Text of a paper given at Contemporary and Historical Archaeology Group conference, Sheffied 2007.

The Cork poet Theo Dorgan  recently remarked that he was,

“born into a Republic, and now finds he lives in an economy.”

Where Dorgan was once a citizen of the Republic, he now finds himself reduced to the status ofproducer/consumer in an economy.

Sruwaddacon Bay
Sruwaddacon Bay

We’ll be looking at an aspect of the archaeology of this economy here today, where the manifestations of a struggle on and for the landscape hark back to older traditions and rites, at the same time embracing a newer form of protest, one using the landscape itself, graffiti and other forms of non-violent direct action.

Both of us are of course partisan in the conflict centred in northwest Mayo. We are though fieldworkers and this paper comes from discussions we’ve had at various locations over the past three years, about how we, as archaeologists should be documenting this struggle.

This paper is not therefore the product of a piece of academic research; it stems rather from our experiences as activists, of working with the community resisting the Corrib project, from our experiences of being and living in the landscape.

We thus welcome the opportunity presented by CHAT to document and report on a crucially politicised landscape in what’s essentially an archaeological forum. The conclusions we reach will touch on the wider question of the power of global economy and government over the rights of the individual and the community.

The paper looks at some of the themes that arose when we began to think about the Corrib gas project in an archaeological way: thinking about the physical way in which Corrib has changed the area both as a result of the work of the oil companies and the state as well as through community resistance to the project. Of particular interest to us are

  1. the way in which the power relations at play in Corrib are manifested on the ground,
  2. how the project and the resistance to it has created new sites and monuments in the landscape and
  3. what these new sites can tell us of the opposing factions.

Setting the Scene

Looking towards Broadhaven Bay from Rossport. Rossport House, an old gentry house is in the foreground.
Looking towards Broadhaven Bay from Rossport. Rossport House, an old gentry house is in the foreground.
Sruwaddacon Bay, view from Glengad
Sruwaddacon Bay, view from Glengad looking over to Rossport

The Landscape
The area we’ll be discussing and the focus of the Corrib project is located on the northwest coast of Ireland in the Erris Gaeltacht. The bulk of the area is within the parish of Kilcommon in the barony of Erris. Rossport is one of the townlands within the parish and a name that sprung to national and international recognition in the summer of 2005 when five men from in and near the townland were jailed for their opposition to the Corrib gas project.

Location of the Corrib Gas Project
Location of the Corrib Gas Project

The project
The Corrib gas field was discovered in 1996 over 80km off the coast of Mayo and the rights to develop the resource were bought up by a consortium consisting of Shell, Statoil and Marathon, who began establishing themselves in the area in 2004.

The Corrib partners intend to employ a new and previously, untried technology in Erris: to cap the gas reserve at sea, and then bring in the raw, untreated gas to the Ballinaboy refinery, 9kms inland. The raw gas will be brought ashore under extraordinarily high pressures, 400 times the pressures of gas in the national grid pipeline, which carries gas which has been treated and cleaned.

Independent experts have maintained that the technology doesn’t exist to do this safely. Local people consider that Shell is making economies by not refining the gas at sea and is indifferent to the effects on the lives and environment of local people.

Warning sign in Glengad
Warning sign in Glengad

Landslides
Before the present controversy erupted, the area directly effected by the Corrib project was subject to severe landslides, where the unstable peat literally started to flow down the mountainside through houses, fields and more distressingly, through the graveyard at Pollathomais. The suitability of the area for the construction of a large facility of this kind was not given any serious official consideration except by a planner from the state’s appeals board, whose decision to refuse planning permission was overruled.

Rossport 5
In the summer of 2005 local people opposed the entry of contractors onto their lands to start survey work. They alleged that the work of installing the pipeline would irreparably damage the bog and its drainage system, robbing their land of any further use and likely to cause slippage of the bog itself.
The High Court jailed five local men at the request of Shell for attempting to stop the multinational laying the pipeline through their land. The judge warned them it was within his power to seize their assets, including their homes and farms. They were released after 94 days.

