Priory Hall scandal: A century on, the same old story

For Priory Hall owners, today’s developers are no better than the landlords of 100 years ago, says Jonathan deBurca Butler

THE by now requisite summer school season kicks off tomorrow with the opening of The Countess Markievicz Summer School in Liberty Hall, Dublin. Founded in 2011 by students from the School of Social Justice in University College Dublin, the annual event tackles issues affecting women in public and political life in Ireland. The day-long programme will this year focus on Women and Poverty and Living Conditions from 1913, the time of Dublin’s famous lockout, to 2013. Among the speakers is Graham Usher, a former resident of the now-infamous Priory Hall in north Dublin.

“One of the founders of the school, Lucy Keaveney, told me they were doing a section on standards in accommodation in Ireland in the last 100 years,” explains Usher. “She said she couldn’t really do it without bringing in Priory Hall.”

So notorious is the now crumbling housing development that it was described by The Guardian newspaper as “the symbol of Ireland’s property madness”.

The overall story is well-known but each of the 256 residents have their own tale to tell.

“It was our first home as it was for 90% of the people living there,” says Usher. “Great location near the M50, near the beach in Malahide, the train to town in 20 minutes. The apartments were a decent size. I did what most of our friends were doing. I bought off the plans in 2005, a two-bed for €245,000. Everyone had teething problems but you eventually got them sorted.”

Unfortunately for Usher, his wife Aisling and the other residents of Priory Hall, their problems were never sorted and two years after moving in 2007 cracks began to show.

“It started being used as a builders’ dump while we were there,” explains Usher. “And as time went on, other things started getting dumped. You’d wake and see couches and mattresses. As a result, you’d get lads coming in drinking and then there were people coming in starting fires.

“The car park flooded every time it rained and the council shut that down a few years before we left. So there were cars parked out on the road and you had the fire brigade trying to get past. It was a nightmare to live in.”

For Usher, however, the most frightening aspect of the debacle was the fact that a fire officer at a hearing in 2009 had reported “being horrified” by the lack of fire safety in the development. It meant that although the powers that be were made aware of the dangers in Priory Hall, the residents were not moved out until 2011.

Eventually, Dublin City Council, who had previously removed their own tenants from the development, went to the High Court to have an evacuation order put on the development.

“The way they dealt with it was a shambles,” says Usher. “They went in without telling anyone and asked the judge to put 256 people out onto the street. I was driving home from work and heard it on the news. I learnt from the radio on Friday that I had until Monday to pack my bags.”

Thankfully, the judge ordered the council to come up with alternative accommodation for the evacuees. The problems were to have been resolved over a five-week period but 18 months on, nothing has been touched. For Usher there are obvious parallels between housing in the Dublin of 1913 and the Dublin of today. In his view, today’s property developers are the same as the indifferent landlords of yesteryear. “Many of the Dublin City councillors back then would have been landlords themselves,” says Usher. “They were never held accountable and now you have these developers walking off scot-free. 256 people have lost their homes and were living in death traps. Tom McFeely [the developer] walks away, he never served a day, he didn’t pay a fine, he didn’t contribute anything to the accommodation.”

Usher says at the turn of the 20th Century, Dublin had some of the worst slums in Europe. According to his research, 1,500 out of 5,000 tenement buildings had been condemned by Dublin Corporation as unfit for human habitation.

“And yet there were still people living in them,” he says. “Fast-forward 100 years and you’ve got these apartments; Priory Hall won’t be the only one that is not fire-safe and unfit for human habitation. Now, nobody would ever compare the slums of 1913 Dublin to today but you’ve got to judge something as of its time. In the 21st century you don’t expect the same craic going on.”

Usher relates the story of the 1913 Church Stdisaster in which seven people died due to the collapse of two old Georgian houses. A public inquiry found the Corporation had inspected the buildings just before their collapse but failed to act. Luckily, the same thing didn’t happen in Priory Hall. But there are other Priory Halls out there.

*Graham Usher will speak at The Countess Markievicz summer school tomorrow. www.countessmarkieviczschool.ie


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