'I thought the whole block was going to blow': No justice for unsafe apartment owners

There are an estimated 100,000 apartments with fire safety defects dating from the Celtic Tiger building boom
'I thought the whole block was going to blow': No justice for unsafe apartment owners

Westmeath County Council has known since soon after The Oaks at Lakepoint, Mullingar, was completed that it was dangerous. Photo: Bob Morrison

Claire Ryan got word of the fire shortly after 5pm on February 25, 2021. Her neighbour was arriving home from work and mentioned that there was a fire out at The Oaks, the development where Claire had lived with her daughter until a few months previously.

“I handed her my daughter and drove down there straight away,” Claire says.

“Every nightmare I had had for 13 years was happening, but thankfully we weren’t stuck in the middle of it.” By the time she arrived at The Oaks, there were at least three fire engines there, dispatched from the local Mullingar station, Castlepollard and Kilbeggan.

As she had feared, the fire spread quickly across attics, which was completely contrary to the design for fire safety.

“I thought the whole block was going to blow,” she says. 

I presumed the firemen didn’t know about how exposed the gas pipes inside were, not to mind the lack of fire stopping. I shouted at people to get back, that it would blow if it hit the gas pipe. 

"When a garda arrived I explained it to him and he brought me to the firemen and I told them in detail what the story was inside there. Thankfully it happened on Block D which was the only block (from four) where some remedial work had been done. But the whole thing left me shaken.” 

The fire was brought under control without injury or loss of life. There are an estimated 100,000 apartments with fire safety defects dating from the Celtic Tiger building boom. Most have common features, including what could best be described as a cavalier approach from the State agencies charged with ensuring that the homes have been built safely.

At The Oaks, Westmeath County Council has known since soon after the development was completed that it was dangerous. The council brought the builder to court, but then abandoned the case. 

A judge who heard an outline of the evidence felt the development was so dangerous that it had to be dealt with by the Circuit rather than District court. Yet the matter was not advanced. Since then, the council has done very little to ensure that The Oaks has been made safe. 

In a country where fire safety defects have led to upheaval, lost homes and devastating financial repercussions for homeowners, the case in Mullingar stands out for the complete abrogation of any responsibility by the State that left people living in dangerous homes for the last 15 years.

The Oaks was built by Castlepride Developments, with an address in Meadowbank Close, Maynooth. The company was inherited by Maynooth-based Dermot Darcy from his father. The development, which sits opposite the entrance to St Loman’s Hospital in Mullingar consists of 32 homes, including houses, apartments and duplexes in four separate blocks.

It was completed in 2005. Micheal O’Reilly bought his apartment in early 2006. “I got it as an investment for my daughters’ education,” he said. O’Reilly lives in Co. Meath. He quickly found a tenant, a doctor who was moving to this country from Germany.

(Left to right) Micheal O'Reilly, Claire Garry, Claire Ryan, Anne Dugdale, Doria Janiga, Helen Albin. Photo: Bob Morrison
(Left to right) Micheal O'Reilly, Claire Garry, Claire Ryan, Anne Dugdale, Doria Janiga, Helen Albin. Photo: Bob Morrison

In March 2006, the day that his new tenant was to arrive, O’Reilly was at The Oaks to make sure everything was okay. Then there was a knock on the door.

“This fella tells me he’s a fire consultant and would I mind if he looked in the attic,” O’Reilly says. “An owner in a duplex in another block was having trouble with sound-proofing. He got a guy in to look at it and this man told him sound-proofing was the least of his problems. 

"He told the owner about the fire issue and that’s how this fire engineer came on the scene.” This fire engineer was Noel Manning, who had a reputation for innovation and detection of defects in fire safety. He died in 2017. Micheal O’Reilly didn’t know what to make of him that morning.

“He went up to the attic and spent about an hour up there. Then he came down and said you have major problems. I thought he was codding me.” There was no codding. The extent of the problems would be summed up a few years later in a consultant engineer’s report.

“Our findings illustrate that there is a significant number of fire control/fire stopping defects that are of serious concern and present a serious risk to residents who are habiting the block,” the executive summary from Punch Consultants read. 

In addition to this, there are a number of general building defects that are largely caused as a result of employing poor building practice during the original construction. 

Claire Ryan bought her apartment around the same time as Micheal O’Reilly. She was 26 at the time, having returned to this country from a few years travelling. “I was single and my intention would have been to upgrade to a family home at some point,” she says. 

“I didn’t know anything that was wrong and then about a year after buying I went to the management company AGM. There were two men there, madmen I thought, who were getting really irate at the developer. I said sure, what’s wrong. My apartment is perfect. Little did I know. The two men weren’t mad. They were perfectly sane and knew exactly what was going on.” 

