By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A dispute about ownership of the bed of the Blackwater River in East Cork may end up in a court battle between Youghal Urban Council and the estate of the Duke of Devonshire, one of Britain’s wealthiest men.
The Council wants to develop the harbor and build a marina to encourage tourism, but the 11th Duke, who has an estimated fortune of £300 million, says his Lismore Castle estate owns the riverbed. The row centers on rights granted by King James I in the early 1600s.
The first stage of a possible legal challenge will come at the Council monthly meeting on Aug. 9 when it will consider a motion to set aside money in the budget to hire a legal team.
The Council chairman, Dennis Murphy of Fianna Fail, said he expected the motion from Independent Councilor Oliver Casey would receive the unanimous support of the nine members.
"We have a very cordial relationship with the duke, but the Celtic Tiger has hit Youghal and we want to develop the harbor. We really must sort out this thing once and for all. . . . It would be a strong aspiration of the 6,500 people in the town to secure the ownership of the river bed and I’m sure the Duke would want to help out."
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The duke’s Irish agent, Michael Penruddock, wrote to the Council to say ownership of the "ground soil and bottom" of the River Blackwater was granted by James I to the Earl of Cork in 1613.
Originally, Sir Walter Raleigh had owned Lismore. He sold it to the Earl of Cork. It later passed to the 4th Duke of Devonshire by marriage.
Fred Astaire was a regular visitor to the castle. His sister Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the 9th Duke.
Town Clerk Ned Brennan said the councilors were questioning whether James I ever had the power to grant the riverbed in the first place. They are also questioning the validity of the 400 year old King’s patent.
"However, there have been challenges in the past to laws that were enacted before 1922 and the courts have upheld British parliament acts passed prior to the foundation of the State, Brennan said. "The constitution also guarantees property rights, so these are the sort of legal issues that have to be examined."
The duke also owns the fishing rights on the river and a challenge by fishermen in 1882 to the British House of Lords was unsuccessful.
"The councilors question that and say it was the British House of Lords making a decision about a British Lord in relation to his Irish property rights," Brennan said. "The duke’s agent has indicated to me that he would be pleased to negotiate any transaction with us in relation to the river bed which we would like to explore with him. He is willing to discuss a price with us but he is not willing to cede the river bed to us."
Penruddock said the duke owned the riverbed from below the low water tide mark.
"It has never been called into question before," Penruddock said. "It is very difficult to see how their claim can be substantiated. There are other rivers where there are similar arrangements."
The 79-year-old Duke lives on his huge Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire in Britain. He has not been to Lismore since 1997 but other members of his family are more regular visitors. The 16 bedrooms are available to rent at £179 per person per night with dinner, bed and breakfast.