Dublin’s suburbs are ‘buzzing, thriving’. Well, some of them are

Fr Peter McVerry photographed with his dog Tiny near his home in Ballymun. Photograph: Alan Betson/ The Irish Times
Some suburban areas of Dublin have thrived during the pandemic, with new outdoor facilites creating a tighter sense of community, while other parts of the city continue to cry out for better resources

The south Dublin suburb of Blackrock is a place transformed. Where the affluent seaside village had always been well-presented, if a little bland and uninspiring, since lockdown it is now “buzzing”, “thriving” and has a “new-found sense of community” say locals.

New benches, picnic-tables, a two-way cycle lane protected by a line of raised-bed planters, and young trees positioned along the main street welcome visitors. Even on-street coffee-tables beckon. Traffic has been reduced to one-way and footpaths have been widened to twice or more of their pre-Covid dimensions.

“The changes have improved the village no-end,” says Mary O’Sullivan, who is out walking with her husband Seán. “There’s much more room for socialising outdoors. The sea front is mobbed with swimmers so they come up for their take-away coffees too. It’s lovely.”

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, The Irish Times counts seven coffee shops on the main street amid wine-bars, numerous boutiques, interiors shops and hairdressers.

“The cafes are thriving,” comments another woman. “The new benches and tables have become a really important part of the scene here. You see a lot of older people sitting out.

“There was a nice scene during the summer too of people sitting with a glass of wine or a pint, and that was really nice to see. We have a business here in the village and it has been lovely to see the different generations use it all in different ways and at different times of the day.”

New benches and picnic tables have been added to Main Steet, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
New benches and picnic tables have been added to Main Steet, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The new facilities, confirms Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, have been provided in “a programme of mobility and public realm interventions necessary to meet the challenges presented by Covid-19”.

Similar interventions were made in Dundrum, Dalkey, Glasthule and Sandycove, it says, with smaller scale improvements in Sallynoggin, Cabinteely and Stepaside.

ACROSS THE CITY, in Ballymun, however, things are different. Drawing on 2016 Census data, the independent agency Pobal describes the area as either “disadvantaged” or “very disadvantaged”, with male unemployment rates of up to 53 per cent.

Walking through the sprawling estates, most built between 2006 and 2016 during the vaunted regeneration that promised to transform life in this area, one finds few trees and no benches beyond the few in front of the area’s civic centre.

Greens around the estates are either overgrown and neglected, or vast and empty. Though young people can be seen on bikes, there appear to be no protected cycle lanes. Spotted are two playgrounds, a basketball court and the council-run swimming pool and gym.

A recently-opened Lidl sits among empty retail units. There are bookmakers, chemists, a few fast-food outlets, but no family restaurant or café. The Axis centre has a coffee shop open Monday to Friday, 9am to 2pm only. There is no cinema, no bowling alley.

The message the people in Ballymun get is that they are not important enough for anything to be done with their area

Veteran housing campaigner, Fr Peter McVerry, who has lived in Ballymun, Dublin, for more than 30 years looks out over an expanse of grass just beyond his front door.

“It’s enormous but it is bleak, so unappealing,” he says. “You wouldn’t dream of sitting out there, even on a summer’s day.” Loose litter billows across his view. “It wouldn’t take much to make it more attractive, to make use of it – few trees, shrubs, pathways, benches.

“A community space being left like that would not be tolerated in somewhere like Foxrock. The message the people in Ballymun get is that they are not important enough for anything to be done with their area.”

The houses, built around small, tight roads, are generally solid and well kept. “The regeneration of Ballymun was lovely,” nods McVerry. “They did lovely houses, put in a lovely new youth centre. The Axis centre has state-of-the-art recording facilities. But the culture can be hard. There’s a deep drugs culture, which keeps pulling the area back. The council can’t do a lot about that.”

Fr Peter McVerry and his dog Tiny near his home in Ballymun. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Fr Peter McVerry: A community space being left like that would not be tolerated in somewhere like Foxrock. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Asked about the Covid-related amenities they would like, locals mention more playgrounds, landscaped parks, youth areas with tables, skate parks and dedicated scrambling tracks.

“There is nothing for the kids in Ballymun, especially the teenagers,” says a woman in her 50s. “There’s barely any playgrounds. There’s no benches, nowhere for old people to sit and have a rest. More shops. A café or a restaurant would come in handy too.”

Asked what shops are needed she says: “Something like Penneys, clothes shops because there’s literally nothing like that. There’s nothing to make you want to stay around here. I’ve got my few messages now and I’m just going to go home and get into my pyjamas for the day.” It is lunchtime.

