Katie Fortune stripped her land back bit by bit. She cut through the undergrowth with shears at first and then with a friend’s chainsaw. Eventually her brothers helped put down a driveway.
When she and her two children moved on to the site adjacent to Lough Dan in Co Wicklow, near Roundwood, they did so in a cramped caravan without power.
“We had one light,” she said. “My neighbour let us plug it in. But we were living in paradise.”
Eventually the property evolved to include a small, wood-framed chalet set back from the road and tucked behind overhanging trees.
This is not “development” in the sense most people would define it but the chalet, called The Wilderness, was nevertheless built without planning permission.
Now, following a four-year legal battle surrounding Wicklow County Council’s attempts to have the chalet demolished, Ms Fortune can return home knowing for the first time it will continue to be just that.
Last week Mr Justice Gerard Hogan ruled in the High Court that despite the chalet remaining an unauthorised development Ms Fortune had a constitutional right to her home under article 40.5. He overturned an order to have it demolished.
That followed two rejected applications for retention of the dwelling; an appeal to An Bord Pleanála and a failed Circuit Court challenge.
Yesterday she was granted one day’s legal costs by Mr Justice Hogan in deference to the fact that it was not a cut-and-dried case.
Determination is pending on the legality of some small ancillary buildings and changes must be made to the chalet’s wastewater treatment, but Ms Fortune believes she has won the most important prize and may have set a legal precedent.
“I am just happy that [other] people will take heart and fight. It’s disgraceful how [planning officials] treat people: it’s not right,” she said.
'Put your house up'
She is candid about her decision to build without planning permission: "I knew I wouldn't have gotten it and my mother kept saying: 'Put your house up, put your house up'."
Her partner, Philip, who does not live there, said: “There was a certain type of naivety about it as well. Living on her own land, Katie wanted to put up a small, modest house. She didn’t think she was doing any harm.”
Ms Fortune moved to the Roundwood area with her mother and siblings when she was 12, having previously lived in Bray.
“My mother gave us all a little plot of land. It was just a pure wilderness and I went in with a saw and cutters and I just started clearing little patches,” she said.
Her partner added: “If you own a plot of land in Ireland it should be your right to build a family home. Not a block of flats or a petrol station: a family home.”
What remains to be seen is whether the High Court ruling – of a constitutional right to the home in spite of it being unauthorised – sets a precedent.
In a statement, Wicklow County Council said it would examine the judgment carefully "as it may have consequences for the future interpretation of the planning laws".
It is seeking legal advice.