‘2021 is our last chance’ - Cork environmentalist warns

Bernie Connolly is the Development Co-ordinator with Cork Environmental Forum, which celebrates quarter of a century this year fighting for the environment at a local level, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
‘2021 is our last chance’ - Cork environmentalist warns

Bernie Connolly. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“OUR future is on a knife edge; I don’t know how many more reports people need before there’s action.”

There’s a rising note of frustration in Bernie Connolly’s voice as she describes what she believes are the environmental challenges Ireland faces in 2021.

Those working in the area of environment carry a deep awareness of the litany of ecological catastrophes the human race is creating, from the global right down to the local.

Marrying that knowledge with an awareness of the creakingly slow pace of change and the political apathy that seems to exist in some quarters is not easy.

“I believe that 2021 is the last chance to turn things around,” Bernie says.

“We have a tiny window to halt degradation of the biosphere and to lay a path for the future. The wheels of bureaucracy turn very slowly, so really we need to see much more accelerated action.”

Bernie Connolly, has worked with Cork Environmental Forum for 25 years.
Bernie Connolly, has worked with Cork Environmental Forum for 25 years.

For Bernie, who is development co-ordinator with Cork Environmental Forum (CEF), many of the most imminent challenges and dangers are in the area of food production and how we manage our precious resources both on land and at sea.

“We’re plundering the oceans and we’re seeing the collapse in stocks of fish species, the loss of sea birds,” Bernie says.

“But even with all of the scientific evidence, each year, our ministers go to Brussels and vote against the total allowable catch recommendations.

“The agricultural policy in Ireland is totally at odds with good water quality, with Ireland’s climate change commitments, with the EU biodiversity strategy,” she says.

“We have to change the intensification model that we have. We’re in absolute crisis: we’ve lost 480 of our high-status rivers since the 1970s.

“And the hard decisions have to come from inside the Department of Agriculture, and Teagasc, and all the other entities that have been pushing a model that’s simply not sustainable.”

Bernie’s tell-it-like-it-is approach to the state of play for the Irish environment may be alarming for many. How does she manage to stay balanced and optimistic in her own life?

“Sometimes I don’t, to be honest,” she says with a laugh “But I think that’s OK. 

"For years, I’ve felt like we’re talking in the wilderness. But this is an amazing and rewarding job. 

"The people I meet and work with every day are wonderful people who are thinking about so much more than themselves; they are thinking of the greater good. It’s the people around me who keep me going. And you have to keep going, really, because all you have is hope.

“The sad thing for me is that we have the solutions: we just don’t have the hard decision-making.”

Bernie Connolly snorkelling in Adrigole
Bernie Connolly snorkelling in Adrigole

Bernie has been co-ordinator with CEF since 2011, but she’s been involved with the organisation since 2000, five years after its formation: 2020 has seen the organisation celebrate 25 years of building on sustainable development in Cork.

From running workshops to supporting initiatives including Coastwatch, Refill Ireland and Rebel Pedal, Cork Environmental Forum has been fighting for the environment since long before it was as much in the public consciousness as it is today. From the Fridays For Future climate strikes to David Attenborough’s recent portents, environmentalism has entered mainstream consciousness in recent years.

“It’s become a lot more mainstream, definitely,” Bernie says. “People are getting much more informed and starting to demand action.

“Our own membership has definitely really grown. We’ve been running Rebel Pedal since 2000, looking for car-free days in Cork.

“Suddenly, this year, there’s actual movement on active travel initiatives that we haven’t seen in 20 years.

“I would have been very critical of the media because I don’t think they’ve given the issue enough attention, from the national broadcaster right the way down to local papers. It’s still quite hard in some of the more parochial papers to get real traction on the environment, but the young activists have really helped with that.”

Darren McAdam-O'Connell, Cork Environmental Forum, and Bernie Connolly, Cork Environmental Forum, taking part in the Rebel Pedal family fun cycle.
Darren McAdam-O'Connell, Cork Environmental Forum, and Bernie Connolly, Cork Environmental Forum, taking part in the Rebel Pedal family fun cycle.

Bernie’s own youth was spent in Glengarriff, where, she says, the beauty of her surroundings instilled a deep respect for the natural world in her and her siblings.

“My parents never had a car, so we walked,” she says.

“We spent a lot of time outdoors, swimming in the sea; the sea was our playground. We were always packed off to my grandmother’s near Drimoleague for nearly the whole two months of every summer, where my uncle farmed. He taught us a lot about the natural world; there was a stream and a bog, a sandy bank where sand martens nested. They were really nice, rich environments. I think it laid a very good foundation in having a connection.”

Having studied Business Studies in CIT, Bernie emigrated to London in the early 1980s, where she spent five years before backpacking around Asia and spending a year in Australia.

A two-year stint she spent volunteering in Lesotho in the early 1990s was also formative, she says.

“When you travel in Africa, you see the stark realities of subsistence living and you realise just how comfortable our lives are,” she says.

“I did some participatory research in Lesotho. People were losing their land because of a dam being built to bring water to Johannesburg and there was a process to see how people could be compensated.

“We had to get to the villages by horseback. There’s no safety-net there, no social welfare. And yet people have such a positive outlook, way more so than in Ireland. It influenced me to see how resilient people were.

“I learned an awful lot there and it gives you the resonance of acting locally but thinking globally. We’re all interconnected.”

Bernie Connolly was chair of Cork Environmental Forum in 2002.  Picture: Diane Cusack
Bernie Connolly was chair of Cork Environmental Forum in 2002.  Picture: Diane Cusack

Having moved back to Ireland, Bernie did a rural development course in UCC and moved back to West Cork to live near Clonakilty.

“CEF were running week on waste stands at supermarkets in Clon’, and I started volunteering then, in around 2000,” she says.

In 2004, she served as chair of CEF, and in 2011, she applied for a paid position as development co-ordinator.

One of the highlights of the annual calendar for Bernie is CEF’s Environmental Awards, held each December to recognise the very many ordinary Cork people doing extraordinary work to protect the environment.

“I forget every year what it means for people,” she says.

“People work very hard, and everybody appreciates being valued and recognised.

“Sometimes, that’s really important, just to recognise the work people are doing and I think CEF is very successful at that.”

25 years of Cork Environmental Forum - here’s what they do...

GAP Greener Living Training

GAP Greener Living Training is a peer-to-peer educational programme founded in 2003 that explores changing habits in everything from travel to purchasing habits. In 2020, courses were run in Bandon, Charleville, Fermoy and Blackpool.


Boomerang was a social enterprise in Farranree that recycled mattresses and provided community training and employment. They recycled 40,000 mattresses in six years, but unfortunately folded in 2019.

Annual Environmental Awards

CEF roll out the red carpet each December for an award ceremony that recognises outstanding environmental work across a variety of categories including Sustainable Agriculture and Public Sector.

Regional Co-ordination of the Coastwatch Survey

The Coastwatch survey is an international citizen science project that runs from September 15 to October 15 each year that documents change to our coastal habitats.

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