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Free The Old Head of Kinsale – A Brief History

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Free The Old Head Poster 2The Old Head of Kinsale is located about twenty miles from Cork city, on Ireland’s Atlantic coastline. Jutting into the ocean, the promontory of land is a scenic highlight and has been a destination of choice for walkers going back over a hundred years. The waters around the Old Head are dangerous and there are records of a lighted beacon on the tip of the headland as far back as pre-Christian times. The first official lighthouse was established in the 17th century by Robert Reading. Today, a fully automated lighthouse still operates on the tip of the Old Head.

In Bartholomew’s (1) Walk Cork and Kerry the hike down to the Old Head lighthouse is described as follows:  The Old Head is a quiet place. Little remains of the Celtic settlement or of the many ships that have come to grief on its rocky eastern shore. Today it is the haunt of fishermen, bird watchers and rock climbers. The bird sanctuary is a protected area. The numerous coastal tracks here are well-defined.  

Older guides to the Kinsale area are more graphic. Thulliers notes that Holeopen Bay – on either side of the isthmus at the Old Head – is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses. (2) The same guide records that there are a number of ‘spectacular sea arches in the rock at the water’s edge that may be seen from a boat‘. ‘Some of these cut right through the 200 foot high cliffs‘ where ‘light from the other side of the headland to be seen.’ The Spanish knew of the Old Head and called it Capo de Vel (Cape of Light). It has been a favoured destination for bird watchers for generations too. The best time to visit the headlands is from mid-April to mid-July when seabird numbers are at their highest. Upto to 5,000 Guillemots regularly nest on the cliffs, laying their single eggs on bare ledges. The headland’s ‘prominent position jutting out into the Atlantic’ makes it a great place ‘to watch the passing migrations of various seabirds in spring and autumn’. Smaller colonies of Razorbills, Kittiwake, Fulmars and Shags also nest in the area. (3)

Millionaire

old-head-of-kinsale-cork-ireland-wild-atlantic-wayIn the early 90s, the wealthy businessman John O’Connor purchased the entire headland for the princely sum of just €300,000. Although he would later describe the decision as a ‘rush of blood to the head’, he had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with this unique part of the Irish coastline (4). His dream did not include walkers, sightseers or the general public. O’Connor’s vision was to construct a golf links at the Old Head aimed at the luxury end of the market. In an interview with the Irish Examiner (4) in 2002, he described his intentions as follows:

‘[The Old Head Golf Links will be] a five-star service. From the moment they arrive our golfers are looked after. Everyone has a caddy and their clubs are cleaned after they come off the course. We give a level of service that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Europe, let alone in Ireland. Our aspiration is to rank among the ten best course and ultimately to become the premier club in the world. We’re aiming at the top end of the market – and I make no bones about that.’

Major construction work began at the Old Head in the mid-90s. However matters didn’t go entirely to plan for the millionaire. When O’Connor’s Ashbourne Holdings Ltd sought planning permission for a clubhouse that would act as the centerpiece for his new luxury enclave, he ran into public resistance and the planning process. Permission to continue with the construction was eventually granted by Cork County Council, however a stipulation was added that the public had to be allowed to have access to the coastline and to the walking paths leading down to the Old Head lighthouse.

2017-03-27 18.05.33 (2)This was not acceptable to O’Connor. He disputed the existence of any public right of way on the headland – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Threatening to abandon his commitment to the development unless he was given full control over the Old Head, he began a series of legal actions against Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála. As he saw it his ownership and investment in the exclusive golf course conferred on him the right to control access to the Old Head. This, in his view, should include who could use the road leading down to lighthouse and who was permitted to walk the paths along the cliffs:

You can’t have people wandering around a golf course, he said. We wouldn’t get insurance if the public were let in here. (4)

O’Connor also felt he taking on a fight on behalf of all developers:

The implications [of the planning stipulation upholding the public’s right of way] are wide-ranging. Every development company in the country and every landowner is looking at this case very anxiously. [If the decision to prohibit the public access to the Old Head walkways is not upheld] It would mean that there would be no such thing as private property any more.

O’Connor’s Ashbourne Holding Ltd won the first round when the High Court ruled in favour of the new golf facility. Justice Nicholas Kearns described the public’s right of access as ‘manifestly unreasonable’ as walkers and golfers had differing interests and concerns. If joint access was allowed, he argued, it ‘could result in either injury or conflict between members of the public and golfers using the facilities of the course’.

Shortly after, Cork County Council withdrew from the case. However An Bord Pleanála opted to continue the legal battle and appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. As it did a campaign got underway to assert the public right to walk the cliff and coastline at the Old Head.

Picnic Time

On July 1st 2001, the Free The Old Head campaign organised its first ‘People’s Picnic’ on the grassy hill overlooking the deCourcy Castle ruins which stood at the entrance to the new Old Head Golf Links. The event was a great success.