Redefining the landscape

Rural community to oil refining conplex (image Jan Pesch)
Aerial view of Bellanaboy refinery site looking towards Broadhaven Bay: Rural community to oil refining complex (image Jan Pesch)

The landscape of the Corrib Gas project is, as the cliché goes, a contested one. The completion of the project necessitates a complete redefinition of the landscape in which it is to be situated. This change from a landscape composed of a network of rural hamlets, to that of a petrochemical refining zone is profound. In the words of Michael O’Seighin, a retired local teacher and one of the five imprisoned for their opposition to the project, it constitutes an attempt to impose a ’new reality’ on the landscape.The ‘new reality’ which Shell and the state are attempting to impose, has been met with strong opposition from the population living in the area.

Ballinaboy

Bellanboy sign
Bellanboy sign

The attempt by the oil companies to redefine the landscape for their own ends is most marked at what has become the focus of conflict over Corrib: the refinery site at Ballinaboy Bridge, Beal an Atha Buí, the mouth of the yellow ford.The site of the refinery is located on what was previously part of state managed coniferous woodland on an area of blanket bog, near to several small hamlets and surrounded by homesteads. Physically the construction of the refinery has meant the removal of several thousand tons of peat from the site which has been put into trucks and dumped 14km down the road at a facility near Bangor Erris. In the words of Michael O’Seighin, what is happening at Ballinaboy is that

“a new reality is being created, the site is being annihilated and a new reality is being imposed.”

In tandem with the physical redefining or annihilation of the site, the meaning of the place has been changed in other ways. Legally the site, located 9km inland near the mouth of the Sruthwaddaconn estuary (a Special Area of Conservation), was designated as foreshore by the Department of Marine and Natural Resources to facilitate the granting of planning permission for the site.

Gate 1 at Bellanaboy
Gate 1 at Bellanaboy
Concrete wall at Bellanaboy
Concrete wall at Bellanaboy

Gate 1, an imposing façade

The main entrance to the refinery construction site, Gate 1 has become the principal focus in the landscape for both sides. It’s also become a public frontage to the scheme, insofar as by craning one’s neck one can garner some sort of idea of what’s going on inside. The site’s enclosed along its perimeter with a 2.5m high metal spiked fencing. The main feature of the Gate 1 entrance is a 3m high concrete wall. This is set inside a set of 1.8m high solid metal gates, which are manned 24 hours by private security.The wall hides a similar structure to the rear and their function remains a mystery, although they resemble blast walls.

Renaming Ballinaboy
To those who know the place well, one of Shell’s more significant passive interventions on the local landscape has been the renaming of the entire Ballinaboy Bridge area. On the surrounding approach roads Shell, through their partners Mayo County Council, have erected 2m by 4m signs informing people they are approaching the Corrib gas terminal site. Through their intense media barrage the area is constantly referred to as such and Ballinaboy is very much a secondary appellation. This is a direct attempt by Shell and their partners to remould the landscape for their purposes. Those who live in the townland have had little say in the matter of their locality’s disappearance in Shell’s corporate cartography.

The main population centres of northwest Erris are Bangor Erris, Ballinaboy, Bellmullet, Glenamoy, Barnatra, Inmhear and Pollathomais to name the more prominent. This boggy inhospitable landscape is traversed by the Coast Road, the R314, and almost sliced in two by Sruwaddacan Bay – a narrow inlet running to 7km inland toward Ballinaboy Bridge (the terminal site).

These names reflect the topography of the area i.e. Glenamoy – glen of the river Moy. The Sruwaddacan estuary is a massively influential feature on the local community life as it makes the 300m journey from Glengad beach across to Rossport a 15 mile trip by road.

