Kevin Doyle Blog

Writing and activism

Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Back …

with 2 comments

In the last number of years the Irish left has been involved in a number of significant victories – playing its part in the anti-water tax campaign, in the Marriage Equality referendum and in the Repeal 8th Amendment campaign. But defeat and defeats have also been part of our story.

How do we respond when we lose? This interview arose from a call by the journal Perspectives In Anarchist Studies for activists to talk about their experiences and their responses to defeat. Specifically this interview examines the Free The Old Head Campaign and the children’s book that later emerged and was inspired by the campaign, The Worms That Saved The World.

Q: So where is a good place to begin? A children’s story book emerging out of a campaign that ended in defeat? How, why?

A: A few reasons. First off, like so many campaigns and struggles that we are involved in we lost but we shouldn’t have. What I mean is that justice was not done. Rather we lost because the other side had deep pockets and they also had the police and the state on their side. They didn’t win because they were right or because that position had more validity than ours. Our campaign was a classic example of might winning out over right. So, I suppose, our book is a way of saying ‘We’re not done here actually’.

Q: Perhaps so you could tell us something about the campaign that inspired the book?

A: Sure. It was a campaign that happened here in Ireland at a location called the Old Head of Kinsale. It’s a beautiful promontory of land with walking trails, bird sanctuaries and magnificent views of the ocean and the surrounding coastline. It has been a traditional walking destination going back through the generations. For generations the land there was farm land with these wonderful walks around and at the edges of it.

Then in the late eighties the entire headland was purchased by a millionaire developer who had this dream of building a luxury golf course there. He wanted it to be exclusive too, just for those who had a lot of money. He was aiming at the top end of the golfing business – where luxury intersects with exclusivity and unparalleled scenic position.

“Many people wanted to preserve the headland as a public amenity and these developers wanted to effectively privatise it.”

A campaign got underway. Many people wanted to preserve the headland as a public amenity and these developers wanted to effectively privatise it. Our campaign – called Free The Old Head – emerged to take on the developers.

We shall not be moved: stalwart protester, Pat Allen, making a his point to the gardaí

Q: How did the campaign go and evolve?

A: In truth it was always going to be an uphill battle to win against a determined group of developers. We were up against people with deep pockets. Essentially the campaign took the shape of a series of mass trespasses whereby people went to where the golf course was and insisted on their right to walk onto the Old Head of Kinsale. It was direct action and, at first, it was very difficult for the developers to stop the protest as they were large and defiant.

As soon as they did, the Irish police – the gardaí – rowed in to enforce the rule of law. It was touch and go after that. We really needed more public support and it didn’t arrive. So, in the end, public access was lost.

Eventually the developers went to the Irish courts, took on Cork’s County Council and Ireland’s Planning Board, both of which opposed the restrictions on the public’s right to walk in the area. In the courts the developers made many outrageous claims and tried to suggest that “The entire right to private property in Ireland was in dispute.” Mad stuff. But the courts, well, they sided with the developers. Surprise, surprise right?

Normally defeat spreads dejection and in our case there’s no doubt that was the case too. But it was really a highly spirited campaign despite losing. A lot of people mobilised. There were some really big protests. People scaled walks and climbed big wire fences. There was a strong element of direct action mixed in which what were called People’s Picnics which were very family friendly.

Knowledge is power ...

Q: Books about campaigns are not uncommon. Why did you choose the idea of a children’s book?  Why that angle?

A:  A few reasons really. I suppose from the purely practical point, there’s a lot of creative space within fiction writing. Even more so in children’s fiction. It struck us that the fight at the Old Head of Kinsale was in some ways a metaphor for our times. It was a conflict involving the public good up against private greed. On this occasion privilege and greed won out but we have to remember too that this cannot continue to be the case. We must start to win. The “public good” must begin to win out against privilege and greed. We cannot keep losing all these battles.

So subconsciously there was a feeling, for me anyway, to write about it and imagine the alternative.

