Vincent and Dylan at Carrickmines Castle, 2003
24 January 2008
Lawyer and activist Vincent Salafia, 41, has been a strong and passionate voice in the movement to preserve historic sites in Ireland. Most notably, he’s the spokesman for TaraWatch, the group that has been leading the battle against the construction of the 70-mile, four-lane M3 motorway close to the Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient high kings of Ireland and a national monument site at Lismullin, Co. Meath. He recently answered questions from the Informer’s Rose Foley about his activism.
In your activism, you’ve taken on the government and people in power. What motivates you?
As a citizen I am disgusted with the way the Irish Government has abandoned their principles and responsibilities with regards to the protection of cultural and environmental inheritance of this very unique country, in favor of commercial and personal profitmaking ventures. As a lawyer and political scientist I aim to correct the grotesque contortions into which civil and human rights have been twisted in Ireland, to facilitate unbridled development, and it is hoped that the battles here will protect the people and native cultures not just of Ireland, but of all of Europe, who are under similar pressures.
I’ve read that you think Ireland is beginning to look like Florida with all the new construction. What do you think Ireland needs to do to balance construction and preservation – making the most of its newfound wealth without sacrificing its land and heritage, some of the very reasons people love Ireland so much?
It will take a two-pronged approach to rebalance the equation. On one hand, there has to be serious, effective opposition to the plans that are in place, both in Ireland and among Irish abroad. On the other hand, there needs to be an inspirational vision created, which entails a guide to how to profit from preserving and promoting the cultural and environmental treasures of Ireland, in a sustainable manner.
When did your activism begin and what inspired you to become an activist?
While in law school in Florida, I stumbled upon the Brehon Laws, the ancient native legal system of Ireland, which survives today in roughly 100 vellum manuscripts. I was shocked to find that such an impressive and enlightened system existed here for so long, and even more surprised to discover that to this day, many have not even been translated. I began a bit of a crusade, with the help of the internet, to promote scholarship in this area.
My own heritage is both Irish and Italian. My father is an O’Toole, though I didn’t keep that name. During this research I learned of the proud O’Toole history in Wicklow and Dublin, which I had never been aware of. When I read in 2002 that the Government was set to demolish the remains of Carrickmines Castle, which lay in the pathway of the M50 motorway around Dublin, I was incensed.
The O’Tooles had lived on the edge of The Pale, or British occupied territory, for 400 years and waged constant warfare against the settlers, often attacking Carrickmines, home of the Norman Walsh family. But ironically, when the New English arrived, they joined force with their old enemies, the ‘Old English’ due to their common Christian faith. 300 O’Tooles and Walshe’s were massacred, side by side, at Carrickmines Castle after a long siege in 1642, by the precursors to Cromwell. It is a very important place in my family history, as well as the history of Ireland.
As a spokesman for the group Carrickminders, you campaigned to preserve the remains of Carrickmines Castle to the extent that the group occupied the site for 155 days in 2002 and 2003. Even after all that, the government refused to reroute the roadway. And now you’re fighting to save the Hill of Tara. How do you not get discouraged?
I often get discouraged, but something good always happens to lift me up again, and I never despair. We keep losing, but we keep losing at a higher level. At Carrickmines, we won two Supreme Court cases, and lost the third after the Government changed the National Monuments Act, to allow the road to proceed as planned. So, in other words we won the battle, but the authorities changed the rules. That legislation is now being used to facilitate the road at Tara, and we are now fighting at a European level, and broadening out the issues in terms of human and civil rights. I think what keeps me going now is knowledge that we have gone from being a small minority, of ‘extremists’, to having the support of the majority of Irish people, who want the route at Tara changed, and their heritage protected.
Other boosts have recently come from the World Monuments Fund, who accepted our nomination of Tara to the 2008 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, and the Archaeological Institute of America, which voted Lismullin one of the Top Ten Most Important Discoveries of 2007. Most importantly, the European Commission has taken legal action against Ireland on this matter, in the past few months, so there is still hope.
Why do you care about Tara so much?
Tara is the most amazing place I have ever been to, both because of its physical beauty and its cultural associations and remains. What is happening there is so clearly wrong, I have no hesitation in committing all of my energy and being to protecting it. It is in many ways a lost city or civilization that is now only being discovered by modern Irish people. But it is our civilization, our past, not some distant foreign culture. It represents all of our family histories combined into one place, that tells one story; our story. Also, Tara was Ireland’s political or legal capital, and as such as the home of Brehon Law, so intellectually, I see that the remains are very important tools for interpreting the manuscripts. So, in many ways Tara represents the spirit of what so many Irish have fought to win, over the centuries.
I also care so much because of the behavior of the authorities in handling this matter. They are not in the business of solving problems, but rather of creating them, and then shooting the messenger whenever possible. They honestly don’t care about the people. All they care about is keeping their political supporters fat, even if it means stripping away human and civil rights from the people.
TaraWatch led protest meetings Jan. 8 in Dublin, at the Lismullin site, and outside Irish consulates in the United States over last month’s handover of land to the company building the M3 motorway. What has been the response to the protests?
The authorities have just been keeping their heads down, and pushing forward. They have incredible control over the media too, having drafted in many former journalists to work in their press offices, so it is hard getting the news out. We have our sights set of demonstrating at the US Congress when Taoiseach Ahern goes to make a speech there this spring, and of course leading up to Saint Patrick’s day.
According to TaraWatch, the land handover was planned to occur Jan. 8 but, in fact, occurred without notice on Dec. 18. You’ve called on the Minister for the Environment John Gormley to explain the change. Have you received an explanation? If not, what do you think the explanation is?