The other major feature on the local landscape is Carrowmore Lake. This is a freshwater lake which fills about 20 sq. miles in the triangle between Bellmullet and Bangor Erris and Ballinaboy Bridge. It is the locality’s main water supply and is being polluted by the aluminium run-off from the refinery site.

The physical relationship between the refinery site and Carrowmore Lake is one we believe Shell has tried to disguise, by retaining a belt of trees to the southeast of Gate 1, where the surrounding forest has been felled. The lake is not visible from Ballinaboy per se; however the flaring towers will be visible from Carrowmore Lake even if the piling rigs on the site today are not.

There are of course no Corribs in the area. There is Lough Corrib, 100 miles south in County Galway. The gas field itself, 83km out in the ocean has been known as the Corrib Field since its discovery in 1996. Why the Corrib name was chosen (and by whom), is unknown. It’s an alien name with no antecedent or real connection to the locality.

Corporate cartography

As in any contested landscape the legitimacy of varying interpretations is itself contested. This issue of legitimacy is borne out in maps road signs and the shaping of the very physical environment. Over the past few years Shell have sought legitimacy in the local area, particularly since the imprisonment of the Rossport Five. This has forced the application of a new corporate cartography on the landscape, to explain the area for Shell’s own purposes.

Firstly in Shell’s interpretation of Erris, the Sruwaddacan estuary does not actually exist. As we have seen, on literature produced by Shell the inland refinery is presented as being onshore. Shell are not particularly interested in what lies to the north of Ballinaboy bridge. In fact, the presence of a population there explodes the myth of the onshore refinery.

To alleviate this they have reconstructed the area without the townlands of Glengad and Pollathomais on the mapping presented to the public and in the media. In addition the size of the refinery site is misrepresented as being less than a quarter its actual size. This is an attempt to create legitimacy, by recreating a vision of the area that makes their project more amenable to the wider populace.

If the language of onshore terminal has been constantly used, making the fact that the site of the proposed refinery is located inland in an inhabited area, in material produced for the project the model of the refinery is placed on a straight section of beach. There are no houses or communities depicted. The image is quite correctly ‘not to scale’.

This struggle has led to a contest physically played out between the local people and the police, but also a contest over the way the landscape itself is interpreted. Shell have attempted to remodel the area through disregarding what they see as irrelevant; conversely the community have fought to keep their holistic view of the landscape. This struggle is encapsulated between the history of the opposing views: where the community has been created over the past centuries and millennia, reflecting observations of many generations, the new reality has been created in a few months to fulfil the political and economic goals of the élite of one generation, that is of Shell, Mayo County Council and the Irish state.

Roads

Resurfaced road between the refinery and Bangor. Variously known as the "oil road" or the "Shell Highway"
Resurfaced road between the refinery and Bangor. Variously known as the “oil road” or the “Shell Highway”
The "Shell Highway"
The “Shell Highway”

A tactile manifestation of the power relations at play in the Corrib project can be found on the local road network. The project has necessitated the significant upgrading of several roads in the area to allow for the haulage of heavy construction materials and the removal of peat. While the roads used by people from the area remain substandard, including the main road to the hospital at Castlebar, the roads required specifically for Shell have been massively funded. The road from Bellmullet to Ballycastle is the main route in the area. It is joined by an access road to Bangor Erris 200m west of Ballinaboy Bridge. This road was a small road where two cars would only pass each other with great difficulty. Shell (to allow ease of access from a quarry in Bangor Erris) had it widened to the point where two trucks can pass each other with speed.

Although the road has not officially been given a registration, many people who live in northeast Erris refer to the road as the Shell Highway or the oil road. The same name also applies to a section of what is collectively known as the coast road, the Bellmullet-Ballycastle road from the terminal site to Lennon’s Quarry at Glencastle.

Change in road surface at gate 2
Change in road surface at gate 2

The road from Ballinaboy Bridge to Gate 2 is well surfaced until the gate itself is reached. After that, it’s a narrow pitted surface all the way down to the shores of the estuary.

