Extinction Rebellion Ireland: 'With nature, people can see it before their eyes’

The Extinction Rebellion group in Ireland is attracting growing numbers to its events and counters criticism by emphasising it is on the side of the people, writes Joyce Fegan

Extinction Rebellion Ireland: 'With nature, people can see it before their eyes’

The Extinction Rebellion group in Ireland is attracting growing numbers to its events and counters criticism by emphasising it is on the side of the people, writes Joyce Fegan

From occupying O’Connell Bridge to sunbathing outside the Dáil in a bikini in November, environmental activists have made headlines in Ireland, and across the world, over the last 12 months.

In less than a year, galvanised by damning UN climate reports, fires in the Amazon and Australia, flooding in Italy and Britain, thousands of Irish people have found themselves as accidental activists for the global group, Extinction Rebellion (XR).

From schoolchildren to fathers in their 40s, and from musicians to migrants, you will have seen their faces on the news and heard their voices on the radio.

But who are they when they’re at home? Why do they do things like blockade O’Connell Bridge? And how are they organising themselves so quickly?

“On October 31, 2018,Extinction Rebellion (XR) blockaded five bridges across the Thames. Here was this visible, public and direct action in a major city. Here was something you couldn’t ignore and it generated publicity and it also gathered solidarity in Ireland,” explains Ciarán Ó Carroll, a founding member of XR Ireland.

“There was a meeting in December (2018) and after that meeting there was a decision made to start XR Ireland. About 10 to 12 of us put up our hands saying: ‘We’ll start this up’.”

Ceara Carney at the Irish Wildlife Trust and Extinction Rebellion Ireland protest outside Leinster House against overfishing last month. Picture: Niall Carson
Ceara Carney at the Irish Wildlife Trust and Extinction Rebellion Ireland protest outside Leinster House against overfishing last month. Picture: Niall Carson

Since then, the Irish group has held several eventsincluding the blockade of O’Connell Bridge, the Funeral for Humanity on World Wildlife Day, and several demonstrations outside the Dáil.

They have also held public talks detailing the facts of the various UN climatereports, specifically theOctober 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The bare fact from this report, compiled by thousands of international scientists, was that we had less than 12 years within which to save the planet from irreversible damage.

“We’re getting so many people to our talks now, like 200 people in a room and that’s with standing room only,” said Ciarán.

Activists take part in a protest by Extinction Rebellion outside Leinster House last October. Picture: Paul Faith
Activists take part in a protest by Extinction Rebellion outside Leinster House last October. Picture: Paul Faith

The guiding principles of XR globally are direct action and non-violent civil disobedience. Another principle is that of “just transition”.

“The ultimate goal we need to achieve is to get Ireland moving towards net zero emissions, in a manner of just transition, by 2030. In a way, where no workers or farmers are left behind. The actions will continue until then,” said Ciarán.

On social media, they have 13,000-plus followers in Ireland alone, and now thousands, as opposed to hundreds of people, show up at demonstrations and protests.

There are also smaller groups cropping up all around Ireland, with three in Galway city alone.

Ciarán Ó Carroll: We are on the side of the people.
Ciarán Ó Carroll: We are on the side of the people.

“The make-up of the Irish group is that people come from all over Ireland and people are from all different walks of life, but youngfemales would be the most represented,” said Ciarán.

The group is non-hierarchical and there is “no one leader”. Instead decisions are made “through consensus”.

While high-profile celebrities such as actor Emma Thompson, REM’s Michael Stipe and author Margaret Atwood have endorsed XR globally, nature and the news has been its biggestrecruitment tool.

“Unfortunately, the biggest recruiting tool has been the news, be it the flooding in Venice or in the UK or the fires in Australia or the Amazon. With nature, people can just see it before their eyes,” says Ciarán.

Extinction Rebellion member Patricia Devlin, 78, a grandmother of two, who began a hunger strike outside the Dáil in November to highlight government inaction on the climate and ecological emergency. Picture: Gary O’Neill
Extinction Rebellion member Patricia Devlin, 78, a grandmother of two, who began a hunger strike outside the Dáil in November to highlight government inaction on the climate and ecological emergency. Picture: Gary O’Neill

Despite criticism from the public about actions being “too much”, or from business communities about disruptions to the working day, the group says it is on the side of the people ultimately.

“We are on the side of the people. We are trying to minimise the disruption for the average Joe. We are targeting the fossil fuel companies and government,” said Ciaran.

