Castlerea many get Portlaoise prisoners


AT the moment the Wall that they've built in Castlerea is as useful as a lighthouse in a bog. It might challenge for someone with a head for heights to scale it, which would not bed easy, but the climber would be going nowhere.

The Wall is not preventing's the escape of anyone from inside nor is it stopping anyone outside from breaking in. It just stands there like an enormous toy discarded by some long gone giant. If concrete could talk, it would be screaming out in frustration at its own utter uselessness and its gradual transformation into a white elephant.

Well, not just yet. It looks as if the Wall's deliverance is at hand and that it will be given the chance to fulfil its destiny.

In the next few days, I'm reliably informed, Justice Minister Nora Owen will endow Castlerea's Wall with the sense of purpose for which it was originally built, at a cost of £1.25 million. She is to announce the transfer of political, or quasi political, prisoners from Portlaoise to Castlerea as soon as is practicable.

Once the transferees and others - about 150 of them - are settled in their new Castlerea home, the breaches that are now in the uncompleted Wall will be closed off with massive doors and locks. And hey presto! - Castlerea will have the prison for which it has been pleading for so long, though nowhere on as large a scale as originally envisaged.

The Wall stands in the wooded grounds of St Patrick's psychiatric hospital, which once ministered to the emotional and mental wounds of as many as 1,000 men and women. That institution is now, in modern economic parlance, being downsized to such a degree that shortly it will no longer exist.

There are still about 30 patients in St Patrick's but they'll soon be gone, most of them taking up residence in a hostel which was once the Dun Arms Hotel. The plan is that when St Pat's is empty, the Portlaoise political type prisoners will be moved into the vacated buildings after they've been made more secure and the Wall sealed.

This will clear space in Portlaoise to receive all sorts of male factors generally branded as "ordinary criminals".

The scaled down plan will not provide anything like the direct employment of 150 prison guards with the original concept might have done, but it will be better than nothing.

It might baffle some people why any community might want a prison of any kind in its midst, but the Castlerea area has become such an unemployment black spot that anything generating jobs is welcome. For decades the psychiatric hospital, employing 700 to 800 staff, was Castlerea's dependable fountain of jobs, and its dismantling has brought nothing but economic woe to the town.

Michael McGreal, a Fine Gael county councillor who lives in nearby Ballinlough, will tell you that most people in the area will welcome the advent of the jail because employment prospects are so dire.

"Of course it would be great if some other State or semi state enterprise were to come here and provide jobs, but it is a jail that we are getting so we are satisfied with it," he says. He echoes the feelings of many in the area at present.

How they will feel when the convicts are actually settled in behind the Wall, with the good conduct ones perhaps being allowed on trips into town, remains to be seen.