The maps on the Ordnance Survey website facilitate not just a zooming in and out, but also a sliding back and forth in time. I select ‘historic layers’ and as I move the cursor, the former Mespil House ghosts onto my computer screen. It is faint at first, then the image grows stronger, superimposed on the modern buildings that have taken its place, the blocks of red-brick apartments named after trees—Beech, Cedar, Cherry, Elm, Fir, Ilex, Maple, Mespil, Oak, Rowan, Sycamore, Willow. The apartments recede as the historic outline becomes clearer, and now I have gone back a century—more—to the grounds lined with trees, the footprint of the big house built in 1751, the long avenue. I move the cursor a couple of millimetres, and, just like that, Mespil House is gone.
In The Life and Work of Sarah Purser1, John O’Grady writes how ‘Mespil Gates were chained during the later nineteen-forties, and the driveway in the hollow beyond had a haunted air.’ Sarah Purser, born in Dun Laoghaire in 1848, was the daughter of Benjamin Purser and Anne Mallet. The Pursers were brewers, and Sarah’s grandfather was a partner at the Guinness brewery at St James‘s Gate. Ben Purser left the employment of Arthur Guinness to open his own brewery in the Liberties, but the business failed, as did a subsequent mill in Dungarvan, and in 1876 he left for South Carolina. Sarah moved back to Dublin with her mother, where they lived on Wellington Road, and later at Harcourt Terrace. The family’s financial situation meant that Sarah had to earn her own money and having studied art for a time in Paris, she came home to Dublin where as well as setting up the Túr Gloine stained-glass workshop, she established herself as a portrait painter. People who sat for her over the years included Michael Davitt, Maud Gonne, W.B. Yeats, the Gore-Booths, Douglas Hyde and Roger Casement.
In 1909, she took a lease of Mespil House with her brother, John. The grounds were secluded, with a stream, a duck pond, and many trees. For a city residence, the gardens were large. In spring 1910, Sarah wrote to a friend saying: ‘I hope you will come some day and let me show you the glories of my five acres and the cow of which you might have heard I am inordinately proud.’ It was here, in the double drawing room, that for more than thirty years Sarah held her salons—her ‘days of wrath’—on the second Tuesday of every month, gatherings of writers, artists and politicians. She died aged 95 from a stroke, following an argument with President Douglas Hyde about the quality of a portrait of him that had appeared on a stamp.
Mespil House falls quiet after that. Sarah’s brother John had predeceased her. Sometime in the late 1940s/early 1950s the house was demolished, quietly, it seems, its loss, as far as I can ascertain, drawing little public outcry. It crops up here and there in Oireachtas debates, glancing references to roads not taken. At one time, it seems it might have been considered for a possible museum. And in a debate on the proposed formation of the Arts Council in April 1951—a robust debate that makes for an entertaining read—a speaker says: ‘I wonder has any Deputy gone past Mespil House recently, because Mespil House in my opinion has been ruined. The beautiful trees which were there have all been cut down and there is not one left. That is just symptomatic of the way in which some of our really lovely treasures are treated. In my opinion, the house and the lovely trees surrounding it were a treasure that belonged mainly to the citizens of Dublin yet there is not a tree left there.’2 The house is also referenced in debates around UCD’s planned move to Belfield, with a professor commenting that they’d tried to get Mespil House but were outbid at auction, before going on to reflect that perhaps it was as well that they didn’t buy it. There are not many photographs of the house, though there are a few beautiful ones in the Father Browne collection, showing a stately building, steps up to the front door, a wheelbarrow at rest in the gardens, and of course, the magnificent trees. Watercolours of the interior by Alice Barrow depict a sweeping staircase with glorious stained glass, reminiscent of a church window, at the turn of the stairs. Not everything was lost in the demolition. At the instigation of historian, author and lawyer, C.P. Curran, the developer was persuaded to give the ceilings to the Office of Public Works. One of them is now in the President’s Study in Áras an Uachtaráin and another two are in Dublin Castle, examples of excellence in eighteenth-century stucco.
