Sunday 19 January 2020

Capturing Dublin's lost communities

Non-fiction: Dublin: The Heart of the City, Ronan Sheehan and Brendan Walsh, Lilliput Press, pbk, 156 pages, €15

An elder fashionista in animal print
An elder fashionista in animal print
Laughing urchins
Dublin: The Heart of the City by Ronan Sheehan (Author), Brendan Walsh (Photographer)
Dublin: The Heart of the City
Dublin: The Heart of the City by Ronan Sheehan and Brendan Walsh

Maggie Armstrong

This homage to 'inner city' Dublin in the 1980s, captures a time before it was destroyed by developers and drugs.

The term 'inner city' is so entrenched in our vocabulary you would think it was always there. Meaning well, we use it to describe the poorest, most derelict and dangerous parts of a city. That it could be a pejorative way of referring to a place, one which enhances its bad aspects and creates a distance between classes and communities, doesn't immediately figure.

In Dublin: The Heart of the City, a book of reportage and photography brought out in the 1980s and newly republished by Lilliput Press, author Ronan Sheehan describes how "inner city" emerged to label such places on the northside docks as Summerhill, Rutland Street, Sean McDermott Street, Gardiner Street, Sheriff Street.

"The phase is not of Dublin coinage," he writes. "It originated in the US among architects, sociologists, town planners - professional observers, then journalists took it up. It suggests a category rather than a place, a malaise rather than a situation. It cheats the citizen of his or her local identity."

Laughing urchins
Laughing urchins

Relegated by language to the "inner" of the city, people came to be seen as "outside the moral pale…regarded with a mixture of fear and contempt".

The book redresses this prejudice in two ways - first, startlingly, through the black-and-white photographs taken by Brendan Walsh out walking the neighbourhood. Second, through the text, a combination of observation, interviews with locals, social history, and analysis of crisis issues like crime and the prison system.

First published in 1988, the book has been out of print; for years the sort of book you might discover yellowing on a Dubliner's bookshelf and feel it was your civic duty to steal. It had a tiny cult readership. In John Carney's touching foreward to this edition, he describes his own "dusty, dog-eared" copy as providing key source material for his film Sing Street. Two rousing introductions from the playwright Peter Sheridan are also given in this revamp.

Unfortunately, the pictures have not been printed in the best quality and many of the faces are blurred. No captions have been added, the subjects have no names or backgrounds aside from the wordless story they tell.

That story, when studied, is less polemical than joyful. These warm portraits of street performers, market traders, punks, elder fashionistas in animal print, sassy schoolkids and laughing urchins light up the sad and difficult story told in the chapters. Sheehan's prose is spare and direct, measured in its criticisms of the State's abysmal failure to provide decent housing and fair urban planning for a community many of whose ancestors had been raised in disease-ridden tenements.

He roots his story in the 1930s, the first decade of the Free State, when many of the people in later chapters were born. In the 1930s, doors were left unlocked, crime was low and jobs were stable. People didn't have much materially, but enjoyed a quality of life.

Dublin: The Heart of the City by Ronan Sheehan (Author), Brendan Walsh (Photographer)
Dublin: The Heart of the City by Ronan Sheehan (Author), Brendan Walsh (Photographer)

Dublin's luck seems to have hurtled into poverty in the 1970s. Among the economic disasters for the area was the arrival of shipping containers for cargoes - "containerisation" - which caused the mass redundancy of dockers by replacing the well-paid, heavy labour that had sustained families for generations.

We get to know a State which is very new, run by middle-class men who were distant from the realities of the working-class, whose priority was the economy and not the protection of its children. Tony Gregory created a breakthrough with the 'Gregory Deal' of 1982, when the independent TD negotiated a massive regeneration package with Charlie Haughey. The building of excellent Corporation houses "gave people hope", but Fianna Fáil lost the next election and the deal became a "dead letter".

The housing policy of Dublin Corporation was another grand disappointment. In the 1960s and 70s, property speculators bought up parts of the city for use as offices; a property boom encouraged the Corporation to purchase land for rehousing people outside the city, causing the destruction of communities in its heart. It is sobering to read how the Port and Docks Board debated using the land north-east of the river to create a labour intensive industry that would build employment in the area - instead, the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) was developed.

The author's observations are based not only on his community involvement on something called the North City Action Project, but on his work as a solicitor. Most gruelling is the emergence of heroin into the foreground of the city's problems. In 1982, around the time a minister for health announced there was no serious drug problem in Ireland, the author arrives at the Children's Court to appear for four teenage girls charged with shoplifting.

One is pregnant, none of their fathers are employed. Outside the courtroom they are distracted and giggling. He is shocked to realise they are "high as kites", "possessed by a strange euphoria".

Soon gardai, solicitors and prison officers are all telling their drug stories, describing the "glass-eyed, vacant, hypnotised expression, which had suddenly taken possession of a large proportion of the youth". In a pub by the quays on Halloween night in 1982, boys and girls are buying £10 heroin deals.

Laughing urchins
Laughing urchins

"Perhaps it was a mere fad," Sheehan writes. "Then people realised it was much more than that as the clinics were swamped and the first deaths were recorded… Dublin had a heroin crisis". That these words read so freshly, nearly 30 years on, is no good thing. Vulnerable young people are targeted by gangland pushers and already unstable families are fractured. One terrified mother of three addict sons has to turn away her one of them as he beats at the door in the night. We see a profile of a people who helped each other out during the worst of times but who, demoralised by drugs and crime, had to close doors on each other.

This is an unusual book, with nothing quite like it out there. Sheehan is also the author of novels including Foley's Asia, and The Irish Catullus, a translation of poetry. Meeting him here as a tall, blonde, middle-class Dublin lawyer makes for an amusing contrast with the people whose lives he sets out to record. He is called a "do-gooder" and hollered at in a pool hall as "Fritz". But the courage of this joint investigation inspires a call to arms for readers in 2016 to get up off our armchairs and get to know the hearts of our cities.

Dublin: The Heart of the City has too many riches not to recommend. Put it on your coffee table, but you might shock your guests.

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