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'It's just been years of crying, hatred, feeling angry': Three mica homeowners share their stories

The government is to establish a working group to iron out the kinks in the State grant scheme, but impacted homeowners are not feeling hopeful.

AFTER A MASSIVE protest in Dublin’s city centre, there was a slight shift in the government’s position this week on homes impacted by the mica scandal and the support required to help them fix their crumbling homes. 

Homeowners are demanding that a government scheme, which was launched just last year after years of campaigning, particularly by communities in Donegal, be changed to cover 100% of the costs associated with fixing their homes.

Their houses were built with defective building blocks containing muscovite mica, a mineral that absorbs moisture, reducing the strength of the foundations their homes stand on and the walls holding up their rooves. 

Current estimates put the number of impacted homes at between 5,000 and 6,000 but this week House Minister Darragh O’Brien admitted the real number could be twice that.

Homeowners have complained that the scheme is poorly-designed and inaccessible to many. 

Cabinet was recently told that just 450 of the thousands of impacted homeowners in Donegal had applied so far. Many say they cannot afford the €5,000 initial mica test that is required to apply for a grant, while others say the works on their homes would still costs them tens of thousands of euro even if they got the highest grant through the scheme. 

This week, following a meeting with a number of impacted homeowners who were at the Dublin protest, Minister O’Brien proposed a working group to identify and address outstanding issues and costs. 

But in Donegal, families who have been trying to get help from the government for the last decade say they are not going to hold their breaths. 

This week The Journal spoke to four homeowners about their stories.

Valerie Smyth

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“I think my house was built in 2004 but I bought it in 2007. It was within ten years I was seeing cracks.”

From there, things got increasingly worse for Valerie Smyth as she noticed dampness inside her home. She discovered the wool insulation between the inner and outer leaf walls was “saturated” and had to be removed and replaced with insulating beads, at a cost of €4,000.

“Still the dampness kept coming in. We had little porches and we thought maybe it was from the roof so we replaced the rooves but that made no difference either.”

val1 Damp walls inside Valerie's home.

At this stage Smyth said she had no idea that it was the walls of her home that were absorbing moisture and beginning to crumble.

“Mica wasn’t even a word that was around then.”

She began attending local meetings with other homeowners who had issues with their houses and this is how she eventually realised mica was causing her problems.

I have got my test results back and I have 16% mica [in the concrete blocks]. Apparently the rule is that 1% mica is equal to 5% weaker blocks and mine is 16%.

She said she has damp in all of her downstairs rooms.

“About a year ago I got a wall replastered and it never dried, you can see a water line, even today, on the bottom, so that says to me that the whole bottom of my house is saturated all the time. So the wall was plastered but it was never painted because it never dried.”

val3 Damage to the walls inside Valerie's home.

Smyth said she was told that for a full demolition and rebuild, even with a government grant from the scheme, she would have to come up with €70,000 herself. 

Karl Murtagh

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“It was 2001 my house was built in. I bought it from a builder at the time, he had it half built and I said it would buy it from him when it was built. I came across it driving up the road one day, my wife saw it and she thought it was the dream home sitting here.”

In 2010, following a winter of bad frost, Karl Murtagh noticed cracking on one of the gable walls and a tile broken on the roof.

karl3 Image shows the extent of the damage at Murtagh's home. Source: Karl Murtagh

It was a roofer who came to look at the roof and saw the cracks who first mentioned he may have mica in his house.

I had an engineer come out and when I was looking at him I saw his face go white when he was looking up at my house. He said to me; ‘I don’t want to alarm you, but I suppose by saying that I am alarming you, you need to take down that gable or put a structure up against it because it’s going to crush your conservatory’.

“He said it was going to fall at any stage, that there would be a vortex of wind and it would suck the wall out, just because it was so weak.”

karl2 Cracks in the walls of Karl Murtagh's home. Source: Karl Murtagh

Murtagh said he had his blocks tested in 2014 and was told they were 36.7% mica. This test cost him €300 – impacted homeowners say the same test costs around €5,000 now. 

He has managed to do “a quick fix” on one gable wall of his home, but now he says the other side of the house is just as bad and he cannot afford to fix it, even with a government grant.

Josephine Kelly and Seán McGee 

“We built or house ourselves, we started in 2002 and everything was grand, perfect. Then it was that bad winter in 2010 we noticed a lot of cracking and we thought it was the plaster. The following year was bad as well, it seemed to be getting worse.”

“I noticed it first in our clothes line, we had blocks holding up our clothes line and they were crumbling away,” Josephine Kelly said. “Then the story about mica was starting to appear so I had a feeling that’s what the problem was.”

jo1 The entire outer leaf of the house had to be removed and replaced.

In 2017, they got a €30,000 loan from their local Credit Union and paid for outer leaf replacement.

“When they [the builders] took down the outer leaf they said it was the worst blocks they had ever seen and they had done a few mica houses,” she said. 

Although they had extensive work done to replace their external walls, now they have started to notice cracking inside the house.

“We built our house with loans from the Credit Union, then we had to go back to the Credit Union to fix the outer leaf. I think we’re going to have to go back again now because the inside is cracking,” Josephine said.

jo Image shows the rubble from the outer leaf of Josephine and Seán's home.

Their family is one of many impacted by this scandal who now cannot even afford the mica test on their home that is required to apply for the government’s grant scheme.

“Every penny we have is going to the Credit Union, we can’t even get on that first step. I would like to know, just to know what’s happening with our house but I can’t call an engineer, we don’t even have the couple of hundred euro.”

‘Never settled in your own house’

For these homeowners and their families, it has been a devastating and intensely stressful time.

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“I went through a bad time, to be honest with you, probably two or three years of crying, hatred, being angry,” Karl Murtagh said. 

Valerie Smyth said the last month in particular has been very stressful for her:

“In the last month there was a lot of exposure on the problem and it was kind of at the same time as I was getting my results back, so it all came to a head.

“And then we have these forums to talk to one another and everyone is sharing pictures of their homes and there’s this sense of community but it’s also overwhelming and it makes you think about a problem that you were holding back in your mind, trying to get on with life. 

It definitely affected my work too and I had to take off some days, they’ve been very good to me allowing me to do that but I have to be able to go back to working and not just thinking about mica all the time.

“Because we weren’t listened to, it put extreme pressure on all the people who have the problem. We had to become campaigners and we’re all just people who do ordinary jobs.”

Josephine and Seán said it helps them to be able to talk about the problem, whether that is with each other or neighbours in the community who are going through the same issues. But it takes its toll.

“Our wee girl, she’s 11 and she’s been reared in a mica house, that’s all she’s ever known. But she leaves the room when we talk about it. And we try our best not to talk about all the time but it is all we talk about,” Josephine said.

“It’s been hard. I used to console myself at night that I could be on out a boat, on one of the migrant boats and things could be worse. That was my consolation that at least I still had a roof over my head, that’s what you have to do.”

Seán said the hardest part is “not knowing when this is going to end”. 

Will this house be okay? We’ve fixed the outside for now but you’re looking and you’re seeing cracks – is that another crack? – and you’re never going to be settled in your own house.

He said he believes the government has been “playing politics” over the last week with their comments about the plight of homeowners. 

“They’re trying to just soften the blow and make out everything is going to be okay. But when everything quietens down it’ll be back to the same thing again, another seven years of talks and talks and talks.

“I wouldn’t trust the Irish government, and I don’t think many people would, to keep your house up.”

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