Mespil House was gone, but perhaps something of the spirit of Sarah Purser had infused her five acres. The property, in its new incarnation, would achieve prominence for a different reason in the 1990s when tenants of the new apartment blocks found themselves in conflict with their landlords in a row that became a focal point in the debate on tenant rights in Ireland’s private rented sector. A headline on the front page of The Irish Times on 12th May 1993 gives a flavour of the controversy: ‘Minister rejects ‘golden circle’ claim over Mespil flats deal.’ A subheading stated: ‘Leases disclose complete list of purchasers from Irish Life.’ In what was almost too perfect a metaphor, the previous day’s edition, above another article on Mespil, had carried a photo of falcons nesting on the Dublin gasometer. ‘The ESB had offered alternative accommodation to the birds,’ the article said. The ESB had erected nesting boxes on one of the chimneys of Poolbeg power station and another nest box on the roof of the disused Ringsend power station. But the birds had already built on the gasometer, which was due for demolition, and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy was mounting a 24-hour watch on the nest.
Irish Life sold close to 300 apartments at the Mespil Flats in a deal that averaged £28,000 per apartment. Some tenants, living in the flats for decades, had previously been moved around within the complex to prevent them acquiring rights under Landlord and Tenant Legislation. A number of others, who were close to acquiring rights, had been served with notices to quit on behalf of their new landlords. New City Estates, the company that had put together the consortium of purchasers, initially took a somewhat combative approach. According to a report in* The Irish Times*, a letter sent to solicitors for the newly formed Mespil Estate Tenants’ Association advised: ‘We do not deal with associations, we deal with tenants.’ Extracts from the letter suggest the company was pointing the finger of blame at the tenants: ‘a small number of tenants in Mespil have, by their circulars, misled and frightened many of their fellow tenants… They have pressurised tenants to the point that tenants are leaving the estate of their own accord to live elsewhere…’3
The Dáil debates of the time are darkly entertaining. ‘Has the Minister sought advice on this matter from the Attorney General?’ someone asks, the Attorney General being one of the people who had bought an apartment. When the Minister—Máire Geogheghan-Quinn—says she isn’t familiar with how companies such as New City Estates do their business, someone helpfully pipes up, ‘Ask the Taoiseach,’ another apartment having been bought in trust for two of Albert Reynolds’ daughters. ‘Is the Minister concerned,’ Eamon Gilmore asked Geogheghan-Quinn, ‘that Irish Life sold these flats at a knock-down price, a price for which one would not buy a dog box in Ballsbridge, much less an apartment in a desirable location?’
Irish Life Assurance Company, known as Irish Life, was founded in 1939 with State assistance as part of an amalgamation scheme following concerns around solvency of companies operating in the Irish life assurance market. Initially the Irish government held an 18.6 percent share. This was increased to just over 90 percent in 1947 when the Irish government decided to purchase the shares of the British participating insurance offices. The Irish government had already invested over £1million—a significant sum at the time—to make up the deficit relating to the Irish participating companies, with a further £100,000 being spent to acquire the British owned shares. The Irish government in later years reduced its shareholding, though it would come to buy Irish Life again in 2012.
1993 wasn’t the first time that a government had been called upon to intervene between Irish Life and its tenants at the Mespil Estate. In February 1967 J.A. Costello asked Brian Lenihan if he was aware that not merely had the rents at Mespil Estate increased but the tenants had also had their garages taken, their tennis courts taken ‘and the gardens in which their young children were given an airing in the morning’ taken. ‘Is not the Minister, through his nominees, in this case carrying on a commercial business on behalf of the people?’ In reply, Lenihan said that ‘the company must be allowed to operate in a commercial way for the benefit of their policyholders. Otherwise, we would be frustrating the whole purpose of the legislation establishing the insurance company.’ Again, in July 1970, Dr Garrett Fitzgerald asked George Colley if he would intervene as controlling shareholder to limit rent increases. Colley stated that he was not prepared to intervene on a non-statutory basis in favour of particular individuals. ‘The Irish Life Assurance Company is obliged to operate on commercial terms in the interest of policyholders,’ he said.
