Monday, June 26, 2017

Beware the rising people

All across the world, grassroots communities are waking up to injustice and to the ways in which greed and big business are destroying our precious planet.          
The protest at Standing Rock captured the hearts of
environmentalists all across the globe

From the Native American reservations threatened by an oil pipeline, to the rural community in North Mayo which was torn apart by a gas pipeline, or the people living near the edge of a beautiful woodland in Galway City, local communities say they have had enough.

They can see what the greed espoused by Donald Trump is doing to their rivers, lakes, and woodlands and they are awakening to the fact that they must do something to make sure their grandchildren will be able to live in harmony with a threatened world.

On Saturday, in Galway, I met an amazing woman who epitomises all that is wonderful about the human spirit and the benefits of connecting communities.

Her people, the Lakota, have suffered decades of abuse, of being told they are not good enough, of being denied the right to practice the beliefs which ran through their bloodlines for generations.

Like many indigenous people across the earth, she has been surrounded by alcoholism, abuse, violence, depression, and suicide through most of her life.

Standing Rock water protecter Chas Jewett
speaking in Galway on Saturday afternoon

But she’s not angry or vindictive. In seeking justice, she is finding her own strength and the strength of her own people and she was blown away by the support she has received during a speaking tour of Ireland.

Last October, at the height of the siege, thousands of Irish people “checked in” to Standing Rock on Facebook in order to confuse the US authorities and protests took place outside the US Embassy in Dublin.

Through social media, Chas Jewett is making connections. She is learning that a small rural community in Rossport, Co Mayo, has faced the same kind of pressures as the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where, through protest, Native Americans are beginning to rediscover the wonders of their own past and traditions.

A capacity crowd attended Chas Jewett's talk in Galway
At a speaking engagement in a Galway garden, Chas was overwhelmed by the number of Irish people who turned up to hear her talk about the campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline which has captured the hearts of environmental activists all across the globe.

And how fitting it was that the water protector made her first trip to Ireland in the week in which an Irish town unveiled a sculpture of nine eagle feathers to commemorate a Native American tribe who remembered the Irish at their time of greatest need.

The Choctaw people, who were run off their own ancestral lands in 1831, were compelled to send money to the starving Irish when they heard about the Great Famine in 1847. They were honoured by the people of Midleton, Co Cork, last week.

According to Chas, the Native American people of Standing Rock took huge inspiration from the solidarity they received from Irish people during the stand-off on their sacred lands which attracted global attention late last year.

The idea that Energy Transfer Partners could move half a million barrels of oil a day between the Missouri River, the main source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux, has galvanised Native Americans and environmentalists all across the world.

Chas connected with the campaign to save Merlin Woods in Galway

Suddenly, a people who were forbidden to practice their own beliefs until 1978 – who were fobbed off to boarding schools where they were abused in attempted “assimilation” – are waking up to the wonders of their culture and their ancestors’ wonderful connection with their sacred lands.

It was not lost on many of us in the Galway audience that the Native Americans’ belief system is exactly the type of model all of humanity needs if we are to avoid a global environmental catastrophe.

They lived in harmony with the earth, rather than with the intention of exploiting it.

Chas talked about the “dehumanisation” of her people through The Washington Redskins American Football team or the belief among many people in the United States that Native Americans still live in tepees.

She talked about the extraordinary high suicide rate, seven times the national average, or the fact that the average life expectancy of a Native American man is just 45 years.

“Every woman that I know has been raped,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “Anger has been driving us for a long time, but anger doesn’t do the warrior good.”

She described the damage which the fossil fuel industry has caused all across the world and how the protests at Standing Rock have given Native Americans back their pride.

They have learned to control their anger, to insist that the protests are peaceful, and that the threat to their drinking water has epitomised the environmental crisis being faced by young people all over the world.

Chas has learned to control her own rage.

Since the protests began she has learned that people have to learn to heal themselves before they can heal the world.                                                                                
Native American protesters facing police lines at
Standing Rock during protests against the oil pipeline

She said that the election of President Donald Trump might have been necessary to show people just how broken the system has become in the United States.

