Tide turning Donegal islander captures hearts in France

Documentary-maker intends to keep on filming community’s struggle

Trailer for the film 'A Turning Tide in the Life of Man' has just been released. The documentary follows Donegal islander, John O'Brien, after he refused to surrender his licence to catch wild salmon. Video: Lugh Films


“I’m not going to sell out my children’s rights, though I could do with the money - small enough as it is. At least I can sleep at night...”

When Donegal islander John O’Brien made public a promise in this newspaper some years ago, there were those who thought he would surely relent.

It was August 2008 and Government cheques were being sent out to the first of more than 1,300 coastal skippers who had agreed to surrender licences to catch wild salmon after a ban on driftnetting was introduced the year before.

O’Brien, from Donegal’s Inishbofin,was one of 30 who decided to refuse the Government lucre, along with neighbours on Arranmore. Little did he know that his stance and that of his colleagues would make headlines on French television and in the daily newspaper, Le Monde.

The cheques, averaging about €18,900 each, were subject to tax under the Government’s €25 million compensation scheme. O’Brien could have done with the money, as a father of six children and with limited options for an alternative income. Had he been a farmer, asked to protect a sensitive habitat, he would probably have received a regular disadvantaged area income.

He and his fellow small boat skippers turned to lobster and crab, only to find that lobster stocks buckled under pressure, while further EU restrictions on whitefish landings in the area meant there was no access to live bait for crab.

All the while, O’Brien was reading about EU measures to create sanctuaries for fragile species. “There was no word about humans,” he observed.

A chance meeting on Magheroarty pier with French film maker Loïc Jourdain led to his struggle being documented. Jourdain’s film, A Turning Tide in the Life of Man/ I mBéal na Stoirme has been selected for several festivals already, including Guth Gafa in Kells,Co Meath which was held at the weekend.

“I used to live on Tory island and my partner then introduced me to John,”Jourdain recalls. “I made a short documentary on the situation for TG4. ”

“TG4 then agreed to a longer film, but it all got bigger, and it became a European story with European funding – so, along with the Irish Film Board, about half the budget for the documentary comes from France, ”Jourdain says. The French library network has acquired multiple copies.

The film-maker records how one community and a sympathetic priest, Fr John Joe Duffy, sought to convince the European Commission that its “Common” Fisheries Policy was anything but.

O’Brien, who narrates in an accent as soft as light Donegal rain, struck up a relationship with the former EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki. The Greek politician was clearly impressed with the case made by the skipper who had to miss two family birthdays to make trips to Brussels, where he looked at times as lost as any fish out of water in the long, dry corridors of power.

O’Brien and company succeeded in securing a clause in the new Common Fisheries Policy permitting member states to protect their islands. His community presented a case to the Oireachtas joint sub-committee on fisheries which, on a foggy day in January 2014,travelled to Inis Oírr to publish its report on promoting sustainable rural coastal and island communities.

One of that report’s recommendations advises the Government to consider issuing “heritage licences” which would allow for traditional fishing practices in certain designated areas. Most of the 22 recommendations have still to be implemented. Jourdain is struck by the fact that other EU member states have pushed for heritage status for their islands.

Jourdain intends to play his part in ensuring O’Brien’s situation is not forgotten. “I will continue filming,”he promises. O’Brien, the reluctant film star, hopes that two of his sons, now fishing, can continue with a career at sea. That same career demanded 16 to 17 hour days offshore in this week’s good weather, with the trio snatching three to four hours sleep at home each night.

* The Irish Cultural Centre and Irish Embassy in Paris are hosting a special screening of A Turning Tide in the Life of Man in the French capital at the cinéma Les 3 Luxembourg (67, rue Monsieur le Prince - 75006 Paris) on October 13th at 7.30pm.

www.guthgafa.com; www.lughfilm.com