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Abandoned, derelict and a drinking den – convent campaigners

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COMING TO FRUITION? Mayo County Council purchased the old Westport Convent in 2008 for €4 million but work has yet to start on making the building the home of the local Municipal authority.

Council is set to prioritise the redevelopment of the convent site as a civic centre

Áine Ryan

IT cost Mayo County Council €4 million with promises it would be redeveloped in 2011 but nine years since its purchase in 2008 Westport’s Convent of Mercy (CoM) lies in a state of dereliction, and the grounds would appear to be a popular drinking den for local youths. Unsurprisingly, the building, situated on Altamont Street, is now the subject of a growing campaign to secure its future, The Mayo News can reveal.      
Its accelerating decay has been highlighted in correspondence sent to the county council’s architects’ office and seen by The Mayo News.
“I have noticed in recent photographs of the convent buildings that the state of ‘decay’ is accelerating at an alarming rate, and vandalism is also rampant. It is alarming and deplorable that this neglect and degree of decay is being allowed to happen. The convent has enormous historical and social value, and although I appreciate the difficulty of preventing damage, I feel that what is happening is unacceptable,” campaigner Caroline Young writes.
Ms Young has set up a Facebook page dedicated to the convent and says that ‘there are people from all over the world’, including herself, ‘who had family who were there at some point in time, so it is an important part of their own family history’.
She asks the council could a caretaker be appointed so as to ‘prevent further damage and stop the vandalism’?
In another email, Mr Stephan Breton highlights vandalism at the summer house, which is in the grounds of the convent and adjacent to one of the pathway’s on the town’s greenway.
He writes: “Vandals have ripped away boards to gain access to the summerhouse – evidence of much drinking is littered around the place.”
Likening it to a ‘sheebeen’ now, he says that damage to the actual summerhouse building has been done  – delicate window frames broken –  and the wind will blow in rain that will further speed up the rotting process.”
He notes that damage has also been ‘done to the main building’ of the convent ‘with windows of the sacristy having been smashed – this appears to have been done recently’.
Acknowledging that Mayo County Council (MCC) undoubtedly has ‘many other priorities’, he argues that notwithstanding this, ‘the convent, however, is an integral part of Westport and its loss would be a great shame’.
“It is hoped that MCC can safeguard the buildings of the CoM in such a way that the development plans maintain an ever slight chance of eventually proceeding with an actual ‘refurbishment of the former Mercy Convent Building’ – and not a complete demolition of the whole campus,” Mr Breton wrote.

Council response
RESPONDING to Mayo News queries about the council’s plans for the buildings, Mr Tom Gilligan, Director of Services for the West Mayo Municipal District, explained that there is ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. Mr Gilligan said the multi-faceted development would be implemented on a phased basis.  
He confirmed that before the dissolution of Westport Town Council it ‘ring-fenced €1.5m for the project’ which will ultimately encompass new civic offices, as well as a new library.
“The new building for Holy Trinity primary school will be developed on the site of the old school, which is due to be demolished,” he continued.
Meanwhile he said: “The council will be taking measures promptly to ensure the security and safety of the buildings. I want to remind those who enter these grounds that this site is owned by the council and they are trespassing.”  
Mr Gilligan also said that the council has been very busy working on the Leeson Enterprise Centre and the new housing project on Tubber Hill.
“The development of the old Convent of Mercy is a key project for us also,” he added.   
 
Missed opportunities
FOR one former Fine Gael town and county councillor, Peter Flynn, the abandoned state of the CoM is ‘just another example of missed opportunities and wasted public money’.
“From just a pure council perspective you have three buildings in Westport – the library, the council offices and the former convent building in Westport which means additional rent, maintenance, insurance and utilities costs to the taxpayers. When you throw in the fact that the Office of Public Works recently moved the Social Welfare offices into the former Tourist Office instead of centralising all into the convent building as had been mooted from day one, a perfect opportunity was wasted,” Peter Flynn told The Mayo News.
“The one-stop-shop concept to centralise county council services, Government agencies and advisory groups still stands ten years on but why do something sensible when doing nothing is always the easy option,” he added.
In December 2009 Mr Peter Hynes, then Westport’s Town Manager, and now the Chief Executive of Mayo County Council, told The Mayo News: “We are delighted that we will be able to put our plans in place and we will have a civic centre that’s appropriate for Westport and combines the old and the new. We hope to get the design sorted and get through planning next year and be able to go to tender at the end of 2010 or early 2011.”
At the time the sale of the 4.4 acre CoM site for €4m was almost complete. It had been among the last decisions of outgoing County Manager, Des Mahon, the previous August (2008) when a deposit was paid for the prime site. However, Mr Hynes had then voiced concerns about the fact that the ‘council’s current financial constraints would scupper the sale’. Presciently, the abolition of town councils in 2014 compounded this concern.
The council had been looking for a permanent building to develop a state-of-the-art civic centre, like in Belmullet, for a number of years and was then renting – as is the case still – a premises on Altamont Street, across from the train station. Before that the council offices had been located for 25 years at the site of the old Vocational School on Castlebar Street.
Speaking in December 2009, Fianna Fáil councillor Margaret Adams, who was among the first to flag the potential of the convent site, welcomed the purchase of the buildings. She said: “This site will be centrally located with green space and this will be a good investment for the town.”
The land for the Convent of Mercy was given to the Mercy Order of nuns by Lord Sligo in 1842 and was their home until June 2008. It comprised the large convent building, as well the convent chapel and extensive gardens. The Scoil Phádraig building was not part of the council’s purchase.

Caroline’s story
“I was left at the convent in 1964 when I was two years of age, and I was the last ‘orphan’ taken in. I wasn’t born in Ireland but from what I know, my parents split up and my father had to take care of myself and my brother; my brother was raised by a foster parent in Kilmeena and had a very different life to me. My father worked at Newport House as a chef, and I know he tried many avenues for ‘childcare’ until it got too hard, I’m guessing. Anyway that’s how I ended up there – very odd circumstances – but when I was there in the ‘60s the place was ‘winding down’: social services had started to become available so we were about 20 girls in a place that was meant for over 150, with older girls leaving as they were old enough.I started the Facebook page because I didn’t want people in Westport to forget what was there and all the things that it had encompassed. Since it was built in 1845 it housed the Magdalene Asylum, St Columba’s Industrial School (it is named in the Ryan report); it had a bakery that was run by the ‘girls’ themselves; it had a very lucrative lace making business too.
Sadly, young people in the town probably don’t even know the convent is there and what it was, but the Facebook page has ‘found’ many people who knew it in some way, including people who had ancestors there from years ago and now live overseas. In my time things were still very harsh and often very cruel, but that’s how it was in those days. The nuns were a formidable force, even as teachers at the schools – Scoil Phádraig and the Sacred Heart School – and many pupils remember them without fondness, let alone ‘us’ girls who lived in the place.”

Caroline Young is a sociologist, who lives in Tasmania. Her friend tied a yellow ribbon to the convent gates, on her behalf, on Mother’s Day recently, to remember all the girls who were ‘orphans’ at the convent.

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