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Saoi O’Connor, the Irish teenage climate activist, isn’t going away quietly

On a recent Friday morning, Saoi O’Connor, a 16-year-old climate activist, and her friends were standing outside Cork City Council in protest. The youths, being hit by a cold, spring rain, remained defiant for seven hours – nothing could dampen their determination.

Every Friday, for the past two months, Saoi, often accompanied by her friends, has been making a point of not attending school, hoping to shame the Government into addressing climate change with more affirmative action than they believe is being taken.

A number of pedestrians stop and take photos with the young activists; others pass by their act of civil disobedience with a curious glance; some barely notice.

Saoi (Saoirse) O’Connor, a Skibbereen native, who travels two-hours from her home to the city to protest, is one of the critical figures of Ireland’s youth climate rebellion; a worldwide movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl who is also 16.

The young, global crusade against climate change has attracted praise, trolling, scepticism and wonderment.

Saoi, whose aura of maturity is striking, is not an entirely unintentional activist, she has been dissenting in her own way, since the age of four. “I started campaigning when I was four when my parents started the Fair-Trade Committee in our town to advocate for fair trade food projects,” she tells My Good Planet.

To support her parents’ cause, Saoi, wore a banana costume at that year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade – an innocent act of solidarity that got her hooked on activism.

An avid supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and feminism, she describes her climate revolt as her “biggest project” yet.

On Twitter, the young activist uses the hashtag Whatever It Takes, and her iron will to fight for a better future has attracted relentless trolling online.

Trolls have accused her of avoiding school on the pretext of climate change activism, Saoi, however, tries to understand them while defending herself.

From left Caoimhe Cotter, Saoi O’Connor and Darragh Cotter outside Cork City Council Photo (c) Shamim Malekmian

This is a school strike, and people are wary of it, because, they think, ‘Oh well, teenagers just want to miss school,’” she says, “I would argue that if I just wanted to miss school, I would stay at home, as opposed to getting a bus for two hours up here.”

Saoi is frustrated that people “don’t seem to understand” the youth’s climate initiative, and the detractors not only includes trolls and climate change deniers but also politicians and heads of States.

Just recently, the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office issued a statement rebuking school strikes as an unproductive act that “wastes lesson time”.

Greta Thunberg, who is not only scrutinised online for missing school but is recently accused of protesting climate change in exchange for money, quickly fired back on Twitter:But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 yrs of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

Such defiance from Greta, fuels Saoi’s Irish climate battle. “She’s an incredible speaker, so articulate and there is something about the way she delivers her speeches,” Saoi says of Greta, “And what she believes in resonates with me strongly.”

Greta Thunberg is a potent source of inspiration for young people around the world. In February, thousands of British schoolchildren, as well as college students, walked out of their classrooms to demand a more radical approach for combating climate change from their Government.

A massive student rally in Belgium also led to the resignation of the country’s Environment Minister who claimed that Belgian intelligent services held evidence that “unnamed powers” had organised the event.

Darragh Cotter protestng outside Cork City Council photo Shamim Malekmian
Darragh Cotter protestng outside Cork City Council photo (c) Shamim Malekmian

On March 15, young Irish students are set to stage a mass walkout to join a global school strike that is set to portray a wholesome image of the growing climate revolt.

Joe Noonan, a Cork-based solicitor with a special penchant for challenging environmental cases, says teenagers have every right to assert their ecological demands.

I think particularly for [teenagers] it is very constructive and appropriate, they should be able to make their voices heard,” he says.

Mr Noonan, whose law firm represents a group of Cork residents who are dissenting the construction of a waste incinerator in Cork Harbour, says “inertia” overpowers politicians when it comes to climate change.

It is the power of inertia or not so much the power, the tendency of it and reluctance to make decisions that require radical change,” – Joe Noonan, Environmentally focused Solicitor

Relating a recent High Court ruling that ascertained the right to a healthy environment for all Irish citizens, Mr Noonan says the school strikes tie well into the landmark judgment.

Saoi who has a gentle assertiveness in her voice, says young people protesting climate change need to study and understand the differences between national an global demands.

We have different demands on a national level; every country has demands that are unique to that country and what they need to do,” she says. “They maybe need to meet their targets for the Paris Agreement, or reduce their emissions.”

Saoi continues that the global movement, on the other hand, needs to “mobilise” a united army of youth behind “clear scientific truths” about climate inaction.

Last October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published a special report revealing that Europe’s targets do not line up with the urgency of action required to curtail global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

A subsequent report from a team of scientists published in the journal Nature Climate Change also recently warned that the grievances we’re inflicting on our planet would “extend longer than the entire history of human civilisation thus far”.

When inquired as to why she does not protest in her hometown instead, the idea of invisible rural Ireland crops up. Saoi relates, with a quiet frustration in her voice, that even Cork County Council is located in the city,

We are less visible in rural areas, you know,” she says. “I could’ve gone to the town hall, but then I felt that people wouldn’t see us there, and the point would’ve been lost.”

When My Good Planet spoke to Saoi, she was accompanied by her friends Darragh and Caoimhe Cotter, although she usually spends her Fridays on her now-famous post outside the Council’s age-old building alone.

Darragh is a cheery teenager who is adamant that his participation is entirely voluntary and well-considered.

I come here because I feel like I should come here. I want to do something with my time that is better spent than just talking to my friends,” he says.

Darragh’s sister Caoimhe, whose blonde hair is dripping from rain agrees: “We are not here because we are bored; it’s because we want to make a difference.”

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Shamim Malekmian

Shamim Malekmian is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer for The Irish Examiner, Cork's Echo and Dublin Inquirer. She studied Journalism and Media Communications at Griffith College Cork and has a keen interest in highlighting Ireland's invisible community and environmental issues accurately and with as much unique style as possible.