About 150 people turned up outside the scenic main entrance for the protest picnic, and after plenty of eating and singing discussion began on ‘what to do’. Despite the fact that the golf course and the access to the walking area was protected by a high rampart wall and razor wire, protesters overran the security heavies … In all nearly 60 people scaled the fences and marched along the traditional route of the ‘Old Head walk’. Avoiding confrontation and harassment from Golf Course security, the group held a protest meeting at the Old Head Lighthouse and then returned to the picnic area.

A further report added,

The day was the hottest of the year … The local Evening Echo had given some advance publicity and the Kinsale Residents Association had announced their support … All around the open ground people were setting out picnics with friends and family. A few musicians were playing and everyone was very relaxed. After awhile a few small groups of people spontaneously infiltrated through the wire topped walls and were escorted out. The security were a bit tetchy. Talk then began of a need to stage a mass entrance onto the course. This was canvassed among the picnicking groups and it was made clear that each person could make up their own minds [about] what role they wanted. Some would climb the wall, others proceeded to the gate and others just picnicked and observed. At 4 pm we rushed the walls, around 100 people flowed unimpeded onto the course apart from two or three over enthusiastic plain clothes gardaí resistance was non-existent and they gave up when the realised the sheer numbers they were dealing with.

People's Picnic At Old Head, c 2003The determination of the protesters surprised the irritable O’Connor. He decried the public controversy surrounding his plans for the Old Head.

An impression has been created, he said, that the Old Head is a Phoenix Park [- a reference to the main public park in Dublin, Ireland’s capital city]. That it’s a kind of public park for Cork and we came and stole it and built a golf course on it … It has created a sense of outrage among a segment of people that … individuals could come and steal a national park.

He was right. People from Kinsale, Cork and further afield were aggrieved. As a result the standoff continued. The second People’s Picnic (in late July of the same year) was billed and organised as another family friendly event. However the response from the authorities was noticeable different. It would be an exaggeration to describe the garda presence at the second picnic as oppressive, but there was no disputing that it was intentionally intrusive. Cars transporting picnickers and protesters to the area outside the golf course entrance were repeatedly challenged by the gardaí. Vehicles were checked and car registrations recorded; many drivers were instructed to produce their documents at local garda stations around Cork county within a fortnight. Gardaí also had cameras and proceeded to make a record of those who insisted on their right to access the walk to the Old Head lighthouse.

No Compromise

Over the summer of 2001, three People’s Picnics in total were held. Each picnic was followed by a decision by those present to walk down to the Old Head lighthouse – in a peaceful declaration of the public right of way.  In 2002, the protests got underway early in the year in March. By now O’Connor had erected razor wire along the walls of the old deCourcy castle, which marked the boundary with the golf course. Large numbers of private security were also in attendance along with a large detachment of gardaí and Special Branch. However, the protesters, numbering over 150, were prepared and using old carpet they neutralised the barbed wire barriers and proceeded to have an orderly walk down to the lighthouse.

O’Connor was furious. He claimed that the protesters were ‘hardcore militant activists’ and added that ‘some of them are thugs and wear balaclavas. There is no compromise’. In the same interview he pointed out how much money he had spent on the course. The matter to him was simple, black and white.  ‘Golfers and ramblers don’t mix,’ he said. Either he was granted complete control or he would leave.

The protests continued. However in late 2002, the Supreme Court ruled on An Bord Pleanála’s appeal. It found unanimously in favour of O’Connor’s Ashbourne Holdings and dismissed the appeal ‘in its entirety’ affirming that no public right of access existed on the promontory. Moreover, the Supreme Court awarded costs to O’Connor who remained in an unforgiving mood.  He berated Cork County Council and An Bord Pleanála for having the temerity to oppose him. He suggested that they had been cavalier in their approach and had wasted public funds. They needed to have their ‘knuckles rapped’, he said.

The Free The Old Head campaign pledged to continue the fight. Significantly though, at first protest of 2003, the People’s Picnic failed to gain access to the road leading down to the lighthouse. A combination of bad weather, a large garda presence and the determination of the authorities to prevent ‘any trespassing on private property’ saw the protesters outnumbered and outmaneuvered. At subsequent protests even more gardaí were bused in, creating a difficult atmosphere for the protests.  The fortifications along the boundary wall had also been strengthened – with more razor wire and security cameras – making it even more difficult for the walkers to gain access to the walking areas.

Razor Wire ‘Assaulted’

In late 2003 a member of the Free The Old Head campaign was charged with ‘attacking’ the barbed strung across the ramparts during one of the trespass attempts. Despite the fact that large numbers of cameras were now being utilised to monitor the protests, no photographic evidence could be produced in relation to this ‘violent’ assult at the trial. Instead the evidence of two gardaí who ‘witnessed’ the attack was deemed sufficient. The activist in question was convicted and fined.

