness, to the sound of the dawn chorus, to the sound of protest. As protesters gathered and waited, the darkness and tranquility of the night would be broken when someone would shine a torch light to discover groups of Gardai or private security positioned along the country roads and fields of Rossport. As dawn broke, security and Gardai would emerge as luminous dots over the rural landscape, like an alien presence. I was very drawn to the beauty of the landscape in Rossport and while attending protests, I would often find myself getting distracted – which is why I chose to use the medium of photography for this work.

The photograph of the sky with a Garda car in the background was taken from the rear window of a car in Rossport. On that particular day, despite a court order preventing Shell from working on protected land in an area of special conservation in the Erris peninsula, the company had brought in heavy machinery and were carrying out work on the land. As I was photographing in the area, local people asked me to go up and document the incursion. On a return visit later in the day (with more local people who were going to visit the site) a Garda car followed us. In a movie-style high-speed car chase by the Gardai, including a dramatic spin in the road in front of our car, we were ordered to stop and the driver was arrested, leaving the passengers at the side of the road. The Gardai seemed very worried about my camera and kept asking if I was a journalist or if I worked for a newspaper. The driver was kept in the station and questioned for a number of hours, before being released later that evening.

The image of the private security man’s jacket was taken as I was documenting the illegal work being done in an area of special conservation in the Erris peninsula. His figure blocks the view of the landscape, just as he was trying to block us taking photographs of the companies who were carrying out the work without permission.

The St Bridget Cross was held by a local woman, protesting on St Bridget’s day at the gates of the gas refinery in Ballinaboy, Rossport. Many local people had made St. Bridget’s crosses and brought them to the protest. Saint Bridget is one of the patron saints of Ireland. Traditionally, the crosses were set over doorways and windows to protect the home from harm. The image of protesters standing outside the gates of a multinational company in rural Ireland holding St. Bridget’s crosses could be seen to represent two different Irelands. St. Bridget’s crosses are made from rushes, typically grown in marsh or bog land. The proposed pipelines for the gas refinery ran along these bog lands, which is unstable land, and is one of the many safety concerns of local people.

Like much of my work, this photographic series has been used in different ways, both inside and outside the artworld, whether being exhibited in gallery shows and sold in fundraising auctions, being distributed on protest leaflets at information meetings, or used as evidence in court actions.


Background information on the Corrib Gas controversy:

The phrase, “Strength in community”, was painted onto the roof of a cottage in Ballinaboy, County Mayo, by Shell to Sea campaigners. In the trees behind the cottage lay the site where a consortium of three global players of the international oil and gas industry – Shell (the main stake holders), Statoil and Marathon – were building a gas refinery. They planned to run a pipeline through the community, in one of the most scenic parts of the country. Normally gas is refined at sea but in a move that would save the consortium money, they planned to process the gas inland, running high-pressure experimental pipelines across unstable bog land.

Residents and experts alike expressed deep concern over the safety of the pipeline and the danger the proposed refinery would pose to the health and environment of the community. A number of recognised experts predicted that an explosion was very likely in the working life of the pipeline. Even according to the government-backed safety report, in the event of an explosion, everyone within a quarter of a mile would be killed.

The Corrib gas fields are estimated to be worth in the region of 50.4 billion euros, which the government handed over to the multinationals, without input or consent from the people of Ireland. The company also received amazingly generous tax terms, as a result of legislation created by Ray Burke – a former politician, imprisoned in 2004 during the Tribunal of Inquiry into corrupt allegations, dating from the time when he served as Minister for Communications and Energy. Bizarrely, as the Norwegian government owns a stake in the Statoil Company, the Norwegian people received a share of the profits from the Irish gas fields.

A major campaign of resistance emerged against the building of the refinery inland through the Rossport community in North Mayo. In 2005 the Irish government introduced new legislation, which allowed private companies to acquire land without the permission of property owners, which facilitated the multinational’s plans. Five local men refused Shell access to their land and were held in contempt of court after compulsory acquisition orders were issued by the government on Shell’s behalf. The men were sentenced to jail and became known as the Rossport Five. Their jailing sparked a nationwide campaign for their release. Demonstrations halted work on the refinery site and mobilised a campaign across the country with rallies, blockages and boycotts. Their case came under intense media and political scrutiny and the men became national heroes. Backed by massive public support, the men were released from prison after 94 days, when Shell applied to the High Court to have the injunction lifted.

The Shell to Sea campaign was rooted in a long history of struggle and resistance by the Mayo community. The term ‘boycotting’ came into the English language as a result of non-violent tactics used by the Land League against unjust rent and the eviction of small farmers by landlords. The Land League was founded in 1879 by Michael Davitt from County Mayo. In particular, the league encouraged communities to shun anyone who took over the land of an evictee. The term ‘boycotting’ entered the English dictionary following the success of this tactic when used against Captain Charles Boycott, a County Mayo land agent.

The campaign of community resistance in Rossport opened up many debates about Ireland’s natural resources, posing questions such as: Who should own and benefit from our natural resources? Have corrupt politicians facilitated the multinational corporations in return for financial gain? Does community consent and popular opinion matter, or are corporate interests and profits more important? Do people have a democratic right to live in a safe and clean environment? Can people power challenge corporate power? Is the democratic right to protest respected in this country?