Fault Lines: An(other) Brick in the Wall

This was to be a story of buildings and bricks. It has become one of people and the homes they thought were safe and where they would live out their lives.

Wild, open and remote in places, Donegal is a county that since partition in 1922 has felt the dissection of the country more keenly than most. Geographically positioned in the North West of the island, but ‘belonging’ to the South, it appears to have more in common with its “Northern” neighbours of Derry and Tyrone. Economic circumstances of the early 20th century saw many Donegal people leaving for work opportunities in the factories of Scotland; mainly those in Glasgow. Scotland is ironically referred to as ‘the northernmost county of Ulster’. And of course there is the shared heritage of the Plantation of Ulster.

These connections feel more natural and rooted than those which link Donegal to the faraway capital city of Dublin. Consequently, Donegal residents have long felt like outsiders in their own country.

Boasting some of the most stunning and remote scenery in Europe, this county is unique in its topography and landscape, and is accompanied by weather of extremes. It was during the intense winter of 2010/2011 that severe effects were noticed on land and dwellings. Many homeowners on the Inishowen peninsula began noticing structural changes in their homes after temperatures plummeted to -11 degrees. Small spiderweb cracks had grown to large crevices, exposing crumbling block work underneath. Initially, homeowners attributed the damage and deterioration of their property to the extreme weather. However, it soon became clear that there was something all together different affecting their homes.

As people met and shared their stories, startling similarities emerged – it became evident that all homes affected were supplied with bricks from the same local quarry. Further investigations showed defective blocks sold from this quarry contained unusually large amounts of Mica. Muscovite Mica, a naturally occurring mineral found in rocks, deteriorates when exposed to moisture and oxygen. The 1949 Irish Statute states that Mica should only appear as 1 percent of the construction aggregate in Ireland. The guidelines listed were clear in the legislation – because of Mica’s sponge-like absorbency it was only to be used in minute amounts (if at all) in the manufacturing of blocks. Blocks containing a high percentage of the mineral would render them defective and over time prone to disintegration. Engineer reports on some homes in Inishowen found blocks with 58 percent Mica content – those houses are essentially crumbling in the hands of their owners.

Besides homeowners dealing with crumbling homes it also emerged that families would still have to pay mortgages on disintegrating property. To compound this, insurance companies refused to insure the properties due to the defective block work. Homeowners now wondered how banks could continue to facilitate a mortgage without insurance and property safeguarding.

Since 2014 Mica Action Group (MAG), a voluntary group of homeowners have collated information from the affected properties and set about uncovering more about what led to defective materials being deemed safe for building homes.

After years of negotiations with Donegal County Council and government representatives, a redress scheme was offered to affected homeowners which allowed for the government to fund 90 percent of rebuild costs, with homeowners facing the cost of the remaining 10 percent. This initially seemed an acceptable option but stipulations in the scheme were leaving many homeowners unable to even access it – a basic entry point being that homeowners had to pay almost €7,000 per property for a detailed engineer’s report. On closer inspection, the proposal had so many caveats that if implemented as-is would leave homeowners liable to pay costs of up to €100,000 to rebuild their homes, through no fault of their own.

One such person, whose home is affected, is Oliver. He recalls returning from his honeymoon with his wife Veronica and the delight they shared at seeing that the construction of their dream home had begun. He remembers the date because it was significant for another reason, it was September 11, 2001, the day the twin towers crumbled. By 2007, cracks had appeared throughout his home and in late 2010 they discovered the extent of Mica in their bricks. Oliver now faces the inevitability that his prized home will soon collapse.

Sinead, another homeowner, tells of the idyllic home she and her husband built in the countryside outside Buncrana in 2002. A home they poured not only all their savings into, but their heart. After noticing cracks in 2010 they repainted and re-plastered and like most others, put it down to settling cracks or the weather after a harsh winter. As they have repaired their home, they may not access the redress scheme despite the high probability that the disintegration will continue. Sinead’s fear is that they are paying a mortgage on a home that will not stand the test of time, leaving nothing for her children to inherit.

On the idyllic lsle of Doagh, overlooking Trawbreaga Bay is where Charlie and Sarah began their home journey with a self-build in 2004 on family land. After noticing hairline cracks in 2010 their property has deteriorated a great deal since and is structurally unsafe. Yet they still have to live in it and continue to pay the mortgage. Both emphasise that building a home on family land holds much more emotional connection than moving into a readily built house on an estate. With children aged 21 and 16, they now face the prospect of their home being demolished, taking with it all the memories they created on family ground. The stress, anxiety and financial burden they are all carrying is impossible to imagine.

Homeowners in Inishowen are now well versed in the building trade, the quarries, Irish and European law. As a group, MAG has sourced a professional working team who are investigating and negotiating for their rights – a task one would have expected the government to take on. For homeowners, it is frustrating that no one is being held accountable for the scandal. Building material suppliers could regulate themselves during the so-called “Celtic Tiger” years when the country witnessed unprecedented growth. No one is taking responsibility for the unregulated industries, nor the polluted rivers and disturbed natural landscapes caused by excess quarrying.

What makes Donegal people unique has been framed by their existence on the periphery. People here are strong-willed and have shaped a life through hard work, won with their own strength and resilience. These communities consist of individuals who are deeply rooted, connected to their traditions, the land and most of all, authentic to their cause. Here, there is no fear of standing up and saying what needs to be said, however that might be received. After taking to the streets to raise their voices, crowds of over 10,000 people gathered in Buncrana, Inishowen (a town with a population of under 7,000) on May 15, 2021. As people came together to protest, the scale of the problem was laid bare for all to see.

Thousands of people have since descended on Dublin to bring their concerns to a government which continues to bury its head in the sand. Citizens standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow affected homeowners, neighbours and families demanding action and accountability while demonstrating deep solidarity and sense of community.

This story began long before homes started falling apart. Donegal, as an isolated region, has always felt the stinging effect of a lack of investment. Successive governments’ misuse of power and pandering to the needs of multinational businesses over citizens has pushed people to the limits of tolerance.

Since September 2021 concerned homeowners have held a daily protest outside the Dáil in Dublin, highlighting the need to have their voices heard and reach a fair agreement for all affected homeowners. There is a Mica 100% Redress protest march planned for October 8th in Dublin.

Donegal will no longer remain the forgotten county.
Beware of the Risen People

Where we love is home
Home that our feet may leave
But not our hearts