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1 August 2016 Edition

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The Hanrahan Legacy

Revisiting 'The Valley of Tears'

• Robert Allen covered the pollution controversy for Magill magazine in 1988

Neighbouring farmers began to suspect that health problems, animal and human, were being caused by emissions from the factory

THE SILVER-HAIRED WOMAN is standing in the sitting room of her modest home, a large two-storey farmhouse built in the perfunctory tradition of the few native families who managed to hold land after the Anglo-Norman incursions into their region, acknowledging the location of her family domain in the picturesque Suir Valley in south Tipperary. 

“This is the Valley of Tears,” she says quietly. She is solemn, though it is possible to detect a trace of emotion in her voice.

“Our story was true, you see. We were very pleased that in the end we got, I suppose you could say, justice. But at what price? That is something none of us can say.”

Mary Hanrahan has the manner of a matriarch. This is not tradition. It is the consequence of a tragedy that has virtually destroyed her son and his family. For without Mary, her son John might never have endured the ordeal that could have easily wiped out many another man. 

It is a cold December afternoon, dry and crisp without a hint of rain. The day is bright, patches of hazy blue can be seen in the winter sky. The Hanrahans should be elated. They have just received an out-of-court settlement against the US chemical corporation, Merck Sharp & Dohme, after a 12-year legal battle to prove that emissions from the company’s Ballydine factory – just beyond the hill and over the railway – were responsible for the death of 225 of their farm animals. 

It is now a quarter of century later and what should be regaled as a turning point in Irish history is now no more than a footnote, one that a certain corporate would like to see erased completely. It tried very hard at the time, to the extent that journalists and researchers dared not approach the subject, nor the subject matter. Those who did, under the supervision of the once-feted PR guru Frank Dunlop, were told: “You shouldn’t believe everything those hippy environmentalists are telling you.”

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• Former Government Press Secertary and PR guru Frank Dunlop

Merck had been in operation in Ballydine, manufacturing bulk chemicals, for 27 months when neighbouring farmers began to suspect that health problems, animal and human, were being caused by emissions from the factory. Finally, after 18 months of complaints, South Tipperary Council commissioned a study on air pollution around the area of the factory. No evidence of serious air pollution was found. In the meantime, animals began to die of a strange wasting disease, cattle miscarried, twin births and deformities increased, and milk yields dropped. 

Then a report based on research by Trinity College Dublin’s Botany Department was leaked. It found that there was “clear evidence” that the surrounding countryside (lichens, grass, soil and silage) was being affected by emissions from the factory. But these investigations did nothing for the farmers, especially John Hanrahan. 

The strategy of the state, local authorities and the Merck management was to claim that the problems were confined to the Hanrahan farm, that the problems were caused by John Hanrahan’s mismanagement, and that they had no connection with the factory. But this strategy was undermined by the simple fact that problems existed on other farms, that Hanrahan had, until his cattle began to die, been a model farmer and was recognised as such in the locality. 

“It was one of the greatest scandals this country has seen in recent years,” James Tully, the Minister for Local Government, announced in the Seanad on 6 April 1976. 

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•  An IDA advert from November 1986 outlining the authority's vision of a 'new' Ireland

Schering Plough had decided to abandon an investment for a pharmaceutical factory at Killaloan, Clonmel, following a threatened High Court action by a group of concerned citizens who had objected vociferously and ceaselessly to the planning application. 

The objectors’ action, Tully argued, amounted to “blackmail”. South Tipperary Councillor Tom Ambrose claimed that the whole country was amazed at a decision that allowed a small minority to prevent a major industry coming into the area. 

Schering’s “impetuous decision” angered South Tipperary County Council who, with the assistance of the IDA, had hoped to secure a second chemical factory for the area, following Merck in Ballydine. Had the Schering Plough application been accepted, more chemical companies might have been persuaded to set up shop right along the Suir Valley. The dream of those who saw an industrial corridor stretching from Limerick and the Shannon to Waterford and the south-east coast had been shattered.

The true scandal in Tipperary was not what happened to Schering Plough or the plans of those who wanted a chemical corridor, it is what happened to the Hanrahan family. And the majority of the blame rests not with government, local or national, not with industry and its acolytes, and not with those who supported the state policy to attract “toxic” capital to the country. It rests with the environmentalists who climbed all over the work that had been done up to the point when the Hanrahans “won” their court case against Merck.

The ‘greens’ – in all their guises – came to prominence during the 1990s, at a time when environmentalism was the new buzzword and eco-warriors could be found colluding under every tree in the few woodlands that remained in the country. They made promises, including several to the Hanrahan family, and they gave the impression that they were doing something about all the environmental issues now rampant in society, not least the rise of respiratory-related illnesses, when the reality was that they were doing nothing that would change anything in society.

Despite the activity among those in communities concerned about “green” issues, who were prepared to advocate and support non-violent direct action and multimedia activism, the majority of greens pursued personal agendas and actively damaged local campaigns.


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John Hanrahan became a green darling and when his use conflicted with their career paths they jettisoned him just at the time when he and his family needed friends in high places.

The Hanrahans went on to fight more legal battles in the Four Courts, winning them all.

Today, new NGO Uplift is calling on people to sign a petition against Monsanto.

Monsanto are one of the most revered and reviled corporations on the planet. They are lions of industry, highly experienced and have a tradition of manipulating everything that affects them to their own advantage. By comparison, Merck Sharp & Dohme are kittens, yet they have managed to ensure that the history of their presence in Ireland has remained unsullied.

Merck Sharp & Dohme Ireland celebrate their 40th anniversary this summer. It is they and not the Hanrahans who have left a legacy. One petition that is crying out to be done is one to exonerate the Hanrahan family in the public arena. Then we would have a legacy recognising a very brave family.

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