Friday 20 October 2017

This courtroom drama proves that struggle for land as fierce as ever

Thomas Kelly
Thomas Kelly
Alan Kelly
The disputed laneway outside Portroe, Tipperary
Neighbour Diane Whitehead

Kathryn Hayes

IT WAS just an "overgrown" country lane at a "lovely location" overlooking Lough Derg.

But the struggle for land in rural Ireland remains as timeless as ever, as proved in a courtroom drama between once-friendly neighbours – with tears, surveillance cameras and cars in the lane at 3am.

At Portroe, Co Tipperary, the old laneway suddenly assumed the status of a national landmark when it became a battleground between 72-year-old Diane Whitehead on the one hand, and North Tipperary Labour TD Alan Kelly and his father Tom (74) on the other.

Amid unspecified allegations of "harassment and intimidation" on Ms Whitehead's part, and claims by Mr Kelly that she had installed a surveillance camera directly facing his house at a time when it was publicly known he was receiving death threats, the two sides spent four days in Nenagh Circuit Court thrashing out the ownership of this obscure right of way.

GENERATIONS

The Kellys have lived in Portroe for many generations and said the disputed lane, which has been in the family since 1935, was known locally as 'Kelly's Lane'.

Tom Kelly, a local farmer, is the father of Alan Kelly, Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, who also lives on the lane.

Diane Whitehead, originally from London, came over to Ireland on a visit in 1988 and decided she wanted to live in a rural part of the country. She saw an advertisement for "a four-bedroomed modernised cottage, overlooking Lough Derg" and bought it.

When she settled in, Tom Kelly invited her to tea, where he asked if she would be prepared to swap her field. She told him she wouldn't consider such a request for at least 10 years.

"I remember the two young schoolboys were there at the time when I was having tea," she recalled.

She assumed the lane was "commonage" and used it to get to and from her field.

Eventually, the schoolboys she had first met in the kitchen grew up, and between 2001 and 2002, Alan Kelly built a family home for himself and his wife, Regina, on what Ms Whitehead described as "almost an island of land in the middle of my land".

Ms Whitehead was in the habit of bringing her horses up and down the lane to her own field and said that, until 2010, she had been using it "freely".

But a few years later when Alan Kelly was having his house renovated she found it blocked "all of a sudden" by cars.

Then, on October 13, 2010, when she returned from a trip to London, a security firm had erected a barrier across the lane, effectively closing it off to her, something she said she was "shocked" about.

She got a court injunction allowing her to use the lane and installed a camera pointing at Alan Kelly's house, because of what she called "nocturnal car creepers" in the lane at 3am. She said she was not "spying" on Mr Kelly "who had become an important person by then".

She took a case to the Circuit Court seeking "unfettered access" to her land along the lane, which she claimed she half owned.

DISTRESSED

Judge Petria McDonnell walked the disputed lane during a three-day hearing.

When Tom Kelly went into the witness box to give evidence he became visibly distressed, saying he had always had good neighbours and he was "not in the habit of falling out with anybody".

He admitted putting the barrier in the lane in 2010 saying horses were going up "early in the morning and late at night" beside the home of his son, Alan, and his two children.

Alan Kelly, giving evidence, said he was perturbed by a letter he received from Mrs Whitehead about late-night activity in the lane.

"It is quite obvious my next-door neighbour was taking photographs of myself and my family. . . to this day we do not know what photos were taken of our cars or our children," he said.

He talked about the stresses of "going to law" on the issue and how he had to think "long and hard" about it "because there were national journalists reporting on the case who wouldn't be here otherwise".

The resonance with John B Keane and his famous play 'The Field' became particularly apparent, when Alan Kelly spoke passionately about his love for the fourth generation plot of land and his right to stand up for the family farm.

"Personally, for me one of the most emotional situations was to see my father (upset) here earlier. Sometimes you have to stand up and defend your rights and we, my father and I, stand shoulder to shoulder in standing up for what we believe in."

He said Ms Whitehead had alternative access to her field by 'the high road', a route used by former owners of the land.

Judge McDonnell said both parties felt aggrieved and she hoped some accommodation could be reached where they could "mend fences and live in harmony". She said she was forced to conclude Diane Whitehead had not established a right of way over the lane, as she had admitted during her 20 years in Portroe she hadn't used it for a period of three years and it had become overgrown.

The judge dismissed the case taken against the Kellys by Ms Whitehead, saying she had an alternative route along what is known locally as 'the High Road'.

The Kellys did not apply for costs against Ms Whitehead, which the judge said was a "sensible and generous gesture".

Irish Independent

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