Wednesday 17 July 2019

Will of the people or unreasonable protest?

Opposition to wind turbines on the basis of noise levels has proven to be unfounded, says Jody Corcoran after a visit to a wind farm in the midlands

Jody Corcoran, with son Vincent, approaching wind turbines at Mount Lucas bog in Offaly. Photo: Joe Corcoran
Jody Corcoran, with son Vincent, approaching wind turbines at Mount Lucas bog in Offaly. Photo: Joe Corcoran
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Through the kitchen window, beyond the river and into the bog are what my mother calls the Dancing Ladies.

These are the wind turbines which caused so much controversy last year when thousands of them were put up around the country.

Michael Fitzmaurice, the new TD from the West, was among those who loudly led the protest, successful to an extent in that the campaign had an effect on the outcome of the local and European elections.

He and the MEP Luke 'Ming' Flanagan have been outspoken on this issue, as they are on the turf-cutting row, out of which is growing the prospect of significant political movement. If anything, Fitzmaurice is the heartbeat of that movement, more so than Flanagan, in that he is the emotional centre while Ming is the brand.

Before Christmas, Fitzmaurice announced his intention to establish a new political party which, if successful, will have a chance of holding the balance of power after the election.

While I like the sound of Fitzmaurice and, for the most part, Ming too, I should say there is nothing either of them could teach me about the bog or turf-cutting for that matter.

There were many arguments made for and against the erection of wind turbines last year, a debate in which I took part to an extent.

A significant contribution to the wider debate on provision for the country's future energy needs was added to by Minister Alex White last week.

He opened up the debate to include discussion on the generation of nuclear energy for the first time in this country.

Unlike former ministers Phil Hogan, on Irish Water, and Pat Rabbitte on wind turbines and their ugly sisters pylons, White has taken a reasonable political approach.

At least he has indicated a willingness to consult with the people first, whatever may be the outcome of that consultation. My hunch is that the generation of nuclear energy will continue to be prohibited while we continue to use a measure of nuclear power imported from the UK.

All of which will not give much calm to the howls of protest already warming up on a new front - the nuclear debate - now that people have got a taste for protest.

"Nothing can be done against the will of the people," as Michael Fitzmaurice recently said when he was addressing the issues of pylons, fracking and wind turbines.

In my view, this standpoint teeters on the right side of reasonableness.

It is not beyond Fitzmaurice, however, to rouse a crowd with back-of-a-lorry rhetoric. "In my view this is one of the biggest land grabs since Cromwell," he told a meeting of Turf Cutters and Contractors in Roscommon some time ago.

Among the issues on which Fitzmaurice campaigned for election to the Dail was the introduction of proper setback distances for wind turbines.

There were several reasons for this; on the ground of public health, for example, and also issues related to noise levels.

The wind energy industry also has reasonable arguments to make on these issues, backed up with scientific research.

Like the MEP Marian Harkin, a reasonable politician, I tend to go with scientific research while being vigilant towards, and questioning of the source of such research.

Regardless, the purpose of this article is not to get into the detail of the energy debate, but to report back on a visit to Mount Lucas bog in Offaly this Christmas, and specifically on the issue of noise level which gave rise to such protest.

Bord na Mona owns a wind farm on this bog, which has 15 turbines fully erected and operational with plans for another 13.

We entered the bog from an area known as Little Island, which is out the church road in Daingean.

About two miles out you take a left down a car way used by locals to draw home turf, mostly by tractor and trailer.

I noted from this year's freshly cut turf banks that everybody now hires a contractor, such as Michael Fitzmaurice, and that nobody cuts by hand anymore, as Luke Flanagan did a couple of years ago when he attended the All-Ireland turf-cutting championships locally and threw out a few sods to my father.

Since I was at this wind farm last October somebody has placed a large chunk of what looked like bog oak across the car way so that you have to park and walk further than otherwise would be necessary.

The wind farm is designed so that it is difficult to walk out on to, but if you are familiar with the ground, and such a landscape in general, you automatically know which way to walk, at which point to jump a drain and at what point to cross heavily wet bog land which could otherwise see you going up to your knees and possibly stuck for a while.

I had my two young lads with me, so it was good to educate them on where and how to go before they set off jumping drains that they would be unable to come back across. We arrived at about 2.30pm on the second shortest day of the year, so we had about two hours daylight.

In case anybody is thinking of going to visit what, to my mind, is one of the natural wonders of Ireland, if not the world, you really do need to be careful.

I went to school with the man who lives closest to the nearest turbine, which is about a mile, maybe a little more, from his house.

As luck would have it, his brother and five nieces were also out for a walk, not on the wind farm, but the adjoining bog to which locals still have turbary rights.

This man told me that, despite initial fears, his brother has no issue with the noise level. In fact, this man was tending towards the view that the entire controversy was, to use his words, a "bottle of smoke". "You can't stop progress," he said.

Less than half a mile away, the first of the five turbines in sight, 150m high, was rotating at a fair old speed. I could not hear a sound. There was more noise from cars on the road in the opposite direction.

In fact, when we eventually negotiated our way right up to the turbines, nothing could be heard until we were 50m away, probably less, and at that it was a distant hum.

And when we walked down through the wind farm, with turbines rotating all around, you could hardly notice the sound, or it was not injurious to the ear, but rather like a team of elegant ladies dancing at dusk.

There was some evidence of people, a few machines, but this wind farm will give employment to only 13 people, a far cry from the numbers on shift work during those summer mornings to evening and into night when Bord na Mona harvested peat instead of wind.

There is nothing much else to report other than the protest against wind turbines on the grounds of noise seems to have been exaggerated.

In this era of protest, that poses a question - against what else has there been unreasonable protest?

As a footnote, I should add that at that meeting of Turf Cutters and Contractors in Roscommon, an associate of Michael Fitzmaurice and Luke Flanagan also addressed the 300 people present.

Paddy Concannon, who has worked on the bogs all his life, also did his bit to fire up the crowd with talk of strictures from Europe and doing terms in prison if he had to; specifically, he rejected the notion that plants and animals growing on the high bog were not to be found on lower bog.

High bog is untouched or preserved bog; low bog is bog cut away the height of three men for turf by locals or harvested for peat by Bord na Mona, upon which they have now erected their wind turbines. Paddy Concannon also teeters on the right side of correct - but only just.

I know this because there is a swathe of virgin bog behind a few fields where we grew up which, if it has been walked by 10 men in a million years, then I am one of them.

It is a breath-taking sight of moss, sundew, heathers and bog cotton, like a Monet painting stretching as far as the eye can see towards a moor of thick-set stands of trees rising high up onto Killoneen Hill.

On the low bog in Mount Lucas, I found a patch of ground - you could cover it with a pillow case - of the same luminous ecology, around which the ladies dance on a post-modern landscape of a new and different kind of beauty.

Sunday Independent

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