The Pipe: Small Irish Town Meets Big Oil

Pat O'Donnell confronts The Solitaire / Photo by Courtesy Risteard O Domhnaill

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
June / July 2011

A new documentary from Ireland sheds light on the Corrib pipeline plans in Rossport, Co. Mayo.

In 2005, Rossport was a small, peaceful costal village in Co. Mayo, Ireland. Risteard Ó Domhnaill was living there, on his uncle’s farm, and working as a camera man. Then Shell, the international oil company, came to town with plans to build a gas pipeline from the sea, through nearby Broadhaven Bay and the coastal land, to an on-shore refinery.

The problem was, nobody had exactly checked with the people of Rossport to see if this was all right with them. Understandably, they had something to say about it.

The controversy that ensued is carefully and artfully rendered in Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s 2010 documentary The Pipe, which was an Official Selection at the Toronto Film Festival and won the award for Best Documentary at the 2010 Galway Film Fleadh.

Ó Domhnaill began filming the protests and the proceedings for news coverage. But, as he told me when we met at the New York premiere of The Pipe, he took issue with the way the media portrayed the people of Rossport as “lunatic activists” rather than people with a genuine cause and concern.

He filmed everything: town meetings, confrontations between protestors and police, court proceedings. He interviewed the parish priest, politicians from the 70s who had been involved in creating the relevant legeslation; he traveled to Seattle to interview one of the world’s foremost pipeline experts; he doorstepped then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. He tried to talk with representartives from Shell, but they refused to participate unless they could have editorial control over the content.

Then, with over 400 hours of footage to work with, Ó Domhnaill made the rather unconventional decision to focus on the most important but most frequently ignored party in the conflict: the community itself.

“We had two stories,” he explained. “On the one hand we had the political, technical side of the story with politicians and experts discussing what was going on. And then, on the other hand, we had this beautiful, human local story, and we just couldn’t marry the two. So it’s not about Shell, it’s not about the politicians, it’s about the community.”

He chose to focus on four particular townspeople who played prominent roles in the fight against Shell, but the camera can’t seem to stay away from Pat “The Chief” O’Donnell, a local fisherman. The most powerful and heart-breaking scene in the documentary comes when Pat,  in his small fishing boat, confronts The Solitaire, one of the world’s largest pipe-laying vessels, knowing full well that he faces arrest, jail time, and that his boat will likely be impounded. It is this and other completely human moments that make The Pipe such a compelling,  affecting documentary.

The Pipe played in New York last month for one night at the IFC Center in Manhattan’s West Village, as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series. The crowd that spilled out the door and down the block wasn’t like any I’d ever seen there before: it was filled with Irish emigrants and Irish-Americans who had come in from Woodlawn, from Sunnyside, from New Jersey to see the film.

One of them was Kathleen Lowry, one of Pat O’Donnell’s six sisters, four of whom attended the screening that night. When her brother and his neighbors were battling Shell, she and her sisters had tried to spread  the word here about the shocking injustice he was facing at the hands of a government more in support of Shell than its people. She got little response. When asked later on how she felt after watching The Pipe that night, she replied “It was very sad, very hard to watch him  [Pat] in so much pain. It doesn’t change anything, it can’t at this point, but we do feel vindicated.”

One Response to “The Pipe: Small Irish Town Meets Big Oil”

  1. John says:

    I heard about this from Bill Burr, the American comedian. Thanks.

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