The choice of image will resonate with anyone who has visited the isolated corner of northwest Mayo where this remarkable drama has played out. A landscape of desolate beauty that would normally instil calm has been suffused with menace and angst in the decade since Enterprise Oil — since bought by Royal Dutch Shell — proposed building an inland gas refinery and high-pressure, raw gas pipeline in a shifting blanket bog with a history of landslides.
Journalist Lorna Siggins tells the long and extraordinary story of families in the remote farming and fishing communities around Rossport and Pollathomas, whose resistance to the development propels them from lives of quiet obscurity into years of legal actions, scientific research, civil disobedience and even imprisonment. In scenes resembling a Hollywood movie, some of these people first learn that their land is on the pipeline route when they look out their windows to see men in dark glasses in their fields with surveying equipment.
They juggle work and parenting to attend dawn protests, lengthy oral hearings and court sittings, going head-to-head with top barristers and engineering consultants as they make the case for having the gas from Corrib processed offshore and piped ashore at low pressure. The depth of their technical knowledge consistently astounds observers at these hearings.
The Corrib affair is of huge significance nationally, not least because of the question of ownership of the gas that will come ashore and because of the precedent the project creates for other big infrastructural projects in Ireland. Yet public understanding of Corrib ranges from confused to non-existent, thanks to a sea of hysteria, propaganda and misinformation.
Once Upon a Time in the West provides, at last, an authoritative and comprehensive documentary of Corrib’s troubled history and a dispassionate assessment of the contentious issues, meticulously researched and footnoted, with a 10-page timeline. An invaluable record and reference, it is also an absorbing drama that Siggins moves along at a lively pace, interwoven with local history, family backgrounds and the stories of humanity and humour that intersperse the conflict.
The book sets the record straight on numerous myths that have been fed into the public consciousness, the casting of protesters as the sole villains in a law-and-order spectacle. In fact, as this account reveals, Shell’s operations in Mayo have repeatedly challenged planning laws.
The company is now preparing a new planning application; the protests have delayed the project by years, but has increased the value of the gas field due to rises in the global price of gas.
Chapter one relates what must rank as the greatest missed opportunity in the history of the Irish state: Energy Minister Justin Keating’s plan to create an Irish National Petroleum Corporation in the 1970s, availing of offers of expertise from Norway. This would have made Ireland a self-sufficient and vastly wealthy gas and oil producing nation, as Norway is today. Government figures now put the current value of Ireland’s extractable gas and oil reserves at well over €500 billion, but all of this belongs to private multinational companies. This is thanks to the scrapping of Keating’s plans and the gradual abolition of his 50% ‘state take’ and of royalties by successive Fianna Fáil ministers in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The book’s great strength — its dispassionate neutrality — is also a source of disappointment for this reviewer. For example, an obvious omission is that of Tony O’Reilly and his company Providence Resources. As Providence will soon be seeking to bring gas ashore from its Dunquin field off Kerry, O’Reilly has a very real interest in the outcome of the Corrib dispute. His newspapers’ negative coverage of Shell to Sea and other campaigns around Corrib may or may not be connected to this, but it is surely something that should be addressed in such a book.
Nevertheless, Once Upon a Time in the West is to be highly recommended as a disturbing and fascinating illustration of contemporary power and of how our political and legal systems can utterly fail the citizen when corporate profits are at stake. It is also an inspiring tale of solidarity and resilience.