Multigenerational living in Ireland: Going back to our roots

Elizabeth O'Neill talks to two families about multigenerational living.

Three generations of the one family living together was commonplace in the last century and remains the norm in many parts of the developing world, where property is scarce.

Our housing crisis means there has been a small swing back towards multigenerational living in Ireland. Figures from Census 2016 showed there was a 4.4% increase in adults living with parents. The increase here is also reflective of a scarcity of available and affordable housing.

Perhaps this small change in family structures and multigenerational living might provide a solution to both housing scarcity and aging populations. If there are no houses to buy or you feel you are locked out of the housing market, perhaps offering to buy the family home or at least to move in with your parents might just be the solution.

Well-loved garden

Meabh Mooney and her partner Eóin Brennan (Brenno), both in their early 30s, have been trying to get on the property ladder for a number of years. They live in Dublin 7 and, while Eóin is originally from Kildare, they both love the area and wanted to remain here. Meabh’s mum Mona bought the family house with her husband Peter 36 years ago.

Meabh Mooney and her partner Eóin Brennan in the back garden of the Dublin 7 home they bought from Meabh’s mother Mona, who will live in the granny flat under construction in the background. Picture: Moya Nolan

“We came to see it and what really sold it to us was the garden, it was so big and we liked the cul-de-sac.”

The well-loved garden is the heart of this urban location and is big enough to build on.

Peter, who was the main gardener, passed away three years ago and now the family have decided to live together, with Meabh and Eóin buying the house from Mona, who is now in the process of building a one-bedroomed apartment in the garden adjacent to the main house.

Mona is happy about the decision and said they came to it together.

“Well, last winter, I was sitting here thinking it’s a waste to heat this entire house just for one person and I needed to do something, so my choices were to move, and where would I move too? I like the area and I like the house, and I’ve loads of friends and family around. Then, Meabh and Eóin were thinking of buying a house and they wanted to live in this area, so we came up with the idea of them buying the house.”

Meabh says she didn’t have to think about it, but adds: ‘Me and Brenno had to talk about it, because I’ve lived here, this is my house and I’ll never be more comfortable in a house than here, but that can’t be the same for Brenno. We had to talk about pros and cons. It’s a big deal for Brenno to come and live with his mother-in-law, for want of a better word, and luckily we all get on, because not all families do, but it wasn’t long of a decision between the two of us.”

Eóin says initially he had a few reservations, but mainly he wanted to make sure Mona was okay.

“The thing that concerned me was that the extension had to be big enough for Mona. I wanted to make sure that it was substantial for her. I had to be sure that Mona was happy with it.”

To proceed with the plan, the family talked to their solicitor, who Meabh suggests was like a marriage counsellor in the sense she made them consider various scenarios.

“She gave us all the catastrophes that can go wrong. What happens if I die and Brenno’s left living with my mam? What happens if Brenno dies? What happens if Mona meets someone else?’ Meabh advises that these scenarios be talked out thoroughly before going ahead to look for a mortgage and planning permission.

The house was valued and then a mortgage was applied for. Meabh says “it was a straight-forward mortgage. We bought the house as a transaction from Mona and she is using the money from the transaction to build on in the back garden”.

Mona is delighted her home is being kept in the family and her new apartment will look out onto Peter’s garden. Meabh is now the main gardener, growing potatoes, beans, tomatoes, and corn, having found a love for it after her dad died. She says “some of my best childhood memories are in that garden. Peter always grew veg, mainly potatoes, then he got into pumpkins and it was his dream to grow a giant pumpkin. I always helped out, but when Peter got sick, we knew it would break his heart to see the garden become overgrown. He put 30 years of work into it. Since he has died, the garden is one of the best things we have to remind us of him. Different plants show up at different times as a nice reminder. The house is one thing to sell onto another family, but I would have found giving up and sharing the garden with other people much more difficult.”

No option

Around the corner, in the same part of Dublin, another family member has found inspiration from Meabh, Eóin and Mona. Fiona Whelan is Meabh’s cousin. She lives with her mum Margaret, dad Willie and 16-year-old son Sam. Having recently acquired a mortgage to buy the family home, she has lovingly refurbished it for them all to live comfortably under the one roof.

Fiona, who is separated, and works as a civil servant, says she moved home more than a year ago.

“Moving back was very difficult, because for me it was like I was failing in life. I was 42 and felt I should be settled, with a house, a husband, more kids. Going back to live with my mum was the last thing I wanted, but I felt like I had no option. I couldn’t live the way I was living and pay out that rent.”

Fiona’s parents have lived in their house for 52 years and, when Fiona heard Meabh’s plans, she approached her parents with a similar offer.

“I felt I needed to get a mortgage now while I still have 20 years or so work left in me. I had to have some kind of stability for Sam. It was a last resort and then I was thinking, well, my dad’s 86 and my mum is 76, and they’re going to need help as they’re getting older. There were pros on both sides, plus the house needed renovation. We were able to make the house more comfortable for them, and added a downstairs bathroom.”

It’s a small house for four people, so Fiona has advice: “You need to sort the practicalities, like who’s going to do the food shopping. We do our own thing, that works for us, because my mum and dad eat very differently to us. You need to work out how to split bills, and stupid things like laundry. You do have to co-operate in the running of the house.”

She is delighted to see a bond grow between her son and her dad.

“There’s 70 years between them, but they’re sitting there watching telly together and having the chats about the football and they’re nearly like father and son and that’s been the best bit. It’s lovely, they absolutely love each other.”

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