6 November 1997 Edition

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Save Santry Wood for the people

By Robert Allen

A community campaign to save a woodland from profiteering developers is poised to become an initiative to provide badly needed jobs.

Santry Woods will be destroyed if Fingal County Council succumb to pressure from developers to rezone the land and allow the construction of apartments and warehouses.

The woods, which stretch from Ballymun and Santry up to the M50, are owned by the family of Robert `Pino' Harris, the truck importer and property speculator who made a profit of £1.5 million when he bought the grounds of Carsyfort College for £6.5 million and sold them to UCD for £8m. The circumstances of the deal which allowed him to acquire the college land has been questioned, significantly by those interested in Ray Burke's affairs.

The campaign to save Santry Woods, which was once part of the dense forest characteristic of the area and an aristrocratic estate dating back to the 12th century, began when the Harris family brought the house and lands of the Donvilles, the last lords of Santry Demesne.

The Donvilles delighted in their native forest of oak, ash, beech and rowan among other trees and when King Victor Emmanuel of Rome presented a gift of 16 tree species in 1912 the demesne gradually acquired an exotic quality with groves of Spanish chestnuts, Californian redwood, Italian walnut plus hazelnut and cedar. When the lords of Santry departed in the mid-twenties the estate was given to the Health Board who relinquished in temporarily to the army during the 39-45 world war. Although the estate house was burned down during this occupation the forest was left alone and became so dense that it completely shout out the light, becoming known as the Dark Wood. In 1969, the Harris family brought it.

Their first action was to evict the tenants who occupied the artisans' cottages. They were told they had a week to get out or their furniture would be forcibly removed. Artefacts on the land were removed or destroyed. A stone sculpture of a celebrated racehorse was bulldozed to rubble. The destruction of the woods began when a man was allowed to cut down as many trees as he wanted. Within a few years the Dark Wood was gone.

Shocked by these scandalous events several people from Ballymun and Santry came together in 1985 to form Sábhál Coillte Sheantruibh (Save Santry Woods) and began to lobby for the woods to be protected and ultimately to be purchased for the people as an amenity area. As a result of their campaign a preservation order was placed on the remaining trees. However more trees were cut down and locals noticed that the bark of many trees had been mutilated with half inch deep cuts.

Desperate to make a profit from the land Pino Harris has constantly thwarted the attempts by campaigners to save the woods. Having sold 10 acres to Trinity in 1972, (when it was acquired in the name of Queen Elizabeth II) and developed as sports grounds and a warehouse for the college library, Harris has been aware of its value. A further two acres on Bullock Hill was sold to the Industrial Development Agency and rezoned as development land. The Santry Residents Association had lodged an objection to the rezoning but mysteriously withdrew their complaint a day before it was due to come into effect. In 1989 he tried to sell it to Dublin City University for £12m. The university president said he wanted the land for student playing fields but Harris' asking price of nearly £100,000 an acre was more than 10 times what DCU's valuer estimated it was worth. At the time Ballymun Sinn Féin criticised the duplicity of politicians who said they supported the campaign to have the woods protected as a local amenity. ``Santry Woods should be taken into public ownership with minimal compensation to Harris. Its trees and woodlands should be preserved. It should be upgraded to a public park for the people of the area,'' they demanded in November 1991.

But nothing happened until a few weeks ago when a letter from Fingal County Council to Dublin Corporation revealed that Woodland Developments Ltd had informed the council that they proposed to acquire 243 acres of the forest and are planning to exploit it for large scale commercial and residential use - leaving only 50 acres for public use around Santry Stadium. ``Such a massive development would destroy Santry Woods as the only natural woodland in this area and deprive our children of its beauty and educational value,'' raged Sean Marlow of the Santry Woods Action Group who have rallied in recent weeks to oppose the latest development.

This time the council may find themselves under severe pressure to finally acceed to the demands made by Sábhál Coillte Sheantruibh more than ten years ago. Now Anton Mac Giolla Rua, one of the people behind Sábhál Coillte Sheantruibh, has called on the 26 County government to channel funds into a plan for the development of Santry Woods as a city farm, craft centre, tree nursery, tourist village, riding club and wild animal hospital as part of the regeneration of Ballymun.

Contact Sean Marlow, Ballymun Sinn Féin, for further details: 7045120.

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