Irish Times: The year my life changed: “The five Co Mayo men were jailed in June for contempt of court over their opposition to the construction by Shell of the underground Corrib gas pipeline.”: Saturday December 24, 2005
Catherine Cleary meets people whose circumstances changed for good in 2005
DAN MULHALL, AMBASSADOR
It was the photographs that stuck in his mind. One long line of noticeboards displayed pictures of the living, glowing with happiness and health under a hot sun. On another set of boards were photographs of the dead, some of the same people, bloated and bruised by the torrent that swept them away on St Stephen's Day.
Dan Mulhall was in the last year of his term as Ambassador to Malaysia and Thailand last Christmas when the tsunami hit. He spent the first weeks of the year visiting morgues and helping Irish families find the bodies of the young holidaymakers who had been lost in the chaos unleashed by the Indian Ocean.
The experience has made him value every day of life, and time with friends and family, he says. "But the people whose lives were really changed were the relatives of the victims. Their lives have been changed forever and in a very fundamental way, which they feel especially at this time."
A call from the emergency service of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin to his home in Kuala Lumpur brought the news of the disaster in the mid-afternoon on
St Stephen's Day. He and his wife, Greta, had been celebrating Christmas with their two children, who are in their 20s. His daughter Tara had beautiful photographs from a trip she had taken to Phi Phi island, one of the Thai holiday resorts, a few weeks earlier. The thought that she might have been among the hundreds who died on the island was a constant companion in the following weeks.
"I had never had any experience that was relative to this scale of tragedy. Nobody had. I arrived in Phuket the following day, and it was a scene of considerable upheaval and confusion. I went to the emergency centre which had been set up at the city hall in Phuket. I had been there before on an official visit with President McAleese. This time the grounds had been transformed into a temporary emergency relief camp.
"People were milling around, and there were lots of embassy people from different countries. The most alarming thing was that nobody knew the extent of the problem."
Mulhall set up a makeshift Irish desk, and soon Irish survivors were coming to him to volunteer to help. One of them was Barry Murphy, the young Dubliner whose girlfriend, Eilish Finnegan, was drowned as they ran from the wave on Phi Phi island. "Barry was a real rock of support and was available to help in any way he could. Although he had his own personal focus, he was willing to look for other Irish people."
Within a few days, makeshift morgues had been set up in hospitals and temples, and the gruelling task of trying to identify bodies in the heat began. Mulhall's deputy, Kyle O'Sullivan, and staff from the Thai consulate joined him. Embassy life had often touched on illness and death, but it was on nothing like the scale of what they now had to cope with.
He has thought a lot about those weeks and talked to people rather than bottling it up. A mediocre swimmer, he wonders how he would have coped being submerged in the torrent. "I remember talking to a woman who was a diver who saw bits of masonry and boats fly past her under the water, so it was purely a matter of fate whether you were in the way or not."
Now back in Dublin as director general of the EU division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mulhall and his wife are spending Christmas in Edinburgh with their children. "We can't allow it to shatter the sense of the wonder of life. It's so important to enjoy the companionship of family and friends and not to mull over the philosophical issues thrown up by the tsunami. They can only be resolved by getting on with life."
MARTINA AND LIAM CLARKE, NEW PARENTS
Somewhere in a box in the Clarke family's house, just outside Slane in Co Meath, are 10 pregnancy-test sticks, each with the blue line indicating a positive result. Martina Clarke kept taking the tests in the first weeks of February, after she got her first blue line, just to be sure. Until they could see a heartbeat on an ultrasound scan, the plastic sticks were the only reassurance she and her husband, Liam, had that their eight-year wait for a baby might finally be over.
This was their fourth cycle of in vitro fertilisation, and until that day they had never had a positive pregnancy result. The embryos that had been implanted on previous cycles failed to take. The positive test meant the exhaustion, crushing disappointments and tears of seven years of IVF could finally be forgotten. The money they had put away in a savings account they dubbed the baby fund was all worth it, every cent of the thousands of euro.
