A meeting to discuss Clonmacnoise as a UNESCO World Heritage site held in Athlone this week descended into an IFA-inspired walkout and the intimidation of a Department official in a highly charged atmosphere.
Despite being told that nothing was cast in stone and that if the locals didn't want World Heritage designation that it wouldn't happen, the majority of the meeting could not be mollified.
Some 80 per cent of the 200-plus crowd left on the instigation of the fourth farmer to stand and make his orchestrated demands to the top table of OPW and Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DOEHLG ) representatives.
On the way out one man leaned in to the face of Mr Brian Duffy from the DOEHLG and threatened him.
On exiting, one person demanded “this sham of a meeting be stopped” because of the number of people that had left, but another voice added reason and pointed out that those who chose to leave did not take the mandate of discussion with them.
After they had left, a discussion about the spirituality of the site and the restrictions about extending a graveyard there were discussed by the remainder.
The farmers had gathered at the meeting at the Athlone Springs Hotel on Wednesday evening at the suggestion of Roscommon Deputy Denis Naughten, to protest the potential restrictions that might be imposed on the farmers in the Clonmacnoise area by its inclusion on a World Heritage list.
“Over the last number of years we have witnessed the department designate large tracts of land, placing serious restrictions on farming practices and development,” said Mr Naughten in The Irish Times on Tuesday.
On Wednesday evening a representative of the consulting firm contracted by the DOEHLG to put together the nomination document for the bid presented this to the gathered crowd and laid out the possible timetable for inclusion, before opening the discussion to the floor.
The main disagreement seemed to be the size of the planned core zone (200 Ha ) of the site and its surrounding buffer zone (2,000 Ha ) and the local fears of what might or might not be allowed built or farmed within these cordons.
“Why didn't you come to the local people first,” demanded first speaker Mr Noel Hynes,who then suggested the Department had ignored a 1,000-strong petition which had been recently submitted.
“You were afraid you'd be knocked down first. There'll be no more farming here without a permission slip from Dublin,” said Mr Hynes.
“The top table doesn't want the peasants to live, but we are of this place.
“It's sad that they care more for the tourists than the people who are living here now.”
Mr Brian Lucas, an archaeologist with the DOEHLG, conceded the Department could have managed the process differently but pointed out the contentious plan was only a draft document and nothing had been decided yet.
“The final decision will be a local decision,” he said.
“I'll tell the Minister that if the locals don't want it [World Heritage designation] not to push it,” said Mr Lucas.
Michael Silke of the IFA said this was a “most patronising answer” and that he had “never seen people treated like this”.
“You've made no attempt to let individual landowners know what the effects will be on their lands.
“There'll be savage, savage restrictions and they will stop you farming that land,” he said to the crowd.
Mr Lucas tried to counter by saying he couldn't see the buffer zone being regarded with the same restrictions as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC ) or Special Protection Areas (SPA ).
'I can't see any major changes to farming practices [imposed by WH designation] but we don't know what'll happen in 10, 15, or 20 years,” he said.
“You'll have a good pension by then,” shouted someone from the floor.
Next to speak was Aidan Larkin of Offaly IFA, who suggested the meeting wouldn't have happened without the pressure of his organisation.
“You have been railroading over people for the last 12 months and you made a farcical effort to consult,” he told the top table.
“There's a real concern among the people in this room about their livelihood and social life.”
A gun club representative was told there was no plans to turn the site into a National park, while an evangelist was told the State would be opposing her prayer festival plans. She complained it was like living “in Penal times”.
A tour organiser wanted to know why two German pilgrimages he brought to the site “were forbidden from expressing their faith”.
He was told there is absolute freedom of religious expression at Clonmacnoise but for safety and security, large groups have to be managed on the site.
“Ye expected 40 people and look at all that's turned up,” said Tom Turley, also of the IFA.
“Ye treated the 1,000 people of the petition with disdain. You will not be allowed to sterilise the area round Clonmacnoise. There's no democracy with you guys.
“You'll be like the Indians on the reservation – you won't be allowed to put up a tent,” he said to the crowd.
He then railed about the removal of the REPS scheme, the restrictions on rural septic tanks and the wildlife management of the Callows.
Despite reassurance to the contrary, Turley could not be satisfied.
“Time to call off this charade. I'm leaving this meeting,” he said as he led out the like-minded.
A Tullamore-based historian who'd lived in the area for 25 years was derided as a blow-in for criticising the walk-out but still added: “I'll not be driven out of a public meeting.”
The remainder of the meeting was taken in a more mannerly fashion and discussed the future use of graveyards at the site and the management of pilgrim groups at the site.
“Nobody said we don't want World Heritage status, we just wanted greater consultation,” said local lady Patricia Callinan.