A ghost story for modern Ireland

Coill na Giúise is like so many of our 1,300 ghost estates: a once-pleasant landscape, cleared for houses that remain unfinished, and that many people want demolished. But is it that simple?

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

Coill na Giúise is the archetypal ghost estate, from the locked gates to the remnants of the billboard that once advertised the development outside Gorey, Co Wexford. Ghost estates such as this were described as a “monument to the skeleton of the Celtic Tiger” by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan this week, after Minister of State for Housing Jan O’Sullivan announced the planned demolition of 40 of the worst ghost estates next year.

There is no public list of candidate estates for demolition, and no particular reason to assume this Gorey estate would be among them. But many feel it should be.

Coill na Giúise, which means Pine Forest, was a small woodland before the site was cleared for development. The front wall has been raised by several blocks, to deter vandals, but a well-worn path runs to the side of the site, and locals say it’s easy to get in from the rear.

It’s clear that it has been accessed many times since the builders left the site, more than four years ago. Seven houses are frozen in time at various stages of the construction process. Many windows have been smashed, and glass crunches underfoot at every turn. Holes have been punched in the partitions between rooms, and there is graffiti on walls. Moss grows on the floor of one house, and blue waterproof cladding flutters in the breeze. Some empty beer cans litter one house, alongside a copy of the Sun newspaper, dated June 1st, 2010. A lace bra has been discarded outside another house.

The site also contains plenty of building materials, from blocks to dozens of slabs of dry lining. It looks as if someone tried to set fire to what appeared to be the site office.

“There have been a few rare parties here, I’d say,” says Liam Fanning, a local resident, as he stands on the road, looking at the high wall. Another neighbour, Pat Leacy, says there was “a terrible amount of vandalism done”. The row of houses where he lives is a mature area, with most children having grown up, so he says the teenagers were coming from other parts of Gorey.

The Leacy family still call the site “the wood”, and he says that his children used to play there. It was big enough to explore but not so big that it frightened younger children. He says he and his neighbours had no strong feelings for or against the development when they first heard about it. “We saw it as normal progress, I suppose. It would have been a nice estate in a wooded area.”

When he is asked what should be done with the site, his first suggestion is to demolish it, because it has been abandoned for so long now that it has gone past saving, but he says the council should assess whether it has a future.


Mixed feelings
Another neighbour, Bridget McDonagh, has mixed feelings about it. When The Irish Times calls, she has been listening to a priest saying on the radio that it is sinful to be planning the demolition of houses when some people have no homes. She can see his point. “On the one hand, I can’t see why they can go ahead and finish building it,” she says. “Or has it been left too long?”

She lives near the back of Coill na Giúise, and she says she was amazed by the thievery that went on after the builders left. “I’ll never forget one day seeing this fellow coming from over there, carrying a big piece of timber,” she says. “And it was broad daylight. He saw me looking, and he said, ‘Have you got a problem?’ And I was thinking, You are the one with the problem.”

The vandalism and dumping came to a head in 2011. Wexford County Council responded by raising the wall and adding the gates at the front of the estate. It also demolished some structures that were in danger of being blown down, and boarded up parts of the houses.

It had all started promisingly when two local developers, Thomas and Patrick Kenny of Twin Builders, planned the estate at Ballytegan in the mid 2000s. They had built another estate, the Lask development, in Gorey and were proud of it, referring to it in the brochure for this development. The brochure, dated July 2007, describes Coill na Giúise as “one of the finest developments in Gorey . . . set in a mature forested area. A well-established quality residential location with top-of-the-range homes in the immediate vicinity.”

At the time prices ranged from €285,000, for a 1,114 sq ft (103 sq m) three-bedroom midterrace house, to €305,000, for a 1,233 sq ft (115 sq m) three-bedroom semi-detached house.

Had all gone according to plan, there would now be 79 houses here, with a smattering of cars in driveways and children’s bicycles thrown on lawns. Instead, at 11am on Wednesday, it is eerily quiet, apart from a dog barking in the distance and the occasional cawing of crows.

