Is an addiction clinic run by the Catholic Church near the main crossroads in Falcarragh, west Donegal, where widespread clerical child abuse has taken place, the best way to spend hard-earned taxpayers’ job-creation money?
As Údarás na Gaeltachta, the area’s leading economic organisation, is expected to pour hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of euro into the project, I posed the question to Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the group’s tourism officer, at a recent EU-backed CeangalG (ConnectG) conference on the development of cultural tourism in the Gaeltacht at An Chuirt Hotel. His response: “We’ve tried to develop Ballyconnell House for many years without success as no decent projects have been put forward to us about it, so negotiations are well advanced for the clinic.”
Ballyconnell House: Crumbling edifice to be turned into Catholic Church-run addiction clinic?
This was strange as local businessman Milo Butler, who developed the 200-year-old hostelry in Gortahork ‘Maggie Dan’s’ into a successful eating establishment, told me in an earlier conversation that he and other local entrepreneurs including a fluent, local Irish-language solicitor, put forward a comprehensive business plan to Údarás to turn the estate – on which the Cloughaneely Golf Club stands – into a hotel and tourism venture, including an equestrian centre. “It is utterly ridiculous to say no decent projects have been put forward, especially at a time when this organisation says it wants to support the growth of tourism in the area,” he said angrily. “Even worse, our proposal did not even receive so much as a response from Údarás, a simple professional courtesy in such circumstances. I am left deeply disappointed by what I’ve heard. It is more than obvious that certain influential organisations and individuals can get funding from Údarás, and others cannot. It is tantamount to discrimination. Proper use of taxpayers’ money is very important and as such it has to be properly accounted for and well spent.”
Údarás officials, still recovering from the imminent closure of Largo Foods in Bunbeg with the loss of 142 jobs after it had invested over 6.2 million euro in it, say the proposed drug and alcohol addiction clinic could provide much needed jobs in a town bereft of them.
“Ballyconnell House is historically a symbol of oppression, now it will be a symbol of healing, and it could provide as many as forty-five jobs,” explained John Curran, board member of Údarás.
Others, however, are angry that a Catholic Church-controlled institution, Cuan Mhuire (Harbour of Mary), would operate the facility. Their reaction follows the well-publicised cases of paedophilia by priests, teachers and caretakers at church-run schools in this tightly-knit rural area, as well as national media reports that Cuan Mhuire allowed convicted pedophile priests to hold religious services at their other addiction centres in Ireland and gave jobs to both nuns and priests who are up on charges of child molestation. Media reports concerned two priests convicted of child abuse who allegedly stayed at a Cuan Mhuire centre after their release from prison and were allowed to say Mass to recovering alcoholics there, unbeknown to the patients. In addition, media allege that a priest jailed on multiple counts of sexually abusing altar boys, aged 10 and 11, in a church sacristy, allegedly lived at a Cuan Mhuire centre. Officials at the Catholic organisation have denied many of the allegations but have not opened their books yet for verification.
Martin Gallagher, a victim of clerical abuse from the Falcarragh-Gortahork area, who was interviewed in the BBC BAFTA-winning programme, “The Shame of the Catholic Church,” is also deeply concerned. “After the horrific things that have happened in this small area – with paedophiles linked to the Catholic Church, including Father Eugene Greene in Gortahork who abused over a 30-year period and pleaded guilty to 40 charges, as well as convicted Michael Ferry, who studied to be a priest at Maynooth, taught religion and was a caretaker at a church-run school in nearby Derrybeg where he raped several children – there is understandable apprehension about anything the Catholic Church is involved in here,” he said. The BBC-winning documentary was hosted by investigative journalist Darragh MacIntyre, former owner of the Teach Ruairi Pub in Gortahork. Unfortunately, the Gaeltacht has the highest rate of clerical paedophilia per population than any other part of Ireland.
In a phone conversation with me, Gallagher said some of the addiction cases in the Donegal Gaeltacht are “a direct result of Catholic Church-linked paedophilia, such is the trauma to the victims.” “How can that be handled sensitively by an addiction clinic run, in effect, by the Catholic Church?” he asked. Cuan Mhuire is a Catholic group with strong ties to the Vatican and fees to it for its services would be paid either by private insurance or the HSE.
Asked whether he knew about the allegations against Cuan Mhuire and if he considered them important, Curran said simply “I can’t comment on the CM project due to the fact that the project is still at an exec level within the Udaras. I don’t want to hinder this process as I don’t know what stage the discussions are at and feel that the appropriate time for the Board to get involved is when we have a concrete proposal to hand.”
Others question the need for an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the area when Donegal already has one close by – White Oaks in Muff, adding that the high cost of the clinic to the tax-payer – with no guarantee that local people will be employed in well-paid professional positions – would restrict available funding for cultural tourism projects for the Gaeltacht that was promised by the new Údarás board after taking office two years ago.
While social workers report an increased problem with drug and alcohol addiction in west Donegal for various reasons, research in the field has shown that people who suffer such addictions rarely attend clinics in their own areas, particularly when the areas in question are rural, due to the high level of stigma attached to such treatment. As such, few people in the immediate area of west Donegal would benefit from treatments provided by a proposed new clinic established there.
It terms of cultural tourism, at the CeangalG conference, Ian Joyce, an arts and culture entrepreneur who launched Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc near Gortahork a number of years ago, told me his multi-annual 40,000 euro budget from Údarás/the Arts Council was stopped this year, leaving him desperately searching for ongoing funding. He said his printing, visual arts and design centre, which lies in the heart of the Gaeltacht, is “an artist lead initiative” which, as its website states, “provides a platform for creative exchange between artists worldwide and the Gaeltacht community.” This includes tailored courses, both residential and non-residential. While Cló has received hundreds of thousands of euro in support from various organisations over the years, Gordan says his initiative attracts many international visitors to the Gaeltacht area while also strengthening links with other countries, thus putting as he described, “the Donegal Gaeltacht on the cultural map.” He added, “Many arts and culture organisations and initiatives in west Donegal, and elsewhere in the county, have been hard-hit by cuts.”
Údarás officials declined to say how many local people might be employed at the proposed clinic or whether they would be part-time, low-skilled such as floor cleaners or higher-paid executive positions.
Ironically, one Údarás official told me the organisation had paid the Catholic Church “millions of euro for Ballyconnell House some years ago” and now plans to offer it back at a “negligible or heavily discounted rental rate as part of an overall deal.”
With the perceived need within Údarás to show healthy job creation statistics to retain its multi-million euro annual budget and well-paid staff jobs in face of a rumoured takeover by the IDA or Enterprise Ireland, a fragile position exacerbated by the loss of 142 jobs at Largo Food that left the organisation with a minus 78 tally, the worse jobs record of all the Gaeltachts of Ireland, after spending more than two million euro in Donegal last year, could the addiction clinic be a way of making its job creation statistics respectable before its key annual year-end review?