Pyrite: ‘I really couldn’t believe my luck when I found my dream home’

The emotional toll is clear for Maria O’Malley in Westport as she recalls how lucky she felt to purchase this house

It could be Santa’s Grotto as the twinkling lights illuminating her house on the edge of Westport create a sense of festive magic and merriment but it will be Maria O’Malley’s last Christmas there.

It has been her home for the past 20 years but like 33 other neighbouring houses built by Mayo County Council under an affordable housing scheme, the cracks are increasingly showing as contamination from pyrite spreads through its concrete block walls.

O’Malley may be heartbroken because the grant she has been awarded under the government’s 2021 Enhanced Defective Concrete Block Grant Scheme falls far short of the quote she has been offered to rebuild her house but her natural pragmatism has kicked in.

“The cheapest quote I got from a contractor was €378,000 to demolish the house and rebuild it to a builder’s finish. That wouldn’t be up to the quality of the finishes I have invested in over the last 20 years. For example, I spent €11,000 upgrading all the fixtures in my kitchen three years ago and now it will have to be gutted,” she said.

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The grant she was awarded under the terms of the scheme is €190,397, for which she is very grateful. However, she has some key questions.

“Firstly, I don’t have €200,000 under a mattress. I am also knocking a house for which I am paying a mortgage to Mayo County Council for another five years and will now need a second mortgage for a new house. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Shouldn’t the government, through the local authority, write-off any outstanding mortgages owed for these houses, after all, I am in negative equity now,” she argues. “Furthermore, why can’t the government introduce a tax break for those of us who have to rebuild our houses, since we are not getting grants that cover the complete costs of the rebuild?”.

Fortunately, as well as her business degree, O’Malley has a diploma in project management which she never imagined would become so useful. So, these days her evenings are filled with spreadsheets as she meticulously plans the demolition of the home she created over two decades ago.

The emotional toll is clear though as she recalls how lucky she felt to purchase this house.

“I really couldn’t believe my luck when I found my dream home, one that I could afford back in 2002. These were Celtic Tiger times and property prices were high in Westport, so I felt very lucky when I qualified in a lottery for a three-bedroomed affordable house that I could afford,” she explains.

A native of Clare Island, which sits on the edge of Clew Bay, Maria was in her early 30s, working in pharmaceutical company Allergan – now called AbbVie and still her employer – when she moved into her new home in August 2003.

“Before I even got the keys I was sneaking in and out through an ajar window dreaming about how I would paint and decorate it. As you can see I’ve collected a lot of stuff over the years and upgraded almost everything” she laughs.

Naturally, when the house was all ready, she had a big housewarming party with her parents coming out from the island, with other family members attending and, of course, the priest blessing it. Indeed, this much-loved home has got plenty of more secular-style blessings, depending on Mayo’s senior gaelic players’ travails in the annual championship. Maria O’Malley and her mother are super-fans and, naturally, it was players Aidan O’Shea and Andy Moran who presented her mum Pauline with a surprise birthday cake in this house on a big birthday a couple of years ago.

“Yes, there are lots of good memories here and postmortems on how Mayo played. Of course, at this time of the year, my nieces and nephews love visiting because of all the decorations. I still have a Santa and Snowman I brought from Chicago when I lived there in the mid-1990s. They are there bobbing in the window,” she muses.

O’Malley stresses that she knows only too well she is relatively lucky, unlike some of her neighbours who have children and cats and dogs to worry about during this major disruption.

She cites the fact that the family who owned the first house which was knocked in early November have had to relocate to Kylemore, 46 kilometres away, whilst commuting back to school and work.

“I’m not sure where I will be living after my house is demolished. My workplace is just up the road and whilst my family have offered me a room, of course, they have busy households and I am used to my own space,” she says.

Indeed, there are so many hoops she has to jump through before then, she really hasn’t had time to dwell on it.

“I’m going to project manage the entire process in a bid to make it more affordable. That means finding storage for all my stuff, insuring the site, devising a waste and building management plan, organising an electrical and water supply for the various tradespeople, and that is before the rebuild even starts,” she explains.

Maria O’Malley says that when the rumblings and rumours about pyrite and cracks in the Páirc na Coille houses started to circulate back in late 2021 they went right over her head. Ironically, though within a few weeks she began to notice little cracks in her house. Soon afterward residents held a meeting and a litany of communications began with county council executives. This culminated in O’Malley, and many of the other householders, engaging a specialist engineer to assess the properties.

“I will never forget the day he stood at my door and said, ‘I don’t even have to do the test, you have pyrite,’” she recalls.

“Apparently it may take up to 20 years for this monster to start causing cracks and there is a clearly identifiable pattern to them. Ironically, if you have pumped the walls with insulation, which I did, it accelerates the process,” Maria O’Malley explains.

She suggests a tour of the cracks in her walls before a seasonal hot port and some homemade Christmas cake.

Panel

The cracking of concrete blockwork in houses in Mayo and Donegal first became public in 2013 with the original Defective Concrete Block Scheme being signed into law in January 2020. This was replaced by the Enhanced Defective Concrete Block Scheme in 2021 to help homeowners in counties Clare, Limerick, Donegal and Mayo whose houses have been damaged by excessive amounts of pyrite or mica in the blocks.

Pyrite is a form of iron sulphide which can expand when there is oxygen or water present. The pyrite in the Páirc na Coille houses in Westport came from a quarry in north-west Mayo. On the other hand, micas are a group of minerals in rocks, sometimes taken from quarries. Its presence in concrete blocks can weaken the strength of the concrete.

Tom Gilligan, Mayo County Council’s director of services for housing, said: “The distress that defective concrete blocks have caused homeowners is palpable and extensive. This widespread and longstanding issue has impacted hundreds of homes in Mayo affecting entire families and their communities.”

He confirmed that the local authority’s “primary objective is to deliver prompt and beneficial outcomes for the homeowners affected by this crisis”.

Administered by local authorities, the grant covers 100 per cent of the costs of the remediation works approved, subject to the grant rates per square metre and overall grant cap of €420,000.

Mayo and Donegal county councils are awarding a rate of €2,045 per sq metre for eligible properties whist the rate in counties Clare and Limerick is €2,160 per sq metre.

At the end of November, Mayo County Council had received 357 applications with 332 approved for Stage 1 of the scheme.

The Department of Housing confirmed it has received 1,803 applications for grants from property owners in the four relevant counties of Limerick, Clare, Mayo and Donegal. Approval has been granted for 1,181 with other applications at transitional stages in the process. The total paid under the scheme to local authorities to date is circa €32.5 million.

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