Donegal's mica crisis: 'It's not who has mica. It's who doesn't'

Published date16 October 2021
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
The Inishowen peninsula in Donegal is a place of extravagant beauty. But driving along the road from Letterkenny north into the peninsula, the signs suspended on lamp-posts and the murals on the gable end of some buildings offer a stark reminder that all is not well beneath the vast skies and majestic landscapes. "100% redress," the signs read. "Enough is enough."

When you ask someone around here when the cracks first began appearing, it is not a metaphor. Ann Owens was one of the first to spot them spreading along the exterior walls of her house. "I noticed 10 years ago that my bungalow was cracking on the outside," she says. Her insurance company sent out an engineer who was baffled.

About the same time, further west in the county near Milford, Eamonn Jackson had a chartered surveyor out to look at an oil leak. He showed the engineer some hairline cracks in the gable end that he had initially attributed to settlement. He painted over them, but the cracks returned. The surveyor was able to fit a 1 cent coin into the crack. "He said, 'I'm seeing this in other homes in the county, and I want to look into it a little bit more'."

The first meeting for homeowners affected by the mysterious cracking was held in January 2013. "Sixty-three people turned up," recalls Jackson. That night was the first time many of the homeowners heard the term "muscovite mica", the naturally occurring mineral that has since been found in high quantities in blocks in many of the homes affected.

That was the first meeting at which some understood that their houses might have to be demolished. Shortly after, they would learn that their home insurance policies did not cover them for defective building materials.

In the early years, the discovery that your home had mica was often a source of shame. People "were embarrassed. They feared their neighbours would say, What are you doing? You'll devalue our house," says Jackson, who went on to become chairman of the Mica Action Group.

Now, says Louise Gibbons, Jackson's neighbour, "it's not a case of who has mica. It's who doesn't have it."

Ann Owens reels off the people she personally knows who are affected. Her friend and fellow activist Eileen Doherty adds, "Literally, everywhere I look when I look out, I can see it."

As one of the spokespeople for the campaign, who has given nearly 10 years to trying to get redress for the people of Donegal, Doherty is well used to talking about the issue. But she still becomes emotional when she thinks about the toll this has taken on her family. "I never wanted to spend the last 10 years of my life doing this," she says tearfully.

*****

In 2001, Louise Gibbons and her husband, Sean, self-built a house outside Kerrykeel on an elevated site overlooking Mulroy Bay. It is a beautiful place for their three daughters, Ciara (16), Emma (13) and Aoife (8), to grow up. "It was the dream home. We worked hard ourselves and built it. We had no contractor. We got in our builders, our plumbers, our plasterers," says Sean.

A decade or so ago, when the cracks first appeared, he painted over them. An optimist by nature, he reasoned that if he couldn't see it, he didn't have to think about it. "But the cracks just keep extending and getting bigger and more often. Now I'm filling and painting the cracks every year. If there's a bad winter at all, it really speeds it up a lot."

The cracks have recently begun appearing inside too. The side of the house where 13-year-old Emma sleeps has been deemed critical. "We have a crack inside Emma's bedroom and in her wet room," Louise says.

The house has been recommended for outer leaf and inner leaf replacement, which means everything will have to go except for the roof and internal walls. Finding somewhere else to live is not going to be easy for any of the affected families, but for the Gibbons it will be especially challenging. Emma has intellectual...

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