The men were Manning and another fire engineer, Robert Knox. They confronted Dermot Darcy about the construction work that was both dangerous and shoddy. Alerted to the problems, Westmeath County Council moved to ensure that the deficiencies were addressed. 

Enforcement orders

In theory, the council should have known about these issues as it was charged with checking that the construction was being done properly. In 2006, the council issued two separate enforcement notices, instructing Darcy’s company to do the remedial work. 

An enforcement order is a legal instruction to complete work as per the original planning and design. When the notice is not complied with, the local authority can bring the developer to court. In such instances, orders of the court have the force of financial penalties, and in the event of a continued failure to comply with a court order, the prospect of imprisonment.

Some of the work demanded by the council got done, but then further surveys showed more problems of an even more serious nature. Another enforcement notice was issued in 2009. Still, the developer failed to comply. With the ongoing issues unresolved, the insurance company withdrew cover for owners.

Following that, the council went to court looking for the force of the law to ensure that the people housed in the development were relieved of the danger hanging over their lives. In April 2010, the case came before Mullingar District Court. Evidence was heard from the council’s building control officer, Pat Keating.

The prosecution that never was

Under cross-examination by the solicitor for Castlepride, Mr Keating was shown a copy of a Fire Safety Certificate. The witness agreed that it had been furnished, but “subsequent further works were exposed leading to factually incorrect certification,” he said.

The evidence on the fire safety certificate goes to the heart of the defence of myriad contractors in whose developments major defects have been exposed. The standard response is that the building was certified as complying fully with fire safety requirements. 

And it is correct that in all these cases a fire safety certificate was furnished. However, the certificate is based on design, not the completed works. The standard response from contractors is that it was incumbent on the regulator – local authorities – to ensure that the design was complied with.

Judge David Anderson asked if the council believed that people in the affected dwellings were living in “unsafe” conditions. “Are people’s lives in danger?” he asked. No reply is recorded in the court report.

He then went on to say that he was refusing jurisdiction on the matter. A judge in the district court will refuse jurisdiction if he or she believes the case is too serious to be heard there and must be heard in the Circuit Court where penalties, including prison terms, are much greater.

The following month, on 11 May 2010, the chief fire officer in Westmeath County Council wrote to Darcy warning him that the required works must take place or another legal implement would be used. “We wish to put you on notice that if the works outlined in our original letter and the necessary works and remedies to safeguard the building from the internal spread of fire are not called out within two months from the date of this letter, we will serve a Fire Safety Notice on you to rectify the situation.” 

When works are not completed under a fire safety notice, the building must be evacuated. This is what occurred in Priory Hall, north Dublin in 2011. Yet despite the warning, no fire safety notice was issued.

Two months later, in July, the enforcement notice matter was back before Judge Anderson. The solicitor for the council told him that the DPP was happy for the matter to proceed at district court level. This inferred that the DPP’s opinion was that the matter was not as serious as the judge believed it to be.

Judge Anderson wasn’t having any of it. “I refused and that’s the end of it,” he said. The solicitor asked him would he reconsider but the judge said no. “Are there people still on the premises?" he asked. The solicitor confirmed that there was.

“That’s why I refused,” said the judge. 

This is not a minor offence. 

He gave the solicitor the choice of adjourning for a book of evidence to be compiled or striking out the case. After consultation, the solicitor applied for the case to be struck out. And that brought to a conclusion the council’s attempt to hold Castlepride accountable through the courts.

What occurred in the court appearances should have made somebody sit up in Westmeath County Council. A district court judge had deemed that the matter was too serious to be dealt with in his court, which had a jurisdiction of a €15,000 fine and/or 12 months imprisonment. 

The DPP did not agree, but the fact that there was a dispute between the judge and state prosecutor over the seriousness of the matter is worth noting. Judge Anderson relayed that his concern was primarily based on the fact that the units were occupied and therefore people’s immediate safety was in danger.

Despite that, the council did not pursue the matter further. There was no further attempt to force Castlepride to make good on the defects. There was no attempt whatsoever to pursue the principal of Castlepride, Mr Darcy.

In 2011, the residents through their management company issued proceedings against Castlepride and the development’s architect . The architect had gone into receivership by then but the case against his insurer, Lloyds of London, is ongoing. 

(Left to right) Micheal O'Reilly and Claire Ryan whose apartments at The Oaks, Lakepoint, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, have fire safety defects. Photo: Bob Morrison
(Left to right) Micheal O'Reilly and Claire Ryan whose apartments at The Oaks, Lakepoint, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, have fire safety defects. Photo: Bob Morrison

In 2019, Castlepride went out of business. As with numerous other developments where major defects have been discovered, the owners have no recourse to the person or entity responsible for building defective homes.

