'My home looked like a poltergeist had run amok in it'
Emer O'Kelly found herself reduced to tears by the noise, dirt and disruption caused by digging outside her house
Recently I spent one of the most terrifyingly helpless weeks of my life. Day after day, numerous units of heavy machinery blockaded me in my own house, their even more numerous support vans parked along the street and on adjacent streets caused huge parking problems.
My account of what I went through should have appeared last week in the Sunday Independent, but being a fair-minded newspaper, a copy of the article was sent to UPC, the company in question, asking it if it wished to comment or reply. UPC replied in detail, more or less rebutting everything I had written, calling it "inflammatory, unreasonable, and defamatory". So I will try to represent its viewpoint in detail as we go along..
I live at the end of a terrace, and barriers were mounted along both the front and side of the house, past my living room and main entrance at the front, along the side against my living room gable wall, followed by my dining room, followed by my kitchen and utility room, which has a side entrance to the house, and which was completely blocked off by a deep trench and a huge mound of earth and rubble removed from the trench.
It was done by Sierra, laying a fibre optic cable on behalf of UPC, who claims that this work was carried out "in a public area conducted under a Dublin City Council road opening licence". UPC further points out that they dug "to an agreed depth of 450 millimetres below street level". I have measured 450mm; it reaches to a couple of inches below my knee. A photograph shows a workman standing in the trench: you can judge the depth for yourself.
A man called to the house representing UPC during the month of April, to say that it would be doing upgrade work in the area, and was I interested in an upgrade. I specifically told him that I would not permit them to interfere in any way with my property, having already had correspondence concerning what I considered UPC's incompetent and discourteous service.
I wrote last week that "great massive diggers twice the height of the house operated within the barriers". UPC says they were "mini-diggers" because the work was in a "residential area".
I'm not familiar with the size range of diggers; these may be called "mini" in sales brochures. To a woman of 5ft 10, in her living room, they appear massive. Which is how I judged them on-site.
On one of the days during the digging, I was sitting in the living room trying to read, having given up all attempts to work because of the noise, shaking and dirt, when the room was suddenly cast into shadow. One of the diggers had trundled as close as four or five feet to the window, and the massive bowl swinging across it seemed to me to be no further than 18 inches away. I was determined not to be intimidated and tried to stay put. But finally, feeling rather sick with the expectation that the window would come crashing in on top of me any second, I abandoned the room, in tears of helplessness and indeed, fear. In my own living room. Again, there are photographs.
At this stage my fear and distress had been going on for more than a week. It had kicked in as I sat at my desk trying to work. The entire house began to shudder, the noise was deafening, and as I watched, the fax machine toppled over, almost taking the computer screen with it. (My desk stands against an inside wall, which connects with the house next door, therefore as far as possible from the diggers smashing the pavement outside into huge slabs.)
Already that morning, I had taken a step ladder and set seven paintings in the sitting room straight. They had been knocked sideways from the juddering as they hung on the wall.
I'm not given to unnecessary tears, certainly not from self-pity, but I was in tears as I went down to the kitchen to make coffee. A scene of devastation greeted me. A large picture had been knocked off the wall, and had crashed across the rubbish bin. The glass had shattered all across the kitchen floor, and the picture, an art photograph by theatrical photographer Tom Lawlor, was smeared and dirty.
I opened the door into the store and utility room, and could barely believe what I saw: it was awash and stinking of red wine. A magnum bottle (a gift, and therefore I presume, of high quality) had, from the shuddering, toppled off a shelf, and shattered all across the floor. Several pans had also been catapulted off a storage shelf onto the floor, as had two vases and a number of storage jars. The place was a sea of spilled wine and shattered glass.
Several days earlier I had sent an enraged email to UPC and the reply was to give me a number to call "if I required further assistance". I had called it, and actually managed to keep my temper. The person on the other end wanted my full address so "somebody could call". Somebody called all right: half an hour later, the foreman, who had already told me when I went out to complain that "it's nothing to do with us; work has to be done," knocked at the door, and when I opened it, said "I know we're an awful nuisance". He got short shrift.
UPC claims in its letter of rebuttal that since receiving my email complaint, it had "actively worked to address it". It also claims, of course, that I had refused to "engage with them in their attempts to resolve the matter". Admitting they're "a terrible nuisance" does not amount, in my book, to an attempt to resolve anything. UPC also claims that "on the first day of planned construction, a member of the work crew called upon the occupant (me) to inform her of the type of work that would be carried out". Nobody called; nor do I find it acceptable that telling me they were going to make my life hell and prevent me from working would have made it any better.
On the day of the havoc caused in my kitchen and utility room, I collapsed across my bed and cried for almost an hour, the noise deafening me, while my wardrobe doors burst open with the vibrations.
Later that day, the crew cemented in the pavement along the side of the house, which stretched down the side of my sitting room, my dining room, and my kitchen as well as the store room which had been reduced to a ruinous condition. But the following morning, they began excavating it again (I'm serious.) I was standing in my bedroom when the shaking and thudding began again, and a valuable drawing by an early twentieth century Irish master shifted sideways on the wall. I caught it before it fell.
Downstairs it looked as though a poltergeist had been at work. There are a lot of paintings in my living room. Eight of them had (once again) been skewed sideways, several of them not even on the outside wall near which the digger was working. A shelf full of CDs had been catapulted to the floor. In the dining room, huge quantities of grime and soot had been spattered from the chimney across the floor. I have left the pictures crooked as an experiment: everyone who has walked into the room has the same reaction: "It looks as though there's been an earthquake."
Parking (we have residents' parking in the area) was chaotic: the blockages, machinery and support vehicles took up so much space that we were playing swap, to the detriment of everyone's temper. On one evening, I had to unload the car of a large and heavy load: there was no space available within sight of the house. UPC claims that there was "ample space". I had to park on a double yellow line within reach of the house. The car was clamped.
UPC's letter to the Sunday Independent claims that it has offered "on a number of occasions" an independent structural assessment of my home. That offer was made once, on the telephone, after I had written to Robert Dunn, the company CEO, invoicing him for my lost earnings due to the disruption, for the damage, (and for the clamping fee!) as well as informing him that I would be invoicing him for a structural survey. I told the representative who telephoned that a surveyor chosen by UPC would be unacceptable to me.
What the letter to Robert Dunn didn't describe, and which is returning to me as I write, is the horror of feeling totally helpless and frequently very frightened in my own home. I also had the misery of being afraid every time I went out, because of what I might find in terms of damage and destruction when I returned. Your home is supposed to be a refuge. Mine was continuously violated over a two-week period. So was my peace of mind.
I was about to file this article when the day's post arrived. It contained a letter with the UPC logo on it. Presuming it would contain a cheque in payment for my invoice, I opened it immediately. It begins: "Dear Miss O'Kelly, You're already familiar with the value and service which UPC offers for your TV service. Now we would like to offer you the opportunity to take our Digital TV service with Digital+ for only €1 extra a month." You may laugh. I'm not laughing.