Three generations of female environmental game-changers

Published by Shamim Malekmian on

March 7th, 2019

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, The Green News is celebrating three generations of Ireland’s female game-changers in the field of environment action. Lorelie Tomko, Noreen Murphy and Dr Jean O’Dwyer discuss their green initiatives with Shamim Malekmian.

Photo: Shamim Malekmian

Lorelie Tomko

In a bright house overlooking the Ilen River in Skibbereen, Co Cork lives an 88-year-old woman responsible for the town’s most prominent environmental movement.

Her name is Lorelie Tomko, a New Jersey-born Irish-American pioneering activist who has marched the streets protesting any injustice for as long as she can remember.

“I’ve marched in more marches than you could probably count,” says Tomko, whose father was a US Senator who, she says, inspired her to never stop caring.

“Someone once asked me ‘what’s the thing you hate the most’ and I said injustice. If there’s something I can help with, I stand there and make noise,” she says.

Tomko pursued her dream career as a stage actress until retirement, when she packed up a few of her belongings and “took off” on an adventure.  She settled in Ireland after decades of travelling the world, choosing Skibbereen as her home as the name had a nice ring to it.

In late 2017, Tomko heard whispers about a plastic factory planned for her adopted town and was “shocked” by the planning documents for the factory that, in her opinion, “were all just so nebulous”.

Tomko walked all over town asking people to sign her petition against the proposed factory, jumping up as swiftly as a teenager to show The Green News protest posters that she made.

She proudly recalls the overwhelmingly positive response from locals. When she successfully gathered people for the first town hall meeting to discuss the factory, she knew her campaign was flowering.

“I think I may have had more credibility than someone younger, or else the fact that they just didn’t want to be rude to me,” she says.

A legal challenge about planning for the factory brought by the campaign started by Tomko – now known as Save Our Skibbereen – is set to be heard in the High Court next week.  

Asked how she feels about how far the campaign has come, Tomko tears up. “We’ve finally done it,” she says. “We’ve finally reached people after weeks and weeks of marching up and down the streets and talking to people.”

Noreen Murphy at protest outside Cork City Council Photo: Shamim Malekmian

Noreen Murphy

Noreen Murphy, a 53-year-old environmental campaigner, has lived In Ballyvolane on the north side of Cork City for the past 27 years where she has fought tooth and nail for the clean up an illegal dump next to her house.

Murphy is known to many as a no-nonsense woman and her never say die attitude had a major part to play in getting the council to clean-up the dump over the past few weeks.

She is reluctant to take any credit though. “It’s not only me, it’s everyone. I’m just a housewife with a lot of time on my hands, so I can stand here and talk about it, “she says.

It is no secret, however, that Murphy relentlessly campaigned for the clean-up of the dump at Ellis’s Yard, constantly badgering Cork City Council on social media and by email.

She even aided The Green News in safely filming the open dump a few days before the Council announced a date for its clean-up.

In January, Murphy set up a stall outside the Council to demonstrate the toxicity of the dump’s rubbish, putting out different bottles with various fluids to signify rubbish’s toxic nature – all of them prepared in her kitchen.

“I used ginger ale and balsamic vinegar and put different labels on different bottles,” she explains, laughing. What happens in reality, however, is no laughing matter, she says, as “the rubbish liquefies and it’s highly toxic”.

Murphy believes that when it comes to plastic pollution, mothers and housewives need to “educate” themselves and realise that they are not the ones creating the problem.

“[Big businesses] would try to make us feel guilty because we had to go buy a chicken that was wrapped in three different types of plastic to feed our children,” she says.

“I think we should start to look at plastic producers and put pressure on them, because somebody is obviously making a lot of money off it, and people who are paying for it aren’t even born yet.

“There needs to be space for housewives and mothers to get involved because they are the hands that rock the cradle,” Murphy says. “They’re the ones who are bringing forth the next generation.”

Dr Jean O’Dwyer in her office Photo: Shamim Malekmian

Jean O’Dwyer

University College Cork’s Dr Jean O’Dwyer wanted to be an astronaut as a child when her idea of a perfect birthday was to visit the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

As she grew up, her interest shifted from space travel to an entirely different form of exploration under the microscope in the science lab. Today, the 30-year-old environmental scientist has the lofty aim of eliminating diseases spread by contaminated groundwater.

She was first intrigued by this area when a friend confided in her about her four-year-old niece’s illness. The little girl had fallen severely ill after contracting a waterborne infectious disease. Deeply affected by the story, O’Dwyer decided that she wanted to prevent similar cases from happening.

The Limerick-born scientist is now an over-achiever in her field, granted various awards for her body of research, including several national projects with the Department of Agriculture and Enterprise Ireland.

“We published the first study looking at antibiotic resistance in groundwater that people were drinking, and we found shocking levels of resistance to particularly veterinary antibiotics,” she explains.

She predicts that water safety is going to be a “global problem” due to climate change, with environmental scientists set to play an even more critical role in solving the intractable problem.

“My goal, as an environmental scientist, has always been to make things a little bit better, and I think the best way to go about it is from a bottom-up approach,” she says.

“Getting people to be custodians and have stewardship, I’m hoping that a lot of our research has that kind of social focus where we try to put science in people’s hands and get them to make the changes at the bottom level.”

When it comes to the topic of Irish women’s role in the scientific arena, O’Dwyer says that “we somehow lose women” after graduation. “We are seeing a lot of women in undergraduate and postgraduate level, but then you don’t see a lot of women at my level.”

According to the Higher Education Authority (HEA), men hold three-quarters of university professorship and two-thirds of post-associate professor roles in the country.

O’Dwyer, however, is optimistic that age-old gender biases will soon have no place in the scientific world. “I always joke with my friends because I always get stamped with being such a good representation of women in science,” she says.

“And I say to them that ideally, in 20 years, I won’t be called a woman in science, I’ll just be called a scientist.”

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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.