“I felt that big business only cared about property and that they wouldn’t hear us unless we broke their windows. Thankfully, I wasn’t in charge,” she said.

“For the past 150 years, people thought that our culture was one of violence and alcoholism. We want our children to stop killing themselves. We want hope.

“We are on the brink of extinction, not just our people but people across the world. We all need so much healing. We have to talk about the rapes. We have to talk about the violence. I myself was gang raped when I was nine years old. I took a long time to learn to love myself. We, all of us, have to move from ‘rape culture’ to ‘consent culture’.”

She said that the high alcoholism and suicide rates were a response to attempts to wipe out Native American people and traditions across the US, but the sight of so many tribes coming together at Standing Rock has inspired her people.

Messages of support from across Ireland, from environmental groups and land rights activists, have galvanised the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux people and allowed them to begin to explore the forgotten treasures from their past.

She said that young people, impelled by a tragic series of suicides and guided by ancient prophecies, have been to the forefront of the peaceful protests at Standing Rock.

Coming together has inspired them and activism has given them the strength to tackle issues such as depression and drug abuse. It has given the Native American youth a sense of purpose which has been lacking in their lives for so long.

Chas Jewett, an inspirational speaker, following her talk
at the Secret Garden Cafe in Galway City
After her inspiring 90 minute talk, Ms Jewett was delighted to meet activists from the West of Ireland who have campaigned against the destruction of an urban woodland at Merlin Park and the Shell gas pipeline in North Mayo.

“I know that I’m so fortunate to be able to be here in Ireland, because most of my people are struggling to eat and to live,” said Ms Jewett.

“Water is our first love and water is being polluted all across the world. We have to go back to the basic elemental things that matter if we are to give a future to our grandchildren.”

Blog post from 2015:
'Protest has a vital place in a healthy democarcy'

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Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Check out his Facebook page here

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Whatever happened to the compassion of the Irish?

Between 1847 and 1850, a hundred ships set sail from Galway Bay. Their ‘cargo’ included some of the most impoverished humans on the planet at the time and many of those who dreamed of starting new lives in Boston on Brooklyn never survived to see the other side.    
Protesting against Direct Provision in Ireland

The story of our ‘Coffin Ships’ is one of the most troubling in Ireland’s painful history. Impoverished people, fleeing starvation and persecution by the British Empire, counted themselves lucky if they had the fare for the long voyage across the Atlantic.

No doubt, many of them cried tears of despair upon leaving family members behind. In those days, a ticket to America was only one-way and many lived for 50 or 60 years without ever getting a chance to return to their homeland.

For those people, the prospect of a decent, peaceful life seemed impossible in their homeland. The crops had failed, their British masters showed no mercy or compassion, and they dreamed of just having enough to survive on when they got to the ‘New World’.

Behind them, thousands were starving, including a six year old girl called Celia Griffin, whose distressed family walked into Galway in search of “relief” in 1847. The nuns tried to help her, to provide her with food, but Celia died on a roadside.

She was too far gone.

Many of those who embarked on the Famine Ships from Galway Bay would have passed by little children like Celia, starving on the roadsides, on their way to America and their hardship gave them a steely determination to succeed in the New World.

The Ireland they left behind was a place where the natives faced religious and economic persecution.

In the previous century, Catholics had been denied the right to vote and the Irish language could only be taught in “illegal” hedge schools.

The terrible poverty of the 19th century and our centuries-long struggle for independence has meant that Irish people are universally popular across the globe, especially among the downtrodden who take inspiration from our long struggle.

Hard to believe now that the Choctaw people of North America, despite facing huge oppression themselves by colonisers, were so taken by the plight of the Irish people that they raised $170 to send to Ireland to ease their suffering in the year little Celia died, 1847.

That would be a pretty substantial amount of money these days and their generous gesture has been commemorated forever with a sculpture which was erected in the town of Midleton, Co Cork, two years ago.

The Celia Griffin Memorial Park on the shores of Galway Bay

Only 16 years after the Choctaws themselves were forced off their land by US President Andrew Jackson – leading to a 500-mile trek to Oklahoma, known as the 'Trail of Tears' – this was an extraordinary act of generosity by Native Americans who had so little themselves.

