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Posts Tagged ‘The Worms That Saved The World

Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Back …

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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)

Free The Old Head of Kinsale – A Brief History

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Free The Old Head Poster 2The Old Head of Kinsale is located about twenty miles from Cork city, on Ireland’s Atlantic coastline. Jutting into the ocean, the promontory of land is a scenic highlight and has been a destination of choice for walkers going back over a hundred years. The waters around the Old Head are dangerous and there are records of a lighted beacon on the tip of the headland as far back as pre-Christian times. The first official lighthouse was established in the 17th century by Robert Reading. Today, a fully automated lighthouse still operates on the tip of the Old Head.

In Bartholomew’s (1) Walk Cork and Kerry the hike down to the Old Head lighthouse is described as follows:  The Old Head is a quiet place. Little remains of the Celtic settlement or of the many ships that have come to grief on its rocky eastern shore. Today it is the haunt of fishermen, bird watchers and rock climbers. The bird sanctuary is a protected area. The numerous coastal tracks here are well-defined.  

Older guides to the Kinsale area are more graphic. Thulliers notes that Holeopen Bay – on either side of the isthmus at the Old Head – is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses. (2) The same guide records that there are a number of ‘spectacular sea arches in the rock at the water’s edge that may be seen from a boat‘. ‘Some of these cut right through the 200 foot high cliffs‘ where ‘light from the other side of the headland to be seen.’ The Spanish knew of the Old Head and called it Capo de Vel (Cape of Light). It has been a favoured destination for bird watchers for generations too. The best time to visit the headlands is from mid-April to mid-July when seabird numbers are at their highest. Upto to 5,000 Guillemots regularly nest on the cliffs, laying their single eggs on bare ledges. The headland’s ‘prominent position jutting out into the Atlantic’ makes it a great place ‘to watch the passing migrations of various seabirds in spring and autumn’. Smaller colonies of Razorbills, Kittiwake, Fulmars and Shags also nest in the area. (3)

Millionaire

old-head-of-kinsale-cork-ireland-wild-atlantic-wayIn the early 90s, the wealthy businessman John O’Connor purchased the entire headland for the princely sum of just €300,000. Although he would later describe the decision as a ‘rush of blood to the head’, he had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with this unique part of the Irish coastline (4). His dream did not include walkers, sightseers or the general public. O’Connor’s vision was to construct a golf links at the Old Head aimed at the luxury end of the market. In an interview with the Irish Examiner (4) in 2002, he described his intentions as follows:

‘[The Old Head Golf Links will be] a five-star service. From the moment they arrive our golfers are looked after. Everyone has a caddy and their clubs are cleaned after they come off the course. We give a level of service that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Europe, let alone in Ireland. Our aspiration is to rank among the ten best course and ultimately to become the premier club in the world. We’re aiming at the top end of the market – and I make no bones about that.’

Major construction work began at the Old Head in the mid-90s. However matters didn’t go entirely to plan for the millionaire. When O’Connor’s Ashbourne Holdings Ltd sought planning permission for a clubhouse that would act as the centerpiece for his new luxury enclave, he ran into public resistance and the planning process. Permission to continue with the construction was eventually granted by Cork County Council, however a stipulation was added that the public had to be allowed to have access to the coastline and to the walking paths leading down to the Old Head lighthouse.

2017-03-27 18.05.33 (2)This was not acceptable to O’Connor. He disputed the existence of any public right of way on the headland – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Threatening to abandon his commitment to the development unless he was given full control over the Old Head, he began a series of legal actions against Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála. As he saw it his ownership and investment in the exclusive golf course conferred on him the right to control access to the Old Head. This, in his view, should include who could use the road leading down to lighthouse and who was permitted to walk the paths along the cliffs:

You can’t have people wandering around a golf course, he said. We wouldn’t get insurance if the public were let in here. (4)

O’Connor also felt he taking on a fight on behalf of all developers:

The implications [of the planning stipulation upholding the public’s right of way] are wide-ranging. Every development company in the country and every landowner is looking at this case very anxiously. [If the decision to prohibit the public access to the Old Head walkways is not upheld] It would mean that there would be no such thing as private property any more.

