'I'd never met anyone from Blackrock before'

Inner-city Dublin teenagers and boys from Blackrock College meet every week to make music and gain a greater understanding of each other’s lives

Promotional video for Swan Youth Services music group who meet to rehearse and perform weekly in Ballybough in Dublin's North inner-city. Video courtesy: SWS

 

Every Thursday since September in an old redbrick building called St Agatha’s Hall off the North Strand, teenagers from the inner city play music with privately educated boys from Blackrock College. It’s a programme run as part of the Swan Youth Services music group and it’s a good, noisy place to be.

In the basement, a bearded baby-boomer guitar teacher called John White is talking to Tamzin Brogan and Megan Kavanagh, teenaged members of the music group’s committee, while a youth leader called Dylan Genocky puts a drum kit together.

“They tell me I’m just a hippy who wants to play hippy music,” chuckles John, who lives around the corner.

“He has me doing Mr Bojangles and Country Roads,” says Tamzin. A lot of these kids have an unlikely love of Creedence Clearwater Revival thanks to John.

The wider music programme at Swan has been running, overseen by project leader Eibhlín Harrington, since 2004, and music means a lot to these kids.

I wouldn’t see them as posh people or stuck-up people and hopefully they wouldn’t see us as knackers in tracksuits”

“I didn’t know I was musical [before],” says Melvin Michaels, a talented rapper and musician. “You subconsciously drop your boundaries here.”

Sophie Geoghegan tells me she started writing music aged eight when her father died. “I wrote a song to him.”

A metaller named Dillon Radford plucks an unplugged bass guitar and tells me he has social anxiety and Asperger’s Syndrome, and that music helps him express myself. “If I press a string it’s like expressing a feeling.”

Megan Kavanagh (16) playing guitar in the Swan youth services music group in the Swan Centre in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Megan Kavanagh (16) playing guitar in the Swan youth services music group in the Swan Centre in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The boys from Blackrock stroll in. “All right lads,” says John. He doffs an invisible cap to one of them. “Gavin, how art thou?” he says. Gavin laughs.

Stereotypes

Eoghan Cleary, who worked in Swan as a youth worker and now teaches in Blackrock, masterminded this programme. The teenagers work on music together but they also sit down and discuss class, inequality and stereotypes. What are the stereotypes about inner-city kids?

“That we’ll drop out of school and have a baby or be on the labour or in tracksuits all the time,” says Tamzin.

“Sure look at myself,” says Dylan, who’s fixing a mike stand and happens to be dressed in a tracksuit.

“I wouldn’t see them as posh people or stuck-up people and hopefully they wouldn’t see us as knackers in tracksuits,” says Tamzin quietly. “I hope they see us as friends.”

“You asked them that, didn’t you?” says Eibhlín. “You were worried about it.”

“That was a big thing in my head,” says Tamzin. “I wanted to know what they thought of us.”

Today the group is putting together an entry for the Irish Youth Music Awards (IYMA). They’re split into four different bands who have collaborated on songs. Each will perform and then a band and, separately, a song, will be chosen to represent them at the IYMAs.

They all play and everyone claps and cheers supportively. Tamzin’s group are chosen as the winning band. They’re called Hostile Feelings, she says. “I couldn’t have come up with a better name for you,” laughs Eibhlín.

On the first day we saw people by the canal blatantly dealing drugs and that was really nerve-wracking”

The winning song, Firewall, is written and performed by Gavin Jones from Blackrock College and Claudio Marsella whose family have long run the nearby Luigi’s takeaway. They’ve gone for the simple moniker Gavin and Claudio.

“Everyone has a firewall around them,” explains Claudio. “I wrote those lyrics about how I protect myself from things.”

“He’s better at lyrics,” says Gavin, who’s on the Blackrock rugby team. “He just chucks out great lines and phrases from his head. I do the melody.”

“Ah, I couldn’t do it without you,” says Claudio.

‘Share ideas’

Would they have met without a programme like this? “The only time we’d ever see each other was in here,” says Gavin. “It’s nice to share ideas and stuff like that, through music.”

“The southside and northside can live at peace!” says Claudio.

Did they have preconceptions? “I thought I was coming into a madhouse,” says Gavin. There’s a shriek and someone rushes by. Claudio and Gavin laugh. “I mean it is a madhouse, but in a good way.”

