WEDDING PARTIES at Barntown's historic Pugin church are hiring private security guards because they feel intimidated by the presence of some of the group of Travellers who have set up camp in its car park.
And for the first time in 150 years, the church, described as the gem of the Diocese of Ferns, has its doors locked outside normal religious services.
Parish officials said people felt so intimidated by the presence of some of the group they were hiring in private security for weddings and parishioners attending masses were posting 'guards' to look after cars parked outside the church.
'The church is locked at all times apart from religious services,' said parish priest Fr. Sean Gorman, 'during Masses people have voluntered to keep an eye on the cars.'
When they were 'gently' approached by local parish representatives, some of the Travellers reportedly said they wanted £400 for each of their caravans before they would be prepared to move.
'I can understand the concerns of settled residents,' said Murt Flynn, a member of the voluntary Travellers' Accommodation Forum.
But he said if Wexford County Council supplied transient facilities, as required under the Traveller Accommodation Act, 'this problem wouldn't be happening'.
Mr. Flynn said the loss of historic halting sites was at the heart of the problem.
Informed that some members of the group may have asked for money to move on, Mr. Flynn said that 'if people are at this there is no way we would support it.'
'If local people are put out or fearful and are being denied the use of their church, I can understand their concerns. The forum wouldn't support any kind of anti-social behaviour. If there is law-breaking it's a matter for the gardai,' said Mr. Flynn.
Residents have appealed to the Gardai to move the Travellers ahead of the patron on Sunday, but the guards said the matter was a civil one and it was up to the church to get a court order.
'It's a civil matter in that they are on private property,' said Sergeant Pat Geoghegan.
A local resident, who asked not to be identified, said the presence of the Travellers in the car park, which adjoins the graveyard, would deter a lot of people from attending the patron.
'I for one won't be attending,' said the man, expressing what he said were widely-held sentiments in the parish.
The Travellers, who had previously been camped next to the weighbridge at the Barntown roundabout, got into the car park after going through the ditch between it and the national school.
Councillor Phil Roche said the community at Barntown had never harboured racist attitudes towards the Travelling community, members of which were integrated with children from the settled community at the local national school.
'But for the first time in 150 years our church is locked all day and to me that's totally unacceptable.
'What I find most offensive is the fact that some of them seem to have no respect for the hallowed ground of our church and graveyard, using the grounds as a toilet. Our patron is being held next Sunday and people are most upset about this desecration of our church grounds.'
Cllr. Roche said the last thing the people of Barntown wanted was confrontation with the Travellers who she said had been treated most courteously since their arrival, but some of them had not respected appeals to keep the area clean and make their stay a short one to enable local people to use the car park fully.