Community fights for its future

IT is a background many young men would play down in their sophisticated city lives, but the sons of Rossport, North Mayo, wear their heritage with pride.

They are bogmen.

Francis Corduff, 24, stands in the drive of his family home on the edge of Sruwaddacon Bay, surrounded by the black stuff.

It sits in piles by the side of the road, stacked in sods for drying before it is carted off in sacks to hearthsides and fuel sheds all over the region. It lies exposed in giant slabs where earthmovers have peeled back its scalp for commercial operations. It hides beneath a rough, reedy pasture which years of careful cultivation have created for the sheep and cattle to graze.

"There's blood, sweat and tears in that field," he says, nodding to the reclaimed land beside the house where a white pony tugs at fresh shoots of green.

Francis's surroundings are common across the region. It is a land of undulating hills and hollows, dips and drumlins, rivers, inlets, estuaries and lakes, dotted with homes and barns. This creased and creviced landscape lies on top of a saggy, uneven old mattress of bog prone to shifting, sliding and waterlogging. Directly across the bay from where Mr Corduff stands, the hillside of Pollatomish is still scarred from the shocking landslides of September 2003.

It is through this type of land that Shell want to thread a pipeline. The people of Rossport are baffled.

Christopher Philbin, 27, the eldest son of one of the Rossport Five, begins "Of all the places" but his musings are interrupted by a mobile phone.

John Monaghan, son-in-law of another of the five, Micheál Ó Seighin, breaks the news with a suppressed smile. Two excavators working for Shell have apparently sunk in bog up at Bellanaboy so that their cabs are now level with the road. The three young men look to the ground and try to stifle their grins.

Francis breaks first. "And we know how to handle bog," he says, mimicking a Shell man.

There has been little occasion for laughter of late in Rossport. Francis's father, Willie, is in prison for opposing Shell, along with Christopher's father, Brendan; brothers Phillip and Vincent McGrath and Micheál Ó Seighin. John Monaghan lives in Rossport, but Christopher is an industrial designer in Dublin and Francis works in construction in London. "I got a call from the brother. 'Pack your bags,' he says. 'You're wanted at home'."

Since returning, he has been catching up on the five years of campaign work carried out by his father and the other men since they first learned that Shell's big plans for the Corrib gas field lying off the Mayo coast could have big consequences for their farms and families.

The gas lies beneath the ocean and Shell wants to pipe it ashore in its raw state, pipe it past homes in Rossport, refine it at a new terminal at Bellanaboy and pipe it further to Galway for sale. Nowhere else in the world does Shell bring ashore unrefined gas, as it is usually processed at sea. And nowhere else in the world does it lay pipes through bog.

To the Rossport Five, the combination of a volatile mix of unrefined gas and impurities, a high pressure pipeline which pumps with a force many times greater than that used along the familiar Bord Gais network, and unstable bog as a building base, represents an unacceptable risk.

"If the ground shifts or the pipe ruptures, I want to be standing right on top of it," says Mr Monaghan.

"At least that way I won't know anything about it."

The fear that an accident along the pipeline would cause a devastating explosion and all-consuming fireball is common among the protestors who have been gathering daily outside the Bellanaboy terminal construction site since the Rossport 5 were jailed a week ago.

It gives rise to an obvious question. The people of Rossport may know bogs but don't Shell know pipelines? The company didn't get to its position as one of the world's most successful fuel merchants by incinerating innocent communities and it doesn't pull precious resources from under the oceans without advanced technology.

Could it be that the people of Rossport and their placard-waving, slogan-shouting, protest-mounting supporters are worrying needlessly? The majority of Rossport residents thought so at first and signed up to an agreement with Shell allowing it to lay its pipes through their lands in return for a payment of E35 per linear metre of pipeline.

The opposing stance by the Rossport Five plus their neighbour, Brid McGarry, was a source of tension and division, but those divisions disappeared the moment gardaí were ordered to escort the Rossport Five from court last week.

"There has been reconciliation and thank God for it," says Ms McGarry.

The 31-year-old chemistry graduate, who now lives and farms with her widowed mother, says people signed up to the deal without understanding what it involved. She would have benefited most of any individual landowner, with 722 metres of pipeline through her land, but she wouldn't even consider it.

"People thought this was like a Bord Gais pipe, that it was clean, safe gas. It isn't. They believed it would create jobs. It won't the workers are mainly foreign. They were told it would be good for the region. How can it be when it takes a natural resource, pipes it straight through to another area and sells it somewhere else, leaving us with the environmental impact, the pollution and the danger?"

Ms McGarry was about to fax a letter to Shell, responding positively to an invitation to talks three weeks ago, when she got a call from the Philbin household to say company representatives were at the farm seeking access to begin fencing and surveying. The company was given compulsory acquisition powers over the land and an injunction by the courts preventing interference with those powers. However, she was stunned that the firm would try to act on them when they had just invited the landowners to talks.

She met 11 representatives of the company at the foot of one of her fields and demanded to see all their documentation. They couldn't meet it and called the gardaí. The pattern was repeated at all six holdings but only the five men were ordered to court for breaching the injunctions. "For equality reasons, I should be in jail too," she says.

She believes Shell were reluctant for public relations purposes to imprison a woman and leave an elderly woman at home alone. The protestors are concerned about public relations too. There are rumours that radical elements from outside the area have offered to sabotage Shell installations and there are fears that an expected arrival by eco-warriors might change the character of the protests.

There are also local men working on security or as general operatives on the terminal site and while there is a determination on both sides of the perimeter fence not to cause a rift in the wider community, there have been moments of tension.

Fr Michael Nallen, parish priest at nearby Aughoose, keeps an eye on the daily gatherings but has seen nothing so far that worries him.

"These are ordinary, decent people that just want listened to," he says. "Local people are put through every obstacle when they want to build a house in this area yet a big company like Shell is given every assistance."

There is another feeling permeating the protests that this can't go on indefinitely. People have jobs to go to and families to attend to and the longer the Rossport Five stay in prison, the more costs Shell can claim to rack up. "It will clean us out," says Ms McGarry of the legal fees and damages Shell could be awarded. "But if we let them go ahead with the pipeline, they will ruin us anyway."

Brid and her mother, Teresa, built their modest home five years ago. If they had known what was around the corner, they would never have laid a brick. "This area is called Gortacragher, the field of the thief," she says. It was named after a cattle robber but in times to come, it will be known for Shell. We feel robbed of our future."

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