“I thought they’d be snobby and uptight,” says Claudio. “But they’re lovely lads.”

Has it changed their attitude to the city? “Definitely,” says Gavin. “I walked here today on my own. In the past, I’d have had hood up and my head down but I consider myself part of this area now.”

“And if they get lost they can ring us and we tell them where to go,” says Claudio.

Certain things come up repeatedly when talking to these kids (and, lest there’s any doubt, they’re all good, clever, talented kids). Their surprise and pleasure at the things they have in common and how well they can get along, their appreciation for each other’s perspectives, and, more heartbreakingly, a deepening understanding of social inequality.

Pizza arrives and a more informal sing-song develops. Dillon riffs, Melvin raps and everyone performs a spirited version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain? John White shakes his head in appreciation. “I wonder if the musicians I played with over the years are playing with the next generation coming up?”

I visit again a few weeks later. In a kitchenette upstairs some girls are schooling Eibhlín in “Dublin slang”. “Yeah, but do you know ‘culchie slang’?” asks Eibhlín. There’s some good-natured eye-rolling from the girls.

When you hear about how hard people’s lives are, sometimes all you can do is grieve”

Downstairs Thomas McCormack, one of the Blackrock boys, is getting people to sign a card that he bought for Tamzin’s birthday. He didn’t know what to expect when Eoghan first came to them with the idea of coming here, he tells me. “But they’re our friends now, a second family.”

It’s made him think about his advantages, he says. His father is in the property business and his mother is a business manager. “If you go to a good school and you’re well off, you’ll probably get the job you want.”

Shocked

He’s been shocked by the things his new friends have to deal with. “On the first day we saw people by the canal blatantly dealing drugs and that was really nerve-wracking.”

Do the Blackrock boys have problems the Swan kids don’t have? “We deal with anxiety and depression which they have almost more of anyway.” He sighs. “When you hear about how hard people’s lives are, sometimes all you can do is grieve.”

Today the group are doing more preparation for the IYMAs. Everyone has a role: music, lights, sound, PR or photography. Eibhlín puts order on the industrious musical chaos by sporadically shouting “Hey!” and “Listen up!” She calls the Blackrock lads “Blackrockers” and the Swan kids “Swanners”. At the break she gathers a group to talk to me. We sit in a circle and I ask them what the programme was like on the first day.

“I thought we weren’t going to be able to get on with each other,” says Tamzin.

Why? “I don’t know. I’d never met anyone from Blackrock.”

Had the Blackrock lads ever met anyone from around here before? They shake their heads. “I never crossed the Liffey,” says Tadhg Egan. He laughs. “Only messing!”

Jessica Kirwan (17) learns guitar from Brendan Maher at the Swan Youth Services in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Jessica Kirwan (17) learns guitar from Brendan Maher at the Swan Youth Services in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

“We’re more comfortable with each other now,” says Lauren Keogh. “We’ve become friends.”

“That really happened on our weekend away,” says Tadhg, referring to a trip they took together to Wexford.

Everyone loved that trip, where they got to talk in more depth about their lives. The Blackrock boys found it especially eye-opening. “We’re much more sheltered,” says Peter Coyle. “It was really surprising to me that living only half-an-hour away the difference would be so huge.”

If you put your head down at school you can do what you want, but based where we are we’ll probably be lucky working in Centra”

Some of the Blackrock boys’ friends don’t get what they do here and are patronising about it. “They say ‘it’s so nice you play music for the people over there,’” says Tom Dwan. “It’s not like that.”

Damo or Ivor

In Wexford, they discussed class and preconceptions. Eibhlín brings out some sheets they created filled with stereotypical notions. At the centre of each sheet is a picture of Damo or Ivor from the RTÉ sitcom. The stereotypes about the inner-city kids are clearly more damaging.

“That we’re walking around in pyjamas and Adidas tracksuits,” says Lauren. “That we’re junkies and robbers and scruffs.”

Do you worry people perceive you like this? “Yes,” says Tamzin. “All the time.”

In general, when prompted to talk about the unfairness of the system, the Blackrock boys are more inclined to speak. The Swan kids seem more reluctant. Later, Eibhlín explains that one of the challenges with the programme is that the kids often prefer to focus on the positive things they have in common rather than the painful things that divide them.