What happened at the Old Head of Kinsale moreover seemed to be perfect material to bring back to life in an imaginary way. So in our book, the story is carried forth by a community of earthworms. They live on an imaginary headland – on Ireland’s Atlantic coastline! – that is invaded by a luxury golf course development. Pesticides and insecticides are used on the land and soon the worms are getting sick. However, they are rebels and they speak up. They ask for consideration. The result is that the developers try to eradicate them. The earthworms make a valiant escape but they know they have little hope on their own. A seagull – normally one of their predators – helps them, and this is how they make their grand breakthrough. They realise that they need to get help so they set off to tell their story. They build a movement … We won’t tell you the end but they do win!

The book is aimed at children but adults really get it too. It’s nice to imagine winning, and that one can. Another reason why a children’s book seemed ideal was that children don’t like injustice. When you talk to children about saving the planet from greed, you really are pushing an open door. And we want to tell a story that is optimistic about the possibilities ahead.  Even though they can sometimes appear bleak.

I guess, when we tell stories or sing songs about injustice and fighting back, we are in part administering therapy and in part defying the impact of defeat. Stories and songs are resistance and therapy.

Q: But the book is primarily aimed at kids?

A: Yes. Most definitely. It is an illustrated book in the best sense of that word. The artist who created the illustrations, Spark Deeley, did a wonderful job. The illustrations have a lot in them, and within some there are more stories – like the one where the worms have a mass meeting.

Also the story is dramatic. The worms have to fight to survive. It’s an adventure and they make it through in the end. So it’s an adventure book too.

It is fair to say though that it is an “alternative” adventure book. I suppose it fills a gap in the book market.  That was another side to why we chose to do a kids book.

Many activists are parents or will be parents or child-minders at some point in their lives. While the campaign to Free the Old Head was ongoing, I had young daughters myself. I’d be the first to say that there are some really great books out there, but there is a dire lack of books like ours about things like this too.

Q: You mentioned a few reasons?

A: So many story books reinforce and uphold traditional values. This has been exposed in recent times around gender roles in particular. The video “The Ugly Truth About Children’s Books” is a great example. It’s on YouTube and well worth a look. A mum and her daughter remove books from a bookcase using the following criteria: Is there a female character? Does she speak? Do they have aspirations or are they just waiting for a prince? In the end there’s not a lot of books left for the mum and daughter to read. One bald fact tells you a lot: 25% of 5,000 books studied had no female characters at all. So across the board for a range of children’s media, less than 20% of products showed women with a job, compared to more than 80% in respect to male characters. So around gender roles we can clearly see biases in operation. Do these biases help in perpetuating a whole range of disparities that women and girls suffer in society? Of course they do. Conservative socialisation is all around us, and dominant in so many spheres of life.

Moving away from gender temporarily, why would we be surprised if there were similar biases around topics like poverty, exploitation or challenging authorities. Of course there are.

“The book is an imaginary celebration of fighting the good fight for justice. In our story – as you can see from the book’s cover image – the earthworms are happy rebels.”

So in another way, in responding to what happened in our campaign in Cork, we are also addressing other issues not actually disconnected from our general struggle against injustice. People are passive and accept injustice often because they are socialised from a young age to be that way.  We need to broaden the scope of radical ideas and alternatives. The area of young children’s fiction, seemed an obvious place in a way. Also an important place. Children matter and they listen and question. We want to link up with that I suppose.

We’ve described our book as “Direct action for kids,” and that’s what we think our young citizens should know more about: in life, to be effective, direct action works.

Q: In the promo piece you say “A book for adults too”  right? Can you talk about this?

A: Adults can clearly see the simplicity of the story. It is a bit of a good versus bad tale and none of the dreadful complications of adult life are really there. But adults like the idea of passing on their values to children, and this book offers opportunities for doing that.

Questions arise from any good story. So in our book, community and solidarity become central issues in survival. The importance of standing by people if they are picked on by more powerful people, by bullies if you like, is also part of the story. Children sadly are quite familiar with bullies, so this book is able to speak to them about this issue too.

