Lismore: Inside a small town’s protests and counter-demonstrations

The west Waterford town has been at the centre of protests over plans to turn its landmark hotel into a centre for asylum seekers

Members of the Lismore for All group: Camilla Hallinan, Brian Rooney, Len Canton, Joan Casey and Jane Jermyn. Photograph: Jennifer O'Connell

The Facebook page of the Lismore House Hotel is still inviting visitors to Ireland’s oldest purpose-built hotel to “indulge, delight and unwind”. A reopening date of “late 2021, early 2022″ is given, and locals say bookings were being taken for far-off weddings.

As construction work ramped up in recent months there was a sense of expectation locally that the hotel – which opened in 1797 and closed in 2016 – would soon be back in business. The most recent activity on the page is a question from a member of the public last summer. “Any updates on when the reopening will be?”

Two weeks ago people in the west Waterford town finally got their answer. What followed over the next fortnight – the trajectory of the response to news that the building was to reopen as a direct provision centre – was in many ways a microcosm of the debate playing out at national level. With a projected worst-case shortfall of 19,000 beds for refugees and asylum seekers by the end of March, Lismore offers some tough lessons for the Government about the need to communicate with communities. But the story of how the town turned its back on anti-immigration protesters also offers grounds for hope.

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

The news breaks on WLR local radio and spreads across social media: the landmark hotel is to reopen as an accommodation centre for international protection applicants.


Elected representatives from the area, themselves only given a few days’ notice of the news, grapple to answer questions from the community. Labour councillor John Pratt spends five hours on the phone in a single day “to the best of my ability answering questions”. He says he is “completely and utterly disgusted” at the lack of engagement from elected representatives at a national level.

Friday January 27th

A briefing note from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth confirms what local representatives were told. Sixty-nine women and families are to move into the 42-room hotel from Monday. A further 26 are to arrive at the end of February, and 22 more at the end of March, bringing the total to 117. “This will not be a centre for single males,” it says.

On the community Facebook pages tempers have become frayed. Amid some of the more outlandish concerns, fears are expressed about how the needs of so many people – almost 10 per cent of the population of 1,200 people – can be met in a town with two GPs and one dentist. “The infrastructure would struggle to cope with 30 or 40 [new arrivals], now we’re hearing up to 70 are coming on Monday,” says Mark Beer, a retired firefighter from London who has lived in Lismore for 22 years and is part of Lismore Community First Responders. “I’m worried for the fact that there’s no GP places. There are no mental health supports for these people.”

However, he echoes something you hear again and again when you speak to people in the town – when they arrive, the residents will be welcome. “I have worked with people from all over the world. I’m happy to try to communicate with the people and make them welcome,” Beer says.

Brian Buckley on his van in Lismore.

Lismore resident Brian Buckley decides more drastic action is needed to get the attention of Government. The self-employed plasterer parks his van in front of the hotel and climbs on to the roof. He has two placards. One reads “No consideration, No Consultation”’ The other “Save our Main Street”.

Lismore Protests: 'It would be like if The Shelbourne was used for Direct Provision.'

Listen | 25:31

Last weekend up to 300 people gathered outside the historical Lismore House Hotel in Co Waterford, protesting over plans to use the vacant building as a temporary emergency accommodation centre for asylum seekers. Amongst the protestors were local residents expressing their concern over the lack of guidance from the Government, a group welcoming refugees and a small cohort, who weren't from the area, with an anti-immigration message. In this episode, Bernice Harrison is joined by Irish Times journalist Jennifer O’Connell who has been speaking to people on all sides of the protest.

“I’ve gone to my local councillors, and I’ve gone to my TDs. There is nobody coming or giving any bit of an answer,” he says over the phone four hours later, from his perch. “This is my last option. This is my last resort. Take all the right-wing stuff and all the hatred, and leave that aside.” He emphasises that his protest is not directed at people in need of international protection, but to make the point that “direct provision doesn’t work. The people in there are not going to be treated the way they deserve to be treated”.

He is aware of reports that people arriving into the country were being forced into homelessness. “It’s an absolutely horrible situation. There are plenty of derelict buildings all around this country, they just need the investment.”

Saturday, January 28th

No matter how often you have made the trip into Lismore from the east of the county the physical beauty of the place is striking. The gothic ramparts of Lismore Castle – the Irish home of the Duke of Devonshire – dominate the skyline, and the Blackwater river runs underneath, surrounded by verdant banks. It is the Hollywood cliche of an Irish town.

