A 1988 video from RTE's archives shows Joe Keating (72) on the cliff edge beside his coastal house in Ballyconnigar, Co. Wexford. The reporter tells us that "the sea is Joe's deadly enemy," as Joe explains that when he was young, his land extended 200 yards from the house, but it's gone now.
Hands in pockets, standing at the corner of his house, which sits precipitously beside the cliff edge, Joe describes how his outhouse recently collapsed into the sea. "There was a racecourse where the sea is now," he says.
What Joe experienced 23 years ago is happening today. The sea has long eaten away at the soft sandy coastline of eastern Ireland. But the climate crisis has once again focused attention on the accelerated rate of coastal erosion in counties like Wexford. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2050, extreme sea-level events that used to occur once every 100 years will now happen every year on many coasts. We all have to get used to more intense storms, but for people and wildlife who live along the coast, it may mean that their lands and habitats will increasingly disappear into the sea.
Farmer Willie Pearce (82) lives in Ballyhealy near Kilmore Quay. The walls of his family cottage are salty from the sea spray, but it wasn't always like this. When he was younger, large fields stood between the sea and his home. "The two fields were here in 1934," says Willie. "When my father came here, he inherited it from his uncle. They got smaller and smaller, and they're gone now". The storms took them, he says.
The Pearce's say they have lost seven acres of land to coastal erosion, but they have also noticed that a lot of the destruction has occurred over the last 15-20 years. In early 2020, an intense storm hit the Wexford coastline, and their garden wall collapsed into the water. "That was the big tragedy," says Lal, who knows that the prospect of the cottage disappearing is now a real one.
The grim reality is that her predictions are likely correct. Human activity has caused excessive concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, into our atmosphere, which traps the Sun's heat and causes the earth to warm. It's melting our glaciers and ice caps and causing sea levels to rise. Storm surges are aggressively eating away at our coasts.
"Depending on our choices and how much greenhouse gas we admit, this will continue to get worse," says climatologist and IPPC author Peter Thorne of Maynooth University. "The question is, how much worse? It will accelerate in the next 2 to 3 decades." The IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 1.1 metres by the end of this century. "We have a burden for future generations here," says Thorne. "The numbers are very stark."
The reality is stark, too. Beef and tillage farmer Jamie Ryan owns a large farm in Ballytrent in Wexford. A mile of his farm borders the coast, but the dunes that had protected his fields are falling away. "This fence used to run 20 feet beyond where we're standing," he says as he perches on top of the dune facing the sea. "As you can see, the bank is gone, the fence is gone."
Jamie says that he has lost about five acres of land to the sea. He has to move his fence inland every few years as the sea erodes his fields. "From about 2005 onwards, I've noticed a lot of erosion taking place," he says. "The whole coastline is under attack. It's not just a problem in the Ballytrent area; it extends right up the east coast of Ireland."
The cost of protecting the coast is prohibitively expensive, says Jamie. "Irish Rail is undergoing a project not far from here, and it costs around €10,000 per metre for rock armouring. I couldn't afford to do that."
The irreplaceable loss of land is a source of deep concern for Jamie, who intends to hand over the farm to his son James. "Yes, I do worry for him; I'd like to think that it won't affect him, but the rate it's going in here now, who knows. It's not looking good."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the most significant single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture, at 37.1% of the total. As a livestock and tillage farmer, this reality doesn't escape Jamie's attention. "I don't think this is just natural wear and tear of the coast. I believe this is a result of global warming, and sea levels are rising," he says. "All farmers have this responsibility to try their very best to reduce emissions."
Willie and Lal have spent €20,000 of their savings on stones and boulders to protect what remains of the garden and cottage. Wexford County Council says that a preliminary erosion study will occur, but mitigation works are not in the pipeline yet. As the winter approaches, all the Pearce's can do is wait and hope that the house doesn't fall into the sea. "I feel it has taken so much - it has taken a lot of land, it has taken the road. It has taken a bit of us, too," says Lal. "Every time you go to bed, you worry."
For Peter Thorne, what is happening to Wexford's coast should spur urgent climate action. "If we keep it to 1.5 degrees warming, it keeps the rate of sea-level rise much much slower," he says. "It is imperative that we act, not just for our sake, but for the sake of future generations."
Watch Ear to the Ground tonight at 7pm on RTÉ One.