A tough balancing act for mothers on campaign trail

IT was at the kitchen tables of family homes in Monkstown, Cobh and Ringaskiddy that the 10-year campaign to stop two incinerators being built in Cork Harbour was spearheaded.

While the Cork Harbour for a Safe Environment (CHASE) campaign obviously crosses gender lines, it was four women — all mothers — who were at the frontline: timetabling meetings, brainstorming to come up with fundraising ideas, devising legal strategy and pulling endless all- nighters as they swotted up for oral hearings and court actions. Most of the women had not been community activists before.

Chairwoman Mary O’Leary had only moved to East Cork from West Clare a year before Indaver submitted their original application for a 100,000 tonne hazardous waste incinerator.

An environmental engineer and mother-of-four, she headed off to an early meeting in Cobh, never for a minute thinking that this campaign would define the next 10 years of her life.

“I’m not normally a frontline person but it was my environmental commitments that carried me. I never stopped believing this was so wrong and yet was being pushed and pushed. And, the more I read and the more I learnt about emissions and the unknowns, the more I believed that we didn’t have to act the way people did 30 years ago and that with technology and recycling, we could have a very different waste management future,” she said.

Seven years ago last January, a group of CHASE campaigners, journalists and TV cameramen were all in Mary’s living room in Cobh awaiting An Bord Pleanála’s decision on the hazardous waste incinerator. Her son was upstairs in bed having felt unwell since the night before. Any giddy sense of anticipation evaporated in seconds, however, when her husband, a GP, arrived into the room and ordered the house cleared. He had just diagnosed his 13-year-old son with meningitis. It later emerged he also had septicaemia.

“There was definitely a big strain on the family over the years. Regularly if we were getting submissions ready, I’d be up until 2am or 3am reading, or often up at 5.30am if I was too tired to stay up the night before. There were times when I was constantly consumed and yet family life had to go on. My three sons did their Leaving Certs over the past 10 years and my daughter was only six when this started. She was not read a lot of bedtime stories, put it that way,” smiles Mary.

Linda Fitzpatrick also has four children, aged eight to 14. She’s the group’s press officer. She describes the impact of the campaign on family life as “massive”.

Linda says she tried to leave the campaign a few times when she felt she had reached burnout. However, she always ended up being drafted back in again, such as when “a rabbit ate another member’s phoneline”, so they needed her again to ensure press releases got out.

Before all this began, she used to chill out by reading Cosmo and other women’s magazines. Now, it’s scientific magazines, internet printouts and journals that are stacked at her bedside.

Marcia Dalton, another environmental engineer, is a member of Cork Harbour Environmental Protection Association. Over the past decade, Cllr Dalton (a member of Passage West town council) became known through the oral hearings due to her brilliantly researched submissions on everything from Martello towers to coastal erosion.

With five children aged 15 months to 9, she reckons she had “a small baby at every oral hearing”.

During the 2009 hearing at Cork Airport International Hotel, which went on for nearly a month, she regularly had to pop out to to pump breast milk which she then deposited in a cooler box in her car. She had to leave her eight- week-old baby with her mother-in-law every day.

Marcia differs with the CHASE campaigners in that she had no issue with incineration and believes that, if in the right location, they are an efficient waste management solution. “It was wrong place, wrong place, wrong place.”

Mary Hurley, a social worker from Cobh and another engine in the CHASE machine, believes her four daughters, aged 4-21, have definitely been changed by their childhood on the campaign trail. “You can see they all really recognised how important it is to challenge authority. They don’t just assume that the Government will be on your side. They’ve been politicised — definitely.”

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