When the 1993 controversy erupted, the then Minister for Finance, Bertie Ahern, said that while, as Minister he was a shareholder in the company, he could not dictate its commercial decisions. By the time the matter was debated in the Dáil, the apartments had already been sold. The sales had taken place quietly the previous winter, the country being at the time concerned with other things. There’d been an election in November 1992, though a new government hadn’t formed until January 1993. In May 1993, Geogheghan-Quinn said her information from Irish Life was that it wasn’t obliged to put its properties up for public sale. The argument, made on previous occasions, that the company had to operate on commercial terms in the interests of policyholders seems to have been forgotten.
It is now 25 years since the Mespil Flats controversy. What was the trajectory of these properties after they moved outside the remit of a company in which the State was once a 90 percent shareholder, and in which the State had invested significant public monies? The names of the purchasers of the flats are already in the public domain, in the Registry of Deeds, and on-line, and were published in at least one newspaper at the time. A number of apartments were purchased by solicitors in trust for clients, and so the identity of the beneficial owners is not known. Irish law doesn’t just provide for private property, but goes the extra mile in providing for extremely private property. I’d have liked to see the ‘How Much’ set out on an apartment-by-apartment basis, as well as the ‘Who’, but for the most part, that information is not available. We do know that the overall price paid to Irish Life worked out at an average of £28,000 per unit. The Property Investment Director at Irish Life at the time, stated that this was a price level above their independent valuation, though the waters were muddied when the First National Building Society, which advanced loans for the purchase of 93 apartments, explained that the reason a number of borrowers obtained 100 percent mortgages was because ‘the valuation in this case was higher than the actual purchase prices.’
How have the flats fared on the property market in the intervening years? From media reports at the time, we know that some of the apartments were back on the market—refurbished, according to the selling agents—five months after the Irish Life sale, advertised from £52,500 for a one bed, £64,500 for a two bed, and £74,500 for a three bed. As for more recent sales, numbers 69, 70, 71 and 72 Willow House, Mespil Estate were sold in 2012. The Residential Property Price Register shows sales prices of €140,000 for the one beds, €170,000 and €200,000 for the two bed and three bed, respectively. The Land Registry folios show no mortgages registered against any of the four properties, suggesting the most recent purchasers were cash buyers, and all four properties are listed on the Residential Tenancies Board register of tenancies, suggesting investor purchases. Prices continued to rise past 2012 with 56 Oak House selling in 2014 for €350,000. In terms of current rents at Mespil Estate, the most up-to-date figures I could find showed a studio apartment renting for €1200 a month, one beds for €1700, two beds at €2195 and three beds €2495. Hardly what can be considered affordable rents.
Was Mespil Estate the only instance of properties being disposed of in that way? ‘It is not the first time this happened in the case of Irish Life,’ Michael McDowell said in the Dáil in 1993, prompting the Ceann Comhairle to respond: ‘Let us not go back in history.’ McDowell went on to refer to a development called Wilton Court. I did attempt to go back in history, but couldn’t find much information on Wilton Court, although searches in the Registry of Deeds do reveal a Deed from Irish Life Assurance plc to Calvinia Ltd and ‘Anor’ of Court Flats, Wilton Place, in February 1985. Over the course of the next couple of years, there follows, as per Registry of Deeds entries, more than 40 separate transactions whereby Calvinia disposed of its interest in individual flats. I’m not suggesting there’s anything illegal in any of this. What interests me is following the journey of rental units from a company that was once 90 percent owned by the State, and thus under State control, into a different type of ownership when they were no longer assets within the ambit of State control. Number 6 Court Apartments sold in 2016 for €405,000.
If we look at the State’s policy approach to social housing in the decades leading up to and after the Mespil affair, we see a mirroring of the movement away from State ownership or control and toward the private sector. Between 1975 and 1992 local authorities completed or acquired 86,217 housing units. However, during the same period, 89,416 units were disposed of by local authorities through Tenant Purchase schemes, meaning that 3,199 more housing units were disposed of than were built by local authorities during that period.4 Tenant purchase, to be fair, is not directly analogous to the Mespil deal, where a number of the purchasers were what might be termed ‘big players’, and where the transaction was further complicated by political or professional connections. But disposal of local authority housing stock is still a transfer of a State asset, with the cost being borne by the most vulnerable section of the population. If the State transfers social housing into private hands then it is no longer available for social housing. This would not matter if there existed a surplus of housing; there’s nothing wrong with the concept of tenant purchase in and of itself. But the continued disposal of social housing during a protracted and escalating housing shortage makes no sense, especially when a local authority finds itself buying back its own stock at hugely inflated prices. This policy isn’t history—the most recent Tenant Purchase Scheme was approved in 2016. People who build houses and sell them off are usually called developers, and in the case of Tenant Purchase Schemes it would seem that local authorities are developers who operate at a loss.
