Tuesday 17 September 2019

Village under an uncomfortable spotlight in wake of TD's remarks

Oughterard village
Oughterard village
Joe Loughnane. Photo: Ray Ryan
Noel Grealish TD. Picture: Andrew Downes
Cloonabinnia House Hotel, now derelict. Photo: Ray Ryan
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

On a quiet country boreen some 12km outside Oughterard in Co Galway lies a small hotel, near derelict, overgrown with brambles, a perilous rusty cattlegrid at its entrance.

It has long since been taken off the tourist maps, but once, Cloonabinnia House Hotel on peaceful Ross Lake was a refuge for, mostly, German fishermen after a day spent in the pleasurable pursuit of trout and salmon.

Bus loads of American tourists, too, used the hotel as a springboard to Connemara, eating early breakfasts under the giant wooden fork and spoon and trophy fish in glass cases that hung on the walls of the restaurant, before continuing on their journey.

The hotly fought rod licence row of the late 1980s saw the start of Cloonabinnia's decline.

In the early 2000s, it began a new life as one of the first rudimentary centres for asylum seekers in the country.

The experiment was to prove short-lived.

Around 20 families were housed there, recalls one local woman from the door of her nearby cottage.

"They were just walking the roads. We all felt so sorry for them," she said, adamant that their arrival had been met with open arms.

"You need a car around here," she said, gesturing to the expanse of fields and stone walls.

Local Independent councillor Noel Thomas thinks the asylum-seekers stayed for about a year or maybe a little more before being dispatched elsewhere.

"They weren't happy there. It was completely unsuitable for them," he said.

The experiment at Cloonabinnia is something he brought up at the bitterly controversial public meeting held in Oughterard about the State's plans to turn yet another derelict local hotel into a direct provision centre.

"I can see the same thing happening again - what are they going to do up there?" he asked.

"They'll be walking the road into Oughterard village - but there's nothing for them to do in there either."

Though still busy with traffic and the occasional arrival of coaches, Oughterard was beginning to draw into itself after the tourist season.

About 2km outside town, a loud clatter of activity sounded from the once-boarded up Connemara Gateway hotel.

This is where locals fear around 100 asylum seekers will be housed under direct provision.

Many are reluctant to talk about the issue, with the village finding itself at the centre of a massive national scandal following the comments by Independent TD Noel Grealish at a public meeting.

Mr Grealish turned up at an event yesterday for the Galway National Learning Network at the Menlo hotel but left without comment to the media.

However, at the meeting on Wednesday night, he claimed asylum seekers from Africa were "economic migrants".

"These are people coming over here from Africa to sponge off the system here in Ireland," he told the meeting.

"I can guarantee you it's not the persecuted Christians and Syrians coming here," claimed Mr Grealish.

Instead, he said, it was "economic refugees coming in from Africa" that are trying to get across the Mediterranean and that are "ending up in Oughterard where you don't have the schools, you don't have the doctors".

His comments have provoked accusations of racism from which people in the village are keen to distance themselves, pointing out that it is the flawed concept that is direct provision that is the problem - as well as the lack of resources in their village, where they are down to one GP and even the Garda station now operates on an intercom.

Some, though, are quietly supportive of what Mr Grealish said.

"He's only saying what we're saying ourselves behind closed doors," one man said - but he was keen to stress that he was not racist. Instead, he claimed some companies were making big money out of direct provision.

"You wouldn't put an animal to live in them," he said.

His wife was also highly critical of the system, saying: "How are they supposed to integrate when they can't work?

"They can't even come into a cafe and have a cup of coffee when they have only €19 a week. They can't even put nappies on their children."

Joe Loughnane, from the Galway Anti-Racism Network, said we need to stop 'warehousing' asylum seekers in rural areas with no resources.

But he expressed fears that these genuine concerns over direct provision were being hijacked by people with other motives.

"There's a lot more rhetoric out there and people are a lot more emboldened about what they say," he warned.

Irish Independent

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