'A new community like Ongar is a blank canvas'
In the HBO drama Deadwood, ambitious frontiersmen erect new towns in record time. Dublin has seen similarly speedily erected suburbs. The Dublin West Constituency has been one of the fastest-growing regions in the city.
The westward expansion which began with the Wright Plan in the 1960s (this proposed the establishment of four new “towns” around Blanchardstown, Tallaght, Lucan and Clondalkin) continued through the economic boom, with developer-led towns such as Ongar and Tyrrelstown.
Ongar village was launched by Manor Park Homes in 2001 on a stud farm formerly owned by the Aga Khan. The area, which I’m being guided around by Blanchardstown Area Partnership community development officer Monica Lawless, is nestled between sister developments Barnwell and Phibblestown. It’s built around an ersatz 19th century village centre, at the end of which sits the original Ongar House.
“There was some talk of the house being opened up but I don’t know what’s happening with that now,” says Lawless.
Thousands of duplex apartments and houses radiate out from this. In Dublin 15, 23.5 per cent of the population aren’t originally from Ireland. But really, everyone here is a blow-in.
“The typical residents in Ongar would be young couples who moved because they weren’t able to buy where their families were traditionally from,” says Derek Hollingsworth, who moved here with his wife in 2006. “Some family members think we’ve moved to the far side of the moon.”
Fight for amenities
Over the years Ongar’s young multicultural community has had to fight for many amenities – proper educational facilities (“My daughter was initially taught in a Portakabin,” says resident Gerard Sheehan); a postbox in the village; working street lights; transport routes (the 39 and 39A buses are apparently pretty regular, although Hansfield train station has yet to open); and a proper array of local businesses.
The village centre’s establishments include several restaurants, a computer shop, a Dunnes Stores, a Polish grocery, an estate agent, a branch of Curves and a butcher’s shop.
“When I first went out to Ongar there was nothing there but a school,” says Lawless. “The houses were already built by then and the village was there but there wasn’t any community spirit as such . . . We set up an Ongar development group with Fingal County Council and we work on behalf of the Ongar area to provide a strong, safe and happy community.”
There are challenges. Recently Manor Park Homes went into receivership and there have been issues with building standards in some dwellings. An all-weather football pitch features a few discarded shopping trolleys. It is controlled by the council after a period in which it was vandalised and set on fire. “There does seem to be a small bit of an antisocial bent to Ongar,” says Anne, a young mother accompanied by a grinning toddler. “I used to take him to the playground all the time but it’s always vandalised. Even the little propeller thing he used to play with was burnt off.”
Certain things have helped – the presence of the recently opened Kelly’s pub and a community centre, which hosts political clinics, many sports activities and services of the Angel of God Ministry Church group.
In the recently opened Rendezvous Cafe, Fiona Coulter and Michelle Soden, sitting with their young babies, are conscious of a growing sense of community, but are more downbeat about its lack of roots.
“Where my parents live in Kerry, everybody is watching out for each other,” says Soden. “Here we know our neighbours to say ‘hi’ to, but that’s it.”
Three Romanian men are sitting at a neighbouring table. They like Dublin, even the weather (“I like the rain,” says Nicu Saracui, with a wink), but tell a similar story. “In Romania the neighbours know every single name of the family but here while people are nice, it’s just ‘Hello – hi, how are you?’ and that’s it,” says Gabriel Rusu.
Gerard Sheehan, who meets me after a night shift despite being exhausted, feels there is a strong sense of community slowly developing in Ongar. He, Lawless, Hollingsworth and others are doing their best to mobilise community spirit and fight for amenities. It really isn’t the wild west. There’s a friendly atmosphere. There are a lot of babies. There’s even a new Tidy Towns committee.
“We thought that would be a good idea,” explains Hollingsworth. “It’s not about winning, but about getting people to engage in the community and get to know each other . . . A new community like Ongar – it’s a blank canvas.”