Is the Right-of-Way debate in Castletown House Demesne missing the bigger picture?
There is an unfortunate but inalienable truth that for a historical structure to survive these trying times it must prove itself useful. Like a grand old dame whose lustre is fading, they must either find a rich benefactor to fall in love with them and look after them in old age, or, continue to turn a profit, because while the old age pension provided by the OPW will keep them from an early grave, it will not keep them in the manicured lawns and bustling household staff they have become accustomed to, for that they need a second source of income. However it is the source of this income that has become the hot topic.
The OPW staff are a little like nurses for the elderly, they keep the old dear tipping along on life-support but rarely do they inject a new lease of life, and, despite all their good works, they are under skilled in business acumen. But the difference between the two lies in the appropriate value that profit plays in their professions; while we would not want our medical professionals to make decisions based on a financial return on investment, we conversely do not want the OPW to save every old building regardless of the cost. The OPW must be clear on their motivations for intervention and must be able to justify the expenditure required to save these edifices from ruination, particularly now at a time when our government is cutting back on services provided to the most vulnerable across all levels of society.
However it is in the pursuit of the justification of expenditure that I feel Mary Heffernan, General Manger of the OPW has found herself in difficulties and embroiled in yet another PR disaster in Castletown House.
Over the last two years (and possibly longer), the OPW have done a spectacular job in the demesne surrounding Castletown House; they have cleared paths, removed graffiti, build new bridges, reinstated crumbling walls and resurrected falling features, to name just a few examples of success, and all this takes money out of (what I assume is a tight) budget. They need to protect that investment and show its return long term, and there would be yet another public outcry if they were seen to be squandering money; upgrading facilities only to have them vandalised and then upgraded again. Everyone agrees protection is needed; the disagreement is the form it should take.
The OPW have proposed that in order to protect this investment they plan to erect a fence either around or across the demesne (Lucan Gazette, Jan 16th 2014) to keep out antisocial behaviour, a plan which I feel has two fatal flaws.
The first is with the security a fence offers – my main concerns being with both the cost and effectiveness of a fence.
Having recently enclosed my postage-stamp of a garden, I know these things do not come cheap, and having still found trampled flowers in the search of lost balls, I know that these things are easily scalable and do not prevent intruders (although did add to the curb-side appeal, and some interesting debates from the local kids about who’s turn it is to get the ball out of the crazy house, so all is not lost).
The OPW are in a similar position, albeit on a larger scale. The people of North Kildare are not shipping 1980’s style anarchists on the commuter buses back to Celbridge and Leixlip behind the OPW’s back. The antisocial behaviour they are trying to protect against comes from our community; it is our teenagers, our down-and-outs and the people at the fringes of our community, and for that reason a fence is simply ineffective. Not only will these people, who know the area better than any staff member in the OPW, soon find the chink in the armour, the loose section, the missing rail, the place where it is most scalable, and be back inside to run free, but more importantly, it removes the passive security offered by passers-by’s. Teenagers do not want to go ditch-drinking where their Mum/Aunty/Neighbours/Parents’ Friends are likely to wander by at any stage; they want to go to the dark corners where the street lights don’t quite eliminate all the dark patches, where the neighbourhood busy-bodies cannot observe and report. The OPW’s fence, rather than protecting, leaves the newly beautified demesne more vulnerable, by preventing access to the respectable elements of the community. The OPW might as well go the whole-hog and encourage a two-for-one sale on spray cans down the local hardware store and be done with it.
My second issue with the OPW approach is the way they handled the response and fallout from the local community.
The confrontational statements both from within the OPW (Mary Heffernan’s casual threat to prevent people wandering the grounds at will if they campaign to keep a right of way, and her wild accusation that the people of North Kildare are only but waiting for the moment when the brave custodians of Castletown (the OPW) backs are turned so that they can burn it to the ground; Liffey Champion Jan 25th 2014) and from their supporters (Cllr Senan Griffin’s claim that the main aim of anyone who would want to be in Castletown demesne after dusk is to make a nuisance claim against the OPW; Liffey Champion Jan 25th 2014) is not helpful in these instances, and in direct contradiction to the open, welcoming behaviour I have witnessed in any of my interactions with the local staff and daily management of the House.