O’Connor’s Ashbourne Holding Ltd won the first round when the High Court ruled in favour of the new golf facility. Justice Nicholas Kearns described the public’s right of access as ‘manifestly unreasonable’ as walkers and golfers had differing interests and concerns. If joint access was allowed, he argued, it ‘could result in either injury or conflict between members of the public and golfers using the facilities of the course’.

Shortly after, Cork County Council withdrew from the case. However An Bord Pleanála opted to continue the legal battle and appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. As it did a campaign got underway to assert the public right to walk the cliff and coastline at the Old Head.

Picnic Time

On July 1st 2001, the Free The Old Head campaign organised its first ‘People’s Picnic’ on the grassy hill overlooking the deCourcy Castle ruins which stood at the entrance to the new Old Head Golf Links. The event was a great success.

About 150 people turned up outside the scenic main entrance for the protest picnic, and after plenty of eating and singing discussion began on ‘what to do’. Despite the fact that the golf course and the access to the walking area was protected by a high rampart wall and razor wire, protesters overran the security heavies … In all nearly 60 people scaled the fences and marched along the traditional route of the ‘Old Head walk’. Avoiding confrontation and harassment from Golf Course security, the group held a protest meeting at the Old Head Lighthouse and then returned to the picnic area.

A further report added,

The day was the hottest of the year … The local Evening Echo had given some advance publicity and the Kinsale Residents Association had announced their support … All around the open ground people were setting out picnics with friends and family. A few musicians were playing and everyone was very relaxed. After awhile a few small groups of people spontaneously infiltrated through the wire topped walls and were escorted out. The security were a bit tetchy. Talk then began of a need to stage a mass entrance onto the course. This was canvassed among the picnicking groups and it was made clear that each person could make up their own minds [about] what role they wanted. Some would climb the wall, others proceeded to the gate and others just picnicked and observed. At 4 pm we rushed the walls, around 100 people flowed unimpeded onto the course apart from two or three over enthusiastic plain clothes gardaí resistance was non-existent and they gave up when the realised the sheer numbers they were dealing with.

People's Picnic At Old Head, c 2003The determination of the protesters surprised the irritable O’Connor. He decried the public controversy surrounding his plans for the Old Head.

An impression has been created, he said, that the Old Head is a Phoenix Park [- a reference to the main public park in Dublin, Ireland’s capital city]. That it’s a kind of public park for Cork and we came and stole it and built a golf course on it … It has created a sense of outrage among a segment of people that … individuals could come and steal a national park.

He was right. People from Kinsale, Cork and further afield were aggrieved. As a result the standoff continued. The second People’s Picnic (in late July of the same year) was billed and organised as another family friendly event. However the response from the authorities was noticeable different. It would be an exaggeration to describe the garda presence at the second picnic as oppressive, but there was no disputing that it was intentionally intrusive. Cars transporting picnickers and protesters to the area outside the golf course entrance were repeatedly challenged by the gardaí. Vehicles were checked and car registrations recorded; many drivers were instructed to produce their documents at local garda stations around Cork county within a fortnight. Gardaí also had cameras and proceeded to make a record of those who insisted on their right to access the walk to the Old Head lighthouse.

No Compromise

Over the summer of 2001, three People’s Picnics in total were held. Each picnic was followed by a decision by those present to walk down to the Old Head lighthouse – in a peaceful declaration of the public right of way.  In 2002, the protests got underway early in the year in March. By now O’Connor had erected razor wire along the walls of the old deCourcy castle, which marked the boundary with the golf course. Large numbers of private security were also in attendance along with a large detachment of gardaí and Special Branch. However, the protesters, numbering over 150, were prepared and using old carpet they neutralised the barbed wire barriers and proceeded to have an orderly walk down to the lighthouse.

O’Connor was furious. He claimed that the protesters were ‘hardcore militant activists’ and added that ‘some of them are thugs and wear balaclavas. There is no compromise’. In the same interview he pointed out how much money he had spent on the course. The matter to him was simple, black and white.  ‘Golfers and ramblers don’t mix,’ he said. Either he was granted complete control or he would leave.

The protests continued. However in late 2002, the Supreme Court ruled on An Bord Pleanála’s appeal. It found unanimously in favour of O’Connor’s Ashbourne Holdings and dismissed the appeal ‘in its entirety’ affirming that no public right of access existed on the promontory. Moreover, the Supreme Court awarded costs to O’Connor who remained in an unforgiving mood.  He berated Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála for having the temerity to oppose him. He suggested that they had been cavalier in their approach and had wasted public funds. They needed to have their ‘knuckles rapped’, he said.