In Ireland, we always tend to pride ourselves on rooting for the underdogs. In his acclaimed 1997 Pulitzer-prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt wrote of how the impoverished  children in his native Limerick in the 1940s would always cheer for the ‘Red Indians’ as they were being slaughtered by the ‘Cowboys’ in Hollywood Westerns.

In the cinema, the Irish children would hoot and holler for the Native Americans on the big screen, perhaps with some subconscious awareness of how those people had helped their own during Ireland’s darkest days.

I thought about the Choctaw Nation and Angela’s Ashes last week when I wrote a piece for about Ireland’s notorious Direct Provision system.

Direct Provision is the system the Irish Government uses to process the cases of asylum-seekers, who often spend up to seven or eight years living in former hotels or hostels as they wait for their cases to be processed.

These people live on €19.10 per week and their voices are rarely, if ever, heard on the Irish media.

They are afraid of repercussions for speaking out, either from the Irish authorities or from criminals or political forces in their own countries.

Campainging for a better world for everyo
It took me six weeks to set up the interviews with two of the asylum-seekers. They were extremely fearful of speaking out and didn’t want their real names to be used.

We couldn’t meet in the centre where they share their lives with so many others from a wide variety of countries, so I suggested the back of a pub which I knew would be quiet on a weekday afternoon.

One of them didn’t turn up. And I was really annoyed. I sat in the pub waiting for almost an hour, thinking this had possibly never happened to me in 25 years of journalism.

I texted her a few times, to no avail. I felt she had let me down.

Later that night, I received an apologetic text from her daughter. She had been taken on a day’s training programme at short notice by the Irish authorities and didn’t have any credit to send me a text message to cancel the interview.

So she agreed to turn up the next day and was actually 30 minutes early for our interview.

I had no idea what story she had before our interview began, as I had never met her before.

I didn’t know that she had been praying in a Church in northern Nigeria when Islamic terrorists from Boko Haram broke in and shot most of the people dead.

I didn’t know she had been taken prisoner and managed to escape after making up a story about needing to go to the toilet out in the bush.

I didn’t know that the woman who brought her and her daughter to Ireland has been trying to take €50,000 from her, money she clearly doesn’t have.

I don’t know if her life would be any better if she had tried to stay in Nigeria and maybe move to another location, away from Boko Haram, with her three sons

Instead of living in a tiny, grotty former hotel room with her daughter, with no right to work, for months or even years on end.

But I do know I saw genuine fear and despair, even terror, in her eyes.

I do know that it was painful and uncomfortable for her to talk about her life, as she’s used to putting on a brave face for her daughter.

I was taken aback by how upset and how lacking in hope she was.

And yet she was grateful, because at least she shares her room with her own daughter - whereas others in the centre have to share small bedrooms with two or three others from other countries, without even the benefit of a shared language.

And then I read some comments on social media sites. About how she should go straight back to Africa, or how I must have been a fool to believe a woman I met in an Irish pub (an interview in a venue I chose, which took weeks to set up, by the way).

And I wondered what had happened to the famous compassion of the Irish, supposedly the poster boys and girls for underdogs all across the globe.

Judging by 90% of the comments on social media sites, the Irish in America have lost all of the compassion which saw the Choctaw send money they didn’t have all the way across the world to people in distress in a far-off, strange land.                                                  

A protest against the 17-year old Direct Provision system

In a way, it helped me to understand why the 50,000 ‘illegal’ Irish in the United States are now getting so little support from established, older Irish-American communities in Trump’s America.

The Chinese have a saying that an ambitious horse never returns to its old stable.

Perhaps the Irish, on both sides of the Atlantic, have forgotten where they came from when it comes to dealing with people fleeing war, terror, persecution, and famine across the globe.

I have no idea whether the women I spoke to last week have a right to stay in Ireland or not. But I do know that their voices need to be heard, without keyboard warriors who know nothing about their circumstances shouting out that they should be sent straight back "home".

Imagine how much worse life would have been for our 19th century emigrants if racists at the ferryports sent them straight back home.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and Digital Storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Check out his Facebook page here