SEATED on the front row of the public gallery inside Courtroom No 2 of Limerick’s Circuit Court, with the two top buttons of his striped shirt open, is a man in his late 40s.
He wears a worried look on his face, a wedding ring on his finger. Tucked in beside him on the pew are his jacket and a copy of the Irish Mirror.
At either side of him, and behind him, women and men sit knee-to-knee the length of the wooden benches. It’s Friday morning. More people are huddled around the doorway. It’s just after 10am.
The ratio of men to women is approximately 60:40. Only two men wear suits. One is well-tailored and its owner, a handsome chap in his early 30s, has designer stubble. The rest of the men are in shirts, hoodies, sweaters and anoraks. Some fix their gaze straight ahead. Others break the quietness with a few courteous exchanges.
The majority of the women present are aged in their 30s and 40s. Some sit with partners, others go it alone. The unspoken reality is that everyone here today shares a common bond – they opened their eyes this morning under the threat of losing their home.
A total of 177 repossession cases are listed for the 10am sitting which will be presided over by county registrar Pat Wallace. Over the next five hours only three will be repossessed. But, for now at least, nobody knows their fate.
Between the registrar and the public gallery sit the legal representatives – those working on behalf of the individuals who are in serious mortgage arrears, and then those representing the banks which are chasing them for repayments.
We hear the plight of a County Limerick couple whose arrears on their family home have mounted up to €12,000. It’s the first time the case – which has been brought by Bank of Ireland – had been on the list.
“The arrears have arisen because they have been making half payments per month,” their solicitor explains. The solution proposed is that they sell a second property which is located on the main street in a Limerick town.
A man with a high colour in his cheeks and a belly protruding from his jumper takes a deep breath and rolls his eyes towards the heavens.
Listening intently to each case as it is called, is a young woman in her 30s. Seated in the front pew, she holds a white sheet of paper in hands. Out of everyone here today, her eyes carry the most despair. They flicker from time to time as certain details are disclosed, usually personal family matters.
At 12.15 the case of the man with the Mirror and the unbuttoned shirt is called. He walks forward, leaving his jacket but bringing his newspaper. There has been engagement with an auctioneer. His case is adjourned.
A man seated in the front row wearing a leather jacket is tapping his foot furiously against the floor.
A number of solicitors scroll up and down on their mobile phones, waiting for their case to be called. One twists her spectacles as she stares into space.
Items dotted on the benches before her include yellow highlighters, a Cath Kidston floral glasses case, a green Bar of Ireland diary, and, underneath it, a packet of Camel filters.
Bespectacled, dressed in his striped jumper and jeans, a man in his late 40s sits with his head slightly bowed. His eyes are closed. They’ve been that way for several minutes now. The mention of an “unsustainable balance” prompts his neck to straighten and eyes open. Soon they’re closed again.
The woman with the courtroom’s most furrowed brow begins massaging her temple. It’s another hour before her case is called. It’s the first time on the list. She walks to the top of the courtroom and tells the registrar quietly that she has started a childcare course. Her case is adjourned to May 6. She picks up her bottle of water and leaves.
In front of the county registrar, sits another registrar, Gerard, surrounded by blue files divided into eight stacks – there’s five on one side, three on the other. The elastic bands keeping them in position are stretched to their limit.
Examining one case, Mr Wallace describes the estimated legal fees facing one of the men whose home is under threat of repossession as “abominable”. We’re told it could be anywhere between €3,000 and €13,000. The man in the leather jacket tapping his feet has now tucked his hands in other under his thighs.
One woman’s ex-husband has moved in with his fiancée. She fears for her future. “I have two kids, they’re young,” she says before adding: “I can’t be on the streets.”
We’re into the fourth hour when a small woman dressed in a striped top, with her hair braided to one side, approaches the top of the courtroom. She is accompanied by another woman, taller. There’s no money for a solicitor.
The solicitor for KBC Bank Ireland tells the court that the arrears of €17,000 are “not insurmountable. My instructions today are to seek an order for possession,” the solicitor adds.
The original loan was for €212,000 and there have been unpaid direct debits since 2013. When her friend goes to speak on her behalf, the woman assures her that she OK. The county registrar offers an encouraging look.
“I was out of work because I was sick but I’m back to work full-time now,” she explains, her voice soft and trembling.
Her sister is aware of her situation, the rest of her family are in the dark. She feels ashamed, hasn’t slept all week. There’s a little girl at home. Her mother is “extremely stressed”.
“Fair play to her now for coming in here today,” says the friend. “If she could get it adjourned to give her time.”
The country registrar offers some advice. MABS have a stand outside the courtroom; he encourages her to seek their support. The case is put back to May 6.
The woman and her friend walk up through the public gallery. A man approaches and pats her on the back. Within seconds, a young couple are rising from their bench. They too walk over and shake her hand – a welcome warm gesture on a morning when the cold reality of Ireland’s economic collapse has sadly hit home.