Teenagers from Dublin's inner city and Blackrock College at the Swan Youth Services music group
L-R: Peter Coyle, Lauren Keogh (in purple), Tadhg Egan (white hoodie), Tom Dwan (standing), Sophie Murphy (Sitting with guitar) Ruairi Moore (standing in yellow), Tamzin Brogan (seated purple), Sophie Geoghegan (standing black hoodie), Thomas McCormack (seated with guitar) Rob Jordan (sitting on speaker) Dillon Ford (back turned with bass guitar) Megan Kavanagh (seated ripped jeans)

The Blackrock boys talk about their school’s old boys’ network, the Blue and White Club, which helps pupils get jobs – as bankers, lawyers, business people. Do the Swan kids know any bankers or doctors or lawyers?

“Not one,” says Tamzin.

So what do they want to be when they leave school? The Blackrock boys say they want to be social workers, film producers, teachers and musicians. Then Tom says: “It kind of fits the stereotype, but I want to be a lawyer.”

“Now you know a lawyer, Tamzin,” says Eibhlín, and everyone laughs.

Do the Swan kids feel like they have fewer options? “If you put your head down at school you can do what you want,” says Tamzin, “but based where we are we’ll probably be lucky working in Centra.”

What does she want to do? “I want to act and if I’m not good at that I want to do social work,” she says.

I’m struck that Tamzin – who is very talented and has a part in the production of Annie in the Helix – thinks she mightn’t be good enough.

Justin Anene (13) plays guitar in the Swan youth services music group in the Swan Centre in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Justin Anene (13) plays guitar in the Swan youth services music group in the Swan Centre in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Contrarian

The break ends. There’s a discussion about a trip to see Blood Brothers in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Tamzin oversees a vote about where to go for food. Eddie Rockets is chosen, though there is one contrarian. “That was me,” says a winningly earnest Blackrock boy named Ruairi Moore.

“He’s the idealist of the group,” says Eibhlín. “He aspires to be vegan.”

A birthday cake emerges for Tamzin and as they sing Happy Birthday to her, Eoghan talks about the project. He didn’t know quite what to expect, he says, and isn’t quite sure where it will lead. “Our work is informed by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator,” he says. “He talked about the pedagogy of the oppressed. Part of that is getting angry about social structures that are oppressing you so that you take advantage of services that are on offer. Hopefully, they have a realisation that things aren’t fair and it’s not because of any choices they or their parents made.”

Does he worry that the programme might help the Blackrock boys become more well-rounded people but that it might just depress the Swanners? He sighs. “It is a fear. And one we identified before we started…. My pet hate is raising awareness of how unfair the world is. There’s no point in raising awareness unless we do something about it.”

We’re young kids. We can’t change the world.” There’s a slight pause. “Yet.”

He suggests I return another day and talk to the Swan kids on their own, so a week later I find myself sitting with some of them in a room which Dylan Genocky is transforming into a recording studio. Outside, bands are practicing and occasionally teenagers stick their heads in the door. “It’s a bad time, lads!” says Eibhlín.

What have they learned from the programme? “You see [the Blackrock boys] achieving and want to be doing that yourself,” says Tamzin. “You want to be on the same path even though you’re probably not going to make it.”

“I don’t find them any better than us,” says a boy called Calvin D’Arcy Kanda. “I don’t look at them like they’re posh or have big money. They don’t brag . . . They don’t come out in top-of-the-range clothes or BMWs or pull out wallets filled with money. They don’t do that because they have respect and respect goes a long way.”

‘Easier’

“Do you think their lives are easier?” asks Eibhlín.

“Nobody’s life is easier than anyone else,” says Calvin. “They all have their moments where they break down. Every family has breakdowns.”

Eoghan Cleary (left) teaches Daniel O’Connor the violin in the music group in The Swan Youth Services in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Eoghan Cleary (left) teaches Daniel O’Connor the violin in the music group in The Swan Youth Services in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

All of the Blackrock boys are struck by how open the Swan kids are. “The kids here have taught me to be more open,” one of them says.

“In some ways, their lives are harder because they have to live up to something,” says Kian Radford, Dillon’s brother.

