Former convent site to be home to Wicklow locals and Syrian refugees

‘Dream come true’ for new residents of 56-unit housing development in Baltinglass

 Daryl and Niamh Harney with children Sarah (2) and Jamie (8) at their new home in Baltinglass,  Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Daryl and Niamh Harney with children Sarah (2) and Jamie (8) at their new home in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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A 56-unit housing development in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, is to become home to locals on the Wicklow County Council housing waiting list as well as Syrian refugee families, who picked up their keys on Monday.

The site, comprising 40 homes and 16 apartments, is on the grounds of an old convent, Rathcoran House, that was home to the Presentation Sisters for 117 years until the 1990s.

Joan O’Connor had been on the Wicklow County Council housing waiting list for eight years and was “so excited” to receive her keys to the home on Monday morning from the housing association Respond.

“It’s terrific. The house is absolutely beautiful, it’s a three-bed semi-detached house and it’s only a five-minute walk from my old house, so we’re near the same community,” she said. Ms O’Connor will live in the house with her two children, Jamie (21) and Billy (19).

“The house we were in before was a rental and was repossessed by the bank. There were no more houses to rent in the town, so Wicklow County Council put me in the one I was in until now. I’ve been renting that as it’s privately owned,” she explained.

The new housing development in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, built on the grounds of former convent Rathcoran House. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The new housing development in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, built on the grounds of former convent Rathcoran House. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The atmosphere at the new estate in Baltinglass was “amazing” on Monday morning as tenants picked up their keys.

“There’s a total buzz in the place. Everyone is happy, the sun is shining, I’ve tears in my eyes. I just can’t believe this is going to be a permanent home.”

Jamie is so excited, he keeps looking at his bedroom and thinking of ideas for it. We’re told at least one of the walls will have to be Liverpool red

Similarly, Niamh and Darryl Harney had been on the waiting list for more than seven years and will be moving into the house with their son Jamie (8) and daughter Sarah (2). “It’s a dream come true to be able to give the kids a permanent home now,” Niamh said.

The family had moved several times in recent years which was “quite an upheaval for the kids”.

“Jamie is so excited, he keeps looking at his bedroom and thinking of ideas for it. We’re told at least one of the walls will have to be Liverpool red.”

Ms Harney grew up in the area and remembered the old site of the convent looking “derelict”.

“To see it restored to its full glory now is great. The houses are up to the highest standard you could think of.”

The Sisters founded a girls secondary school in 1942, which would later merge with the vocational school in 1967.

The land on which the convent was built in 1879 was part of a bequest made to the parish with a stipulation that it was to be used “for the education of female children”.

In May 1999, the Irish government brought 48 programme refugees from the war in Kosovo to stay in Rathcoran House. In keeping with that history, five Syrian refugee families are to be housed in the new development.

Respond chief executive Declan Dunne said it “makes perfect sense” for Syrian refugees to be housed at Baltinglass as the housing association is also a support service provider and operates resettlement programmes in four local authorities for refugees.

“We help them coming from that very traumatic background to connect with everything they need; from schools to employment to health services, often from the worst possible circumstances,” he said.

The development will house people from a variety of backgrounds, he said, including families with children, older people, and people with disabilities.

“There’s nothing worse than a village with everybody in the same circumstances. Who wants to live in a place of people who are all the same age? You want to hear the voices of children playing,” he said, adding that the site at Baltinglass is “stunning” because of its lack of density and large green spaces which you “just don’t get in urban spaces”.

Respond are “keen” to be involved not just in providing housing in urban centres, but all over the country. The association has more than 6,000 homes spread across every county, and about 1,500 currently being built.

It is Respond’s policy to add to the national housing stock rather than buying up homes. “We see ourselves as a national charity, so the more remote places are just as important. Baltinglass was another opportunity to do that. Hopefully, in the future it will be possible to work from home as well, and the concept of remoteness might change,” Dunne said.

While there was “progress being made” to alleviate the “huge housing crisis” in Ireland, it would be necessary going forward for all housing bodies and associations to “double the efforts”.