“People like Leo Varadkar dragging their feet is unacceptable. Things like flooding has a massive effect on a business. We are on the side of the people, not against them.”

‘The love for my kids is my main driver’

Susan Breen, 36, complimentary therapist, mother of three, Wexford

Susan Breen: ‘A lot of the people in XR wanted to take direct action because they didn’t want to sign letters and petitions anymore.’
Susan Breen: ‘A lot of the people in XR wanted to take direct action because they didn’t want to sign letters and petitions anymore.’

I’ve been involved in environmental work since my teens. My parents were environmentalists and what I’m doing is just a continuation of that.

When I heard about the declaration by Extinction Rebellion in the UK in October 2018, and how we had such a short timeframe to turn things around, something just went ping. It was the direct action aspect of it.

I was like a lot of people — sick of just banging my head against a wall, because there was nothing that was happening consistently to stop climate change.

I contacted the UK circle then. I work on the international co-ordinating team. It started with really small groups. I would have been there since the beginning and the speed is just unbelievable to see. I’m in contact with other global representatives and it’s heartening to see.

The reaction from people and the public, for the most part, is positive. Those of us in the movement have been aware of the scientific knowledge around the climate for a long time, and others who are learning it now get really scared or they get defensive. To that, we just give information and say that we are here.

When people say an action is “too much”, I think ‘well, aren’t we talking about the climate?’ It’s getting the conversation going. All the actions are quite different to reach different demographics.

Claire Brennan joins other Extinction Rebellion members responding to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comments that climate change will have positive effects, by creating a sun-soaked beach scene outside the Dáil in November. Picture: Gary O’Neill
Claire Brennan joins other Extinction Rebellion members responding to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comments that climate change will have positive effects, by creating a sun-soaked beach scene outside the Dáil in November. Picture: Gary O’Neill

I’ve been involved in various grassroots organisations for years and this is just on another level. There are regional groups popping up all over the place. You can’t keep up. There are hundreds of people in our centralised organising group and thousands on our email list. It’s the same trend everywhere.

I’ve always cared, I’ve always had a real love of nature and I was becoming more and more aware of the destruction. Having children is an insanely strong motivation — the love for my kids is my main driver. Watching climate breakdown is heartbreaking, but thinking of my children and what we’re handing over, it’s a very precarious future. The only way to deal with it is to be out there taking action.

I focus on trying to get stuff done and having that community through XR Ireland is very nourishing and really stabilises you.

A lot of the people in XR wanted to get involved and take direct action because they didn’t want to sign letters and petitions anymore. They wanted to do something. There were a lot of people who were dormant.

You do your best in the confines. I still have to travel in a car as there is no public transport where I live and I still have to buy things from the supermarket. But we also have to focus on bigger stuff like lobbying Government and industries. We need to take on the people who are decimating the planet — there isn’t an option not to.

‘I was tired of feeling helpless and watching from the sidelines’

Lucy, sixth year student and head girl, 17, Tipperary

Lucy: Speaks to first years at her school about climate change.
Lucy: Speaks to first years at her school about climate change.

I got involved with Extinction Rebellion less than a year ago, when a general meeting was held in my town. I wanted to go because I was tired of feeling helpless and just watching from the sidelines. I had marched in all the school strikes for climate and they made me feel so empowered, I wanted to do more.

I was, and still am, very worried about the effects of climate change, and the way in which it was being casually disregarded by so many people.

I went with my friend, because we didn’t want to go by ourselves and we didn’t really know what to expect.

We sat in the back corner of the room and mostly just listened to what other people had to say. Everyone was really inclusive and welcoming to us, and I was soon doing my bit with whatever I could.

I’m in sixth year and studying for my Leaving Cert, and I’m still 17, so I’m not out everyday protesting, but I do what I can to help.

There’s so much behind the scenes things to get involved with.

I sometimes find it hard to get out to all the Extinction Rebellion events going on, because, as I said, I’m doing my Leaving Cert and have to keep on top of my school work. If you miss one day of school, you spend about a week catching up on all the missed work.

I have loads of other things I’m involved in as well. I’m head girl [in my school] and I play basketball in school, I love going out with my friends at the weekends, and at the moment, I ‘have’ to dedicate about an hour every night to watching TV.

However, at school, I’ve set up a permanent climate change stall for people to look at, and I gave a quick talk to first years so they can understand climate change more, and how they can help, as it isn’t something that often gets taught in school.

