STEPHEN Evans Freke of Castle Freke near Rathbarry has said he is ‘bemused’ by allegations that he is attempting to prevent access to land he is hoping to buy from Coillte.
A campaign has gathered steam in Rathbarry regarding the historic castle and adjoining walkways, which locals fear will be closed to them, if sold to the Castle’s owner.
A recent meeting saw over 200 local people attend during which, it was claimed, that Mr Evans Freke was attempting to buy back his ancestor’s land and would then limit access to it.
The lands in question involve 65 acres which are currently owned by State forestry company Coillte where trees are commercially harvested.
But this week Mr Evans Freke told The Southern Star that he had no intention of limiting access to any part of the lands involved, and he would give a ‘commitment’ to the locals in that regard.
He was reacting to an article in a national newspaper which painted him as an imperial interloper who wished to revive the era of the ‘great landlord’.
‘I react to that article with wry amusement,’ he told The Southern Star. ‘From my perspective, the detractors accuse me of trying to turn the clock back, but it’s they who are in a time warp.’
And he was critical of the meeting’s organisers who never extended an invitation to him, or even approached him for a comment.
‘I was not invited and nobody asked to speak to me,’ he said. ‘In their rush to man the barricades, they have totally missed the point. This is not about land ownership; it is about land stewardship. And I am very passionate about it.’
Mr Evans Freke said his interest in buying the land from Coillte was because of his huge opposition to their widespread clear-cutting, or felling, of the trees there. He said Coillte were following a traditionally commercial route, but he was interested in more sustainable methods of forestry.
‘It is our sacred duty to manage and protect it for future generations,’ he said, adding he deplored the felling of trees, for commercial gain, in areas of incredible scenic beauty, like Lough Hyne and Castlefreke.
He said he was bemused with the controversy because many of those opposing the sale would consider themselves environmentalists, like himself, so they should in fact be ‘on the same side of the barricades.’
‘We are so lucky in West Cork that we have escaped much of the ribbon coastal development that has ruined so much of the rest of the coastline of Ireland. I find it bizarre that, in their rush to pull me down, they are defending a status quo that might have been acceptable 25 years ago, but not today.’
He said he was in three-way negotiations with Coillte and Cork County Council about purchasing the lands, so that they could be properly replanted in a sustainable way, so that future generations could enjoy them. He wanted it to become a ‘model’ for others in how areas of natural beauty could become sustainable and preserved for generations.
He has also offered some land to the Council to provide a footpath in the area known as The Avenue, which is regularly used by walkers.
‘It is a very busy road with a lot of traffic and it is dangerous,’ he pointed out.
But, he said, some locals ‘got wind’ of the talks, and ‘blew the whistle on them’ when they were at a very early stage with a ‘toxic mix of distortion and outright lies’ and whipped up support on that erroneous basis.
And he claimed some of those opposing the plan were the same people who tried to halt his mother’s burial at lands which they claimed were paupers’ graves, on the estate.
He said he had to have witnesses there when the crypt was opened to prove that those buried there were his ancestors, and that it was, in fact, the family’s mausoleum.
Referring to claims that he had restricted access with ‘signage’ and a ‘gate’, he said the gate in question had already existed as it was a boundary between two adjoining farms.
When asked if he would be interested in attending a meeting which is being organised for next Monday, Mr Evans Freke said he is out of the country at the moment but added: ‘And they have no interest in obtaining the facts.’
‘This is an abject lesson in how people can develop such a head of steam without letting the facts get in the way of their narrative,’ he said.
‘It’s a toxic soup of distortion and lies, but people always underestimate the power of emotion. It’s such an irony that the net result of this is that a lot of people who should be on the other side of the barricades are defending the status quo.’ And he said that the original plan was that once a firm proposal was made on the lands, Coillte had committed to engaging in a public consultation process.
And while he feared that Coillte may now have second thoughts on the sale, he was intent on pressing on with the talks.
‘I am not going to give up,’ he said, adding that he had an ambition to create a world-class landscape, so that it would be still available to the public in 50, or 75 years’ time. ‘We have an obligation to future generations,’ he said.
He said he couldn’t blame Coillte for the misguided public policy on commercialising the forestry because ‘they are just doing what they are meant to be doing’ but that Ireland needed to bring itself into the 21st century and embrace more sustainable policies. Coillte had been ‘very understanding’ he said, ‘and I think we are on the right track with this three-way partnership.’
Regarding plans for Castle Freke itself, he said while he does not want to convert it to a hotel, he does want it be available for events and functions, to bring ‘economic and cultural’ life back into the region.
‘I am totally, totally committed to maintaining access to the land, and planting it to enhance it,’ he pledged.
• Castlefreke Our Woods Our Walks, the campaign set up to oppose the sale of Castlefreke woods by Coillte, will hold a public meeting on Monday June 18th at 8.30pm in the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery.