‘It’s been a rollercoaster’ – the rise of the Irish school strike movement

Published by Shamim Malekmian on

September 18th, 2019

One food stall at this month’s A Taste of West Cork festival stood out, not so much for its offerings but for a unique but out of place placard resting against the stallholder’s table.

The existence of the sign at the annual Skibbereen celebration – reading The Emperor Has No Clothes in bold, black caps – begins to make more sense when Saoi O’Connor, arguably Ireland’s most prominent teenage climate activist, appears alongside it at her family’s food stall.

Saoi’s now infamous placard and phrase – borrowed from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tome underscoring youth’s ability to point out inconvenient truths to adults – has become a symbol of the student climate movement in Ireland.

Starting with a two-hour bus journey from Skibbereen to Cork City over nine months ago, Saoi has installed herself and her sign in front of council offices every Friday in a bid to amplify the inconvenient truth of the impending climate catastrophe.

While meeting a deafening silence for many weeks, a social media boost from Greta Thunberg, and a dedication to strike come wind rain or shine has put Saoi and the Irish movement on the map – from caricatures in The Irish Times to a trip to the European Parliament to tell policymakers what’s what.

Reflecting back on her nine-month journey of relentless climate campaigning in a wide-ranging interview with The Green News, 16-year-old Saoi recounts the ups and downs of playing a leading role in Ireland’s climate uprising.

From 1 to 5,000

“It’s been such a rollercoaster,” she says, smiling. “I mean the first strike that I did was just me in Cork, and I think there was only six of us striking [in Ireland].

“So then to see 15- 20,000 [at the protest in March] it was far more than what we expected, I mean 5,000 came out to the streets in Cork. That’s more than Cork has seen in a few decades.

“It was amazing because it really showed how people cared about this and it was coming to the forefront of the public consciousness, but it was also scary that we’d done that,” she says. “It was scary because suddenly everything became more real.”

The young activist recalls travelling to the European Parliament and getting stuck in London on the way back – “we don’t fly, or we try not to at least” – as new experiences that overwhelmed yet emboldened her. 

Building friendship with a network of like-minded students across the world has also been one of the highlights for Saoi.

“I’ve met so many amazing people all over the world through this movement,” she says. “One of my friends organises marches between Israel and Palestinian organisations. I’ve friends in Uganda and Nigeria, I have friends everywhere, just name a country.”

Greta THUNBERG, Swedish climate activist Photo: European Union / DAINA LE LARDIC
Greta THUNBERG, Swedish climate activist Photo: European Union / DAINA LE LARDIC

Greta and Saoi

Sweden is one that springs to mind, with Saoi becoming a close friend to the world’s most prominent student climate activist, Greta Thunberg (and insists on pronouncing her name in its original Swedish twang).

Greta has inspired children around the globe to skip school and hold climate vigils to highlight the futility of attending class when the future stability of our civilisation is not guaranteed. 

It was Saoi who familiarised Greta with Ireland’s environmental movements, leading the pioneering activist to send a recent video message in support of some of Cork’s grassroots eco-battles. 

“I just want to send my full support to the climate activists in Cork fighting to stop the building of a new plastic factory and the harvesting of kelp along the coastlines,” Greta said in the video. Both fights have seen progress since, including the withdrawal of plans for the plastic factory in Saoi’s native Skibereen earlier this month. 

Game of Trolls

As the student movement gains momentum, Saoi and Greta have both faced online harassment and incendiary comments made by adults mocking Greta’s struggles with Asperger’s and Saoi’s tomboy appearance.

Saoi says that the attacks – predominately from “white men” – don’t really bother her all that much. “When people like Greta retweet my stuff, you know a lot more people see it, so they get a lot of traction, and I get different people saying different things,” she says. 

“Some people have never been fans of young women who speak their minds and come across strongly… and if you look at the comments, you see that the majority of people who made them are white men.”

Her fellow female climate activists, especially “women of colour”, do not owe any explanation to white men for their strength and eloquence, she adds.

She believes that comments portraying young, female climate activists as helpless children forced into action by adults simply fall in line with a patriarchal credo loath to accept young women in leadership positions. 

“No one is pulling strings, we’re not anybody’s puppets,” she says. “All the young people in the world, leading this movement, are just strong people who know their minds.”

Rebuking political parties who she says still view climate change as a campaign strategy that helps conquer elections, Saoi says that the issue transcends party rivalries.

“If you’re saying that your party is doing better than the other party, I’d tell you that no party is doing enough to act on the climate crisis,” she says.  “We need political parties, but we need them to come together and solve [the climate crisis].”

Join us on Friday

Calling on people across the country to join the global strike on Friday, Saoi says that it is high time to rise above a culture of “individualism and consumerism” and wake up to the looming threat of a climate catastrophe.

“A lot of people think it’s not our problem, but it is your problem, it’s your planet,” she says. “We’re in a mess – climate change is, to some degree, a culmination of our broken systems.

“Actually, I take that back. They’re not broken, they are working as they are designed – to serve rich, white men, not the entire humanity.

“But people are waking up. We’ll see you on Friday, hopefully.”

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Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.