The contest here is immense as the community sees Shell having roads widened and resurfaced in area where most roads are very poor. The community has challenged this remodelling by exposing the selective treatment afforded the multinational, using graffiti and altering official signage.

Resistance to Corrib

Shifting focuses of community resistance to Corrib, from the pipeline, to roads and the refinery itself have created new sites in the landscape. Arguably the most significant of these sites of resistance is a trailer and this has become the focus of signs and symbols located outside Gate 1 at Ballinaboy. The trailer designated Campaign HQ has in many respects has become the principal centre for community opposition to the project.

The trailer
The trailer is positioned outside Gate 1 in direct view of the entrance. This location at the proposed refinery site is important. The refinery constitutes in many ways the focus of the Corrib dispute and the locating of the trailer is a physical manifestation and symbol of community opposition outside the gates.

The Trailer at Bellanaboy
The Trailer at Bellanaboy
Social at the trailer
Social at the trailer

The trailer comprises an Ifor Williams horsebox, which has been altered to accommodate its new function. The interior of the horse box has been fitted out with seating along both side walls, a dresser arrangement along the back wall and a tea urn and generator to heat the water. The walls form a notice board covered in press clippings, newspaper articles, photographs, flyers and event notices.

It was brought to the gates of the refinery in June 2005 immediately after the jailing of the Rossport 5. It was initially brought to the gates to facilitate the direct action at the site, providing tea and food to people picketing the refinery. As it became apparent that direct action at the site would become long term, the trailer was fitted out as a more permanent fixture, organically evolving in response to the needs of the community resisting the Corrib project.

The trailer is a communal space serving a vital function in the campaign as a place of organisation, meeting, exchange, sustenance and resistance. As a place of sustenance, food and drink are given out at the trailer, tea, coffee, homemade bread, scones and sandwiches. The food is mostly made and served by local women involved in the campaign.

Graffiti and signage

Sign in Glengad
Sign in Glengad
Signs at Bellanaboy
Signs at Bellanaboy
Signs at the trailer, Bellanaboy
Signs at the trailer, Bellanaboy
Community under siege sign at Bellanaboy
Community under siege sign at Bellanaboy
Gable of house in Rossport
Gable of house in Rossport
Placard at Bellanaboy
Placard at Bellanaboy
Sign aimed at Shell workers at Bellanaboy
Sign aimed at Shell workers at Bellanaboy
Sign at the refinery gates at Bellanaboy
Sign at the refinery gates at Bellanaboy
Site entrance road sign at Bellanaboy amended
Site entrance road sign at Bellanaboy amended

The trailer is surrounded by a myriad of placards, signs and graffitied road signs countering Shell’s attempts to rename and claim this place. The signs and graffiti focus on the demands of the community, highlighting concerns about the Corrib project. Most of the traffic and site signs have at one stage or another been daubed with the words Shell to Sea or Shell Out. The signs have been cleaned repeatedly by Shell in an attempt to erase dissenting voices but the graffiti keeps appearing. More recently, sheets of paper with the words No Consent repeated dozens of times were plastered to Gate 1, underlining the fact that this is a project that is being imposed on the community.

Further out in the community, telegraph poles, structures, everyday objects of the rural landscape and even the very landscape itself have been utilised in opposition to Shell’s project.

Installaion of bales in Glengad
Installaion of bales in Glengad
Signs on electricity and telephone poles
Signs on electricity and telephone poles

Grafitti on the back of a roadsign at Bellanaboy

Even the small pro-gas group have been active with spraypaint; Healy’s being prominent in the Shell to Sea campaign.The weather does a better job of removing these signs than any early morning attack and they are replaced and renewed on a regular basis if needs be.

Pro  Shell grafitti near Barnatra
Pro Shell grafitti near Barnatra

Graffiti has also countered the misleading signals of the County Council, which completely removed the name Rossport (in its English form), from new signage specifically designed for tourists and Irish language enthusiasts. The first solidarity camp was located in Rossport and throughout the summer of 2005 it was accommodating an increasing amount of European supporters, who were having difficulty finding the place.

