From Dream Home to Living Hell: Life on Ireland’s Ghost Estates

Noelle McHale bought her “dream home” in a new estate in Ireland’s midlands in 2006 for €175,000 (£142,000 today). But her dream has turned to nightmare with her semi-detached worth only a fraction of that price, and the unfinished estate it sits in considered dangerously unsafe because of toxic gases.

“If you light a match it can cause an explosion. I’ve stopped lighting fires, I have to keep the windows open, and the water in the toilet full,” Ms McHale said.

Already this year, a build up of methane and carbon monoxide is believed to have caused two blasts at Gleann Riada, on the edge of Longford. In one house, now boarded up, windows and doors were blown out. “It is the luck of god that someone wasn’t killed,” said John McNamara, a chartered engineer and advocate for the estate’s residents.

Gleann Riada is one of around 2,800 unfinished housing developments, scars of the Celtic Tiger boom, which pockmark Ireland. Some are almost completed, but others have serious problems.

Built on an area prone to flooding, Gleann Riada is worse than most. Subsidence has left concrete walls tottering and footpaths buckled. Inadequately treated sewage is thought to be the primary cause of the build up of poisonous gases. The estate “is unsafe” until “necessary and immediate remedial work” is carried out, Dr Kevin Kelleher, author of a report into the explosions on the site, told the a local paper earlier this month.

The developer has gone bust, but the local council maintains that, as a private estate, residents must bear the costs of repairs. Mr McNamara estimates the cost at €5 million. “Who’s got that kind of money?’ asks Ms McHale.

With many unable to afford alternative accommodation, most Gleann Riada residents, who hail from Poland, India and Russia as well as Ireland, have been forced to remain on the estate, in fear of their lives.

Ireland is now paying a heavy price for the lax planning and building regime of the boom years. In February, two-year-old Liam Keogh died after drowning in a pool of water on an unfinished estate in Athlone, Westmeath, around 30 miles from Longford. In Dublin, more than 240 residents of the Priory Hall apartment complex have been moved out of their homes for more than a year after a court ordered work to make the building safe. It was built by former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeely, declared bankrupt in July.

“There is a question as to are these estates the tip of the iceberg?” says Professor Rob Kitchin, director of the national institute for regional and spatial analysis at Maynooth university and the lead author of A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Earlier this week, campaigners called on the government to provide support for the up to 40,000 homeowners whose foundations were built using pyrite. When exposed to air or water, pyrite (iron sulphide, or fool’s gold), becomes unstable and cause walls and floors to crack.

The government has so far pledged just €5m for the repair of unfinished estates. “They are being left to hang in the wind. The government strategy is ‘we will try to deal with health and safety issues as best way we can and hope for market correction’,” says Prof Kitchin.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, October 19, 2012.