Next year, I’ll be going to college, and hopefully having the time of my life, but climate change is still going to be my top priority, especially when it’s my future I’m fighting for.

‘I cannot envisage what this world will be like in 15 years’

Maria Arnold, 60, midwife, mother of six, Dublin

Maria Arnold: We are pillaging the earth at the rate of three planets and there has not be one meaningful action from the Government
Maria Arnold: We are pillaging the earth at the rate of three planets and there has not be one meaningful action from the Government

I first trained as a nurse and then I went on to become a midwife. I am a mother of six so I was at home for 15 years and then I went back to college and studied history of art and French and I worked in that area then.

All my adult life, I’ve been concerned about the environment. We were always a family that handed clothes down and I saw the Celtic Tiger and was aware of the excesses of it. I kept seeing things like Kyoto and the Paris Agreement and thinking: ‘something is going to happen now’.

But it’s like we’re on a bus careering towards a cliff edge and everyone is happy to go on that journey, and no one is hitting the break.

From the fires in California to the ice melting in Greenland, it is an emergency, it can’t just be life as usual or business as usual. The hard fact is that we have to change how we are doing things.

I’d never been on a march before Extinction Rebellion.

Last autumn, I heard a woman talking in Holland on the news after a case and I was just blown away by her. When the Friends of the Irish Environment took a similar case in Ireland, I decided to go to the Four Courts every day to support them, and then every Friday I’d go to the Dáil, because of Greta Thunberg. There were people there in their late 70s and 80s. It’s not just for 15- and 16-year-olds. We created this problem unknowingly and so it’s for adults to stand up. We have the votes.

A group of protestors are stretched out on the footpath at the Extinction Rebellion ‘die-in’ outside City Hall, in Cork City, last July. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
A group of protestors are stretched out on the footpath at the Extinction Rebellion ‘die-in’ outside City Hall, in Cork City, last July. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

In my own life, I bring my own bags for fruit and vegetables — like an empty porridge bag to the supermarket and the staff never say anything. I never go out of the house without two cotton bags rolled up in my bag, even when I’m on holidays, it only takes up an inch.

But all of that is a drop in the ocean, the Government needs to make change.

In Dublin and Cork, there is a serious need for public transport. I’ve a friend who says: ‘Just don’t tell me anything’ because people are scared. There are other people who take it personally when you talk about it.

Since last Christmas, I haven’t taken a flight. If I have to travel I will go overland. I just think carefully about my choices. For Christmas, we do Kris Kindle in our house.

I cannot envisage what this world will be like in 15 years. We are pillaging the earth at the rate of three planets and there has not be one meaningful action from the Government.

It is possible to make change. Look at how countries mobilised in the Second World War. If there was an outbreak of ebola here in the morning, can you imagine all the resources the Government would deploy to fix it? I just can’t in conscience sit this one out.

We can all continue to live wonderful lives while not consuming to death.

‘I feel guilty for the world I am leaving behind’

Toni Ryan, retired psychotherapist and mother, 67

Toni Ryan: We have to keep up the pressure on government
Toni Ryan: We have to keep up the pressure on government

I am 67, and a retired psychotherapist who worked with the HSE.

I have supported the children’s climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion and have participated in their demonstrations in the past year.

I did so because I believe that the children’s strikes and the actions of Extinction Rebellion have been central in raising awareness of the effects of climate change and in the need to declare a climate emergency.

I believe that it is largely because of their actions that politicians are beginning, at long last, to have the courage to put climate change on their agenda.

This Government has now declared a climate emergency. But we have to keep the pressure up so that they really act out of this awareness.

And I am afraid that what we are seeing so far is a very ambivalent stance. We see them on the one hand, committing to the end of burning fossil fuels and at the same time, buying fracked gasses from outside the State.

We see them taking actions so that small environment organisations will not be easily able to legally challenge them and most importantly, we see them still supporting the same farming practices that are responsible for 34% of our emissions.

As an older person, I feel guilty for the world I am leaving behind to my children and their children, a world where 200 species disappear and are gone forever each day, a world where the poorest people are suffering the worst effects of climate change, a world that will become increasingly more violent as people have to migrate because of floodings and desertification and where those who did the most to cause this disaster will close their countries to these climate migrants.

It is us, the older generation, who are responsible for the rampant consumerism and pursuit of the good life that has brought about the climate emergency we are living in.