2017-03-31 12.23.21The campaign had lost momentum. Although the option existed to initiate a new legal challenge over the right of way issue, the costs involved far exceeded the Campaign’s capacity. On the other side of the issue, further protests risked the prospect that even more activists would be singled out on other spurious charges relating to the heavy-handed security presence.

The Free The Old Head campaign still exists today. It continues to hold protests (5) at the entrance to the Old Head Golf Links and has publicly declared its intention to fight on until full public access to the Old Head is restored. In the meantime access for the general public is starkly restrictive – this despite the Old Head area being described as ‘one of the most spectacular beauty spots on [Ireland’s] Wild Atlantic Way’. According to a notice close to the entrance to the traditional walking area, ‘access is strictly by permission of the owners.’

Greed Is Good!

On the other hand, if you have money, you are very welcome. For the tidy sum of just €30,000 per year you can be a member of the Old Head Golf Links. In 2015 this amounted to some 300 members, 80% of whom are from outside Ireland. Alternatively you can pay to play golf for just the day at the club. According to Jim O’Brien, a manager at the Old Head, ‘At the height of season, nobody blinks at the idea of paying €1,000 for a four ball. We never ever get a complaint here on value. Any complaints we might get would be more about a foggy day or a bit of slow play.’ 

A plan 2The ‘permitted’ visitors to the Old Head are welcome for other reasons too. While some fly in from far afield for the ‘experience’, other overnight in Kinsale. O’Brien again: ‘The golfers who go out for dinner in Kinsale might go through 10 bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages on a night out. And those Bordeaux are €500 a bottle.’ So, in a sense, you could say, O’Connor’s dream did come through. He died in 2013.

Latest News: The Worms That Saved The World is an illustrated story book for children and adults that was directly inspired by the campaign to free the Old Head. It tells the story of a mythical community of worms who live on a headland ‘on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’. Life changes forever for the worms when a golf course moves onto their headland. At first the worms try to manage but a combination of chemical pollution and intolerance from the new owners force the worms to act. They realise that they cannot win against the powerful golf club on their own so they seek the help of other birds and animals who share the headland with them. They are a determined and inventive community of worms and in the end the win back control of their home. The Worms That Saved The World is due to published in May 2017 and is a collaboration between writer, Kevin Doyle and the artist and illustrator, Spark Deeley. More details about where you can get the book will be made available shortly.

References:

(1) Bartholomew’s Walk Cork and Kerry, 1990

(2) John Thuilliers, A History of Kinsale, 2001

(3) Sherkin Comment, 1990

(4) Irish Examiner p15 22/07/02

(5) See http://www.indymedia.ie/article/83957

Other Links:

Reports compiled by protesters involved in the People’s Picnics. From the WSM’s Environment page.

The Free The Old Head campaign website.

About the Old Head of Kinsale.

More on O’Connor’s views.

The Old Head Golf Links in their own words.

A comprehensive report on the Old Head campaign in Cork’s Irish Examiner was printed on in the paper on page 15 on 22/07/02. This is currently not available online.

A recent feature on the Old Head Golf Links. Includes spectacular photos of the area.

Old Head Golf Links visionary O’Connor dies.

Hickson Explosion – Cork 1993

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HicksonThe explosion and fire at the Hickson chemical plant in Ringaskiddy, Cork, last August, has gone down as one of the most serious industrial accidents in Ireland to date. Though no fatalities resulted, it is now clear that this outcome was only a matter of luck. One worker, the first to notice that something was wrong, left the site of the explosion minutes before it blew up. And the explosion itself, occurred shortly before shifts were due to change on that morning of August 6th.

Continued here.

This report was published in Workers Solidarity (Feb 1994)

Related Articles:

No Global Review 

Hickson Chemical Spill – Profits Came Before Safety

Worker Killed in Corden PharmaChem  Explosion

Review: No Global by Robert Allen

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NoGNo Global is based on Robert Allen and Tara Jones’s Guests Of The Nation (1990). Essentially it is an account of the various environmental clashes that have taken place in Ireland since the mid-70s when the Irish Government’s policy of attracting multinational corporation into Ireland – in particular in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals sector – moved into full swing.  In terms of being a record of these many struggles, No Global is a very useful compendium with a lot of first hand information as well as useful analysis. The author was involved in some of the events he addresses and this adds a particular validity to the account.

This review was published in Red and Black Revolution 8 (Ireland, 2008). The full version maybe read here:

Book details: No Global: The People Of Ireland Versus The Multinationals by By Robert Allen. [ISBN: 0-7453-2210-7] Pluto Press, 2004

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