'Development frenzy is at the cost of everything else'
His attempts to keep the M3 away from Tara could cost Vincent Salafia €600,000. He tells Sylvia Thompson why it's worth the fight
It's the morning after Vincent Salafia was ordered to pay more than €600,000 legal costs, having lost his High Court challenge to the proposed routing of the M3 motorway near the Hill of Tara in Co Meath. But the 39-year-old Dubliner, with Italian-American lineage, seems neither contrite nor beaten.
"Yesterday I did ask myself how the hell did I end up in this situation, yet I feel quite good about what I do," says Salafia, last Thursday morning.
On Wednesday, Justice Thomas Smyth said that while Salafia was entitled to espouse a career regarding the environment or as a "professional objector", public funds should not be spent on a case aimed at rerouting a road to protect the sources of his study interest. Salafia's lawyers have appealed the High Court decision on the M3 route and a Supreme Court case will be held in the next month or so.
"I'm still expecting a victory in the Supreme Court," says Salafia, who studied law at the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and returned to Ireland in the late 1990s to set up the Brehon Law Project, formed to aid the translation of early Irish law and make it available for scholarship. He argues that he has a lot of support in Ireland for his case and that there is an online petition of 19,000 signatures and an e-mail list of 500 supporters from all over the world who back the rerouting of the M3 away from Tara.
Salafia, who doesn't live anywhere near the proposed motorway, says that after An Bord Pleanála's decision cleared the way for the M3 route by Tara, "I watched and waited for someone to make a noise and there was a deafening silence."
A lot of local protest groups felt "shafted and ignored" by the Bord Pleanála process, he says. "I spoke at a public meeting and was nominated and elected public relations officer of the Save Tara Skryne Valley campaign. My job was to facilitate local groups to take legal action but no one was prepared to take the financial risk of losing the case, so I did." Salafia lives in rented accommodation with friends. He says he doesn't own property in this country.
TRYING TO PROTECT Tara and its environs from a new motorway isn't the first heritage issue Salafia has been involved with. In fact, the reason for his delay in initiating proceedings against the M3 motorway, almost two years after An Bord Pleanála's decision, was his involvement in trying to re-route the M50 motorway away from Carrickmines Castle in south Dublin (although the M50 was completed, a Supreme Court case on Carrickmines is pending).
"I'm not anti-roads but there is a property development frenzy to the cost of everything else. Every Irish town has heritage under threat," he says.
Salafia was among the group of protesters known as the Carrickminders who spent six months camped out in old farm buildings next to the archaeological site at Carrickmines Castle. It was a castle which held a particular personal interest for him.
Born in Dublin, he spent his childhood on a farm in Co Wicklow, living with his maternal grandmother, Bridget McGee. She had emigrated to the US in the 1920s, married a Sicilian, Vincent James Salafia, had four children there and moved back to Ireland in the 1950s. After his Leaving Certificate, Salafia went to Florida to study and live with his mother, Eileen. Although he won't speak about his father, while he was in the US he developed an interest in his paternal family name, O'Toole. "It's a family history thing which is strong in the US."
Through his study of brehon law, he became aware of how, between the 12th and 16th centuries, our current system of common law was used in the Pale, while brehon law was used outside it. "Families such as the O'Tooles from Wicklow would have used brehon law and the O'Tooles would have battled the Anglo-Normans at Carrickmines Castle," he explains. He is proud to speak about his mother's family - for example his uncle, James Salafia, a barrister practising in Dublin and his aunt, Maureen Davies, is a tax attorney with the Inland Revenue Service in New York City.
Almost four years ago, he says his attention got diverted into heritage issues through his personal interest in Carrickmines Castle. He is quick to criticise politicians, academics, environmental non-governmental organisations and the public alike for "a passive conspiracy of failure which has led to the haemorrhaging of heritage" in this country.
Yet he points to support from individual academics and politicians, including Green Party TD Ciarán Cuffe, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Labour Party TD Eamon Gilmore and Sen David Norris.
HE POINTS TO the disbandment of Dúchas as the loss of the body which protected and enforced the National Monuments Act. He also points to several "failings" in the latest amendment to the National Monuments Act (2004). "There are heritage, environment and broader civil rights at issue here. The Government brought in new laws to legalise its previously illegal acts. As a lawyer I find that very surprising," he comments.
Salafia works on these issues 24/7, he says, while completing a master's degree in law at Trinity College Dublin. "I live a very basic life. I haven't had a holiday in five years," he says. His ambitions include writing and film-making. "I'd like to make a film about the Cú Chulainn story," he says.
Meanwhile, awaiting a date for the Supreme Court case, he remains firmly committed to his current campaign to re-route the M3 motorway away from Tara.
"Tara is becoming a global beacon in this cultural conflict taking place everywhere between rampant development and the preservation of cultural identity. My grandmother always taught me if you do anything, do it right. Don't just walk away when the going gets tough."