Charleville-Ballyhea protesters prepare for 100th weekly rally over bank debt
IRISH LIVES:While some feel the campaign has failed, others say it’s a long war but they will win
A line of cars is backed up through the main street in Charleville with bored drivers leaning against the windows to see what is holding things up. Those not from around here may think that since it’s a Sunday morning, mass-goers parking at the church at the end of the town are causing the delay. But for those from the Cork town and the surrounding area it is a familiar scene.
The 40 or so protesters holding placards who have been marching down the main street reach the church and, with the help of organiser Diarmuid O’Flynn, they turn around to walk back to the plaza in front of the library from where they started, now holding up traffic on the other side of the road. The protest takes about 20 minutes so drivers aren’t put out that much. For the participants, just a few weeks shy of their 100th such march, it is an important ritual shared between this town and the nearby village of Ballyhea on alternate Sundays.
Back in March 2011 O’Flynn began protesting in his native Ballyhea out of frustration at the billions of euro in debt the public were expected to pay back as a result of bust banks. Armed with an A4 sheet of paper with the words “Ballyhea says no” and accompanied by 18 family, friends and fellow hurlers he began the protest in the hope that other towns in Ireland would follow suit and stand up to the debt burden. “They were talking about how Ireland had to be bailed out to stop the contagion across the euro zone. Naive as I was I thought ‘we’ll give them a taste of contagion’,” says O’Flynn (59), a sports journalist with the Irish Examiner.
The protest spread no farther than Charleville and the two towns for some months protested each Sunday and then alternated the march, since many people were attending both protests. “I’m amazed there aren’t a million people marching. We are an apathetic people,” says John Dillon, one of the participants.
Others though are resigned to the fact that the movement has failed to capture people’s imaginations but still feel the need to register their anger at the billions paid out every year in bank debt. “It’s something to do. No one’s doing anything,” says Robert Wedgebury, who has travelled up from Cork city, where he is visiting family and friends after emigrating to Edinburgh last July for work.
O’Flynn and a core group of organisers have certainly tried to get support. They have travelled to towns in neighbouring counties and have protested farther afield in Galway, Castlebar, Donegal town, Sligo, Portlaoise, Roscrea, Limerick, Dublin, Newbridge and Kildare. O’Flynn had to be hospitalised in Nenagh after trying to run to Dublin with his message. In August 2011 he went on a bread and water fast and last June along with 14 others travelled to the European Central Bank in Frankfurt to deliver a letter demanding an end to the payment of money to bondholders. He insists the movement is free from party politics and says people coming to protest with political messages are asked not to carry them.
But support has remained thin on the ground. “Most people think it’s a waste of time but still they admire them,” says Eamon, a Charleville businessman who declined to give his second name.
The town itself is showing few signs of suffering in the recession, which could be a factor in keeping people from joining the protest. Business has been better than expected, says Michael Moran who owns a high-end fashion shop along the main street. “There is still a lot of employment in the town with Kerry Group and two or three other factories,” he says.
O’Flynn gives an impromptu speech to marchers when they return to the plaza in Charleville, telling them “there is no question of disappointment” in their campaign. Along with a marking of the 100th march on January 27th the group is planning to travel to Brussels with their message in February and mark the €3.1 billion payment of the promissory note to the ECB on March 29th. “This is a long, long war and it’s not going to be easily won but we will win it,” he tells the group.
Fiona FitzPatrick, a teacher and an organiser, believes this. “People are starting to see that all the cuts from the budget they are facing are linked to this debt. People are suddenly asking ‘why are we being hit?’” she says. Even if the nation doesn’t rise up she says she will continue the protest. The debt legacy Ireland is leaving its young people compels her to march every Sunday. “I will always be able to look into my children’s eyes and know I tried to change things,” she says.