A key anarchist idea is in our story also, by the way. In fact the plot turns on it. This is the idea of mutual aid. Species on our planet coexist, and there is cooperation, but do we hear much about that? Children hear lots about competition and the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. So again there is room in the story to look at the idea of cooperation and how humans must in the end cooperate and respect the value of the environment.

So there’s room in the book for adults to talk and explain to children about different things that arise. Or you can just read it for the adventure and fun of it.

Q: A lot of positivity from defeat then.

A: Sure. The book is an imaginary celebration of fighting the good fight for justice. In our story – as you can see from the book’s cover image – the earthworms are happy rebels. The cover image by the way is from a point in the story before the worms have claimed outright victory. So, via the image, we are reflecting on that very important fact that we sometimes overlook: it is important to fight injustice but it is often fun too!

I mean, many of know this at a personal level in that we meet some great friends in campaigns, and we meet some really decent comrades. But joining with others, taking part, enjoying participatory democracy, we get to live life. So the book is a celebration of rebellion and the rebellious way too.

Q: Has the book had an impact on the original issue at Kinsale?

A: Locally it has revived interest in the issue at the Old Head. With the passage of time, the loss of this amenity is felt more acutely. There is a sense that the community was “robbed” and in a way it was. Also other cases have emerged. For example, Donald Trump has a golf course that is involved in controversy in another part of Ireland. There is a golf course in Scotland with a similar tale of woe to tell, also linked to Trump I think. People have told us about other cases similar to ours that are really about the same type of thing: the greedy 1% taking away from the public space. So it has brought an awareness that what happened at the Old Head is about a lot more than just something in our locality.

Another interesting aspect has been the positive response from many of the activists from the campaign. They have really helped to promote the book. I think many of them are proud that their fight has been celebrated with a book of its own.

Q: Some final points?

A: A couple that are related I suppose. Firstly we have to play the long game if we want to change the world. I know some ask, is there time? Well, we need time too. There is a war of ideas out there and neo-liberalism is very pervasive. We need to get in there now. Books are one way of doing that because books are powerful. That has been known from time immemorial. So our book, The Worms That Saved The World, is part of the long game. We want to influence young people and have them think early on about the idea of standing up for their rights.

But let’s go a step further and ask what do you do about your rights if the authorities and the courts say NO? If they say to you your rights don’t matter. Our book goes into that and it is unequivocal. If you rebel, think about how to win and what winning entails.

Educate, spread your ideas and build support. It’s one of the lessons that emerged from losing at the Old Head of Kinsale. We didn’t do enough of that before the crunch came in the fight there.

At the very end of our story, the worms celebrate and they say, about their victory, “We did it together.” That says it all.

This interview was first published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 30: Beyond The Crisis.

The Worms That Saved The World by Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley was published in May 2017. It is distributed worldwide by AK Press (Oakland) and AK Press (Edinburgh)

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Hi Kevin, good interesting read. Sad to hear that there is no right of way to the Old Head. I got engaged there just over 10years ago, it has a place in my heart as my grandmother was born there, my great grandfather was part of the coastguards. Thomas Dunne. I have a picture of the place she was born in at the Old head, I often wonder if it still stands. It was just a structure then (many years ago in the 1990’s) , a skeleton of what it was – but still a significant place for my family. I’m coming across from England soon and hope to do a flying visit to the area as we have a holiday in Kerry. Best wishes, Trevorr

    Trevorr Mills

    August 20, 2019 at 11:32 am

    • Thanks for comment Trevorr. I see well why it might be special for you. It is a really wonderful place on the whole in terms of being an amenity. Recently we heard about another such effort in Galway where a piece of land in commonage was also the subject of a privatisation attempt by a golf course (again). Anyway, very much hope you have a lovely holiday here and the best for now. Kevin

      Kevin Doyle

      August 29, 2019 at 2:49 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: