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Almost by accident, he was making a documentary

Donald Clarke - Irish Times

News cameraman Risteárd Ó Domhnaill, troubled by coverage of the Corrib gas story, began shooting what would become an extraordinary record of how external stresses can disturb hitherto secure communities

RISTEÁRD Ó DOMHNAILL is largely invisible throughout The Pipe . Already acclaimed at Galway Film Fleadh, Toronto Film Festival and London Film Festival, Ó Domhnaill’s fine documentary examines the still-bubbling controversy about Shell’s efforts to run a gas pipeline across unscarred land near Rossport, Co Mayo. The director stays, for the most part, out of the action. But every now and then one of his subjects acknowledges his presence with a combination of affection and bemused tolerance. One imagines a strong personality lurks behind the camera.

The suspicion proves to be well founded. Now 30 years old, a news cameraman with a background in (deep breath) theoretical physics, boxing, history and the Irish language, Ó Domhnaill has an inexhaustible capacity for chatter and an apparently bottomless store of knowledge. Occasionally his taste for conspiracies runs away with him – large swathes of his conversation would chill our lawyers’ wary bones – but this is a man with enormous reserves of focused energy.

“I had been doing a bit of shooting up there for news programmes,” he says. “I moved there in 2005 and then, in late 2006, a year after the Rossport Five were released, this massive number of guards were drafted into the area – about 200 of them – at about six o’clock in the morning. They blocked off all the roads leading to the refinery. I was curious and started shooting a bit.”

Ó Domhnaill was happy to see his footage on TV but rapidly became troubled about the way the story was being reported. “On the ground I was seeing ordinary decent, respectable people being treated as if they were thugs. They were being portrayed in the media as if they were anarchists. They were all being portrayed as mad republicans. I knew that to be wrong.”

The Corrib gas controversy has sprung so many subplots as to frustrate any even vaguely comprehensive summary in this space. The skeleton of the story remains, however, simple enough to outline. A decade ago plans to exploit the offshore gas field began to emerge. Over the next few years objections to the scheme gradually built momentum. Citizens of the area, in and around Kilcommon, were appalled at the perceived lack of consultation, at the location of the processing plant on land, at the apparent damage to fishing, at the possible danger of an accident and, as events progressed, at the way the growing protests were policed.

The drama reached its first major conflagration in 2005 when five locals were arrested for breaching an injunction prohibiting protesters from restricting access to Shell’s Rossport facility. Following intense media coverage and gestures of support throughout the country, the Rossport Five were released after 94 days’ confinement.

The film focuses on a small hub of Mayo activists, among them Willie Corduff, one of the Rossport Five, and Pat “the Chief” O’Donnell, a determined fisherman. It attempts an examination of the bitter disputes that followed, and the access Ó Domhnaill got is impressive.

“I never really thought of it that way,” he says. “They all knew me as Richie. I knew they weren’t being represented properly and that Shell was manipulating the news to isolate them. They appreciated that I was getting their story out. Then I gradually moved on from shooting news footage, which is wallpaper. I’d take off with Willie down the farm or with Pat on the boat. There was no plan. I just thought it was interesting.”

Did they ever tire of him?

“Ah, yeah. Willie would see me coming and he’d say: ‘Oh, we’ll have to feed him again. We’d better put a lock on the fridge.’ ” Eventually Ó Domhnaill realised that, almost by accident, he was making a documentary. He contacted the Irish Film Board and, after bit of juggling with personnel, ended up working with the producer Rachel Lysaght. The film that resulted is an extraordinary record of the way external stresses can disturb hitherto secure communities.

Ó Domhnaill’s uncle lived in the area, and he often visited as a child. “It was so peaceful,” he says. “I spent all my summers up there as a child, where my mother had grown up. We never saw any guards. There was a moral law. There was a bit of poitín and a bit of poaching. That was all. Things moved along as they always had done. Then it all changed.”

His mother, raised on a small farm, secured a scholarship to University College Galway and ended up teaching Irish and geography in Cahir, Co Tipperary. His father, a keen fisherman with a general love of the outdoors, taught at the same college. Ó Domhnaill remembers the household as being an academic one. The studious atmosphere had its effect, and, after leaving school, he went to study theoretical physics at Trinity College Dublin. Few courses are more academically demanding; he graduated with a first.

How on earth did he end up becoming a news cameraman?

“I was good at the sums,” he says, laughing. “Then I did a degree in Irish and history in Galway, mainly because I loved sport. I won British and Irish titles boxing for Galway. I boxed in the States and stuff. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just good at the nerdy stuff.”

He went on to teach in a Dublin convent – “the hardest job I ever had” – and began messing about with video equipment on the side. By accident rather than design he found himself stumbling into a new career.

He’s an interesting fellow, this Richie Ó Domhnaill. He is capable of bluff good humour, but there is a steely, determined streak to him that suggests he rarely takes no for an answer. At any rate, against the odds, he has now become a promising documentary-maker. The premiere of The Pipe at the Galway Film Fleadh was a raging success. A standing ovation accompanied the end credits and the picture went on to win best documentary.

Ó Domhnaill says he is not making a campaigning film, but it’s fairly clear where his sympathies lie. No spokesperson for Shell appears. “I had e-mails over and back to them,” he says. “But they always put some kind of condition in place. Eventually Rachel gave them a deadline. You have to come back to us in this time. And they missed it. So I don’t try and tell Shell’s story.”

Is the story then incomplete?

“Some reviews have said that. I could have had those interviews [with Shell representatives] and then put them beside people like Willie. That would have made Shell seem even worse. But that’s manipulation and that’s what I see in the news reports. I never wanted to do that.”

The Pipe does not paint an entirely flattering portrait of the protesters. At one point in the campaign, inevitable tensions began to develop between different factions. Ó Domhnaill’s film offers some skull-shaking footage of a dispute between Maura Harrington, a loud schoolteacher who later went on hunger strike, and less volatile members of the organising committee. I can’t imagine his subjects were delighted with those sequences.

“No small community [likes its] dirty linen being washed in public,” he says. “Some felt I shouldn’t have shown so much. Even though they may have their own problems with Maura, they didn’t like her being seen to be done down publicly.”

These observations noted, The Pipe stands as an effective commentary on the background to a dispute that, as Ó Domhnaill reiterates, has too often been reported as an undistinguished shouting match.

Has the former boxer, resting physicist, occasional historian and continuing newsman now become a documentarian? “I don’t know. Yes and no,” he says. “I don’t see myself as being that strong directorially. But I think I am good at letting other people’s views influence me. That helps.”

Really? Ó Domhnaill strikes me as the kind of fellow who rarely loses an argument. Expect to see a great deal more of him.

The Pipe is on limited release from Friday