Rossport Pier stop signs- the one to the right orignially read "stop shell" but was replaced
Rossport Pier stop signs- the one to the right orignially read “stop shell” but was replaced

There was so much funding allocated for the project that the authority was left with a problem as to how to disperse with the surplus monies even after most corners had been graced with their own signage. One solution here at Rossport pier was to doubly ensure that any unfortunate tourist or protestor who might have gotten this far, would at least not drown in the fast flowing estuary.

Resistance rooted in community and historical experience
Resistance to the Corrib gas project is rooted in the historical experience and imagined historical experiences of this marginalized community. That Corrib is viewed as a neo-colonial project and the oil company equated with the old colonial élites by sectors of the local community is evident in the way they have articulated their resistance. This is visible both in the archaeology and in the other sources we have used.

In Margaretta D’Arcy’s short Shell to Sea film made in the summer of 2005, Cáit Uí Sheighin opens with the statement

Many hundreds of years ago they sent us to hell or to Connaught. We went to Connaught, now they’ve sent us to hell.

The reference to the Cromwellian transplantation places the struggle against Shell in the context of the perceived historical struggle against British imperialism, a theme which arises repeatedly and which holds particular resonance for people in this place.

On the R314 the words Tans Out were sprayed onto the road. The comparison is between Shell and/or the Gardaí and the Black and Tans, a special auxiliary force drafted in during the War of Independence and renowned for their brutality.

Picture55

In June 2007 a Union Jack was hung from a telegraph pole outside the gates of the refinery. The flag’s presence was a statement identifying the Shell refinery as a specifically English site. The flag served to remind all that Shell are partly an English company, reinforcing to any workers who would break the ‘picket’ that they are in effect collaborating with the colonists. The flag was partially burnt by workers from the site, embarrassed at being associated with the traditional enemy and it currently remains aloft outside the site gates.

The rooting of resistance in historical experience and community is also evident in the way in which religious, faith-based folk traditions have been incorporated, modified and used to articulate opposition to Corrib and in galvanising and celebrating that community resistance. The traditions of pilgrimage and procession have been called on in particular to create what has become a new tradition in expressing resistance to Corrib. The Good Friday Walk as it has become known, consists of a procession from Willie and Mary Corduff’s home in Gob a‘Sailín to the pier in Rossport village, along the route of the pipeline initially proposed. The procession is led by nine people carrying white crosses bearing the names of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight men hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 for their opposition to Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta. The walk ends at Rossport pier, near the landfall of the pipeline where prayers are offered for all those who have suffered due to Shell’s operations worldwide.

The Good Friday Walk was first made in 2005 in the spring before the Rossport 5 were jailed and during a period in which Shell engineers were attempting to begin staking out the route of the refinery pipeline in Rossport. The collective act of walking out the route of the pipeline through Rossport is an act of reclamation, and one of hope and solidarity.

Participants in the good friday walk gather for a photograph near Rossport village
Participants in the good friday walk gather for a photograph near Rossport village
Participants in the good friday walk 2006
Participants in the good friday walk 2006
The good friday walk 2006
The good friday walk 2006

New traditions and commemoration in the landscape
The Good Friday Walk is not the only example of religious or folk traditions being evoked in the struggle against Corrib. On the 21 June bonfires are traditionally lit in the west of Ireland for St. John’s Eve. In June 2005, a bonfire was lit on the roadside where community campaigners staged the two-week long truck blockade. It was lit again on the same spot the following summer. The spot by the roadside is commemorated with a sign on an adjacent telegraph pole.

Resistance rooted in solidarity
Resistance to the Corrib gas project is rooted by solidarity. Firstly this is solidarity at the community level (which we’ve discussed above), expanding to solidarity with communities facing state and corporate oppression on a global level.

