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Review of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ by Lorna Siggins

“Tháinig long ó Valparaiso”

On the 8th September, 2008, the world’s largest pipelaying ship sailed into Broadhaven Bay. This was not Pádraig de Brun’s ship of dreams but  a menacing symbol of a powerful multinational oil company threatening the serenity of this beautifully scenic area. This was the climax of a story that began with the discovery of a major gas find off the North West coast of Ireland.

"The Solitaire", photo: Peter Sweetman

"The Solitaire" photo: Peter Sweetman

The news was greeted with excitement in an area left behind and forgotten by successive governments. This would create jobs and prosperity and inject new life into a place drained of it’s lifeblood by emigration. There were few, if any dissenting voices. So, where did things go wrong? A combination of political ineptitude and a lack of proper consultation on the part of government and the oil company helped create the long running battle that is still going on between locals, the Gardaí and the multinational – Shell.

Lorna Siggins – marine correspondent for the Irish Times – has reported on these events since they began. When other journalists wrote about the more sensational issues such as the protests, Siggins told things as they were, without fear or favour. So who better to chronicle this saga? She uses a narrative style to guide the reader through a timetable of events that include meetings, oral hearings, court cases, protests et cetera, and her attention to detail is simply amazing  She brings to life the main characters and tells the story as it happens  This book is full of human stories, tragic in places, but with touches of humour All is told against a background of facts carefully referenced using excellent notes at the back.

The story begins with an aptly titled chapter – “Bedrock”.  This traces the history of the area from the geological formation of oil and gas, to the oldest farm settlement in the world, right down to the present.  This is an area with a rich cultural and archaeological past, ancient monuments dot the landscape, and stories of the Children of Lir and of local giants like Caocháin abound. There are references to the literary history of the place – Séamus Heaney’s poem on the Céide Fields, J. M. Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World’’ and Robert Llyod Praeger’s description of the area as “the wildest, loneliest stretch of country to be had in all of Ireland”. It is a unique landscape with a fragile ecosystem that has been designated as an S.A.C. (special area of conservation) by the European Commission.

GlengadFencingOne of the things that strike the reader is the number of characters that inhabit the story – politicians, priests, Shell personnel, members of Mayo County Council, to name a few. Included in this list are the concerned members of the local community who weave in and out of this story. John McGahern once said that one has to be from an area in order to understand it, and Siggins seems to have an intimate insight into the local character. There’s the straight talking fisherman, Pat O Donnell,the calm stoical Mary Corduff and the volatile Maura Harrington.

Solitaire1The story has plenty of drama – a landslide tears through the village of Glengad, men go to jail, a hunger strike occurs when the world’s largest pipe laying ship arrives. Her account of the arrival of the “Solitaire” is vividly portrayed. We can picture this mammoth vessel surrounded by naval ships, fishing boats and Garda ribs in a scene reminiscent of a naval battle.

This is a story that had to be told. Shell thought they were coming to an isolated, backward area, which they probably were, and that, consequently, the people were backward, which they are not.  Siggins quotes Lelia Doolan who said that there had ‘’never been a blanket rejection of the gas for the betterment of life’’, but there ‘’were and are other routes, other options.  No wonder Shell is trying to mend it’s hand with various inducements and sponsorships and scholarships.’’ These people are not Luddites – they want progress but not at a cost to their health, their landscape or their culture. The book ends with a quote from the late Justin Keating, former minister for energy, ‘’I hope that it is all done in a social context, building a community rather than giving out money.’’  Well done to Lorna Siggins, for, to quote Fintan O Toole in his foreword, ‘’writing a book that demands to be read by anyone interested in the workings of contemporary power.’’

Mary Caulfield

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