As for the disposal of property by State-birthed entities: during a discussion before a Joint Oireachtas Committee meeting on the overview of operations and functioning of NAMA in July this year, Brendan McDonagh of NAMA said that ‘it was not put into legislation in 2009 that NAMA had to be the national housing agency.’ The discussion was taking place in the context of the residential properties, or property suitable for residential development, that had come under NAMA’s control in the preceding years, and had subsequently been disposed of. It’s correct, of course, that NAMA wasn’t established as the national housing agency. NAMA was working to a mandate set for it by the Oireachtas. It’s a pity, given the on-going housing crisis, that the mandate wasn’t based on a greater vision.
One of the advantages of looking back on a period from a vantage point of 25 years later, is that context emerges. With the benefit of hindsight and tribunals, it’s possible to get a better sense of the country’s relationship with property, and property transactions, during the 1980s and 1990s. Consider the nature of the financial transactions detailed in the Moriarty and Mahon Reports. Since we’re on the topic of landlord & tenant, let’s take as an example the Moriarty Tribunal’s detailing of a matter involving Minister Michael Lowry, where Ben Dunne was the landlord of a particular property and Telecom the tenant. Lowry had no difficulty intervening when the rent was being reviewed in 1995. He was not intervening to get the State a better deal on its lease. The Tribunal found that Mr. Lowry attempted, unsuccessfully, to confer on Mr. Dunne a benefit amounting to approximately £2.38 million in the short term, and a potential capital value increase of £7.35 million. Lowry, whilst Minister, had sought to intervene in an arbitration, with the object of procuring the fixing of the rent of premises leased to Telecom Éireann, a semi-State company then within his Ministerial remit, at a level almost twice the market rate. The sale of the Mespil Estate flats was in no way illegal. But when looking back at Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s, I cannot help thinking of the extent to which intervention was decreed not possible on behalf of those renting in the private sector, and comparing this to the kind of ‘interventions’ subsequently revealed by the tribunals.
One of the reasons for the outcry at the time of the Mespil flats transaction was due to the manner in which some tenants had been moved from apartment to apartment within the complex in order to deprive them of their rights under Landlord and Tenant legislation. Deputy Theresa Ahearn, speaking in the Dáil, said that she was in a unique position to raise the issue as the tenant the longest in Mespil flats was her aunt, aged 82, who’d been living in the complex for 39 years. She described how her aunt had been moved to a new apartment within the Mespil complex after 19 years (she would have acquired rights on reaching 20 years) on the basis that the heating system was being changed. She pointed out that the new purchasers had bought their apartments for approximately half the price that people like her aunt had paid in rent over the previous 39 years.
The extent to which landlords were attempting to, legally, circumvent legislation giving tenants security of tenure became a central strand of the debate. While many argue that they don’t go far enough, new security of tenure measures were finally introduced in the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, more than ten years after the Mespil Estate controversy, providing for a right to a four-year tenancy after six months, the term increased to six years by recent legislation. However, there’s still concern that, as with Mespil, landlords are utilising aspects of the legislation to circumvent provisions giving rights to tenants eg by stating that they need to sell the property, or claiming that it is required for a member of their family. And the housing charity, Threshold, has expressed concerns that landlords are utilising ‘renovations’ as a means of hiking rents above capped rates.