There has been no explanation from the Minister. We had seen an email from the Minister’s office, telling the media that the handover would occur on the 8th of January. So, we were shocked when The Irish Times called on St. Stephen’s Day, to say the site had been given to SIAC Construction. We are submitting a Parliamentary Question on the matter, through Sinn Fein, once the Dail returns. The Government are famous for using the holidays to hide their actions, and it is sad to see the Green Party, our former allies, carrying on this fashion.
TaraWatch says significant damage has been done to the Lismullin site. What is the damage?
The site has been fully excavated, which means the physical features of the henge have been removed. Fill has been poured over the site, which is in the shape of an amphitheatre and it now awaits construction proper, which is imminent.
In your fight to prevent construction at Tara, you incurred a legal bill of e600,000 that taxpayers now have to pay. How do you feel about that?
That fight was a draw, and it cost me a lot more than the few cents it cost each individual taxpayer, since each side had to cover their own legal costs. The whole affair was just a fee bonanza for the lawyers on the Government side. They actually has three legal teams; one for the Minister, one for Meath County Council and one for the National Roads Authority, so it cost three times as much as it should.
There were days I counted 26 lawyers on the opposing bench. This was one case they could not afford to lose. I feel very bad about settling, as backing down is not in my nature, but the case was doomed to fail in the Supreme Court as well, and it was better to withdraw and let a fresh one go ahead, which is what has happened. But e600,000 is small when you think of the tens of millions being wasted on shoddy excavations of the dozens of important heritage sites along the M3. It is nothing when you see how the authorities let the roads programme go from e6 to e22 billion, under the National Development Plan 2000-2006. Where did that e16 billion in waste go? These are the questions the Government won’t answer, but they will repeatedly cry about the fees involved in what was a public interest case, which I stood nothing to gain from.
What do you say to the argument that building the motorway will save lives and that the project has been delayed for too long?
TaraWatch is not opposed to the motorway, per se, and we support rerouting it. We only want to protect a certain area. The motorway has not actually been delayed so far, because there has been no injunction and no stoppage of works. Naturally, if there were to be a re-routing there would be delays in a short section, maybe 6 of the 60 kilometers, but we do not feel that this is too high a price to pay for something that is priceless and important to all Irish people.
County Meath residents traveling to Dublin now have to use the N3, a two-lane rural road that carries two to three times the traffic it was designed for. How do you defend that to all the frazzled motorists who have to sit in traffic for hours? What’s the alternative?
The situation is of the Government’s own making. Bypasses of the main bottlenecks, Dunshaughlin, Navan and Kells, were approved in 1999, after a 20 year planning process. Just when this plan was about to be put into effect, they decided to build a motorway instead, and began the planning process all over again, without doing any upgrade or building any bypasses. Here we are ten years later, with no improvements at all, and no rail service because the government wants to build the motorway before re-opening the rail line. Heritage activists are easy targets, because we make a good scapegoats for government inefficiency and corruption.
What about improving the existing freight railway line to relieve congestion? Why do you think this is not viewed as a viable option?
The M3 motorway is a Public Private Partnership project. In other words, it is not simply a transport solution, it is a business venture; Big Business. A train would eat into profit margins for the road, so it is continually put off until the motorway is a fait accompli and toll gates are open. There will be two tolls on the M3 for 40 years. Railways are not nearly as profitable.
Ireland has changed so much in the last decade with the influx of money and immigrants. What do you think are the positive changes and what would you say are the negative ones?
I am delighted to see so many people from different countries here. When I left for the US in 1983, we were probably the most mono-ethnic culture in the world, and it was a pretty boring place. After 17 years away I am almost an immigrant myself, living here for the first time as an adult. I am concerned that the changes have happened so quickly, going from poor to rich, white to cosmopolitan. On the other hand we are rapidly going from green to grey, in terms of our environment, and the struggle is not with outsiders, it is within ourselves, where we simply don’t have a clue who we are any more. This Republic of Ireland is not even as old as my grandmother, and our great unfinished revolution must complete itself, not through violence, but through conflicts such as the one’s we are engaged in now, if we are ever going to truly prosper and evolve in a positive fashion, for centuries to come.
You went to school and lived in Florida for a time. Why did you want to go to school in the United States and when and why did you leave the United States to return to Ireland?
My mother was born the US, and returned to live there, after my parents split when I was a child. I stayed here and grew up on the chicken farm in Wicklow, with my grandmother. After I did the Leaving Cert, I emigrated to live with her, as we needed to reconnect. I returned to attend the O’Toole clan reunion in Wicklow in 2000, and really just decided to stay, on the spur of the moment. I had always planned to return, and my grandmother was ailing, so I wanted to be close to her.
You were born in County Wicklow. What was growing up in Ireland like for you? Were your parents activists? Can you recall some favorite memories?
I loved the wild woods and hills of Wicklow and spent most of my youth in the countryside. It instilled in me a deep love of this land, which never left me all through my years away. I grew up across the road from my father’s farm, but we never spoke, even to this day. That was difficult, but I was blessed with an amazing grandmother, who treated me like a prince.
What would you like to accomplish as an activist and what do you hope Ireland will be like over the next decades?
I firmly believe the world is ending, unless we radically change how we live, and undo the damage we have done. The M3 is the perfect place to start. In a real sense, I am very sensitive to the climate changes that have already occurred here, as it was like returning to a different, more silent country. Something is very wrong here, and we have to sort it out, or our children will be leaving in droves again. As an activist I am nearing the end of my own road, and have to return to my own life, which has been on hold for years now. No matter that the specific outcome of the battles, I feel I accomplished more than I could have imagined, in terms of raising awareness and consciousness, and that will all lead to some lasting good. I hope Ireland will become a model for sustainable development, and that we can, as a nation, regain our own economic, spiritual, and legal integrity.