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Donegal towns witnessing rebirth of homes as residents avail of refurbishment grant

County has received 662 applications for such grants, the greatest number in the entire country

Blaine and Brídín Mulligan with their children, Paidí and Rúbaí, outside their home in Falcarragh, Co Donegal, which they restored in part using the State's refurbishment scheme. Photograph: Joe Dunne

There is rarely a week that goes by that a stranger doesn’t knock on the door of Declan Doohan’s two-storey refurbished farmhouse on the outskirts of Falcarragh in west Donegal.

The house could easily be a poster home for the Department of Housing’s Croí Cónaithe scheme, aimed at restoring vacant or derelict homes.

Donegal has received 662 applications for such grants, the greatest number in the entire country.

Of those 662 applications, 402 have been approved and 11 applicants have received their grant money, with five more pending in the coming days.

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Declan Doohan at his home in Falcarragh, Co Donegal. 'We were clear on what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, including having an open-plan space,' he says. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Engineer Doohan admits there was something of a “romantic notion” about doing up the home on Beach Road, built about 1935, in which his father and 13 other siblings grew up.

The property , which sits a kilometre in one direction to the meandering sands of the Back Strand and another kilometre to the town’s Main Street, had been vacant since 2013. It had come into his parents’ possession before he decided to begin renovations in April 2022.

Because the house was outside of the town boundary, it did not initially qualify for a derelict or vacant home grant.

But Doohan was delighted when he was later contacted by Donegal County Council to say the guidelines of the scheme had changed and the building was, in fact, eligible.

Having an architect brother also helped immensely, even though he was based in Australia.

“We were clear on what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, including having an open-plan space,” he said.

Doohan loves the home and on the occasional day he needs to fly to Dublin from nearby Carrickfinn airport to catch up with colleagues, he loves nothing more than the thought of being home to see his partner Ann and three daughters, aged five, three and one, before bedtime.

But what of the claims that the scheme is difficult to qualify for or complicated?

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Doohan said he understands that, but that people need to stick with the application and the golden rules are to keep all receipts and to stay on top of all paperwork.

He applied for the vacant home scheme grant, which allows up to €50,000 with none of the money being paid until a final inspection is carried out by the local county council.

From the time of all the work being done and the receipts being submitted, he estimates it was approximately four months before he received the grant money.

Doohan said he has nothing but praise for the scheme and how it is being handled by the council.

“It was a little slow at the start, but I think the council will be the first to admit that it was new to them also and they were finding their feet with it.

“They always came back to us when we had a question and in many ways we were helping each other.

“I can’t emphasise enough to people who have applied for the scheme to stay on top of their paperwork and to keep all their receipts, VAT numbers, etc. After that it’s just a matter of sticking with it,” he said.

He is now only delighted to open the doors to strangers and has recommended the scheme to four or five of his friends who are considering going down the same pathway.

“I always answer the door and show people in. I knocked on enough doors when we were building,” he laughs.

Falcarragh is just one town benefiting from the scheme, with others including Buncrana and Letterkenny also witnessing a rebirthing of homes previously frozen in time.

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Across the other side of the market town, Blaine Mulligan, his wife Brídín and their two children have also moved into a restored home at Oldtown, also thanks partly to the Croí Conaithe scheme.

Originally from Leitrim, Mulligan is a secondary schoolteacher in Coláiste Ailigh in Letterkenny, while his wife is from Falcarragh.

They inherited the home, which was built in the 1940s and vacant for the past 20 years, from Brídín’s great aunt.

Like Doohan, the Mulligans were also outside the town boundary for the initial scheme, but qualified by the time they applied and started work on their home in July 2022.

Mulligan explained that some of the work completed on their home was carried out before an initial inspection by the council, and this could not be covered under the grant.

The scheme allows for a time period of 13 months for the upgrade works to be completed – but councils are expected to be a little flexible.

In his case, Mulligan said the experience was very positive, but suggested that people would have to be computer literate to get around the scheme at present.

“I don’t think it would suit a lot of older people because a lot of receipts have to be uploaded, etc, and I think people would have to be computer savvy.

“That said, the council were very responsive and I think there were 80 emails back and forth between ourselves and the council.

“Initially, at the start of the process, it was a little difficult because the council didn’t know everything themselves but then the vacant homes officer Vincent Cranley came on board and it became much more streamlined,” said Mulligan.

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As well as renovating the cottage and extending it, the couple brought it up to an A2 energy rating and even installed a geothermal heating system.

“The neighbours have said that it’s great to see a light in the old house and I think that’s really nice,” he said.

Having furnished the council with all their receipts in January, the couple received their grant into their account in mid-March.

Mr Cranley said his team at Donegal County Council are working reducing the processing time after receipts are handed in and the final inspection takes place.

He estimates they now have it down to between six and eight weeks.

He suggests that anybody thinking of applying for the scheme research it carefully in advance so they know what to expect and what is expected of them.

He stresses the importance of people gathering receipts for work, that anyone employed to do work on homes must be tax registered and compliant, and that the applicant must be the legal owner of the house.

The officer added that the council genuinely wants to help people to access the scheme and will help them along as much as possible and assist in any way they can.

“We even have a system where we send out a spreadsheet to people to track their costs and to complement the process.

“We want this scheme to work and it is now showing real signs that it is doing that,” he said.