A preschool and after-school service catering for over 40 children is being forced to close its doors before Christmas because of the dispute with the Catholic Church in its locality.
The Home Farm Montessori, based in a parish hall in Drumcondra on Dublin’s northside, has been ordered to vacate the premises by December 23 over fire safety concerns — even though the building has been deemed safe to occupy by the service owner’s own engineers. Christina O’Riordan, who has been running the service for 28 years, says she offered to pay for the remediation works required but this was rejected by the parish.
“Our fire safety experts say the building is safe and there is a moderate risk which could be addressed with a schedule of works to eliminate the risk," she said.
"Tusla register us and inspect us. We are inspected by Pobal for funding purposes, and neither of those bodies have a problem.
"Our fire experts say there is no problem continuing with the pre and after school service. Yet the parish wants us out and are not even willing to wait until the end of the school year."
Despite requests, the parish has never given access to the fire safety reports which they say render the building as unsafe. In a statement issued to the, the Archdiocese of Dublin said that the property was reviewed on behalf of the parish by two separate fire safety experts who found that it presented a fire safety risk and was unsuitable for child care.
“Ultimately this matter was before the courts and on hearing all the facts of the case the court determined that the Montessori vacate the property," the statement said.
"While we appreciate the distress this is causing the property is closing due to safety concerns."
Ms O’Riordan had brought the court action in an attempt to injunct her eviction. The court did not decide on the fire safety risk but ruled that there was not a legal tenancy agreement and therefore the parish was entitled to ask Ms O’Riordan to leave.
She says that she had been asking for her tenancy to be regulated since 2017 but the parish did not engage with her to address the issue and then announced in the middle of 2020 that it was going to close because of fire safety concerns. Beyond its statement about the closure, the archdiocese said, “we are unable to comment any further on this matter".
Julie Naughton, whose daughter attends the after-school service says the imminent closure has upset her on number of levels:
"I grew up in this area and used the hall as a facility and that’s a loss in itself, but we are not being given any information as to why and this is being done in the middle of a school year. There is no detail or clarity.
“I can’t see how the children in the Montessori, whatever about after-school, are going to be placed anywhere in January. It’s all full up in this area.”
Local Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon says that the Church needs to be more compassionate in dealing with the matter.
“These families don’t have any other Montessori to attend, and the fact is that the Church is using fire safety concerns as a reason to close the building without producing any evidence is just not good enough. A bit more compassion is needed in this situation.”
Cliona Leamy says she was devastated when she heard that Home Farm Montessori was being told it would have to shut down.
Her daughter Izzy, who suffers from a brain tumour, attends the pre-school. Izzy, who is five, was absent from her classes for much of last year while she was receiving chemotherapy. “I cried when I heard about this last Saturday,” Cliona says.
“Christina was so good to my family. When Izzy was diagnosed first, my son Ben was in the Montessori and Christina used to keep her for long hours beyond the usual day. And if I had to drop him in early because we were going to the hospital she always facilitated me.”
Cliona says she has contacted between 15 and 20 pre-schools since last Saturday but it is next to impossible to find an alternative facility. “There was one offer that was for between 12 and 3pm in the day but that would put me under enormous pressure, running between there and school where my son is now. I’m working as well so I don’t think that would be manageable.”
She says she finds it difficult to accept that the fire safety concerns are the real reason why Home Farm Montessori is having to vacate the hall.
“We haven’t seen anything,” she says. “I work as manager of a nursing home so I know all about regulation and appreciate it. But we haven’t actually seen what the issue is here.”