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How Racket Hall became a scene of violence and anger

Roscrea, one of Ireland’s oldest towns, is located at a pivotal geographic location where three counties meet, a place of heritage and ancient ecclesiastical significance.

Emerging around the 7th century monastery of St Crónán, parts of which remain, it is also home to the 13th century Roscrea castle and Franciscan Abbey, a 12th century round tower and a Romanesque doorway.

Racket Hall, a former 18th century guesthouse with its genial old columned front door surrounded by plenty of green fields, is located just on its outskirts.

In recent times in this century and for all of the one just past, it was a place of hospitality and welcome, a well-known food and accommodation pit stop on the old Dublin to Limerick road.

It was also marketed and in much demand as a wedding venue, drawing in thousands of families to gather for communions, confirmations and funerals.

It also hosted weekly dancing nights, quizzes, and community gatherings and meetings, as a typical well resourced country hotel does.

But for much of the past week it has been a scene of hostility, violence, resistance and anger, once it was discovered it had closed as a hotel to the public, and was now contracted to International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS), where its 40 four-star rooms are to be provided for 160 people seeking refuge.

Opposition set in fairly quickly with a group of local people arriving at its entrance to take matters into their own hands and demonstrate their physical resistance to this move.

Protesters around a fire at Racket Hall

‘Concerned parents against mass immigration’

In the midst of a freezing cold spell they lit two camp fires, and brought along their own written signs quoting “enough is enough”, “justice for Roscrea” and “concerned parents against mass immigration”.

I met many local people who had gathered there who were incredulous that Roscrea was picked yet again as the location for accommodating people seeking sanctuary here.

They pointed out that the old convent in the town was accommodating up to 400 people, and the Sean Ross Abbey, the former mother and baby home in the town, was hosting a further 200.

“Roscrea has done enough,” said Gillian Dunne, one of the local women who has been at the protest since it began on Thursday 11 January.

“We’ve already accommodated up to 600 people and here are another 160 coming in and taking over our only remaining hotel, and burdening our already stretched services even further.”

Fiona Dunford was another local woman reflecting the same view.

“There was no communication whatsoever about this move,” she said.

“I know people working there and they were just told it was closed to the public and they don’t know if they have any jobs now.”

Derek Russell, chairman of the Roscrea Stands Up group, said ‘Roscrea has done enough’

Derek Russell, chairman of the Roscrea Stands Up group, has given years of volunteer work to help fight the impact of drug addiction and crime in the locality and helping those with mental health difficulties.

He is a quiet, hardworking man not given to hyperbole. But he said: “Roscrea has done enough, it can do no more.”

What has driven people to respond in this way, who have got so angry about what they see as the imposition of more people being brought to their town seeking sanctuary?

All of them insist they are not racist. And while they say they are not against women and children being looked after; they are against large groups of men being accommodated.

References are frequently made to their gender and skin colour. However, they do not articulate exactly why they are so against men of a different skin colour.

But I came across the same articulated references, described as concerns, at Inch in Co Clare last May where the local community was also vehemently opposed to locating up to 60 male International Protection applicants in a former hotel there.

Do they fear a large group of men will engage in behaviour which is a danger to them? Is it simply that they are strangers? Unlikely.

Rural Ireland could not possibly object to every stranger or we would have no visitors or new neighbours.

Racket Hall protesters with plenty of fuel for their fire

Scenes of violence and confrontation

I described it as a peaceful but determined protest at Racket Hall.

But that all changed on Monday last, when garda reinforcements arrived to ensure that the first group of asylum applicants arrived in a blacked out bus to gain entry to what is earmarked to be their new home for the next year at least.

‘Soft cap’ gardaí from the public order unit made a cordon from the roadside entrance to the front door of the hotel with the intention of a safe passage for women and children and some men.

Horrific scenes followed. Scenes of shouting, pushing and shoving, and people fighting with gardaí, while they were trying to physically escort young children and women into the hotel.

Suddenly this peaceful protest was anything but that. Many protesters, particularly women were horrified by what ensued and that Roscrea was now on the national map as a place of such unruly scenes of violence and confrontation.

Protester Caroline Phelan at Racket Hall

‘I’ll never forget his little face’

Caroline Phelan, who is born and bred in Roscrea, had gathered with members of her family to protest and was practically in tears speaking about the terror she saw in a little boy’s eyes as he was being escorted into the hotel by the gardaí.

“We were horrified. We were heartbroken to see that small boy, I’ll never forget his little face,” Ms Phelan said.

“The gardaí never engaged with us prior to all this scuffle happening. If we had known there were women and children, and some men coming in, we would have stood aside.”

She and her group all blame the gardaí for the scenes that emerged.

But when it is pointed out that the presence of gardaí in such large numbers would not have been necessary had the protest not been there in the first place, this is not accepted.

“Gardaí just bulldozed in….acting in a very heavy handed way,” was the general consensus.

There was no doubt the large garda presence of public order officers in their soft caps did send out a message loud and clear.

After what happened in both Ballinrobe and in Carlow, where the Government was accused of backing down on sending asylum applicants there, the garda forces of the State were there to ensure that the plan for Racket Hall hotel was going to be executed, in defiance of the local protest.

The fabric of their hats was not going to make a blind bit of difference.

Protesters with toys for children staying at Racket Hall hotel after violent scenes the night before

And the move the following day to show acts of kindness in presenting bags of toys, in a show of sympathy to the mothers and children inside, did not quite cut it.

There was a feeling of contrition about what was witnessed by those already traumatised children, but the connection between the presence of the protest and the action of the gardaí, appears to have been lost.

There is a particular issue which sets the Roscrea protest apart from others.

Aside from the protests and accusations of racism, they are very angry about losing their only hotel.

A well managed, high standard hotel, with excellent food and facilities, 40 rooms and car parking, is a huge and necessary asset to a rural town like Roscrea.

That is now lost to them. And that loss is felt by much of the wider Roscrea community, not just those protesters who faced the harsh weather and the harsh backlash on social media. And that loss will be profoundly felt.

Gardaí at the scene of the Racket Hall hotel protest near Roscrea

Community hotel’

And the announcement by the Government this week that it will consider resourcing a ‘community hotel’ at the former Grants hotel in the centre of the town, seems an acknowledgment by it that the citizens of Roscrea do need a hotel.

There is a wider issue and one I increasingly see across some parts of rural Ireland.

A sense of despair, a sense of being forgotten about, a sense of disconnection from the wider urban masses and from the Government which makes the rules and laws which must then be played out in rural towns and villages.

As I walked through Roscrea town as part of my work it was extraordinarily quiet. There are people in and out of one or two shops but otherwise not much footfall.

They lost the Antigen pharmaceutical plant over 20 years ago with the loss of 300 jobs and that industry has not been replaced. And here they are losing their hotel now.

It was the straw that broke the tolerance of many and they feel their protest at Racket Hall hotel is the only way for their voices of exasperation to be heard.

They have been heard for sure this week, but not in a way that would befit the honourable history and hospitality of the heritage town of Roscrea.

The Government will no doubt hear those voices and feel their impact at the ballot boxes next June, and further down the months of this year, or early next, at general election time.


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