Local politicians, including current junior minister Peter Burke, have tried to intervene. “I spoke with residents on numerous occasions, most recently last year,” he says. “I requested a meeting between myself, the residents and the local authority. 

"The Director of Services sent me a response, outlining that she had requested fire services to carry out an inspection on the common areas. The issue is causing undue stress and hardship to residents whose homes remain uninsured and non-compliant with fire safety standards.” 

Responsible parties

Following the fire in 2019, Westmeath County Council have done nothing more to determine whether those living in The Oaks are in danger. The Irish Examiner contacted the council with a number of questions about its role in what has happened at The Oaks over the last 15 years. 

Following repeated requests for a response, a statement was issued 10 days later saying the council would not be making any comment on the matter. When contacted, Dermot Darcy said he “wouldn’t be making any comment on that.” 

Mr Darcy is now listed as the managing director of another building firm, Alimere Properties. Asked whether Ailmere was active in the building game he said. “It (Ailmere) was doing some small building work some years ago but it’s definitely four years since the company traded.” He refused to say anything more.

Micheal O’Reilly says that the manner in which developments were built in those years defies explanation. “In our case, the developer’s father was the actual builder. The guy who was in charge of the site, he was known as Elvis, he came to the business after working in a sausage factory. 

"There were developers out there who were school teachers. They had no real knowledge of what they were doing, the State didn’t keep an eye on it and us, and many like us, are the ones who have to foot the bill for the whole thing.” 

Claire Ryan says she has been through 15 years of stress and worry during which time they have repeatedly reached out for help to the responsible parties and have been let down each time.

“The people who created this mess, the developer, the architect and Westmeath County Council, have walked away without being held accountable for what they did. I am paying rent in another house because I couldn’t bear to live in it anymore. I can’t afford to buy again as I’m considered a second-time buyer and can’t sell the apartment because of the issues.” 

No response from Westmeath County Council 

The following questions were submitted to Westmeath County Council with a summary outline of the case.

The defect identified were deemed so serious that a district court judge felt the matter had to be dealt with by a higher court yet I understand that nothing has been done by WCC, the fire authority, to address the matter since then.

Why has this been allowed to persist despite obvious dangers to tenants and owners?

If it is WCC’s contention that you have attempted to resolve the issue could you lay out specifically how this was pursued?

Another issue arises following a fire in The Oaks in February 2021. Has WCC inspected The Oaks since that fire or had any report been prepared on the issue? If so, is any such report available for viewing? Has WCC initiated any enforcement proceedings following issues that may have been further exposed as a result of the fire?

No response was received for over a week and after two follow-up e-mails from the Irish Examiner requesting a response the following was issued 10 days later.

“Please see the response to your query here: ‘Westmeath County Council has no comment to make at this time’.” 

Working group 

On January 31, the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien called for submissions to be made to a working group set up to examine the shoddy and dangerous building work done during the Celtic Tiger years. The process ran until March 14, after which the group is to analyse the data and report on how affected homeowners should be compensated for the major costs incurred.

The working group was set up as part of the programme for government and arose out of an all-party Oireachtas report, Safe As Houses, which examined the conditions in which these apartments were built, principally the light-touch regulation that was in place. 

The group consists of officials from the department of housing, representatives from engineering, architectural and surveying bodies, and two representatives from a group set up by stricken owners, the Construction Defects Alliance.

During the years between 1990 and 2013, around 170,000 apartments were built in the state. Of these, it is believed that the number affected by structural and fire safety defects is up to 100,000. 

The final bill for repairs could be up to €3bn, which would make it as expensive as the redress scheme for those affected by mica down the western seaboard.

There is one big difference with the mica issue. Fire safety defects in particular are often not obvious or impact on day-to-day life. That is unless there is a fire and then it is too late to remedy anything. Quite often, owners don’t want to know the bad news because they are either investors who would prefer to sell on their units without any impact on price or owners hoping to transition to a house, who want to do likewise.

“The reality is the vast majority of (owners in) developments haven’t looked for any defects,” says Pat Montague of the Construction Defects Alliance.

“There are places where they’re trying to pay for remedial work out of sinking funds, but then they have to replenish the sinking funds because they’re there for a different reason.

“While the working group is not going to get a true sense of the scale of the problem, what it will get is a sense of nature of the problem,” he says. “They will certainly get a good handle on how many have tried to remediate themselves and the impacts of defects in terms of insurance costs, how many have sought to take legal action and crucially, the costs.” 

