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Protesters deny claims they 'intimidated' Castletown Estate workers, as OPW makes plea

LOCAL GROUPS HAVE denied claims made by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and the SIPTU union that protestors’ treatment of workers at an entrance to the Castletown House Estate in North Kildare which they are blockading has bordered on “intimidation and harassment”. 

The OPW today made a plea to local groups to allow workers to access the Estate via car, so they don’t have to park at a distance.

The row between the private owner of part of the huge Castletown House Estate, the Office of Public Works (the OPW, which owns the other half of the Estate) and frustrated local groups kicked off in September when the private owner permanently closed vehicular access to the entire Estate via the M4 entrance – which was frequently used by locals and visitors. 

Minister Patrick O’Donovan said that while progress has been made in allowing essential services access to the Estate, all OPW staff need to get access by car as well.

He said that due to the ongoing blockade, the decision has been made to close Castletown House to the public early for the 2023 season. O’Donovan added that without further progress, the wider estate will need to close in order to prevent health and safety risks to the public. 

“Intimidation of staff trying to get to work is desperately regrettable and we need to see common sense prevail,” he said. 

Meanwhile, SIPTU, the union which is representing some of the Castletown House Estate workers, has said that treatment from locals has “bordered” on intimidation and harassment. 

“Staff of Castletown, like all workers of Ireland, have a right to a safe working environment and safe access & egress from their employment,” a union spokesperson said.

Workers are having to park at a distance, rather than in the car park which is on the privately owned section of the land, and walk roughly 3/4 of a mile to get to work. 

The local group organising the blockade has denied that any intimidation of workers has taken place, and has said that the Castletown House 2023 season was due to end in a week anyway for the winter period, as it does annually. 

carpark The entrance that locals are protesting over losing access to by car.

Ann-Marie Blessing, who grew up in Castletown housing estate, is the Chairperson of the Castledown Resident Association, and one of the members of the Save Castletown group that are blockading the M4 entrance on a 24 hour basis. 

She said that to her knowledge, locals have not intimidated workers, and have offered out “cups of tea and scones”, and even “made a big poster to thank the workers for the work they do to maintain the house and Estate”. 

Since the decision was announced to close the M4 entrance, locals formed a group called Save Castletown House, and 400 of its members have been taking turns to blockade the M4 entrance to the privately owned section of the Estate altogether. 

They are doing this in order to urge the private owner to reinstate public access, and also because they are worried that works might be getting carried out on the car park area of the Estate (which is where workers are trying to park, but currently can’t), which could be contrary to the land’s zoning as an open space and amenity. 

They are denying OPW workers access to the site as, according to Ann-Marie “anyone could claim that they are a worker of some kind to get access to the Estate through this entrance, including those who are working for the private owner”. 

Blessing, who has been involved in talks between the OPW as a member of two of the four local community groups who are opposing the owner’s decision to close the entrance, said: “I camped out in September when this all kicked off to protest this, as I was born and bred on the Estate.”

“Words are being twisted to make us look bad, all we are trying to do is protect the lands, and to make sure we gain access from the M4, and to the Lime Avenue pathway,” she added. 

The Castletown parkrun – a 5k family exercising event which takes place in partnership with Vhi every Saturday – has been cancelled until further notice as its organisers have said that the current access issues at the Estate mean it is “simply not possible for the event to take place”. 

Local Councillor Joe Neville told The Journal that at the outset of access closures in September, the OPW were planning to construct a car park in the front field of the demesne, and that locals based themselves at the gates of the avenue to ensure this didn’t happen, and to protest the closure. 

“The OPW now finds itself in a shocking position,” Neville added, as the ease of visitors being able to access the estate through the M4 entrance, bringing in tourism that is now “at risk”. 

He said that the last month has been difficult for both workers at the Estate and the local community. 

“Celbridge already has a great deal of traffic and additional pressures are not sustainable. A resolution needs to be found for the M4 access,” Neville added.

Earlier this year, the State failed to outbid a local developer for the ownership of 235 acres of the Castletown House Estate.

Lar McKenna, the Director of Killross properties took ownership of the land, and after talks between McKenna and the OPW broke down on public vehicular access via the M4 entrance and use of the car park, he announced the permanent closure of the entrance from 16 September. 

The Journal understands that the OPW previously leased access via the M4 entrance via an informal agreement with the previous long-term owner of the private section of the Estate for a fee in the region of €25,000 a year, and that the new owners were asking for a higher fee. 

They were also asking for the car park and pathway to be tarmacked, and for new lighting to be installed, in return for a nine month lease agreement. The OPW turned down the offer. 

In a letter to local councillors and other interested parties on 15 September, the Directors and Owners of the Castletown lands stated that they issued a draft license agreement to the OPW on 9 June to formally regularise the use of the access road and car park. 

They said they were surprised with the “resistance” they were met with from the OPW in respect of trying to formalise the licensing agreement. 

Nevertheless, the letter states, agreement was almost reached in early June, but talks fell apart over a condition proposed by the owners, that would see the OPW install public lighting along the access road and in the public car park. 

They said that this “standard condition” was a requirement of their insurers. They went on to say that they “could not understand the logic being relied on by the OPW for its refusal of the condition”. 

Therefore, the owners said, they informed the OPW from 11 July onwards that as of 15 September the car park would no longer be accessible to the public. 

In the same letter, the owners stated that they are local developers living and working in North Kildare, and that they purchased the Castletown lands with the intention of “bringing forward uses which are in line with the current zoning on the land”. 

These uses include “leisure, amenity, recreational, tourism, and employment uses”. 

The letter from the owners emphasises that they have no intention to ever propose the use of the land for housing. 

The OPW has approached the current owners of the land on two occasions to enquire about acquiring part of the land, but the owners said these attempts were “unsuccessful”. 

On 6 October the owners issued a second letter which informed interested parties that they had engaged in mediated talks with the OPW on the issue of public access to the Castletown Estate on 29 September, which did not end in agreement. 

They stated that as they are aware of the “immense frustration felt by the people of Celbridge, Leixlip, and North Kildare”, they once again contacted the OPW to initiate further talks. 

“While we are worried about the sincerity of the OPW’s stated interest in acquiring the Castletown Lands, in the hope of reaching a solution, we remain committed to negotiation with the OPW,” the owners said. 

They said that they cannot consider any offer for the lands other than the “current market value”. 

Today, the OPW restated that its “ultimate aim” is to reunite the privately owned lands and publicly owned lands at Castletown Estate. 

It said that the ongoing dispute with local groups about worker’ access to the site is diverting its “time and effort” away from that aim. 

The Castletown Residents Association, and Save Castletown have also stated that they want to see the lands of the Estate reunited.