“Yeah,” says Eibhlín. “But in Wexford some of you got upset. You were saying, ‘They don’t have to deal with all the stuff we have to deal with and that’s not fair.’ They don’t have the stresses that you have . . . Young people experience more death in this area than you would if you live in Blackrock and there’s something really messed up about that . . . You’ve already come up against more than the guys in Blackrock might come up against in their entire lives and you shouldn’t forget about that. It gives you strength.”

Do they feel that’s true? “One hundred per cent,” says Tamzin.

“We’ve seen more terrifying things,” says Kian. “We’ve witnessed shootings and car crashes . . . I don’t want to see those things. I don’t want to pass the canal and see an addict with a needle in his stomach.”

“Seeing drug dealers sell to parents on front of their kids, I hate that,” say Calvin. “It gets me down.”

And then there’s harassment from guards and security guards. Calvin was followed around a shop near the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre when they went on their outing the night before. “It’s how we dress and talk,” says Tamzin.

Would that happen to the Blackrock boys? They laugh. “No.”

Do you think they understand what you have to deal with? “They get it when we tell them,” says Calvin. “But they wouldn’t fully get it.”

What would they like to do after school? “I want to do social care,” says Megan.

Translator

“I’d like to be a translator,” says Calvin. “I always had an interest in languages. When I finish school, I want to go to Germany for a year.”

One of them mentions a job they’d like to do, but adds, “If I said it to my mam she’d laugh at me.”

“I guess mas and das just want you to make money,” says another teenager, “to live a better life than they lived. I lived in a one-bedroom council flat for eight years in the same room as my ma and da and brother . . . You can’t study on a mattress.”

We all know we’re equal and we’re all friends and have grown relationships we’ll remember forever”

Calvin is campaigning to get his school to offer after-school study. “Because lots of us have problems at home that makes it hard to study.”

They’ve all had issues with education. Some have dropped out of school over the years, though they’re all back now. Their schools don’t offer the subjects they’d like and, they say, the teachers don’t understand the stresses of their lives. One girl talks about staying in bed some days because she’s too sad to go to school. “But I’ll be the only person in my family to do the Leaving Cert so I’ll do my best.”

They visited Blackrock College recently. What was it like? “Harry Potter, ” says Calvin, and everyone laughs. “It’s all up-to-date but outside it looks real old.”

“When you go inside, my good Jesus,” says Kian. “The PE stuff is all automatic.”

“They have a physiotherapist,” says Tamzin.

“And a personal doctor,” says Calvin.

“And a swimming pool,” say Megan.

“They use it when it’s too cold for outdoor sports. I told them that in our school we have a ping-pong table,” says Tamzin.

“I’d love to go to that school for just a week and see how it works,” says Calvin.

“We’d be kicked out,” says Kian, shaking his head. “That’s not our kind of school. They’re very strict. We’re messers.”

Worse messers

I tell them that I’m pretty sure there are worse messers in Blackrock. How does seeing the Blackrock boys’ lives affect them?

“You think, I’ll probably never get to see that kind of life,” says Tamzin, “and probably my kids or my grandkids will never see it . . . That kind of freaks me out.”

Can they use their new knowledge to change things?

“You can’t expect a gang of 16-year-olds to fix this,” says Kian, “to go to the council and say, ‘We want to change how this works. We want to live in big houses and go to Blackrock College or Belvedere without paying those fees.’ We’re young kids. We can’t change the world.” There’s a slight pause. “Yet.”

Tamzin wants to stress how much they like the Blackrock boys and value their friendship.

Jessica Kirwan (17) at the Swan youth services music group in the Swan Centre in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Jessica Kirwan (17) at the Swan youth services music group in the Swan Centre in Ballybough, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

“We all know we’re equal and we’re all friends and have grown relationships we’ll remember forever,” she says. “We’re not always going to like where we’re from. We’re not going to have the same opportunities, but you just deal with it and be proud of where you’re from and who you are. You try your best.”

That Sunday, as part of the Five Lamps Festival, the members of the Swan Music Group and the Blackrock College boys perform songs on a canal barge to family and friends. We watch as the sun goes down behind them. They’re all talented, funny, hard-working kids. They don’t look that different to me.

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