An older man, resident in Ballymun for “over 30 years” and now in the Coultry area “would like to see a lovely park”.

“There’s no clubs for the young people. They are bored. Then they’re lighting fires in the park and we’re having to put them out. The park is ruined. We asked Dublin City Council for a tarmac path in the park because now it’s that sandy surface and when it rains you can’t walk in it. We asked for dog-poo bins. They wouldn’t give us that. It’s a waste of time talking to them. People are sick of it.”

Others, like Ronnie McDonnell, are more upbeat. Co-founder of the Muck ‘n’ Magic community garden he says he is “delighted with life” and feels there is “a lot of enthusiasm ready to go” in the area if it could be harnessed.

“We are trying to build a city farm in Ballymun. There’s loads of land and we are chasing six acres of land and are just waiting for the go-ahead from the council.”

Sometimes when I drive to places like  Malahide or  Howth, and the outdoor amenities there, I feel like I am in different country

Echoing him, deputy lord mayor and local councillor Mary Callaghan, who is based in nearby Finglas, says there’s huge enthusiasm in the community to make the best of the area, to enjoy it.

She cites young people who fish in the large pond amid wetlands in Poppintree park, saying: “They stock it with fish themselves and mind it. But sometimes when I drive to places like Malahide or Howth, and the outdoor amenities there, I feel like I am in different country.”

She says the dearth of outdoor facilities, especially during the pandemic, in areas like Ballymun “can certainly feel discriminatory”.

“The outdoor environment is so important, visual amenities, they affect people’s sense of wellbeing, mental health, physical health, how we feel about where we live. And the fact that we all have to stay within our 5km limit means people aren’t even able to visit other areas.”

She would like to see bike trails, basketball courts, more benches – especially for older people, picnic areas and a teen-hangout spot such as that planned in Finglas, with outdoor gym-equipment, a small amphitheatre, spaces to relax and wifi.

Among arguments often put forward against benches and picnic tables in disadvantaged areas like Ballymun, is their propensity to attract anti-social behaviour.

As Callaghan says, however, this has not prevented their provision in places like Blackrock. Indeed, large gatherings of people drinking outdoors around the new street furniture there last November led to calls for a “crackdown” by gardaí. And while a “well placed source” told The Irish Times at the time gardaí had suggested the furniture be removed, they conceded: “This would not sit well with the community.”

IN A STATEMENT Dublin City Council says its plans “for disadvantaged communities remain very much the same as before Covid 19”.

“The council is engaged in long term social and economic development projects in many disadvantaged communities and our commitment to complete these projects remains.

“A fund of €1.7 million has been allocated to fund social regeneration projects in Ballymun in 2021.” A social plan for the area sets out objectives under seven themes, including community safety, health and wellbeing, child development and family support, arts and culture, and recreation and sport, it says.

Last year the plan supported 16 projects, including the Axis arts centre, the Technical University Dublin music programme, the GAA, Poppintree youth project and Ballymun community alcohol outreach.

Ballymun has a dedicated Garda drugs unit, which continues to interrupt the sale and supply of drugs with drug seizures

Acknowledging empty retail units in Ballymun, the council stresses it does not own them, adding it hopes the opening of sports retailer Decathlon in April and Lidl in October 2020 would help attract more business to the area. These two had created 200 jobs, many of which went to people living in Ballymun, it said. The area had two sports and fitness centres, two GAA clubs, a soccer club, three boxing clubs and a community arts project, it added.

“Two of the parks in the area – Poppintree and Albert College park – have been awarded Green Flags. Other parks, Balcurris Park and Coultry Park, are maintained to the highest possible standard and are a great source of leisure and sport for the community,” said the council.

“There are some open green spaces that have issues with illegal dumping and loose litter, which are continuously addressed by the council through anti-dumping initiatives, recycling days, community clean-ups, enforcement action and with the assistance of our tidy towns committees.”

A Garda statement on the issue says the force liaises regularly with the council and community groups “to devise proactive societal and law enforcement measures in response to the issue of drugs in the Ballymun community.

“Ballymun has a dedicated Garda drugs unit, which continues to interrupt the sale and supply of drugs with drug seizures in Ballymun and Dublin Airport last year of over €1.2 million. As recently as 23rd February 2021, gardaí in Ballymun seized cannabis herb (pending analysis) with an estimated value of €12,000.

“An Garda Síochána continues proactive patrols in the Ballymun area to ensure the safety of the local community.”