Meet Ireland’s most unlikely martyr: The little old lady sent to prison for trying to save her trees
Today, like any other Sunday, Teresa Treacy should be sitting down to roast dinner in her Tullamore home. She would be joined by her sister Mary, her brother Patrick, and almost certainly some of the nieces and grandnieces she has helped raise during her lifetime.
Although she has no children of her own, the entire family regards Teresa as much more than an aunt: she has always been cousin, uncle, grandparent and friend, all rolled into one.
She has taken her nieces away on holiday, cared for her grandnieces and nephews so their parents could work or study, and always remembered to bake a cake and put ribbons on the gate when anyone had a birthday.
Personal protest: Teresa outside the High Court last week
Instead of relatives, there will be prison wardens; instead of her own bed, a jail cot.
But perhaps worst of all for Teresa Treacy − a woman who in her whole life has never been given so much as a speeding ticket − is that her night in Mountjoy means she will have to spend another night away from the home she built. In particular, she will be kept from the forest she planted and nurtured: the same forest which she has ended up in prison trying to protect.
It is a turn of events that has left her family and many ordinary people across Ireland open-jawed with disbelief. While the bankers, developers and politicians who ruined the country enjoy lives of comfort, a little old lady is sent to prison for trying to stop trees being cut down. Worse still, her jail sentence is indeterminate. Until she agrees to let the ESB chop down her trees, she will stay in prison for ‘contempt of court’.
Tree felling: ESB workers have started to remove greenery on Teresa¿s land outside Tullamore
‘She is not going to budge. Teresa absolutely adores her trees and if she had to go to the moon to protect them she would.'
‘I’m worried she won’t cope in prison but she must have some strength to do what she did. I think she’ll stay there for as long as it takes’.
And as much as Teresa’s family admire her stand, they still seem dazed by the turn of events that has led a beloved and popular 65-year-old to prison − and national prominence.
‘The whole thing is so bizarre,’ her niece Edel told the Irish Mail on Sunday. ‘It’s unbelievable what has happened. It’s like a movie and we are all in it but it doesn’t really feel real. I don’t think the shock has actually hit us yet. We are a very close and private family and we have been catapulted into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
‘People can’t believe what has happened and the support for our aunt in the town has been overwhelming.’
The story began in 2006 when Teresa − along with 83 other landowners in her area − objected when the ESB and Eirgrid announced plans to ‘improve power quality’ for consumers in the area.
‘Teresa brought the workers in from the ESB and told them of her fears,’ said her brother Patrick. ‘She showed them the care she had given her trees. She thought they would understand how she felt but still the letters came, saying that the work was going ahead.’
Family first: Teresa, right, in 1986 with her sister, Mary, and nieces Ann and Audrey, whom she cared for in her home
On Monday, after several meetings with the electricity board and court appearances, Teresa was arrested and jailed.
High Court Judge Daniel Herbert said he ‘admired her principles’ but said he could not condone her actions because it was against the Constitution. He said, ‘We may as well sink into anarchy.’
‘No one expected the judge to jail her, she thought if she relayed her fears in court she would be understood, but that didn’t happen,’ said Patrick.
‘She was so descriptive and eloquent as she described her love of the land.’
Shy: Teresa aged 15
‘The gardaí were very nice, they were so uncomfortable doing what they had to do but they phoned us that evening to say she was in jail and was doing okay.’
Edel, who is due her second child this week, is full of praise for her aunt.
‘When I had my son ten years ago, Teresa and Mary minded him and let me go to college. Not many people would have all that support so I’m very lucky.
‘Not only did she mind him, but she took a great interest in everything he did and gave me lots of good advice. She is not going to be around when my new baby comes along and I know she will be deeply hurt over it.’
Indeed, the devotion of the family to Teresa is unwavering − and unsurprising. Despite never marrying or having any children, Mary and Teresa played a huge part in rearing Patrick’s three daughters, nieces Edel, 30, Ann, 29, and Audrey, 26 – and their families in turn.
Every Christmas the entire Treacy clan celebrate at their aunt’s house and are deluged with the ‘finest food and treats’.
Audrey explained: ‘She is not just an aunt to us, she is like a cousin, uncle, grandparent and friend, all rolled into one.