When they travelled to Dublin for the scan, the next surprise was seeing two tiny heartbeats on the ultrasound monitor. And although with monthly scans they were "the most photographed babies in Ireland before they were born", the Clarkes did not ask the gender question. It was October, when the twins were born, that they found they now had what is quaintly known as a gentleman's family. One boy, one girl and two parents who, despite sleep deprivation, look as bright-eyed and happy as it is possible for two people to be.
The Clarkes were married just a year when they decided to start a family, and after a year of trying they knew they needed to look for help. Their experience of the public health system was not all positive. They met with a very matter-of-fact attitude when it came to being told bad news. In the waitingroom of a fertility clinic, they had to wait beside heavily pregnant women.
They went to a private clinic where they were charged between 3,500 and 4,000 for each IVF cycle. After a cycle had failed they would take a year off, to recover emotionally and physically and to save enough money for the next try.
In the run-up to each cycle, Liam Clarke overcame his aversion to needles and administered the daily hormone injections. "You need a strong partner to go through IVF," Martina says, "and a strong marriage, because it's tough on both partners."
The couple did not keep their struggle a secret. "I was always very open about it, and in any jobs I was in, my colleagues knew. When I was interviewed for my last job I brought it up in the interview. But for the last cycle we thought we'd keep it to ourselves. I just didn't want people to be almost more upset than we were. So we told nobody except our parents and some people at work." After the scan they told the rest of their family and friends.
After the long struggle to conceive, Martina had a comparatively easy pregnancy. She was taken into hospital in Drogheda for monitoring at 37 weeks, and at 39 weeks she was induced. Less than five hours into the labour, Noah and Aoife were born. "It was just a joy," she says.
The first visit they made when the babies were born was to the grave of Liam's mother, who had died suddenly in June. The arrival of the babies has made for a happier end to a sad year for his extended family.
They would advise other couples going through IVF to keep up their hopes and try to get support from others going through it. "Use the web, and talk to others," Liam says. "We found that from listening to other people we got great support. Sometimes the system can be so impersonal, and people just go away feeling lost."
They have not ruled out another IVF cycle in the future. They have one embryo frozen in the clinic. "We're not going to leave it there. We'll try it, and if it works, it works, and if not, that's it."
Sometimes Martina pinches herself, when the babies are asleep and she is on her own in the house, at the idea that she is a mother. "Every Christmas, when I'd put up a Christmas tree, I'd think: maybe next year there'll be someone else to put something under the tree for. And now they're here."
MICHEAL O SEIGHIN, RETIRED TEACHER AND MEMBER OF THE ROSSPORT FIVE
His grand little garden went to seed this summer. When Micheal O Seighin should have been pottering round the vegetable patch, he was walking around under a square of sky in a prison exercise yard. Summer turned to autumn and he and four friends - Philip McGrath, James P. Philbin, Vincent McGrath and Willie Corduff - became the Rossport Five.
O Seighin, a retired teacher and father of four, left prison with a jail journal charting his 94 days behind bars, as well as a sense of an Orwellian nightmare at the heart of modern Ireland.
Ten rounds of the exercise yard in Cloverhill Prison made a mile. There was more than enough time to think, and the experience of going to jail has changed him in an unexpected way. It rejuvenated his optimism about Ireland's future and our ability to survive.
The five Co Mayo men were jailed in June for contempt of court over their opposition to the construction by Shell of the underground Corrib gas pipeline.
The prisoners in Cloverhill referred to the five men as "the farmers". One of the older inmates came over to O Seighin and assured him that the five would be perfectly fine.
O Seighin found himself shocked by the ordinariness of the prisoners. Like Orwell's vision of 1984, he sees a "tiny set of masters" in charge and "an enormous proletariat that is ever being sub-divided and boxed off into categories".
"This sub-culture in society is not a part of the old Irish system. Under the Brehon system you would be reminded that there were three generations from the king to the beggar and the same in reverse."
O Seighin spent 40 years teaching in Rossport before he retired, in 2003. He lives about six miles from the Co Mayo village, in Ceathru Thaidhg. "I am over and back every day. These are my people."
Over Christmas 2001, he had a triple bypass. Part of him resents the Shell campaign's disruption of his quiet "lazy" retirement. "For the past year I've known that someone would have to end up in jail."
