Late 1990s Ireland was a strange place. The grey, grim 1980s had been usurped by the technicolour Neverland of the Celtic Tiger. Conspicuous consumption was regarded as practically a civic duty.
For the first time since forever, it felt Ireland was a country with a future rather than merely with a past wrapped round its neck like giant asphyxiating rosary beads. Even U2 were cool. What had happened?
All that bling came at a price. That was the message of campaigners who went out on a limb and up a tree to stall a motorway through the Glen of the Downs in Co Wicklow (it was also the experience of U2, whose 1997 album Pop flopped resoundingly). Often middle class, the protesters were not universally thanked for their efforts. Quite the opposite, in fact. They were widely accused at the time of attempting to drag Ireland back to the Arcadian dark ages from which we had only just about emerged.
But the powerful message of TG4’s Finné profile of environmentalist Úna Ní Bhroin (TG4, 9.45pm) is that these activists were prepared to suffer for their beliefs rather than taking the popular modern options of composing a sternly-worded tweet or posing for a selfie.
Ní Bhroin was imprisoned in Mountjoy, along with 12 others, for defying a court injunction forbidding them from disrupting the felling of the trees. She also suffered a bruising Late Late Show encounter with Pat Kenny, who didn't hold back in his questioning.
Finné serves as urgent reminder that eco-activism didn't drop from a tree yesterday
The film's thesis is that Ní Bhroin and her fellow travellers were ahead of their time. They climbed a tree, in essence, so that Greta Thunberg and her fellow Gen Zers could take on the world. And, as a study of the early stirrings of eco-activism in Ireland, the documentary is entirely fascinating.
We join Ní Bhroin, who today owns an organic farm in Galway, as she tramps back into those fateful woods and locates the cement barrel to which she and her comrades would shackle themselves. “We’d have chains around our wrists,” she says with something approaching wistfulness.
This was a community as well as a camp out . “There was a degree of order. People used get their post delivered to a certain tree,” recalls one campaigner. “There was a talking stick. If there was an issue that needed to be debated, whoever held the talking stick held the floor,” says another.
And yet if Finné serves as urgent reminder that eco-activism didn’t drop from a tree yesterday, in other aspects it falls down. The narrator declares that the Celtic Tiger was a consequence of “the Irish having access to cheap money from Europe”.
This obviously minimises the impact of foreign direct investment and of a competitive tax policy. The winding down of the Provisional IRA’s campaign of murder and economic sabotage was surely a factor too. And anyone who remembers the grimness of the 1980s will roll their eyes at one ex-protester’s assertion that, by the late 1990s, “there was too much money around”. Plenty of people will recall what Ireland was like when there was no money around at all.
'I'm feeling sad because those trees were beautiful and ancient. We should be venerating them'
Away from the Glen of the Downs, Ní Bhroin’s life is fascinating. Her father was a Labour party member who marched against nuclear power and for housing rights for Travellers. And her mother remains devoutly Catholic (and disappointed her children to not attend mass today).
It made for a quirky upbringing. But one with a dark side. “There was depression in the house and addiction,” says Ní Bhroin. What a shame the film-makers do not explore the subject further and instead let her statement flap in the breeze.
Ní Bhroin had her own struggles. Studying in Maynooth she drank too much and experienced depression. Even today, she says, her demons sometimes call to her. Her solution is a technique she refers to as “forest bathing” - walking into the woods and letting the calmness and serenity flow through the canopy to form a cradle around her soul.
The trees were eventually removed and the motorway built (though not at the scale originally envisaged). And for Ní Bhroin, the struggle has left a wound yet to heal. “I’m feeling sad because those trees were beautiful and ancient. We should be venerating them,” she says. “I’m participating in a world that cuts down trees that we need.”