Claims of begrudgery and monopolising made as Clare Island licensing dispute continues
The court battle between representatives of the Clare Island Community Centre Ltd (CICC) and two businessmen on the Mayo island over a controversial application for a seven-day publican’s license for the centre continued last week when CICC appealed a Circuit Court refusal to the High Court.
Sitting in Castlebar last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Mr Justice Michael Hanna heard accusations from one of the businessmen, local hotelier Chris O’Grady, that there was begrudgery towards him from islanders while Mr O’Grady was himself accused of trying to ensure a monopoly for his businesses on the island, hence that was why he was objecting to the license application from the Centre.
Counsel for the objectors – Mr O’Grady and Mr Jim Cox, who has just begun work on the construction of a hostel lodge, pub and private residence on the island – argued that the Centre had no planning permission for a public house and that the premises is ‘as unsuitable as you could find for a seven-day license’. The Centre currently has a Club License for the serving of alcohol but CICC Ltd argue this is too restrictive for their needs.
After hearing all of the evidence, Justice Hanna said he would take time to go through the case and would have a verdict this Thursday at court in Roscommon.
In his evidence Chris O’Grady told the court that he had operated the Bayview Hotel on the island since 1964 and was also centrally involved in the full electrification of the island and in setting up the water scheme on the island.
He added that he is involved in one of the few fish-farms on the west coast making a profit and also operates the only ferry to the island. He added that the hotel had not been providing accommodation since a fire there in 2007 but that the bar had continued to operate.
Outlining his objections to the application before the court, he said he was ‘fully supportive’ of the work in the Centre by way of promoting cultural activities.
“It will be a sad day for Clare Island if the Community Centre as a social and cultural centre should be turned into a public house,” he said. He also added that the Centre regularly breached the opening hours and admittance criteria of the club license they held, stating that because the island had no police, the bar in the Centre could and did run as an open public house.
He also took issue with the fact that the building of the centre was grant-aided as were a lot of the wages of staff there, including those who worked behind the bar. This was, he said, very difficult for him to compete with.
However, Ms Constance Cassidy, Senior Counsel for CICC asked Mr O’Grady why ‘should you take the moral high ground’?. She put it to him that he had been trading illegally since 1964 as he had been serving members of the public in his bar even though he only had a hotel license.
“I’m creating employment and continuing to do so,” he responded. “I feel I should be allowed to continue. The employment created by my family justifies what I am doing.”
Ms Cassidy argued that in spite of Mr O’Grady ‘trading illegally for the guts of forty years’, her clients had never objected to his license like he was doing now, arguing that this showed different behaviour and put it that he wasn’t happy unless he had a monopoly on the island.
“Begrudgery is an Irish thing towards any local person who makes a success of business and that might be the case here,” he replied.
Ms Cassidy referenced when the Centre hosted President Mary McAlesse on the island for a meal when she launched the Royal Irish Academy survey on the island, they couldn’t offer her a glass of wine as the club license didn’t extend to the hall where the meal was being served. She put it to Mr O’Grady what would happen when An Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits the island next March and if he wants a ‘glass of wine in the centre with his meal or a gin and tonic’?
“I would think he might be happy with just a glass of water,” he replied.
Ms Ann Dennehy, an architect employed by Mr Cox, told the court that the building as it stood was very different from the building which received planning permission, while Mr Frank Kenny, a planning consultant employed by CICC gave evidence that there was compliance with planning.
Described by his counsel, Eoin Garavan, as a ‘blow-in’ to the island, and by Chris O’Grady as ‘the American gentleman’, Jim Cox, a native of Galway who lived in New York for many years, gave evidence that he first arrived on Clare Island in 2005 and ‘fell in the love’ with it. He has already moved there with his wife and two of his adult children are moving there with their families as well.
He said that the Community Centre was one of the things which attracted him to the island and there was ‘so much potential’ there but that he didn’t want his grandchildren in a public house environment when partaking in recreational activities.
He said he was in the bar ‘probably forty times’ and had never signed the book, being told on the first occasion there by the bartender that ‘it wasn’t a problem’.
Carl O’Grady, a son of Chris O’Grady, said he hadn’t used the Centre bar in some time because of the ‘animosity’ there over this case. With regard to the allegation of his family seeking a monopoly, he claimed that ‘nothing could be further from the truth and everyone on the island will accept that’. He cited the fact that his father and Mr Cox were working with each other even though they would be in competition as evidence against monopoly claims.
Brendan O’Leary, Chairman of the CICC, who brought two awards he had received for work for the island into the witness box with him, said that ‘at least’ three-quarters of the activities in the centre are not alcohol-related but that they had problems in the past with having to sign people in to the club bar if they weren’t members and some people took offence.
He said that the addition of a pub license to the centre would ‘only enhance the island and every other business there’. He added that the chief reason for their application was financial, in order to generate more revenue to enhance the centre’s activities.
In response to a question from John Jordan, counsel for Mr O’Grady, that the centre would become a pub with some community activities, that the tail would wag the dog, Mr O’Leary said it would never become such, that the people of the island ‘don’t want that’.
The previous application at Circuit Court level had seen Judge Raymond Groarke dismiss the case because the centre didn’t have planning for a public house. In closing, John Jordan ironically quoted from a law book written by Ms Cassidy. “’Use of a premises for a public house requires planning permission’. That’s it all really. The initial plans were not for a public house,” he said.
Constance Cassidy told the judge that all three sides had agreed that, whatever the outcome, no side will be making an order for costs against another.