The bonefire spot
Location of the bonfire

From Ogoniland to Bogoniland
Solidarity with communities living with Shell across the globe but in particular in the Niger Delta region has been central to resistance of the Corrib gas project. This solidarity is articulated in the landscape in the form of installations, signs, murals, and flags and has been central to events such as the Good Friday Walks.

Crosses outside the refinery site
Crosses outside the refinery site
Blessed ground
Blessed ground

The evoking of Ken Saro Wiwa and Ogoniland also serves to underline, as is frequently articulated by community activists, that the fight against Corrib is not an isolated campaign against one bad project but part of a wider struggle against the global economic structures that enable such projects to happen.

The crosses installation forms part of a greater corpus of signs and placards placed around the trailer and Gate 1 at Ballinaboy. The installation consists of nine white crosses placed in a line parallel to the R314 and diametrically opposite Gate 1. The crosses bear the names of Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni eight. Behind the crosses a placard usually bears the words Murdered by Shell in 1995.

Two other examples of the expression of solidarity with Nigeria can be seen in Rossport. One such expression can be found in an installation of a noose accompanied with a placard reading Nigeria 1995, Rossport 2005. The installation was put up by Philip McGrath, Rossport resident, farmer and one of the Rossport 5. The second is a mural of Ken Saro Wiwa by local man John Monaghan. The mural was painted in 2005 and unveiled outside the gates of the refinery on 10 November, the tenth anniversary of the hangings.

Ken Saro Wiwa mural on gable of shed in Rossport
Ken Saro Wiwa mural on gable of shed in Rossport


The importance of the crosses as a symbol of resistance and of hope is underlined by way in which they have become contested objects. The installation has been subject to ongoing vandalism, which many from the campaign believe to have been carried out by the police. Several crosses were stolen and the attendant placard was broken through. When Shell began to remove sods adjacent to the crosses residents had them blessed by local parish priest, and a placard was erected reading This ground has been blessed. Please do not disturb. The crosses remain in place outside Gate 1.

Rossport Solidarity Camp(s)

The second solidarity camp at Glengad 2006-2008

The first camp was established in Rossport itself, as the Rossport 5 were about to be imprisoned in the summer of 2005. It was located directly over the pipeline route and was something of a makeshift affair which by the end of the summer was accommodating up to 30 people at any given time.

A meeting at the solidarity camp
A meeting at the solidarity camp

The following year it was decided to relocate the camp across the estuary, within the machair at Glengad, close to the initial landfall of the pipe and in a more sheltered location. It was decided to retain the name Rossport Solidarity Camp despite the fact that Rossport, just 300m away, was located nearly an hour away by road.

The camps were somewhat different in atmosphere to the anti-roads camps established in the UK in the ’90s: a strict environmental regime has been imposed on campers ranging from the use of grey water systems, compost toilets and marked ways through the machair, protecting the ecosystem.

The camp is in the process of dismantling itself as we speak, due to the threat of legal action from the County Council.

Conclusion

Praying at the refinery gates 2005
Praying at the refinery gates 2005

The struggle in Erris has pitted the economic interests of Royal Dutch Shell, a corporation with an economy bigger than the size of the Irish State against the survival and well being of an isolatedl rural community of small farmers, fishermen, housewives, returned emigrants and teachers.

The conflict between those who come from this place, whose people have survived in and lived with this place and state and corporate interests, is one for ownership, control and definition of this landscape. It is a struggle for the landscape and a struggle that is written in the landscape.

Michael O’Seighin has identified the community as an antidote to corporate power:

The only danger apparently to the world wide domination of this mentality is community, is people sticking their heels in and saying well, no. I’m going to live here because my people lived here and because it’s familiar to me.

Even as a new landscape is being created, there is faith in abundance in the old customs that have been evoked as part of the struggle against Corrib. There is hope in the new foci of protest that have evolved, creating their own folklore, their own archaeology for the future.

Sunset on Broadhaven Bay
Sunset on Broadhaven Bay
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