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Glencairn sisters refused grant on religious grounds

By Ann Marie Foley - 22 June, 2013

The Cistercian sisters at St Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Co Waterford, have been turned down for a grant for a green energy education project because they are a religious organisation. Sr Lilly, who manages the farm which grows the green energy crop miscanthus, told CatholicIreland.net that an official letter stated that St Mary’s Abbey would […]

The Cistercian sisters at St Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Co Waterford, have been turned down for a grant for a green energy education project because they are a religious organisation.

Sr Lilly, who manages the farm which grows the green energy crop miscanthus, told CatholicIreland.net that an official letter stated that St Mary’s Abbey would not be given *LEADER funding because this would be seen as “furthering religion”.

“With Teagasc (farm advisory body) we had the idea of setting up an education project and trying to encourage farmers to use miscanthus for heating. It went to LEADER for funding and they are controlled by Department Environment, Community and Local Government,” Sr Lilly told CatholicIreland.net. As far as she could see the application was getting a favourable response initially however things changed.

“There was a whole lot of negativity towards religion, like because we were an enclosed order could we put up with the demonstrating involved in an education project for the public? But they never came to ask us directly about that. The bit that got me was they said: because you are religious organisation it would further the cause of your religion.”

St Marys is well able to cater for visitors and threw open the cloisters to the foodies attending the Waterford Festival of Food a few years ago and hosted the “Abbey’s” bus tour which was booked out weeks in advance (See Cinews Friday, April 24th, 2009 ).

The proposed project would have installed a mischantus burner to heat the abbey but with open days and demonstrations for farmers and those interested in burning miscanthus grown on local farms which is getting a very poor price.

In a statement to CatholicIreland.net the Department of the Environment , Community & Local Government stated that: “The Department advised the applicant that it was its view that the installation of a miscanthus burning boiler, which appeared to essentially serve to reduce the running costs of a privately run body, would not be eligible for funding under the LEADER elements of the Rural Development Programme 2007 – 2013. The applicant can appeal this decision if they wish.” 

Sr Lilly says she has a letter  which states that religion was a factor. She could have accepted a straight refusal that the project was not eligible, but despite having written to the Department three times in as many months and when a response finally arrived it did not address that particular issue. She even approached the Equality Authority and threatened legal action but no one has ever explained how religion could have come into the decision making.

It all began many years back when he sisters planted miscanthus or elephant grass as it is known, on 26 acres of their 200 acre livestock and tillage farm in a picturesque corner of County Waterford. The energy crop can be converted into fuel for stoves and electricity. The sisters were among many farmers who had a contract to supply a company called JHM Crops.  That company ran into difficulties when the Government failed to introduce a feasible price for its produce through a financial incentive called Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff, or Refit.

When the difficulties arose with JHM a year ago, the sisters worked with the agriculture advisory, research and education agency Teagasc to set up a project to install a boiler to burn the energy crop to heat St Mary’s Abbey and allow for others to visit and see the system in action so they could replicate it in their own farms. The scheme was an attempt to salvage something from what has been a disastrous foray into sustainable environmental crops for many farmers and the sisters.

“I thought it was immoral that we invested Euro15000 and the Department invested the same amount (in a grant to plant the miscanthus crop), and it would be EU money I imagine, and after three years they said ‘just plough it up’,” she said. She raised that very issue at a meeting on setting up small businesses when the speaker was addressing the topic of accountability. The issue then made its way into in the Farmers Journal and was featured on RTE radio one when Damian O Reilly interviewed Sr Lilly.

“There is a lot of anger about it since I went on the radio. People couldn’t understand how that could happen,” she said. Sr Lilly has not ploughed in the miscanthus crop yet.

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