Vincent Hogan: Time running out to dig a field of dreams out of the concrete jungle
Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30
He talks about walls closing in around the children, almost baiting them to walk towards destruction.
These people just want a field, but sense they might as well be calling for it from the dark side of the moon. And after serving for almost quarter of a century as Governor of Mountjoy, John Lonergan understands the cost of that. So his words carry a jolting, staccato rhythm.
"There's just concrete" he says.
Lonergan is addressing an issue being championed in south Dublin's inner city by Kevin's Hurling and Camogie club. The club is 114 years old now and embedded in eight parishes running from Meath Street in the Liberties to Dolphin's Barn near the Grand Canal. Those parishes cater for 11 schools, ten of which do not have an inch of grass between them.
That's over 2,500 children just enveloped by endless grey.
They want a field but, sometimes, it seems as if their cries end up muffled by administrative jargon. They live in Dublin 8 where there is more derelict land than green space, where life is rife with the symptoms of social disadvantage: unemployment, crime, drug abuse, hopelessness. This is a community essentially existing without a respiratory system.
Lonergan reckons that maybe 70pc of Mountjoy's inmate population comes from six small Dublin postal districts, including this one. One generation of family tends to follow another down the same, ruinous path. It isn't something that he regards as any coincidence.
Kevin's have never had a pitch to call their own and this story is about their enduring desperation to get one.
Just now, they exist on a tenancy arrangement with Templeogue Synge Street across the Canal in Dolphin Park. But, for a child in Oliver Bond Flats, those facilities might as well belong in another county.
In a perfect world, Kevin's would have a ready-made solution. When Dublin City Council invited local proposals for the Teresa's Gardens Flats complex and two NAMA-owned commercial sites that have fallen into disuse in the area, the hurling club suggested building two multi-purpose playing fields that would take up maybe 20pc of the combined area involved.
Their suggestion was rejected.
They now fear the final chance of getting a field of their own could die unless key amendments are made to the Dublin City Development Plan due to be voted on next week. Fundamental to those amendments is the replacement of aspirational language by something more committed, more certain. They particularly seek the removal of a single word from a sentence promising to "endeavour to provide a multi-purpose sports facility for residents in the south west inner city."
That single word is 'endeavour'.
Three years into this battle, Kevin's fear that the inner city child is being forgotten. We are talking about a catchment area of 50,000 people, most of whom don't even have a garden. The Canal is a kind of border to them, a dividing line between those who have and those who haven't. Imagine, not a single playing field for a community of 50,000!
In February, more than 300 residents and local representatives attended a public meeting in Griffith College supporting the call for inner-city playing fields. Among the attendance was former GAA president Nicky Brennan, and Dublin County Board secretary John Costello. Lonergan, who could not attend on the night, was interviewed via video.
In his interview, he suggested that the neglect of inner-city children "should be an embarrassment for anyone in authority."
As of now, the City Council's plan cites a shortage of housing in the city as a reason why no sports field can be accommodated in the Teresa's Gardens/Player Wills/ Bailey Gibson site whilst the need for a "super depot" on a site in Marrowbone Lane is identified as the impediment to building a sports field there.
Yet, population density in the Liberties is more than eight times the Dublin average, 70pc of people living in apartments. They need room to breathe here, not more people and more concrete.
Kilkenny man Brennan is chairperson of Kevin's Strategic Group and says starkly: "No other community in the country would tolerate such a situation."
This, incidentally, isn't a GAA pitch that they are desperate to build. They want a field that is multi-purpose, one serving everybody in the community. Essentially, they just want grass that can be lined and sectioned and used to keep the children off the streets.
JJ O'Mahony is from Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, but is nearly 20 years a Kevin's member now. He's spent time chasing the emigrant's dream in Australia and England, but feels there is something unique to this club that deserves nurturing.
"We recognise we're not living in the country," he stresses. "But if we could have a pitch on the Marrowbone Lane site and one in Teresa's Gardens... that's still less than 10pc of what normal communities have access to. You know, for some reason Kevin's works really well. We have people here from all nationalities, we have solicitors, accountants, builders, tradesmen, public servants, unemployed, a massive span right across the community.
"And the way the kids integrate, whether they're from the Flats or wherever, they're all treated exactly the same. We're trying to be competitive but the first and primary focus has always been the welfare of the kids in the area.
"The only prayer these kids have is if we catch them at six, seven or eight."
But there is a feeling that Dublin City Council has been using the area as "a release valve" for wider problems. That it, maybe, regards the Liberties as some kind of human wilderness best left to its own devices despite the protests of local councillors.
Kevin's have roughly 350 registered players, feeding almost 20 teams, the club offering an embrace to the people here, a sense of fellowship, an identity. But they're effectively trying to build dreams out of a quarry.
And they fear that the weight of official indifference might find formal expression now if the Council gets its way next week. "This is the last chance," O'Mahony warns ominously. "If these sites go, the chance is gone."
On Friday, a letter was sent to Simon Coveney, the new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, calling for his intervention and suggesting that the current Dublin City Development Plan actually contravenes the human rights of Liberties' children as represented in the Aarhus Convention. The letter listed 18 local politicians said to be supporting the Kevin's proposal.
And it is probably important to note here that - pitches apart - Kevin's is a highly self-sufficient club that has co-funded a full-time Games Promotion Officer serving every one of its feeder schools. Their difficulty is finding a field that the Liberties can call their own. One that services the whole, repressed community.
Will they be listened to?
Lonergan's words should ricochet like rifle-wire inside the heads of those empowered to make that call.
"What is the cost of neglecting these people?" he asks. "Future generations in Mountjoy where they'll cost €70-80,000 a year to keep one person. And what are they doing there?
"Wasting their time in a most destructive, depressing environment."
For want of a field?