But in the centre of town on Saturday morning, the atmosphere is in danger of turning ugly.

Buckley is on top of the van, engaged in calm conversation with a woman concerned about the message his sign is sending out. “Save our main street from what?” she asks.

But nearby another group of between six and eight assembles with placards reading “Plantation 2.0″. In the middle of the group, brandishing a selfie stick, is Ireland First founder and anti-immigration activist Derek Blighe.

The Mitchelstown, Co Cork, bricklayer has come to prominence in recent months as a regular presence at anti-immigration protests. He claims the Government is pursuing a plan to “import people with offers of home and welfare”. He begins shouting about the 120 “fakeugees” who he says will be in the hotel. Another member of his group, speaking into a microphone, says “these people are not refugees. These people are economic migrants.”

Blighe – who spent 10 years operating cranes in Canada, saving enough to come back to Ireland and buy a house – finishes many of his social media live-streams with an appeal for “donations” via PayPal, Revolut or GiftSaveGo. By the middle of this week he had raised a total of €4,897 on GiftSaveGo alone.

But if he had hopes of drumming up more support in Lismore he is disappointed. Buckley immediately climbs down off his van because he doesn’t “want to be associated with them”, saying he will call a peaceful community protest for 3pm on Sunday instead.

Across the street a counter-protest is gathering, with between four and 12 people participating at various times and a sign reading: ‘”People seeking refuge are welcome here”.

Bríd Nowlan, a member of the Lismore For All group, says she is concerned about more extreme elements “being attracted here by the language that’s being used by some people”.

Members of the Lismore for All group: Camilla Hallinan, Brian Rooney, Len Canton, Joan Casey and Jane Jermyn. Photograph: Jennifer O'Connell

“We’re all disappointed that the hotel will not be a hotel. But ”Save our Main Street”? I don’t know what that means. This hotel has been closed for at least five years; seven businesses have opened on this Main Street in that time.”

Behind the closed doors of a pub on the main street Buckley and four local business people – Olivia Roche, Gary McInerney, Glen Stevenson and Michael O’Leary – meet to discuss their issues. “You can’t just land people here and say integrate them into your community. Where are the supports? Where’s the framework?” McInerney says.

They are disappointed about what they see as a missed opportunity for a town that has everything going for it from a tourism perspective – except a hotel. McInerney worries about the debate causing “cracks in the local community. It looks inevitable these people are coming, but how do we integrate them?”

The group questions whether the planning permission for the accommodation centre is in place. If the building is a protected structure, the exemption for emergency accommodation may not apply, they say. In response to a query about this, a spokesperson for the department says that “my understanding is that there is no change of use for this building (ie hotel accommodation) and therefore no new planning permission required”.

Roche says she finds recent communications from members of Government saying they trust communities will give residents of the hotel a warm welcome patronising. “There’s no question of them not getting a warm welcome.”

The emphasis on how “this will not be a centre for single males” is not just insulting to men and to communities, she says she feels “it’s also a great decoy to distract from what’s really going on: lack of communication, lack of consultation, [questions about] planning issues”. It plays into far-right fearmongering about “single, military age males...They’re nearly inviting the far right a bit”.

Back out on the street Blighe’s protest still hasn’t gained much traction. He is briefly distracted by the appearance of two men pulling suitcases, walking away from the hotel. He films them, describing them to his followers as “two African men making their way to their new accommodation”. In fact they are care workers with jobs in Dungarvan, who have found accommodation closer to their workplace and are on their way to the bus.

Later he approaches this journalist. “Why do you interview the leftists but not the concerned citizens?” he shouts, streaming the encounter across all his social media channels.

“You’re biased,” he says repeatedly. “You have it now folks, The Irish Times only interviewed the refugee welcome brigade.” As he departs, he adds: “I got you. You’ll be famous later.”

One of the women watching muses, “The refugee welcome brigade? That’s quite good. We might use that.”

Sunday, January 29th

Between 200 and 300 people turn out for a peaceful protest at the hotel in the presence of national media. The Lismore for All group makes it presence felt with its own banner welcoming refugees.

