The inner lives of Dublin’s inner city: the art of building a community

Poet Nessa O’Mahony on learning lessons in community at Dublin Adult Learning Centre

My writing prompts unleashed some extraordinary tales of ordinary life in Dublin’s inner city from the ’50s up until the current day. Photographs: Pádraig Burke

My writing prompts unleashed some extraordinary tales of ordinary life in Dublin’s inner city from the ’50s up until the current day. Photographs: Pádraig Burke

 

On a bright clear day in late spring last year, I drove my battered blue Almera into Mountjoy Square in Dublin’s inner city, looking for somewhere to park. My search was more tentative than normal; the radio news that morning had been full of the most recent gangland shooting and I scanned the area anxiously for signs of tension.

Sure enough, as I drove around one side of the square and turned into another, I saw a Garda checkpoint on the far side, stopping cars and speaking to their drivers. At that moment, I spotted an empty space on the far side of the road and swung my car into a U-turn so that I could park there. As I straightened up, I observed in my rear-view mirror a well-built, casually dressed man striding towards me. I rolled down my window and waited.

Nessa O’Mahony: Reading their stories and working on their poems, I discovered so much about the art of community-building
Nessa O’Mahony: Reading their stories and working on their poems, I discovered so much about the art of community-building

“It looked like you were trying to avoid our checkpoint, Missus. Why would that be?’ the man asked, polite but insistent.

“Not at all, not at all,” I stuttered, sang-froid disappearing at the sight of the shotgun casually slung across him. “I was just looking to park the car … I’m teaching a class here this morning.”

“Oh yes, where would that be?” he asked, uninterested in my answer as he proceeded to check my car’s tax and insurance certs.

“The Dublin Adult Learning Centre – I’m teaching a creative writing class there”.

I might have equally mentioned Ancient Greek, for all the interest he showed. The car discs had checked out and a distracted woman in her early 50s with a south Dublin accent didn’t fit the profile of suspected gang member, presumably. He wandered back to the checkpoint as I gathered my composure and headed off to DALC for my morning class.

As I walked towards the building, a four-storey, clematis-railinged Georgian terraced house, I wished that plainclothes officer had come with me, simply to sit in the back of the room and listen for 90 minutes to the stories I’d been hearing over the previous few weeks. I was halfway through a Poet in the Community residency, initiated by the Irish Writers Centre with funding from Dublin City Council. The brief was to explore the past through the students’ personal histories; my writing prompts unleashed some extraordinary tales of ordinary life in Dublin’s inner city during the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, right up until the current day.

Most of the participants, men and women in their 50s and 60s in the main, had grown up within a square mile of Mountjoy Square, and as they trawled through their memories, what came across more than anything else was the profound sense of community they had experienced. Inner-city Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s was still a place where people were in and out of each other’s houses, kids playing in the square whilst parents chatted on the steps and kept an eye on their offspring.

Quite a few of the group had grown up in the Corporation Buildings complex off Foley Street, built in 1905 and demolished in 1972. From their descriptions, life there might be tough, but it was also vibrant and connected. There was an intricate system of self-sufficient commerce going on. Children might be sent out with prams or boxcars to collect fuel from the fuel depot which they’d bring back and distribute amongst their neighbours. Women on the ground floor might cook toffee apples in their kitchens, or send their kids to get offcast sticks of rock from the Williams and Woods factory on Kings Inn Street. These would be broken up into small candy, bagged and sold out the kitchen window.

The children were equally entrepreneurial. They would scour the surrounding areas for materials to build “egaas” – little shanties of pallets, wood and anything else they could find. There would be intense competition over whose was the best construction – no need of Dermot Bannon in those days.

Nostalgia may sugar-coat, but what struck me more than anything else as I listened to these generous men and women sharing their memories was that there was no sense of fear or isolation in the communities they were describing. Life might have been tough but there was always an ingenious solution to most problems and always a neighbour to help out and supply what was wanting.

It was a rich life, in everything but the materialistic sense of that word, and I envied them that richness. Before working at DALC, I might have dismissed inner-city residents with the same sorts of stereotypes perpetuated by the news bulletins I’d been listening to that morning. But reading their stories and working on their poems, I discovered so much about the art of community-building, of the importance of mutual support. I just wish that plainclothes officer had made the same discovery.

Most of the participants had grown up within a square mile of Mountjoy Square
Most of the participants had grown up within a square mile of Mountjoy Square

Making an Egaa
By Jason Egan

Get the wood first
pallets are best
for walls, roof.
Drag them
for yards,
find the place
the best corner
to build it.
Furniture next
sofas, chairs
commandeered
from the flats, a rug,
oilcloth for the damp.
Last, light:
church candles
just right
to light the dark;
your own little gaff.
egaa, egaa,
all the gang

Mothers Keeping an Eye
By Derek Nibbs

I can still see them,
when the evenings got warm
and we spilled out on the square
and the women came out
to knit and chat and yap
on the steps of the tenement
while we played our play,
going from hall to hall,
racing through the park.
They kept an eye
on all of us, on the lines
of the plain and the purl,
throwing the wool over
as they danced their needles
between their conversation.
I can still see
how the needles crossed,
the wool looping
round the top
forming a line
with no dropped stitches.

Cutting the turf
By Bernie Hogan

I couldn’t wait to get home.
First in the queue,
knock at the door,
first in, first served,
get the docket quick,
then back to the house
for the sacks, and the boxcar
in the pram shed.
I used to bring
a nail with me
in case the wheel
came off.
I knew the way like
the back of my hand,
hoped the latest delivery
was in. If not, it meant
a trip to Ballybough
for the turf;
it was hard getting
up the hill with the boxcar full.
Delighted flying down
with the weight off me.
I wouldn’t think
about the stairs,
the six flights,
until I had to.

Nessa O'Mahony is a poet and teacher. This DALC Writer-In-Residence was an Irish Writers Centre initiative funded by Dublin City Council. To find about more information about Irish Writers Centre residencies for writers click here

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