A FERMOY family with four children under the age of five is facing winter in a caravan in a public picnic area outside the north Cork town.
John McDonagh and Natasha McGuire, members of the travelling community, and their four children, Missy (5), Maggie (3), Billy (2) and Mary Kate (1), have been sleeping in their four-berth caravan in a public lay-by on the Cork Road in Fermoy for the past six weeks.
The family say they have been on Cork County Council’s housing list for the past five years, and that they would accept any form of emergency accommodation for the winter months.
“We’ll take a halting site or a house or anything,” Mr McDonagh said.
“We’ve asked for anything at this stage, even a B&B. The children are freezing. Billy has had bronchitis and Missy has been down to the doctor with tonsillitis.”
Mould and mildew are visible inside the caravan, where the McDonaghs often sleep six-to-a-bed for warmth.
The caravan contains a double bed and two small berths suitable for two older children, but they grow cold sleeping in them.
The family are living without access to toilets, running water or waste management in the public lay-by and picnic area.
As the weather grows colder, they are spending €20-€30 per day to fuel a generator to provide some heat and to power an outdoor washing machine for the children’s clothes and school uniforms.
Ms McGuire said their living conditions are very difficult for their children, especially school-age Missy, who attends the nearby primary school.
“She’s late for school in the mornings because I can’t get her up; she’s freezing,” Ms McGuire said. “I have to get up at half six and put on the generator just to get it warm enough to get them up.”
The family has faced a catalogue of incidents in their time at the site, which representatives of Cork County Council say they are occupying illegally, including weathering Storm Ophelia with no offers of assistance, and, most recently, a burglary.
Their caravan was broken into last Friday evening while the family was out. Gardaí have confirmed that they attended the scene and are investigating.
The thieves forced the caravan door and stole tools, equipment for the care of horses, and a gas bottle for the stove.
Ms McGuire says she now fears for her safety if she is alone with her children at the site in the evening.
The McDonaghs were living in rented accommodation until last August, when their landlord gave them notice. They bought a caravan and parked it next to Mr McDonagh’s parents’ small terraced house in Cluain Ard estate, but the cramped conditions were putting pressure on family relations and they moved to the lay-by and picnic area seven weeks ago.
The family weathered Hurricane Ophelia in the caravan, which is parked next to a wooded area.
“No-one came out to us,” Mr McDonagh said. “Natasha’s family are on a halting site in Dundalk, and before the storm the council came out to them and moved them all into emergency accommodation for the night, for safety.” One tree fell an estimated 30m from their caravan, and has not been removed from the site.
Cork County Council’s Fermoy Municipal Officer, Pauline Moriarty, confirmed that the lay-by occupied by the family was maintained by the council.
“They don’t have permission to occupy that site and I’ll have to follow it up,” she said.
When asked if there were any legal halting sites in the area that the McDonaghs can use, Ms Moriarty said: “I’m not aware of any sites, no.”
In the absence of any legal halting site or any accommodation, the McDonaghs have also tried requesting a portable toilet and skip from Cork County Council. The site has been kept litter-free by the family but the children’s toilet arrangements are “behind the caravan with a shovel,” Mr McDonagh said.
Council representatives have not responded to the request.
Local FG councillor Noel McCarthy said the situation was “sad.”
“People have been in touch with me about the presence of an encampment, both to express concern and to complain,” he said.
“I referred the matter to the Mallow housing office.”
With no legal, serviced halting sites for their caravan in the area, housing officers at Cork County Council’s Mallow Divisional office are aware of the McDonaghs’ situation but to date have only advised that they seek private rental accommodation, although they acknowledge that the rental market is currently very stressed.
A current search of properties in the Fermoy area on Daft.ie reveals eight rental properties, with seven of these being one or two-bed apartments.
“When a landlord hears ‘four kids’ he’s not interested,” Ms McGuire said.
The McDonaghs say that representatives of Cork County Council are being dismissive of their requests for assistance.
In a phone conversation heard by this journalist, John McDonagh told the staff member that he felt there wasn’t help for them because they are travellers.
The staff member said that there were currently no available houses and that the only thing she could do was email the housing allocation officer.
The staff member then told them to continue to seek private rental accommodation and apply for rent allowance.
Pat O’Connor, an administrative officer with the housing office in Cork County Council’s Mallow Divisional office, said that he couldn’t discuss individual cases, but that he was aware that it is particularly difficult to secure private rental accommodation in the area at the moment.
Cork County Council launched a new online bidding system for council houses last summer. There are more than 7,300 people on their housing waiting list.
“Any applicants on the housing list can bid for property,” he said.
He said there may be “no immediate solution” in the area for a family facing a situation such as the McDonaghs, but that people “can be considered for emergency housing.”
He said he was very concerned with the issues raised around staff behaviour, and would be raising them with the council’s Director of Housing.