The Free The Old Head campaign pledged to continue the fight. Significantly though, at first protest of 2003, the People’s Picnic failed to gain access to the road leading down to the lighthouse. A combination of bad weather, a large garda presence and the determination of the authorities to prevent ‘any trespassing on private property’ saw the protesters outnumbered and outmaneuvered. At subsequent protests even more gardaí were bused in, creating a difficult atmosphere for the protests.  The fortifications along the boundary wall had also been strengthened – with more razor wire and security cameras – making it even more difficult for the walkers to gain access to the walking areas.

Razor Wire ‘Assaulted’

In late 2003 a member of the Free The Old Head campaign was charged with ‘attacking’ the barbed strung across the ramparts during one of the trespass attempts. Despite the fact that large numbers of cameras were now being utilised to monitor the protests, no photographic evidence could be produced in relation to this ‘violent’ assult at the trial. Instead the evidence of two gardaí who ‘witnessed’ the attack was deemed sufficient. The activist in question was convicted and fined.

2017-03-31 12.23.21The campaign had lost momentum. Although the option existed to initiate a new legal challenge over the right of way issue, the costs involved far exceeded the Campaign’s capacity. On the other side of the issue, further protests risked the prospect that even more activists would be singled out on other spurious charges relating to the heavy-handed security presence.

The Free The Old Head campaign still exists today. It continues to hold protests (5) at the entrance to the Old Head Golf Links and has publicly declared its intention to fight on until full public access to the Old Head is restored. In the meantime access for the general public is starkly restrictive – this despite the Old Head area being described as ‘one of the most spectacular beauty spots on [Ireland’s] Wild Atlantic Way’. According to a notice close to the entrance to the traditional walking area, ‘access is strictly by permission of the owners.’

Greed Is Good!

On the other hand, if you have money, you are very welcome. For the tidy sum of just €30,000 per year you can be a member of the Old Head Golf Links. In 2015 this amounted to some 300 members, 80% of whom are from outside Ireland. Alternatively you can pay to play golf for just the day at the club. According to Jim O’Brien, a manager at the Old Head, ‘At the height of season, nobody blinks at the idea of paying €1,000 for a four ball. We never ever get a complaint here on value. Any complaints we might get would be more about a foggy day or a bit of slow play.’ 

A plan 2The ‘permitted’ visitors to the Old Head are welcome for other reasons too. While some fly in from far afield for the ‘experience’, other overnight in Kinsale. O’Brien again: ‘The golfers who go out for dinner in Kinsale might go through 10 bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages on a night out. And those Bordeaux are €500 a bottle.’ So, in a sense, you could say, O’Connor’s dream did come through. He died in 2013.

Latest News: The Worms That Saved The World is an illustrated story book for children and adults that was directly inspired by the campaign to free the Old Head. It tells the story of a mythical community of worms who live on a headland ‘on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’. Life changes forever for the worms when a golf course moves onto their headland. At first the worms try to manage but a combination of chemical pollution and intolerance from the new owners force the worms to act. They realise that they cannot win against the powerful golf club on their own so they seek the help of other birds and animals who share the headland with them. They are a determined and inventive community of worms and in the end the win back control of their home. The Worms That Saved The World is due to published in May 2017 and is a collaboration between writer, Kevin Doyle and the artist and illustrator, Spark Deeley. More details about where you can get the book will be made available shortly.

References:

(1) Bartholomew’s Walk Cork and Kerry, 1990

(2) John Thuilliers, A History of Kinsale, 2001

(3) Sherkin Comment, 1990

(4) Irish Examiner p15 22/07/02

(5) See http://www.indymedia.ie/article/83957

Other Links:

Reports compiled by protesters involved in the People’s Picnics. From the WSM’s Environment page.

The Free The Old Head campaign website.

About the Old Head of Kinsale.

More on O’Connor’s views.

The Old Head Golf Links in their own words.

A comprehensive report on the Old Head campaign in Cork’s Irish Examiner was printed on in the paper on page 15 on 22/07/02. This is currently not available online.

A recent feature on the Old Head Golf Links. Includes spectacular photos of the area.

Old Head Golf Links visionary O’Connor dies.

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