A Carmelite nun of the Holy Face of Jesus has been found guilty of a breach of the planning laws after she constructed an unauthorised compound for her and a newly ordained sister to live in at Leap in west Cork.
Reverend Mother Irene Gibson, who has been a consecrated hermit for thirty years, arrived at Skibbereen District Court in Co Cork with Sr Anne Marie from New Zealand, who was ordained last May.
The nuns entered the court amid torrential rain. They were carrying a statue of the Child of Prague which has long been used in Ireland as a solicitation for good weather.
Rev Mother Irene entered a not guilty plea. Before the trial got under way Judge James McNulty asked the pair to remove the statue from the court saying that whilst he was respectful of all faiths and the right to venerate "this is not the place for holy statues".
Cork County Council had brought proceedings before the court alleging a breach of Section 154 of the Planning and Development Act.
Solicitor for the local authority, Patricia Murphy, said that there had been a failure to comply with an enforcement notice.
Judge James McNulty was told that the local authority had received complaints from the public in 2016 about the erection of a two-storey cladded building near Leap.
The structure comprised of a wooden chapel, a wooden shed and a timber fence as well as seven pods/garden sheds.
The development was without planning permission and an enforcement order was served.
Patricia Murphy said that the local authority proceeded to a prosecution in the case with "great reluctance" having explored every avenue open to them with the defendant.
She said to their credit the nuns had removed the chapel type building, the meeting room and three pods from the site. An illegal entrance has also been closed off.
However, four pods remain onsite in addition to unauthorised signage and a storage container.
Executive Planner at Cork County Council Philip O'Sullivan said that they first received a complaint about the site in April 2016.
He said an enforcement notice was served and the nuns were given every opportunity to comply with same. Extensions were given in a bid to accommodate them.
He told Judge James McNulty that he had visited the site the day before the court sitting.
On a positive note he said the modular building which the residents had been "apoplectic" about had been removed.
However, he claimed he was met at the property by a "verbally abusive nun" whose name was not the same as the two sisters present in court.
The court heard that the local authority "bent over backwards" to avoid a prosecution. Mr O'Sullivan said the pods which are being used by the nuns to sleep in are not fit for habitation.
He claimed that "sometimes people have to be saved from themselves".
Reverend Mother Irene declined to have legal representation in court. Sr Anne Marie acted as a first hand witness of the alleged breach of planning laws.
She said that in 2016 the defendant bought the property with the dream of developing part of this area for amenity and recreational purposes.
She said under sections of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 the land was classified as an exempt development. This was disputed by the local authority.
She said Reverend Mother Irene purchased several sheds, 8x10ft in size, as temporary accommodation.
"They have no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets, no showers and no phone. It would either take a great imagination or an unreasonable ill will for anyone to consider these sheds as anything but temporary accommodation."
She accused the council of causing them "extra stress, hardship, bad publicity and great financial loss by treating us in a a cold hearted and bureaucratic way".
Sister Anne Marie acknowledged that Reverend Mother Irene had had a green modular building built on the land which they had hoped to use as a temporary community and refectory room.
This modular building triggered complaints from locals and she said it was removed prior to previous court proceedings last May.
She accused Cork County Council of being "vindictive and petty tyrants" who have "dramatised and distorted facts on their fault-finding mission." As a result they have decided to "cut their losses and move on".
Reverend Mother Irene said that the original modular building was "ugly". She apologised to locals for having had it built.
She stated that she posted numerous advertisements on the DoneDeal website in a bid to sell it and had eventually found a purchaser. She sustained a considerable loss in the transaction.
She said if the court ruling went against them they would be "virtually homeless" and that the pods/garden sheds they were living in were perfectly normal for people who live their type of life.
She admitted that she had received several warning letters before an eventual summons about the situation. However, she maintained that she lived a "busy life" of prayer and didn't have much time to study "County Council law".
Miss Murphy, solicitor for Cork County Council, said the Reverend Mother Irene and Sister Anne Marie were "very impressive, diligent, hardworking people".
However, she said given all the opportunities Rev Mother Irene had to comply with the law she was the "mistress of her own demise". She stressed that there had been a "flagrant disregard" for the planning laws.
The nuns have an offer of accommodation in Youghal, Co Cork and hope to be able to move in by Christmas.
Judge McNulty said that there was no suggestion that the local authority had acted anyway improperly in the case. He convicted Reverend Mother Irene deferring sentencing until 28 April next to give the nuns the possibility of sorting their new accommodation.
He said that he was a great believer in God being a good provider but that "he may need to hurry up. You may need to pray harder, Sister".