Thursday 5 December 2019

We will overcome: Why the baby boomers are still protesting

At 81, Jane Fonda is making headlines for being arrested at a climate protest. But she's not the only older activist making a stand, writes Chrissie Russell

US actress/activist Jane Fonda attends the 2019 Glamour Women Of The Year Awards at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on November 11, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP)
US actress/activist Jane Fonda attends the 2019 Glamour Women Of The Year Awards at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on November 11, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP)

Chrissie Russell

Jane Fonda has been making headlines for being arrested... again. The 81-year-old actress has ended up in handcuffs every Friday for the past four weeks, thanks to her presence at climate change protests in Washington.

Despite spending a night in the cells, Fonda has reportedly vowed to continue her crusade through to mid-January, declaring: "Why be a celebrity if you can't leverage it for something important?"

Climate activist husband and wife team Cleo de Vito and Cy O’Hara in Claremorris, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Climate activist husband and wife team Cleo de Vito and Cy O’Hara in Claremorris, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Since she joined the protests at the Capitol, numbers of supporters have trebled - proving the effect of star power - but much of the attention has been on the legendary actress' age.

Coverage of her actions often mentions the fact that she will turn 82 next month, the sub-text being that surely, at her age, she'll call a halt to it soon? Part of the surprise must surely stem from the fact that thanks in part to Greta Thunberg, we have come to see climate activism as a young people's issue. And there's even growing hostility towards the older generation, who have been blamed for myriad modern problems, from squandering the earth's resources to Brexit.

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But why assume that Fonda, or anyone, will shelve their social conscience just because they're well into their bus-pass years? Particularly as many came of age in the 60s, a time of great social upheaval and widespread protest. Here in Ireland, we have a strong contingent of older people proving there's no age limit on activism. People like Margaretta D'Arcy - dubbed Ireland's Guantanamo Granny - arrested at 79 for her protest at Shannon Airport, or the voices of those involved in Grandparents for Repeal, who made a huge impact in the Yes campaign.

From protesting climate change to campaigning for women's health, we meet some of Ireland's OAP activists, and hear why they feel it's never too late to try to change the world.

Emmet Devlin feels an obligation to make things better
Emmet Devlin feels an obligation to make things better

Emmet Devlin (78) Extinction Rebellion

"Myself and my wife joined Extinction Rebellion in March or April this year. We have two lovely grandchildren, Ollie (4) and Liam (11 months) and when we think about their future, and what life is going to be like for them when they are 25 - the scientists are predicting doesn't look good at all.

"So I think there's an obligation on those of us who are getting to the other end of life, to try and ensure that they get a quality of life that's similar to what we had.

"Do I feel our generation has a certain level of responsibility? Well, it's a fact that we used fossil fuels as part of our way of life. Maybe it was ignorant but we know now that there's a direct link between burning fossil fuels and global warming. I think there's a responsibility on everyone to take stock of what we know now and take whatever steps they can.

"My wife and I were at the week of protests in Merrion Square last month every day and we go to the Dáil every Friday for the climate strike protest. I find the events very inspiring. I'm blown away by the conviction of the (mostly younger) people involved.

"There's no doubt we ARE disruptive - that's the difference between Extinction Rebellion and some other protest marches. It's not disruption for its own sake, it's non-violent action that happens to be disruptive, and it's what encourages people to think.

"My wife and I have talked about what would happen if we were faced with arrest and, not least because we have a dog at home, we wouldn't both put ourselves in that position. But I would be willing to do it. The feedback we get from the group is that they are very appreciative of our presence and the inspiration they take from people our age getting involved who have seriously considered what's at stake and are willing to take action."

Ailbhe Smyth (73) Equality campaigner and co-author of It's A Yes

"The word 'activist' is one I will always be proud of. I think it means you see yourself as someone who does, and who wants to, take action to change things in the world for better. You can never underestimate the power of the physical action that people make when they put themselves on the line for an issue.

"I was in my 30s when I realised that I had to do something, that things won't just change on their own. Now I get people quite often saying 'you'll be retiring now', but there's no statute of limitations for retirement when you're an activist, because there's no shortage of issues that need fixing. Retirement is a completely alien concept to me.

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Ailbhe Smyth. Photo by Gareth Chaney/ Collins

"Over the years there have been actions I've been involved in that were quite high-profile and I've probably had a few brushes with the law. But sometimes it's the people who are trying to arrest you who make more noise.

"If you're an activist you accept you will get into trouble (so to speak) because that's sort of why you are there. You're there to say 'this is not right'. I would never set out to break the law, but if I was told that by standing there protesting, I was breaking the law, then I would stand my ground."

Cy O'Hara (80) and Cleo de Vito (67) Friends Of The Earth

"Over the last 13 years, we average one rally per month and we also run a slot on Claremorris community radio talking about what people can do in their own lives to change.

"We try to be carbon neutral. You don't give up trying just because you're going to pass away, we still care tremendously for this planet and what we're doing to it. It IS our problem, we contributed to it.

"Of course we need to influence policy makers, but personal responsibility matters. We're old enough to remember the business in South Africa. My wife remembers telling her mother that she didn't want to buy South African goods and she said: 'it's not going to make any difference'. But it did.

"An interesting thing at the rallies is that it's mostly younger people or people our age. I think the gap is in those middle years, people in the professions, who are racing around trying to pay the mortgage and bills, who don't have time to go to the rallies. But they'll still toot their horns at us and say 'go for it'.

"There have never been any near-arrests. I wouldn't like that to happen. I think there has to be respect for the gardai, who are doing their job. They were very helpful when we accidentally set off an alarm in the then Taoiseach's office in Castlebar by mistake!

"Because of our age, we're more likely to be listened to. I think the politicians look at us, see us dressed conservatively and think 'they must be right wing and middle class - we'll talk to them, they'll be amenable'."

Tony Lowes (75) Friends Of The Irish Environment

"I've been involved in different areas of activism over the years, from the Give Up Art movement of the 1980s to joining An Taisce in the '90s.

"In 1997 I was involved in setting up Friends of the Irish Environment. We felt EU law wasn't being adhered to with regard to the protection of a lot of areas around Ireland and our first great battle was over the sand dunes at Doonbeg. We took on the State, and lost. But we put up a mighty struggle in the High Court for five days.

"You're more likely to find me in a library than chained to a railing. I like to try and work out ways to affect change through the system. I think when you use the law, people take notice. But I think there's also a huge place for on-the-ground activism.

"I see guys like David Attenborough contributing massively in their latter years and it's inspiring. As Margaret Atwood said, 'it's just numbers'."

Irish Independent

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