There are concerns and division in Ennis, Co Clare at plans by the HSE to build a 100-bed community nursing home on the grounds of St Flannan's College, on lands owned by the Diocese of Killaloe.
Teachers at the school, along with 27 of their former colleagues, believe it will destroy sports facilities built there 20 years ago at a cost of over €1m, and claim the site is still used extensively by the school community.
St Flannan’s College is the biggest secondary school in Co Clare, and one of the biggest in Munster with over 1,200 co-educated students, and over 240 new pupils enrolled each year.
It also has a long history of sporting success, especially in the popular Harty Cup competition, a Munster colleges senior hurling championship.
The school has extensive training grounds surrounding the school including three GAA pitches, a soccer pitch and a running track.
However, the HSE has now lodged plans with Clare County Council to build a 100-bed nursing home on seven acres of these grounds at the college, on land owned by the Killaloe Diocesan Trust, the property arm of the Killaloe diocese.
The site has been identified by the HSE as suitable, and is being sold to them by the Trust subject to planning permission.
Teachers at the school have registered their protest by demonstrating on the school sports ground appealing for it to be kept as it is, expressing their fears that the proposal to build will negatively impact students and their sports facilities.
Former principal Colm McDonagh, along with a number of former teachers, say they are against the proposal, believing it will destroy a soccer pitch and running track located in the direct path of the proposed new building.
"In 2002/2003 there was a major expansion of the sports facilities at St Flannan’s done at a cost of €1m, much of it made possible through fundraising and voluntary contributions.
"If this proposed facility is put on these grounds, you can take it that the soccer pitch and running track will be rendered useless, as the development will take up at least half of those grounds. Nobody seems to be considering the cost of putting those sports facilities in place in the first instance, and the constant use of them by the large student body in St Flannan’s at the moment.
"The land where the proposed new nursing home will occupy was actually willed to St Flannan’s decades ago by a Ms Charlotte McNamara who stipulated in her will that the land was never to be sold. I believe, and others who are opposed to the plan believe, that wish and stipulation should be respected."
He added: "There is a precedent here in that Ennis National School wanted to originally build their new school on the grounds of St Flannan’s but this was rejected by the school trustees which existed at the time, because of the major complications it would cause with thousands of students on the move at the one time".
Teachers working at the school issued a statement outlining objections to the plan saying the training pitches are extensively used during the academic year for gaelic football, camogie, soccer and athletics so there is a huge demand for space.
The fields also act as a running track for athletes in the community.
Fr Brendan Quinlivan, spokesperson for the Diocese of Killaloe, takes a different view.
He said as a diocese, he and others have an obligation to look after the most vulnerable in their community and the proposed nursing home on grounds of St Flannan's, which is designed to replace St Joseph’s nursing home in the town, will meet a need in the dioceses for the care of older citizens, bringing benefits to many across Co Clare.
"The HSE identified a pressing need for improved facilities for the care of older vulnerable people who need long term nursing care. They approached the Diocese with a view to attaining a greenfield site in order to build a state-of-the-art facility for such care.
"They looked at a number of sites but identified the site on the periphery of the campus of St Flannan’s College as being suitable for the development which is close to the town and other amenities, and the diocese was happy to facilitate this wonderful development for the service and benefit of the entire community," he said.
He said that the school grounds are very extensive compared to many comparable schools of its population and size, and for its 150-year history the diocese has endowed the college greatly with land to develop its sports and playing facilities.
"This development will not take away hugely from those facilities we believe, and there is still room for development on other parts of the campus"
In relation to the stipulation in the late Ms McNamara’s will, Fr Quinlivan said it has been referred to the Charities Regulator, with clarification sought on two occasions.
"They examined the legal implications and said the diocese was within its rights to sell this property as the beneficial owner of it, and sell it for community use and for the care of an older and vulnerable people.
"As a church, in many ways, we do have an obligation to look out for the needs of not just one section of the community, but also this older vulnerable section which will benefit from this facility," he said.
Clare County Council has stalled the planning application seeking more information. It says it has serious concerns that the plan may prejudice the future expansion of the school, and it has also asked the HSE to explain the rational behind the site selection, and if alternative sites were considered.
It has until the end of March to file this information to the Council.