Nun given until June to move from West Cork home after breaching planning laws

Sr Irene had been convicted over unauthorised development of pods near Leap
Nun given until June to move from West Cork home after breaching planning laws

Sr Irene Gibson, Carmelite Nun of the Holy Face of Jesus,  leaving Skibbereen District Court today with Sr Anne Marie of the Holy Family Carmelite Hermitage, Leap, Co Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

A Carmelite Nun has been given until June to relocate from the unauthorised compound where she has set up home, while Cork County Council has been asked to investigate alternative lodgings for her and her colleague in the order.

Sr Irene Gibson, a Carmelite Nun of the Holy Face of Jesus, had been convicted of a breach of section 154 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, last December in relation to an unauthorised development at Corran South near the village of Leap in West Cork.

That came after she had first established the prayer retreat in 2016 and a year after Cork County Council had first brought enforcement proceedings against her, resulting in a prosecution before Skibbereen District Court in May 2019.

Last December Sr Irene and her younger colleague, New Zealander Sr Anne Marie, were given time to relocate and return the site to its original condition. 

The matter had been due before court in April, but was delayed due to Covid-19 lockdown.

 Judge James McNulty heard today that while “significant” downsizing at the site had taken place, the nuns were still resident there and had had little success in their plans to relocate.

Sr Irene said since the last court hearing, she had removed a number of structures, with three pods — effectively garden sheds — remaining, two of which she and Sr Anne Marie used for sleeping and another which acted as a kitchen. 

She said a shipping container was also still there and held personal belongings, while other structures, including one which had acted as a chapel and caused offence to the "holiday home-owners", had been removed.

Last December Sr Irene had indicated the possibility of accepting the offer of a house near Youghal in East Cork, but she told the court this had proved unsuccessful, as had her other efforts to find alternative accommodation.

Difficulties included finances — she said she was in receipt of social welfare and properties in the area ranges from €300,000 to €900,000 — and the fact that to register for social housing, she needed documentation such as a birth certificate, which she said she had limited access to due to Covid restrictions, and utility bills, of which she had none because she hasn’t been using electricity.

She also said while she had full Irish residency, Sr Anne Marie did not.

Sr Irene Gibson leaving Skibbereen District Court with Sr Anne Marie. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Sr Irene Gibson leaving Skibbereen District Court with Sr Anne Marie. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

“We have looked a long time around the area,” she told the judge. “I have found very many empty homes.

“I have written to the owners to see if we could purchase these at low cost and either have received no reply or negative replies — they were not selling.” 

Sr Irene said the religious community did have some money in trust and that she was confident of locating alternative lodgings if given another 12 months to do so.

Sr Irene said she had to remain in the area to attend the Latin-only Tridentine Mass as her community was not affiliated with the mainstream church and a weekly Mass was held by a priest who lives 7km away.

“We are on our own,” said Sr Irene, having earlier explained that efforts to raise sufficient funds through social media had not proved successful.

Judge McNulty queried whether she and Sr Anne Marie would not be better moving to a location such as Mayo or Leitrim with cheaper and more plentiful accommodation.

He said while the court was respectful of their faith, it could not be “an excuse for you and your fellow colleague in the order to go and break the civil law”.

“We just need more time, sir,” Sr Irene said, adding that they had a property “in view at the moment”.

Reviewing recent photos of the site provided by Cork County Council, Judge McNulty said it appeared that significant downsizing had taken place. Local authority planner Philip O’Sullivan agreed.

Sr Irene Gibson and Sr Anne Marie after the court hearing today. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Sr Irene Gibson and Sr Anne Marie after the court hearing today. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Judge McNulty referred to the complainants, who had been "very vociferous" that the local authority bring a prosecution. Cork County Council solicitor Margaret Noelle O'Sullivan reiterated that the council had not taken the proceedings lightly.

The judge said the local authority could "take her word for it" when it came to Sr Irene's birth date.

"I suggest that Cork County Council's housing officials should look into this and see if there is any place that could be made available to the Sisters," the judge said. "It might solve two problems.

"Winter is coming," he said. "This is not a great place for two chaste women who have chosen the religious life to live in isolation in poor accommodation."

Judge McNulty said the council's planning authority had a job to do, but so did its housing authority. 

He asked that Cork County Council's senior housing officer be contacted to assist.

He said he would grant the nuns "time and space" to look at their relocation options in light of the efforts they had so far made and asked Sr Irene to think on his advice as to relocating elsewhere.

The judge outlined how the minimum penalty open to the court was €2,500 and the maximum fine was €5,000, except where the person convicted can show that they do not have the necessary means to pay the fine.

He adjourned the case until June 22 and the nuns left the court without making any comment.

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