Walking out of Dublin's Circuit Criminal Court on Wednesday, after being fined for interfering with the operation of Shannon Airport as part of an anti-war protest, US citizens Tarak Kauff (80) and Ken Mayers (85) greet a dozen supporters with a peace sign.
Afterwards, the pensioners went to a nearby pub, where Kauff ordered a half-pint of Guinness and told The Irish Times: "We never expected this to go on so long. A couple of hours turned into three years later," he said.
On St Patrick’s Day 2019, the two men cut a hole in the airport perimeter fence with a pair of bolt cutters before walking on to airport lands.
They were met on a taxiway by an airport officer after staff were alerted to a security breach. When asked what they were doing, the men said they were peace protesters who were there to inspect US military aircraft. They later told the jury they were protesting US military use of Shannon as a stop-over enroute to places such as the Middle East.
Their actions caused the airport to be shut down for about 40 minutes, with two planes delayed in departing and a cargo plane unable to land. Both men were found guilty of interference with the operation, safety or management of an airport.
Due to the "seriousness of the offence," but taking into account mitigating factors such as their cooperation with Gardai and that neither of the men had previous convictions, Judge Patricia Ryan fined them € 5,000 each. She also noted that both men had already spent 13 days in prison and were required to remain in Ireland for the past nine months.
Carol Doherty, BL, defending Mr Kauff, said the men were "pensioners with no particular stream of income". They could afford a maximum of €2,500 each. However, outside the courtroom, talk of a whip-round by their supporters began, and three hours later, the fine was met and the men were free to go.
Mayers, of Monte Alte Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Kauff, of Arnold Drive, Woodstock, New York had both pleaded not guilty to trespass, criminal damage and interfering with the operation, safety or management of Shannon Airport on March 17th, 2019.
On Tuesday a jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court acquitted them of criminal damage to an airport perimeter fence and of trespassing the airport with the intent to commit an offence or interfere with property. The jury returned a majority verdict of guilty on the separate charge of interfering with the operation, safety or management of an airport by entering the runway area and causing the airport to close.
In Dillons Pub, Kauff and Mayers explain that they met 12 years ago in a US anti-war group called Veterans for Peace.
During the Vietnam war, Kauff served in the army, while Mayers was a marine.
“We were both young and idealists about what being in the military meant. We didn’t realise what violence really means and the toll it takes on human beings. Going through that scars you for life,” Kauff said.
He called it “moral injury,” an aspect of PTSD which leaves veterans “feeling guilty for what you were part of that you can never change.”
“A lot of people who feel that way become activists, because that’s our way of making up for it.”
Mayers always expected to stay on in the Marine Corp and "rise through the ranks". His father served in the military during the second world war, and he grew up "drinking the marine corp kool-aid".
“I was on active duty for eight years and each year something else happened that made me feel, this isn’t right. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was the last straw for me,” he said.
In 2019, on one of several trips abroad with the Veterans for Peace group, Kauff and Mayers arrived in Ireland with six other members, “with the intention of having a demonstration at the airport terminal”.
However, on the night before, they “got the idea to do something a little more impactful,” Mayers said.
“People have been trying to get these planes inspected for 20 years. We thought it would be particularly impactful if US veterans did it, since it’s the US war machine going through Shannon Airport,” Kauff said.
“War means children getting blown to pieces and families blasted apart. The US war machine is responsible for that and for a huge amount of environmental damage. So it’s even beyond just war.”
Both Kauff and Mayers held the belief that Irish neutrality was “particularly important in light of the war in Ukraine”.
“You don’t stop war by adding weapons. You stop it with negotiations and diplomacy. People supporting Irish neutrality need to stand firm and refuse to support violence,” Kauff said.
Following their arrest in 2019, both Kauff and Mayers spent 13 days in Limerick Prison and were then required to surrender their passports and remain in Ireland for a further nine months.
In that time, they only paid for two nights of accommodation.
“One of our supporters owned a student house and allowed us to stay in it when the students went home for the summer,” Mayers explained. Limerick city was their “base” and they frequently travelled to Dublin to participate in protests outside the Dáil.
Irish people “only ever expressed support and generosity” towards them.
“People would come up to us in the street and offer us money to help. We’d try to refuse but you can’t say no to Irish people. It was real human solidarity, it wasn’t just perfunctory,” Kauff said.
Among their supporters at the Criminal Court on Wednesday was Sinn Féin senator Paul Gavan, who has been a regular attendant of ShannonWatch protests.
“These two men are heroes. At their age they’ve come to say to the world that what’s happening here is entirely wrong. They’re two of the most principled men I’ve ever met and I’m proud to be here to support them,” Gavan said.
Roger Cole, chairman of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA), which has repeatedly called for mandatory searches on US military flights passing through Shannon down the years, was also there to support them.
“There have been demonstrations at Shannon Airport for a hell of a long time, but the planes are never searched. There could be weapons or bombs on board. What they did was take an opportunity to search a plane on the grounds the State wasn’t doing it.”
“People ask if we have any regrets. The short answer is that our only regret is not doing more for peace as individuals,” Kauff said.
“As long as we’re breathing, we will do everything we can for peace.”