“Ghost estate” is an apt term, when you think of what might have been. The economist David McWilliams is often credited with coining the phrase, when he wrote seven years ago about such estates enveloping many towns. He predicted that in the years ahead “these ghost villages, like our Famine villages, may stand testament to a great tragedy which, although predicted by concerned observers, was never fully appreciated until the morning the crops failed”.

But if Jan O’Sullivan’s plan goes ahead, these ghost villages will no longer stand testament to a great tragedy. She has drawn up a provisional list of 40 estates suited to demolition, and says more will be added. She says the decision about whether to clear the sites will be taken by the developers and banks in conjunction with the local authorities. O’Sullivan says she has no plans to publish the list, as “we don’t want to interfere with anyone’s ownership rights by putting a name on them”.

A cursory glance at Coill na Giúise suggests it would be a candidate for demolition, as it has no inhabitants, and only a fraction of the houses have been built. But things are never as simple as they seem.

A local Fianna Fáil councillor, Malcolm Byrne, has spoken about the need to demolish it and return the site to woodland. “Even if it was to be developed, the developer is going to knock it first,” he says. “This was originally woodland, and it makes sense to restore it to a wooded area. It’s the only real ghost estate in the north of the county. There are a lot of unfinished estates, but in this case there’s nobody living here, so it’s more clear-cut.”


Green area
Ballytegan forms part of a circuit around Gorey, so it is popular with walkers. Three women come striding by on their morning walk. “It’s an eyesore,” says Anne Leahy. “It’s turning into a dump. They’ve vandalised it and smashed windows. I think they should restore it to a green area. Plant trees, take down the wall and put a country hedge there. It’s a country road, after all.”

“Let it be a green area,” says Orla Brooks. “People are sick of looking at it. It’s such a nice road.” Fiona O’Doherty agrees. “Take down those horrible walls.”

But Liam Fanning says it can be rescued. “It would be an awful pity to knock it. I often thought it should be given to a housing association. Give them six months and see what they can do.”

No one seems to know who owns the site. Some ask whether the banks own it. Others wonder if it’s in receivership. In fact, the site is still owned by Twin Builders.

The Kenny brothers know exactly what they want to do with the site. They want to finish what they started and create the 79 homes they promised. They say the story is more complicated than people think.

Thomas Kenny traces the start of the problem to the planning permission that was granted before they bought the site. He says complications about sewerage slowed down the project by at least a year. By the time they had resolved the issue, the recession had hit in earnest and their bank withdrew the money. The project ground to a halt more than four years ago.


Sensible solution
The brothers say they are in talks with the bank to get finance to finish the project; they are adamant that they want to see the houses built. They say it’s the most sensible solution for all parties, including the bank, Wexford County Council and themselves.

“We want to finish this,” Thomas says. Referring to the Lask development, he says that Twin Builders did very good work in Gorey and that he hopes The Irish Times will return one day to see Coill na Giúise as a finished estate.

The development of new houses is limited in Gorey because of inadequacies in the sewerage infrastructure, and Patrick says it would make no sense to demolish these homes and seek planning for new houses elsewhere. He says he would like to see something positive as a result of this.

Byrne says Gorey’s limited sewerage system is the only thing that saved the town from overbuilding during the boom. “We were very lucky. The town’s population is about 9,000 now. I have no doubt it would have grown to close to 20,000 if it wasn’t for the lack of sewerage capacity.”

The brothers are critical of Byrne’s campaigning on the issue, saying he has never met them to discuss the site and doesn’t understand the complexities of the issue.

Two years ago it was reported that Wexford County Council had sought to demolish the estate but that the Department of the Environment had rejected the request. By the time Weekend Review went to press yesterday, the council had not commented.

Whatever about the diverging views on Coill na Giúise, everyone agrees on one thing. “Something has to be done anyway,” says Bridget McDonagh. “It can’t be left like that for much longer.”

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