Among the dozens of developments where defects have been discovered, some only came to light when a survey was conducted by a large company or, in a few instances, Nama, ahead of a sale of multiple units. The other way they have come to light is when a fire occurs, as happened in Milfield Manon in Kildare in 2015 and in Verdemount in Blanchardstown in 2017. 

In 2002, an earlier fire in Blachardstown development claimed two lives, Louise Wall and Mick Farrell. This was a year after the development opened but no investigation into the construction was done until after the 2017 fire.


The Irish Examiner understands that as of last week over 1,100 submissions have been received by the group. Many of these are from individuals but would also include submissions from Owners Management Companies (OMC) and property managers, which would represent multiple owners.

One of the more high-profile submissions was from the Beacon South Quarter OMC. The development is based in the south Dublin suburb of Sandyford. It consists of 950 apartments as well as a large number of retail, leisure and commercial units. Construction commenced in 2006 and was completed in 2012.

“Midway through the last decade significant water leaks became manifest in BSQ – mainly through the balconies. Investigative works were undertaken and this showed that there were significant fire safety defects too associated with poorly fire stopping,” according to the submission.

The investigations found that 800 apartments and various common areas were affected by fire safety defects while 562 were experiencing water ingress and associated damage.

The total bill for tackling these defects has already well past €30 million and is rising due to construction inflation.

The submission goes on to note that because of the threat to residents’ lives and personal safety posed by the fire safety defects, the OMC decided to take on additional measures. “This has involved the employment of fire wardens on a 24/7 basis as well as installing additional fire alarms.” 

The personal stress and worry of owners and residents is also addressed in the submission, as well as the “impacts on the relationships between owners, their OMCs and the agents acting on behalf of the OMCs. All of which undermines the very idea that one’s home is a sanctuary.” 

“Take the issue of fire safety. As the working group members can imagine, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the continuing fallout from it has had a profound effect on people living in properties that are not secure from a fire perspective. 

"And it’s a well-founded worry – in Beacon alone there have been around a dozen fires in recent years with some apartments being absolutely gutted. We also know that people died as a result of a fire in Verdemont in Blanchardstown, a terrace of houses in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, was destroyed by fire in the not too distant past and considerable damage was done to the Metro Hotel in Ballymun when people were resident in it.” 

Wishful thinking

In 2006, a few months after owners first notified both the developer and Westmeath County Council about the fire safety defects at The Oaks, everything was apparently sorted. Owner Micheal O’Reilly and fire engineer Noel Manning received a letter from Westmeath’s building control section telling them that “all issues have been satisfactorily resolved.” 

This turned out to be wishful thinking. Manning discovered further defects and in 2009, the management company for The Oaks – then controlled by Dermot Darcy – employed Punch Consulting Engineers to do a survey. The devastating results prompted WCC to issue what was its third enforcement notice.

Following the farrago of the prosecution that never was, the management company in 2012 – now controlled by the owners – employed Punch again.

The summary of the comprehensive report was as follows:

“A significant number of fire protection defects have been identified following our opening up of Block A. There are serious defects in the fitness of purpose of the materials used to fire stop the cavity walls and where they have been fitted they have been poorly installed and executed. The lack of horizontal cavity fire stopping at the compartment floor level throughout the Block means that there is no way of preventing fire spread from a ground floor apartment to the apartment directly above and vice versa.

(Left to right) at The Oaks - Micheal O'Reilly, Doria Janiga, Claire Ryan, Anne Dugdale, and Helen Albin. Punch Consulting Engineers concluded in a survey of the apartments in 2012 that they had “a significant number of fire protection defects". Photo: Bob Morrison
(Left to right) at The Oaks - Micheal O'Reilly, Doria Janiga, Claire Ryan, Anne Dugdale, and Helen Albin. Punch Consulting Engineers concluded in a survey of the apartments in 2012 that they had “a significant number of fire protection defects". Photo: Bob Morrison

“The installation of gas mains within a protected stairwell is wholly unacceptable and we understand has already been deemed unsatisfactory and unacceptable by the RGII. A number of general building defects have been noted, ranging from filled/breached cavities, poor walls and lack of radon sump vent pipes, etc. 

"The most extensive general building defect, however, relates to the quality and fixing of roof slates used. We consider that there will be extensive repairs required in the coming years to prevent water ingress into the apartments. There is also the safety issue that must be considered, associated with numbers of slates falling from the roof. 

"In our opinion, there is extensive works that have to be undertaken to Block A to ensure the safety of the residents. The control of fire spread must be given priority and appropriate remedial works taken to all areas of fire control including party walls, compartment walls and cavities.” 

Following the fire in February 2019, four directors of the management company met with officials in Westmeath County Council once more to express their serious concern of how easily the blaze had spread. No action was taken by Westmeath County Council thereafter.

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