We may try and excuse ourselves by stating that we did not know about the effects of our lifestyle. But we know now.

Because of this, I want to do what I can to raise awareness and keep the pressure up so that we make the necessary political changes to try to avert the worst of these.

‘Lifestyle changes are just never going to be enough’

Deirdre O’Leary, classical musician, mother of two

Deirdre O’Leary believes a change in the system is the real way to tackle climate change.
Deirdre O’Leary believes a change in the system is the real way to tackle climate change.

I’m a clarinet and bass clarinet player. I play with the Irish contemporary group Crash Ensemble, Berlin-based Stargaze, Cassiopeia Wind Quintet, and I freelance orchestrally.

I also play in hospitals and schools and coach the National Youth Orchestra.

My husband, Andrew, and I built a cob and strawbale house by hand in the Cloughjordan ecovillage, with help from my parents and lots of volunteers.

We have two daughters:

  • Sadhbh, 15, is very concerned about climate and biodiversity. She came up to Rebellion Week inOctober and now she’s getting involved in the school strikes in Limerick.
  • Ciara is 19 and has just moved to Dublin. She has plans for third-level but at the moment, she’s spending all her time working in a café by day and doing art work for Extinction Rebellion at night.
  • I was loosely involved in Extinction Rebellion from early on — the first Funeral for Humanity march early this year. But I was busy and not really a protest-in-the-streets type. Then over the summer, it seemed like the whole world was grieving at pictures of the Amazon rainforests burning.

    At the same time, I was booked to play at a lovely festival in Italy. I was willing to spend 48 hours on a train, but I couldn’t afford to — flights were one-third the price — and I couldn’t turn down the work and still pay the mortgage.

    It hit me that even my family in our tiny cob house heated by one wood stove, with organic vegetables grown by our community farm 500 yards away, with our compost toilet, shared car, teeny electricity usage, that if we’re still part of the problem after all of that, then lifestyle changes are never going to be enough. We need system change.

    It’s really clear now that the power structures and the economic systems we have today can only end in the obliteration of all life on this beautiful planet.

    I can’t stand by and wait for someone braver to save us. It’s going to take all of us — everyone who cares — to rebel against this path we’re being taken down.

    So now I’m involved in XR, trying to use my music and communication skills to help move us forward, alongside some incredibly committed, determined and skillful people — but there are not nearly enough of us, yet.

    ‘Less than 12 years to save the planet and people don’t get it’

    Paul McCormack- Cooney, 40, father of two, works in pensions, Dublin

    Paul McCormack-Cooney: I was just a typical person and I didn’t think of myself as someone capable of influencing public opinion
    Paul McCormack-Cooney: I was just a typical person and I didn’t think of myself as someone capable of influencing public opinion

    I don’t come from a history of activism. This is all new to me — only in the past year have I got involved.

    My awareness of a climate crisis came from seeing the film An Inconvenient Truth. That woke me up to how dangerous the situation is.

    At the time, I was backpacking and I had just arrived in Sydney and it was their hottest day on record. That record has been beaten several times since then, and that’s only since 2006.

    I thought: ‘Well now this (An Inconvenient Truth) is out there, someone will do something about it’, I just never thought that someone would be me.

    In 2010, my daughter was born and in 2013, my son was born. Then when the UN IPCC report came out in October 2018, I thought ‘maybe this will be the kick up in the arse we need’. But I was watching the Six One News and it only came on as a news item after the break. I thought this report is telling us we have less than 12 years to save the planet and people just don’t get it. It was at that point that I said to my wife, ‘I have to do something’.

    I’m not even sure I’d be doing what I am doing if I didn’t have children. If I wasn’t a parent, I’d feel less connected to the future.

    I stopped seeing the world just in terms of my life span, I see it in terms of their life span. How am I going to look them in the eye if I do nothing. At least now I can say I tried.

    Protesters outside Leinster House lay a coffin for the planet. Picture: PA
    Protesters outside Leinster House lay a coffin for the planet. Picture: PA

    My life before any of this was working a 9-to-5 job, paying the bills, mucking around with the kids and in the evenings when they were gone to bed, I’d sit down with my wife and watch the latest boxset or play my Play Station. I was just a typical person and I didn’t think of myself as someone capable of influencing public opinion.

    I used to be an ardent meat eater. I’d never eat anything that was a salad or wholemeal. I had this trivial attitude to that kind of thing. I used to live off Big-Macs.