The common response when they were released was that the five men had "made their point". But he is adamant that they were not making a point. They were fighting a safety issue. "I suppose it was more for the continuity of a community than anything for myself. I don't believe that we are free to ignore the requirements of community."
When he walked into Cloverhill, after an hour in a filthy Bridewell holding cell, behind the Four Courts, where he saw the concrete platform that serves as a bed, his faith in people was at a low ebb.
"I thought people had become so busy they didn't have time for anything but pure survival; that people have to work so damn hard they're deprived of any opportunities to think or plan for the future. But I was wrong. People came out in their thousands and really made me ashamed of myself that I had doubted their awareness of what justice is.
"I've been so heartened by the response and the show of support, and awareness that the arrogance of the class in power has gone too far."
How does O Seighin react to the idea that they are heroes? "Before we went in, the general opinion was 'here was a bunch of Nimbys. They can protest, but they can't hold up the project.' "
Were it not ut for the integrity of their case, he believes they could have ended up ignored, like the people with placards shuffling the pavements of Kildare Street for years. The real heroes are the supporters, he believes.
"It's circumstances that make heroes. We were the opposite. We provided a platform for a huge outburst of heroism."
GRANIA WILLIS, EVEREST SUMMITEER
It must have been a disappointment, people say to her. You get to the top of the world and see just mist. Grania Willis had always known that climbing Mount Everest would be the toughest physical challenge she had faced. But what she did not expect was that it would be a spiritual journey.
So, yes, it would have been wonderful, she says, to have seen the world laid out beneath her on June 5th, when she stood on the summit. "But in another way it made the summit much more personal to me, to be cocooned by this mist."
And she was not alone in the brume. Her nephew Joe was with her. He had died five weeks before she was due to set off, crumpling to the ground after a sprint to end a morning run, the victim of a heart attack at the age of 19. She saw him for the last time at Christmas, when her present to him was a book called 1,000 Places to See before You Die. Joe's death nearly ended her plans to climb Everest. During the months of preparation, she had kept it secret from her family, not even telling her twin sister, as she did not want them to worry. She wondered if her family, already destroyed by losing Joe, could cope if anything happened to her.
She had torn a hamstring while training in Scotland, and that, combined with her work as the Irish Times equestrian correspondent, covering the Cian O'Connor story, had thrown out her training schedule.
"I was determined to do it for two reasons. One was for the charities - the Irish Hospice Foundation and the Friends of St Luke's - and the other was Joe. I was emotionally, mentally and physically drained when I set off."
More obstacles faced her, as bad weather kept her and the other climbers waiting at high altitude for a window.
"I'm not really a religious person," she says. But in the Himalayas she met Buddhist lamas, one of whom showed her around the ruins of an ancient monastery before they set off on the last stages. "That was so moving and so spiritual I could feel the pain of Joe being lifted off my chest, and I needed that relief. Otherwise I would have been weighed down too much. Then, in a way, the mountain freed me."
Her account of the summit day in her book, Total High, vividly conveys the realities of high-altitude climbing and the loneliness of the final hours of the climb. Her sherpa, Karsang, kept ahead of her, like a "light to guide me up the mountain". But for the ascent and hazardous descent, she was on her own with her thoughts.
"It was lonely, but in many ways it was better to do it like that, because you had to get inside your head. With the physical exertion of living at altitude for so long, despite all the training and preparation, all my muscle tone had gone. It was purely and utterly my mental strength that got me there. And that would have been diluted if I'd been climbing with other people."
Has the experience changed her? "In many ways Joe's death has changed me as much as the mountain has. But I'm definitely more humble and much more tolerant of other people. I hope that it's changed me and that what I've done will inspire people: the idea that an older woman can go from nothing, from not having climbed, to climbing the biggest mountain in the world. I think the lesson is that whatever your personal Everest is, it's within reach. It's the mountain that is extraordinary, it's not me, and if people just go for it, nothing is impossible."
Total High: My Everest Challenge, by Grania Willis, is published by Red Rock Press. Donations to the Grania Willis Everest Challenge: Permanent TSB, Blackrock, Co Dublin, account 86877341, sort code 99-06-44
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