The problem of supply is at the heart of Ireland’s prolonged housing crisis, as is the fact that Ireland has considerably less social housing stock than it should have. As far back as the mid-1990s, it was warned that ‘the scale of the problem does not seem to be recognised by policy makers, and the number of families being placed in grossly unsuitable bed-and-breakfast accommodation is growing rapidly as a reaction to the housing crisis.’ Research showed that the number of households placed in B&B accommodation in Dublin had risen from 5 households in 1990 to 731 households in 1994.5 Irish housing policy has regarded houses as things to be traded, like tulip bulbs or gold bars or Bitcoin, investment assets first and homes second, and no government in the 25 years since Mespil has done anything meaningful to change that. Speaking in the Seanad in 1982 on the subject of Landlord and Tenant legislation, Mary Robinson put it well when she said that it should not be a question of treating somebody’s home as ‘an economic unit that must somehow come frequently onto the market place.’
In reading through various reports on Irish housing prepared by a range of organisations over the years, it’s difficult not to wonder if successive governments have perhaps been holding out for a different coloured font. The advices are there, as are the warnings. Plans, papers and policies have been prepared in response, and if setting targets, by itself, achieved anything, we’d be home and dry. Earlier this year when launching what was described as an ‘interactive portal’, the then Minister mentioned how the map represented the opportunity to deliver housing. But isn’t it* land* that provides housing opportunities? And didn’t we have an audit of local government land back in 2010? What has happened with those lands since?
I’d like more clarity from our politicians when they discuss possible solutions to the housing crisis. Ireland is operating under EU fiscal restraints. Surprising as it may sound, there’s no problem getting money. As Simon Coveney explained in the Dáil in April this year: ‘Access to money is not the problem, whether it involves the European Investment Bank, private investors or equity funds. The challenge is being able to spend money under the fiscal rules. Borrowing money is not an expensive business for a Government. Being able to spend it under the rules we have signed up to is the challenge.’ Given that the number of people homeless continues to rise, there’s something obscene about the nature of Ireland’s current financial predicament. In these circumstances, politicians need to be specific when discussing where they envisage funding for housing coming from. Will it be ‘on balance sheet’, or ‘off’? What possibilities, if any, exist for the provision of social housing by Public Private Partnerships, or for utilising the expertise built up in NAMA in an entity akin to a commercial semi-state, renting not only to those eligible for social housing, but also making affordable rental options available to those who don’t qualify for local authority housing, but still struggle to pay private sector rents or access a mortgage? What attempts have been made to negotiate a relaxation of the fiscal rules in the context of Ireland’s housing crisis?
And when discussing what has or hasn’t been done, could we please have a moratorium on claims of ‘The Constitution made me do it.’ Or rather, ‘The Constitution stopped me from doing it.’ From now on, any politician who pleads Constitutional impediment to progressing housing market reform should be politely asked to specify what solution it was they had in mind. Following a number of judgments in the early 1980s, it’s been popular to blame the Constitution for failures of ambition in tackling housing related problems. But those rulings arose in the context of old rent control legislation that was extraordinarily arbitrary and unjust in its remit. I accept that there are Constitutional provisions, and legal precedent, relating to property rights, but I’d like to see more vigorous debate around perceived Constitutional obstacles to implementing housing reform. I don’t accept that the Constitution fetters Government in matters relating to housing to the extent that some people seem to believe. And if I’m wrong on this, if it really is the case that the government is obliged to let people die on our streets, and young children grow up in hotel rooms, due to constitutional restraints, then, frankly, I can’t understand how any government interested in governing could allow that position pertain. This, by the way, is a separate point to the question of whether a right to housing should be specifically recognised in the Constitution—it should. And on the subject of rights, it’s worth noting that the European Committee of Social Rights has recently found that Ireland had failed to ensure the right to housing of an adequate standard for many families living in local authority housing across the country.
Sarah Purser, formerly of Mespil House, was undoubtedly a remarkable woman, who as well as being an accomplished artist, did much to promote the arts in the Ireland of her day. Among other things, she was instrumental in setting up the Hugh Lane Gallery. In her late eighties she insisted on inspecting the roof of Mespil House for herself by flying over it in a plane.6 It’s a shame that her contribution was not better recognised and remembered. In ‘Social Housing At The Crossroads’ (2014) the National Economic and Social Council stated that ‘ambitious action is required, if Ireland is to have a more cost-effective and stable housing system’. It is a call that brings to mind the epitaph inscribed on Sarah Purser’s grave: Fortis et Strenua—brave and active.