A group of concerned locals huddled at the entrance to Castlesaunderson.PHOTO: SEAN MCMAHON

Families welcome here – community

Concerns expressed about Castlesaunderson plan to accommodate refugees

Despite inclement weather and multiple weather warnings, more than two dozen people braved the elements to attend a public meeting at the gates of Castlesaunderson last weekend to discuss concerns over proposed plans to house refugees at the International Scout Centre.

The home of Mary and Brian Johnston is less than 100 yards from the forest park’s main gateway.

The couple, and parents to four young kids, built their dream home there in 2010. They didn’t complain when the HSE did a deal with Scouting Ireland to utilise the property as a Covid testing centre during the pandemic. However, with regards to the latest proposal for the facility, they have specific concerns they want heard.

Like many, who expressed views at last Sunday morning’s gathering, Mary and Brian do not have a problem so long as the refugees housed at the International Scout Centre are Ukrainian families, especially women and children.

Outside of reports, first published in The Anglo-Celt just before Christmas, and again early in the New Year, confirming ‘negotiations’ with Scouting Ireland to accommodate ‘people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine’, locals feel they’ve been “kept in the dark”.

“I nearly had a heart attack when I first saw the Celt’s front page, I couldn’t believe it. We’d heard nothing and now this,” says Mary. “If someone had come and knocked on the door, yourselves or anyone, and even gave us the heads up that this was happening, I don’t think it would have been such a shock. It has caused panic.”

Her concern is that the centre, which can provide sleeping accommodation for 66 upstairs and an 18-bed dorm downstairs, could be used to house “anyone but families” with children.

“I don’t have an issue with women and children. I’m a mother myself with young children. I see what’s happening and I feel for them. But my number one concern is for the safety of my family, my kids and my community and the people in it. That’s why I’m standing here today,” explained Mary of her motivation.

She agrees with husband Brian who feels the worrying trend of poor communication with communities on the ground - as highlighted in Castletara and in Cootehill - is another major factor.

“Communication is key, in all walks of life, but that’s not happening,” says the local businessman. “If you don’t communicate, the whole thing falls apart. That didn’t happen and it’s still not happening as far as we’re concerned.”

He shows the Celt an email received from Scouting Ireland only recently after the family submitted their own questions.

In that reply, National Scout Centres’ Manager Sonya Byrne confirmed that ‘discussions are continuing’ with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in relation to housing Ukrainians at Castlesaunderson.

It adds that ‘other’ scout centres around the country have been ‘successfully used’ by the Department to ‘provide sanctuary and a safe refuge’ to people fleeing the war in Ukraine ‘without any negative impact on local communities’.

The email concludes by saying that, should the department proceed with using Castlesaunderson, Scouting Ireland is ‘confident they will put appropriate measures in place’ and ‘will support the people seeking shelter and safety in Ireland to integrate into our local community’.

Mary raises another concern when speaking directly with the Celt. She worries that the €3.7 million European-funded International Scout Centre, officially opened in August 2012, could be targetted by people with sinister motives as was the case in other places around the country where buildings were set alight.

“That’s the last thing we want to see happen here, definitely not! That’s not something this community would support and we don’t want people like that trying to get involved in what we’re doing here either. We are a community looking for answers. We have a right to know what’s going on right on our doorstep. We’re the closest house to here. It is scary.”

Upsettingly, that fear is already beginning to permeate.

“We were putting the youngest, she’s six years old, to bed over the Christmas and she asked us if all the windows and doors were locked?” explains Brian. “Maybe that’s a bit on us, she overheard us talking, but no child that age should be worrying like that.”

As the gateside meeting progressed, the group heard from a number of speakers including one man who claimed to have been involved with the Castletara community campaign to stop a former equestrian centre from being used to house more than 30 male asylum seekers.

That plan has since been “paused”.

But the man set out plainly how members of the Castletara group had, from the get go, ousted any person that appeared to have extreme views or who appeared to be manipulating their message for other purposes.

“If we took our foot off the pedal, they were in,” warned the man. In that case, members of the Castletara community mounted a round-the-clock blockade.

“Everyone needs to stick together here,” suggested another speaker.

“It’s the not knowing, that’s the worst thing,” said one woman to a chorus of nods from within the tightly huddled group.

“If they’re saying what they’re saying they’re doing, there is no reason to lie,” suggested another man clearly.


Outside of that the common concern shared by others was the distinct lack of access to available nearby services. Outside of one shop just across the border, Belturbet Town is seven kilometres away, and the villages of Redhills and Butlersbridge are five and nine kilometres away respectively.

It was decided by those in attendance that going forward they would draw up series of questions and begin lobbying local elected officials to back their position and fight for more information.

The proposal to speak with politicians was put forward by local man Graham McCann who shared his own views with the Celt. “My concern in all of this is the safety of my elderly mother and the safety of my sister. I’ve no issue with families coming with kids but I do not want to see a centre full of men put here.”

He believes that “broken promises” and “clandestine attempts” to move refugees or asylum seekers into accommodation in the early hours of the morning elsewhere has served only to heighten the levels of distrust between authorities and the public at large.

So deepened has the accommodation crisis become, this past week, it emerged that the government are trying to source large vacant premises for use as ‘holding centres’ for refugees and asylum seekers arriving to Ireland.

“At this stage who believes anything the government says? The problem is the trust is broken - a total break down in communication. It’s happening all across the board. Just like here, there’s been no communication. How can they expect things to work like that?”

Graham meanwhile condemns in the strongest terms recent clashes between protestors and gardaí as attempts were made to prevent asylum seekers from entering accommodation at the Racket Hall Hotel in Roscrea, Co Tipperary.

“We’re not here to protest against Ukrainian women and children and families coming in. This is a peaceful community here, it’s a friendly community, and I totally condemn what happened in Roscrea. I don’t want to see that, here or anywhere. But we will not stand for 35 or 55 unvetted men we know nothing about landing on our doorstep. People shouldn’t have to live with that fear.”

The community will meet again next Sunday, however at another location away from any media presence.

The Anglo-Celt has contacted the Department for a new update, and is also awaiting a reply from Scouting Ireland.