Five farmers from these wind-swept coastal boglands have been locked up in a Dublin prison for nearly three months for blocking construction of a $1.1 billion natural gas pipeline and refinery by the Shell oil group, a standoff that has forced suspension of the largest energy project in Irish history.
The imprisonment of the group known here as the Rossport Five, which includes a 65-year-old former schoolteacher, has sparked protest marches across Ireland and an emotional debate about the pace and balance of economic development in a once-poor country that has become one of Europe's greatest success stories.
"The government and Shell should be ashamed of themselves," said Aggie Philbin, whose husband, Brendan, was one of the men jailed on June 29 for refusing a court order to allow Shell to lay pipeline across their farmland in rural County Mayo in northwestern Ireland. "These are innocent men standing up for the rights of their families."
The jailed men and their supporters accuse Shell and the government of ignoring safety concerns and bullying this village of 150 people in a rush to complete a coveted project.
The Corrib gas field project aims to extract gas from a trillion-cubic-foot deposit nearly two miles beneath the seafloor about 50 miles off the Mayo coast. The government says the project would help fuel the country's booming economy for the next 20 years and rank as the second-largest foreign investment ever in Ireland.
But the farmers and their supporters, who have set up a round-the-clock protest vigil at the refinery construction site, said the pipeline puts their homes in grave danger. They said it would pass within 70 yards of many houses and incinerate whole families if it exploded.
In an open letter last month from Cloverhill Prison, the five jailed men said they felt betrayed by their government and would continue to fight the project "because of the certainty that if this pipeline as currently proposed ruptures we, our families and neighbors, will die." Mark Garavan, a spokesman for Shell to Sea, a group supporting the men, said prison rules prohibit the farmers from being interviewed by reporters.
The men's imprisonment has deeply divided a society that has passions both for economic development and underdogs. While many people see the Rossport farmers as simply standing in the way of progress, many others side with them. Their plight has also touched a nerve in a place where land rights are considered sacrosanct and people have staged bloody rebellions to protect them.
"Public opinion has shifted radically in their favor since they went to jail," said Fintan O'Toole, a columnist for the Irish Times. "They do have a substantial case to make."
O'Toole said many people in Ireland agreed with the men's demand that Shell process the gas at sea rather than onshore. Shell officials said that would be too expensive and dangerous because of extremely rough seas during winter, and the government has backed that position. Shell officials said they had already spent about $600 million for exploration and preparations to lay a 20-inch-wide pipeline to shore, then another five miles inland to a new refinery.
Opponents have also complained that Statoil, Norway's state-controlled energy company, holds a 36.5 percent stake in the project as Shell's minority partner. "So the citizens of Norway own much of the gas, and the people of Ireland own none," O'Toole said.
Top officials at Shell and in the Irish government say the Corrib project is good for Ireland, safe and environmentally sound. They say the farmers are required by Irish law to allow the pipeline to be laid on their property.
"The fact is that we've gone through a process, and we have five people who don't like the outcome," said Andy Pyle, the head of Shell's Irish operations. Pyle said he regretted that the men were in prison but described it as the court's decision, not Shell's.
"We're not dispassionate corporate people who don't give a damn about five poor people in prison -- that's not the case," Pyle said. "But we can't satisfy everybody. If this has to be designed in a way that everybody accepts it, it will never be built."
Pyle said most of the landowners along the pipeline route agreed on compensation terms with Shell. But Brendan Philbin and the other opponents contend that Shell officials secured that approval by misrepresenting the pipe as similar to any low-pressure gas line found in communities across the country. The pipe would actually carry untreated gas at much higher pressure.
Noel Dempsey, Ireland's minister for communications, marine and natural resources, which oversees the project, said he had seen no evidence that Shell misled anyone.
"The rule of law must be upheld," Dempsey said. "If a few people decide to take the law into their own hands, sure you'd get nothing done. It would be chaos. You'd never be able to do business."
Still, under mounting pressure from protesters, who have rallied in cities across Ireland carrying banners exhorting "Free the Rossport Five," Shell suspended work on the project last month and ordered a new independent health and safety review, which Pyle said was due later this fall.
After decades of lagging behind much of Europe, Ireland is now popularly known as the "Celtic Tiger," boasting the European Union's second-highest per capita gross domestic product, after Luxembourg. The economy has grown an average of 7 percent a year in the past decade, driven by big manufacturers, from computer makers to pharmaceutical giants.
Vast waves of emigration have been replaced by booming immigration, and Ireland now has the fastest-growing population in Europe, according to new government statistics. The country's population of 4.1 million is the highest since 1861.
But some in the farmlands here feel left behind. Philbin and the other jailed men are typical for Rossport, tending a few cows and a vegetable patch, cutting their own bricks of turf to heat their homes and living on whatever odd jobs they can find. They say their area has become Ireland's dumping ground, pointing to recent proposals to locate a sewage sludge processing plant and an asbestos recycling plant in the county.
"The Celtic Tiger roared, and we got the dung end of it," said Brid McGarry, another Rossport landowner who opposes the Shell project.
Dempsey denied that the government was deliberately placing undesirable projects in Mayo, but he agreed that the more rural parts of the county were underdeveloped.
Cathal Shevlin, who runs a small sheet-metal fabrication business that was supplying material for the refinery construction, said he had to lay off two workers when the project was suspended. He said he and many other local business leaders welcomed the project and believed that its benefits far outweighed potential dangers.
"The pipeline could blow up, surely -- and a plane could drop out of the sky on my house tonight," Shevlin said.
The "Battle of the Bog," as it has been dubbed in the local media, has been waged along the narrow roads of north Mayo, where protest signs painted with the skull and crossbones now point the way to Rossport.
In the village, Aggie Philbin, Caitlin O'Seighin and Maureen McGrath sat in Philbin's little kitchen talking about their jailed husbands in a warm haze of cigarette smoke and steam from the teapot. They were watched over by an 8-by-10 photo of Brendan Philbin propped up on the table.
"The last five years have been hell," said Aggie Philbin, who said Rossport first heard of the project in 2000. "We are not against the gas, and we have nothing against progress -- but not at our expense. Brendan's in jail for the principle. If that pipeline goes in, I would not live here, and neither would he. It's the fear of going to bed at night. Every noise you hear, you'd think something's gone wrong."
Shell and the government, which are eager for the costly standoff to end, said the five men could get out of prison at any time by simply agreeing to allow work to proceed on their land. But family members said the farmers would not agree to that until Shell changed its plan.
"We should win, but when you have the government and you have the multinational, it's very hard for small people like us to win," said O'Seighin, a white-haired retired teacher who now sees her husband of 36 years, Micheal, also a retired teacher, only through the thick plexiglass of the prison visiting room.