Worse than this however I believe these actions hinder the objective laid out at the start: to turn a profit in order to ensure the survival of Castletown House and Demesne. When the OPW’s initial plan was challenged, rather than encouraging democratic debate and inviting the community in, they froze them out. Their defensive stance and incendiary comments have served only to rile-up a galvanised and determined group of citizens, who have generated ever increasing support in the local communities and in elected representatives. The very sort of citizens who would ordinarily campaign vigorously against any threats to Castletown or her demesne have now been placed on the wrong side of the argument by the OPW. Rather than making this debate about how to protect Castletown from antisocial behaviour eliminating from elements of the community which surround her, the OPW have forced a pointless argument about a well-established right-of-way, which they intend to pursue in a costly legal battle in the courts and when they inevitably lose the argument, they then intend to be sore-losers and do their utmost to alienate everyone who was opposed their ludicrous plan. I mean really, if you saw this behaviour in a child you would scold them for being a Sulky Susan.
However it is the undercurrent of the arguments against the fence I find most interesting, because the citizens groups themselves are not above attempting the politics of fear. In their rallies they have warned that the threat to the right of way is just the first step in the OPWs insidious agenda and that their ultimate aim is to turn Castletown into another Farmleigh and (queue the music for the shocking reveal) charge an entrance fee.
Now there are two small problems with that argument, the first being that Farmleigh is actually a very nice well-maintained establishment, which many people would be delighted to have on their doorstep. The second is that they do not charge an entrance fee, in fact they give free tours of the house regularly throughout the day. In addition the OPW have already shown that regardless of the right of way, they can obtain a licence to allow an entrance fee be levied on those attending events in her grounds, such as the Barbra Streisand Concert and the Big House Festival, so if that was the secret agenda it would seem it was already fulfilled before this debate has even begun.
I don’t think the politics of fear or threatening behaviour is helpful in this instance. It should not be a ‘fear’ that the OPW need Castletown to have a revenue stream, and the OPW should not be threatening the very people that have the disposable income to provide the revenue stream. In an ideal world both should work together to find the ways that this grand old building can survive and even flourish.
To date the OPWs search for revenue has left many possible avenues unexplored. One of the more revealing statements from Mary Heffernan was her target audience for Castletown: she wants to aim it at old people and children (Liffey Champion Jan 25th 2014) – not really the ‘big spenders’ in our society, and we have seen evidence of this agenda being pursued in the likely demographic of their two biggest events so far: Barbra’s sing-along and the Big House old-timers line up. But more revealing was the very exclusionary pricing for both of these events; I don’t think you would have seen many local hard-pressed pensioners at Barbra or struggling young families at the Big House. I think you would have seen the affluent few who helicoptered in for the event and then shipped straight back out; a group which of course are good for a quick hit, but will not be a sustainable market long-term, as they are lured off by the next big thing.
In the long-term I think Mary would do better to look at the people who are already using Castletown and work out a way to entice a few shillings out of them. The free concerts in the summer were a good start, as was the Courtyard Café, but unfortunately so far they have remained a good plan, poorly executed.
Located in the old kitchens, the café itself is poky and small, it is hidden around the back of the house, so unless you know it’s there or are right up in the front lawn you won’t stumble upon it and worst it alienates two of the three biggest groups that use Castletown Demesne: dog walkers and young families looking for a free day out (athletes/walkers/runners being the third group). The café is too small and cramped to let young children wander as they tend to, and dogs are most definitely NOT WELCOME.
However, these problems have an easy fix:
- Extend table service to the outer courtyard (which is less than 2m away) to allow dog walkers in control of their animals eat comfortably. Establish and enforce strict rules for misbehaving dogs (although to be honest the community of dog walkers will quickly rebuke the owner of an out of control or badly behaved dog).
- Place tables out the front of the house, it doesn’t matter if these are not used regularly; they advertises the café is open.
- Encourage picnickers (usually young families) to come use the tables to the front of the house, not only will it create a buzz, inevitably even if these folks bring sandwiches and refreshments, they will spend money on a cup of tea and a cake nine times out of ten.
- Erect a temporary shelter such as a marquee over part of the outdoor café (that is compatible with the rules around construction at a protected structure). This means that you do not force everyone into a small poky café when it rains and you can still welcome dogwalkers in the colder months.
- Place tables and seats around the front lawn when free concerts are going on, and provide blankets. This will allow people to sit and listen to the music (and probably wander into the café for a cuppa and a treat) even when the wind there turns chilly as it tends to even in the summer months.