    Last year then, I bought a vegan cookbook for my life. On the cover, it just said “all the vegetables”. If it had said the word vegan I probably wouldn’t have bought it. I don’t criticise anyone — even if your change was to have one vegetable day a week, where you don’t have meat.

    In terms of how I got involved, I would follow XR on Facebook and I could see that this meeting or that was coming up. I went along to one, but I went along with some reticence. I was thinking: ‘These are the kind of groups where people get arrested and that’s not really me’.

    After that, I ended up being one of the pallbearers at the Funeral for Humanity demonstration last March. My face was in the papers, it was very strange. Friends and family saw it and it sparked a lot of conversations with family and in work too.

    I work in communications for a pensions company, Mercer. My job is to get people to think about what they need to do now and how that will affect them in 20 years’ time. It translates well to the climate.

    I definitely feel better now that I am doing things, but there are ups and downs naturally. I am frustrated at national leadership but if I was sitting at home doing nothing, I’d be consumed by hopelessness, I’d be depressed. I’d be burying it deep inside. But with XR, I feel much better doing what I’m doing.

    Aside from personal changes, I would say to people who feel frustrated or helpless to talk to their political candidates.

    We have a very short time to turn things around and we need to be working to a war-time schedule and implementing radical plans. If we don’t do that we are toast. We need to get people to understand how little time we have to act.

    ‘We need to grit our teeth and face this new reality’

    Eileen Brannigan, mother of one, writer, Tipperary

    Eileen Brannigan (left), with her son Dualta Brannigan Parkes (10) and her partner Joanna Parkesson
    Eileen Brannigan (left), with her son Dualta Brannigan Parkes (10) and her partner Joanna Parkesson

    My partner Joanna and I moved to Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, over five years ago when our son Dualta was about four-and-a-half years old. We’d been living in Dublin before that and were quite contented with our lives as there is still a nice sense of community in Stoneybatter and our neighbours were good friends.

    However, as our son grew older, we began to realise that we would be constantly driving him to playdates and that he’d have little independence to run around safely with his friends as he grew older or to have the interaction with nature that we had ourselves as kids, being in the middle of the city and surrounded by busy roads.

    So we moved to the countryside, to the then recently established ecovillage in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary.

    I’ve got very involved with our community farm which provides healthy organic vegetables, salad, herbs, and fruit for the local community, and I suppose it was this close involvement with our farm, which operates in a sustainable way that respects the environment and protects soil health, that made me really aware of the toll climate change is taking on our growing seasons.

    Yet, neither my partner nor I were truly worried until the recent UN climate reports came out, starting from the landmark United in Science Report for the Climate Action Summit in September of this year which told of how little time we have left to stop the effects of global warming and the chaos that will ensue if we don’t.

    The Extinction Rebellion protest outside Government Buildings as Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe unveiled Budget 2020 last October. Picture: Charles McQuillan
    The Extinction Rebellion protest outside Government Buildings as Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe unveiled Budget 2020 last October. Picture: Charles McQuillan

    Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction — of plants and animals — and of us, humans.

    We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65m years ago. The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record, leading to widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires, and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods, and drought.

    Anyone who can read or watch TV and get informed about this situation has got to sit up and take notice when the world’s scientists paint such a shocking picture.

    A few of us went to the pub that night after a local talk on that UN report and we sat in stunned silence for a while, I can tell you, before starting to talk about what needs to be done.

    The population of our entire country is about half that of the city of London — so we should be able to enact the necessary infrastructural changes quite swiftly.

    Among many immediate measures we could take are a massive, national tree-planting programme, electrifying our trains, radically improving public transport infrastructure, getting rid of our excessive reliance on petrol cars, and so starting to meet our internationally agreed climate targets.

    But sadly, we are also inclined to look the other way in Ireland and whistle a happy tune when faced with bad news, or told we need to radically change our habits.

    I joined Extinction Rebellion a few months ago, after that devastating UN report, and after a couple of local meetings were held, I camped out in Dublin during Rebellion Week and took part in non-violent direct actions, and although I’ve been involved in activism on various issues throughout my life, there is now nothing closer to my heart than this.

    How can there be? It’s our children’s future in our hands now, all of our futures.

    We can’t afford to look the other way — that’s the coward’s way out. We need to grit our teeth and face this new, harsh reality, and more importantly, get our Government to face it honestly and to act immediately — for all our sakes.

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