Members of the Lismore for All group pictured last Saturday. Rachel Wilson, Mark Beer, Brid Nowlan, Jane Jermyn, Camilla Hallinan, Vick Ind, Nora O'Connor and Joan Casey. Photograph: Jennifer O'Connell

Monday, January 30th

By Monday, the response to the centre seems to have coalesced into two distinct camps. On one side of the road are three women. Earlier they had a placard which read “Protect our children”, but when it was pointed out this could be taken to suggest asylum seekers themselves may pose a threat to children, it is replaced with one reading “Lismore deserves answers”.

They are initially reluctant to speak. One cites Blighe’s video and suggests I am not interested in both sides. But then Jacinta steps forward. Lismore is a multicultural place and nobody has any issue with the individuals seeking protection, she says. “As a group we will welcome all refugees, it doesn’t matter who they are. But we think they should be better provisions for them, not stuck in a hotel in the middle of a town. They’re more than welcome in the town. If they need help, we’re here to help. We just feel the hotel is not the place to put them.”

Campaigners against Lismore House Hotel being used as a Direct Provision Centre: "They’re more than welcome in the town. If they need help, we’re here to help. We just feel the hotel is not the place to put them.” Photograph: Barry Roche

A man from Venezuela who recently relocated here – he says can’t give his name because his employer prefers people not to speak to the media – says people here are “very warm. I don’t see Lismore as a racist town at all”. He says he can understand the different perspectives. Ireland has obligations to those seeking international protection under EU and international law. “But for the locals, the hotel represents a source of tourism and jobs.”

He suggests with better communication from Government, there would have been less resistance locally. “At the end of the day the people who are coming here are all human.”

When Marc Ó Cathasaigh, the Green Party TD, passes by the women give him a friendly hello. He has been meeting community groups this morning and is the only TD who has so far come to hear their concerns, they say.

It strikes me that those issues are not that far removed from those of the group on the other side of the street.

Ó Cathasaigh has been hearing “a lot of legitimate concerns – the strain on health services, for example, is one of the recurring themes”. He recognises that the town’s hopes for regeneration were pinned on the hotel. “What I’ve been saying to people is that this is an emergency response to a crisis.” He concedes “there’s been a gap in the information. That’s not good enough. And that’s not how you bring communities with you”.

He is impressed, he says, that “when people came into their community from outside to make representations of a far-right viewpoint, the community here made a deliberate decision to step away from those protests”.

But Jane Jermyn, part of the Lismore For All group, is concerned about the fissures that have opened up. “People are claiming that it’s not about the people, and it probably isn’t about the people, because most of the people in Lismore are very supportive. But when [the placards are] saying the sorts of things they’re saying, it can be misconstrued.”

Later in the week she texts to describe some “unpleasant incidents” in which people who have lived in the town for years have experienced hostility and verbal abuse. “The ‘concerned citizens of Lismore’ have no idea what they have unleashed,” she says.

She says Lismore has a track record of supporting people arriving here in need of international protection. In 2019, after far-right protesters interrupted a public meeting in the heritage centre, attempting to drum up opposition to the integration of Syrian families into the area, over €10,000 was raised towards a community sponsorship scheme which was being piloted as an alternative to direct provision. She is dismayed by “the lack of empathy people have. They need to think ‘what would it be like if I was an asylum seeker?’ Because it can happen to anyone.”

Lismore For All members: Jane Jermyn, Fran Wadephul and Brian Rooney prepare to welcome asylum seekers. Photograph: Barry Roche

Tuesday, January 31st

By Tuesday there is plenty of activity at the hotel, but no residents. Their arrival has been delayed, possibly to Thursday, the department spokesperson says.

Jermyn and some of her group meet the centre’s management and have a tour. She describes the playroom, TV room and a diningroom that is “not at all canteen-like”. Plans are already under way for “knitting and Lego clubs, a mother and toddler group, and volunteering for Tidy Towns”.

It has been a tumultuous week in the town. The community has been divided – families have been divided – on this issue, but already there are signs people are preparing to find ways to work together, even with those who don’t share the same views.

Buckley says the issues have not been resolved, but whenever the residents do arrive they will not be met by protests. He has taken his van and his placards away. In hindsight he can see how “Save our Main Street” might not have been the right message. Nobody will be trying to get “anyone removed from the hotel ... these people still need a roof over their head”.

“I’ve no doubt there will be people down here with cakes they’ve baked, clothes to donate. We will make sure they feel welcome. This whole issue never had anything to do with the people.”