By introducing these few, but game changing amendments to the current set up the Courtyard Café, it means this venture is no longer competing for the same business that the already established award winning café in the Orchard down the road is winning, or of the numerous small cafes in the villages surrounding Castletown – it has moved itself into a different, untapped, and above all potentially lucrative, market.
While dipping their toes in that market, there are a few other suggestions they could research:
- House Tours: In the more than 30 years that I have lived less than 5 miles from front door of Castletown House, I have never been past the front lobby (I have however been in the working kitchens and what was the household’s staff restrooms, so I am not really sure what that says about my station in life, or how little the role of the local townspeople have changed in the life of Castletown House!). I have been on school tours to many/most of our national monuments and as an adult popped into any of the rest with a good tour. I don’t like just wandering around a place, I like being told the story, the history, and I am prepared to pay a few pounds for the pleasure. Before the unseemly debate over the right of way, seeing the local knowledge in some members of the citizens groups, these people might have been the ideal recruits for this role.
- Monthly Weekend Farmers & Crafts Market: Again, I personally have travelled up to an hour to get to a good one, and seeing the success of Bloom every year, this is certainly a lucrative market if approached correctly. My only caveated would be to have it go on longer than 12am – I don’t know what it is with the assumption that if you want to eat healthy you obviously get up at 9am on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
- Organised Athletic Events: Help local runners in their development by organising timed runs. Run them through varied scenery or different routes that are normally taken – open out the unexplored parts of the grounds, which will in turn offer passive security in these areas later.
- Organise Walks: Castletown has interest native flora, it is a managed landscape and a mature forest, and organised walks will exploit these advantages, and again provide passive security in those more secluded areas. Evening walks at dusk would also reveal some beautiful night time photographic opportunities, and again before the unseemly right of way debate some of the members of the citizen groups might have been ideal recruits for this venture.
- Fishing lessons: Again, linked into a house tour and an organised walk might be great for school aged kids, and is a rapidly evaporating national sport.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture that there are so, so many possibilities for Castletown House and Demesne to generate revenue which encourages the local community rather than alienating them, which the OPW have left untapped. If their big idea was to erect an expensive fence, charge a few quid entrance fee and create a hostile community in the hopes of funding Castletown’s Resurrection, then they would want to think again.
While they are thinking again, I would also encourage them to reconsider the dawn to dusk proposal. I actually agree with Mary on this one: in many parks up and down our country, for various reasons, parks operate this policy to the contentment of all including the local community. If we take Farmleigh as our shining example which closes promptly at 5.30pm, the significant difference between Farmleigh and Castletown Demesne is that one is surrounded by more than 7km2 of grassland, and the other is surrounded by a suburban infrastructural maze. If you go for a walk to Farmleigh and discover it closed, there is no problem, you can walk the beautiful Phoenix Park instead, however, if get to Castletown Demesne and find it locked, your only other chance is to go back to pounding the pavement.
I am not sure if Mary is aware but we have a suicide crisis in this country at moment, not among Mary’s target audience of old people and kids, but in the population that makes up the vast majority, young and middle-aged adults. A huge number of deaths are being linked to stress and the overwhelming feeling of having an inability to cope. While I do not think Castletown Demesne is the silver bullet for this problem, I think there is a lot to be said for providing a big free open space, where people can leave their worries and concerns behind and just walk, jog or run. Breath deep, take long strides, realise that there is a world outside the office, there is a world away from condensed mind-blogging confusion of civilisation, there is life outside their problems. They get time to put things into perspective. It’s a small thing, but a lifeline for so many. Close it at dusk, and in the winter months particularly, it means that any of the stressed commuters of Dublin City or City West (the vast majority of the Celbridge, Leixlip, Maynooth residents who use the grounds) would be unable to use this space for months, as sunrise is usually 8.30am and sunset 4.00pm, most people’s normal working hours, and that is to say nothing of the hundreds of shift workers in the locality. I would suggest (and unfortunately I do not know the woman to be sure) that the reason Mary doesn’t care if her local park closes at dusk (Liffey Champion Jan 25th, 2014) is either because she does not want to use a facility like this in the evenings, or because she has an alternative available to her. I would caution her against denying it to others simple because she herself does not require it; that is not how one operates in a harmonised, mutually-beneficial, democratic society, it’s the action of a bully.