‘If it was someone’s birthday she would have balloons on the gate, cakes, buns and the best of food on the table for us.
‘We are all extremely close, that is why we are finding this so hard. She is no ordinary aunt − she is a fantastic friend.
‘This is a woman who barely leaves her property, she will stay at home and bake, or have a party for us, but would never cause trouble for anyone.’
Ms Treacy has never come to the attention of the gardaí before. She owns a Ford Fiesta which she changes every few years and her family said she is extremely careful on the roads. A talented chef, she once won every category in a local horticulture show in Tullamore. ‘She loves her sweets and chocolates’ said Edel. ‘She doesn’t drink or go out, she has a great sense of humour around us, but she is shy with other people.
Great outdoors: Teresa on her land last winter
After her three nieces were born, Teresa told her brother Patrick she would take care of them while he and his wife Mary worked.
She adores the girls and every year when they were small Teresa would rent a mobile home somewhere in Ireland where she would take them on their holidays.
‘She would spend hours reading and playing with them as well as giving them special treats,’ said Patrick. ‘They would all jump in the car and head off to Donegal, Clare or Kerry.’
Indeed, Teresa had been a family-oriented person since her youth. The daughter of a butcher, she has spent most of her life in Tullamore with her family.
Her father Thomas was in his 20s when he moved from Co. Galway to Co. Offaly to set up a butcher’s shop on Bridge Street in the busy town.
There he met his future wife Ann and the couple went on to have four children, Ann, Mary, Teresa and Patrick. Growing up, Teresa was described as a shy but bright child who did exceptionally well at school. She attended Rochfortbridge Secondary School where she excelled in maths and English before leaving school at 15.
‘She was always good at anything to do with maths or business,’ said Patrick. ‘Her homework was always right and she takes great care in everything she does.
‘It was the norm for people to leave school early in those days but Teresa has always read the papers. She is highly intelligent.
‘I remember years ago her telling us that a huge economic crash was going to hit Ireland. She was right.’
After Teresa’s parents passed away, her brother Patrick took over the family business and she went to work for him as his assistant.
Not one for dances or parties, Teresa worked hard and saved her money which enabled her to purchase three properties around Tullamore which she later rented out.
Mary and Teresa eventually saved up to buy and renovate their dream home, Woodfield House, in Clonmore, outside Tullamore. The 100-acre site is a haven from the hustle and bustle of town life.
Great aunt: Teresa took her nieces away on holiday every summer when they were children
They worked on the building plans for years and every effort was made to keep the original look of the farmhouse. Every year, Teresa would spend a full month pruning and nurturing thousands of evergreens, oak, ash and birch on her land. Family members said she treated the trees like her children.
‘Over the past 20 years, she has loved and cherished the trees on her land. She would spend a month or more weeding, pruning and removing the fur from their roots.
‘From morning to night, she walks up and down those fields taking care of the trees. They are cared for like children, she loves them and it breaks her heart to think that any of them will be cut down.’
Her other love is the family pet: Teresa usually spends a lot of her time walking their six-year-old West Highland Terrier Misty around her land.
‘They had a dog called Snowy for six years; she was also a West Highland Terrier,’ said Patrick. ‘They were absolutely devastated after Snowy died and immediately went out and got Misty.
‘They couldn’t cope with the heart ache so they replaced her straight away. That’s the way they are, gentle and caring.’
The love Teresa has for her dog was evident last Tuesday morning at 11:30am when three gardaí came to her home to take her to prison.
‘Tell Mary to look after Misty,’ she told her nieces before being put into the back of a garda car and driven away. ‘Tell Mary I’ll be okay.’
And she seems to be thriving – but as she still refuses to change her beliefs, she will stay in Mountjoy. By bitter irony, on Wednesday, the day after Teresa went to jail, the ESB arrived at her property to begin work. Eventually, she may only be let out because the trees will have all been felled.
But however long her jail spell, her family will support her as she has always supported them.
‘God knows where this will all end, but she is standing up for her beliefs,’ said Patrick. ‘How could a woman like Teresa cause anarchy? It’s so hard to believe it’s come to this.
‘But we are very proud of the fact that she has good morals. She never holds a grudge and is the most forgiving person in the world, so we know she will be okay and we will support her all the way. We are very proud of her.’