If you’re in Dublin, chances are you’re not far from a building site. Maybe there are hoardings around it: computer-generated graphics of happy shoppers, stock images of people jogging or congregating around a computer screen, drinking coffee and smiling radiant smiles. There are probably slogans on it: “Imagine a place like no other” or “Manhattan living in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands”.
These marketing materials are defining features of the contemporary urban landscape, in Dublin and throughout the world. It can feel, at times, as if the city itself is a sort of sales pitch, encouraging its inhabitants to buy into its own fantasy image of itself.
In Speak Softly, Go Far, my new audio work for Dublin Fringe Festival, I explore what it feels like to live in the gentrified city, and imagine what might come after it.
As someone who comes from a small town, I've always been fascinated by cities. When I was 15, a new shopping centre opened in my hometown, Drogheda, and walking through its glass doors for the first time was the most exciting moment in my life up until that point.
It was like in a film when someone from the countryside catches a glimpse of the magical Manhattan skyline on their way to the city from JFK Airport. Truly dumbstruck by the scale of its beauty, they stare silently from the backseat of a yellow taxi, mouth agape, shining lights reflected on their face.
I had always dreamed of living in a city, and when the shopping centre opened, with its high street brands and coffee chains, it felt like I didn’t have to wait until I was old enough to leave home: the city itself had come to me. I could sit in Insomnia, among the low lighting and wall vinyl display of the Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, and Brandenburg Gate, a song playing in the background that sounded exactly like Alanis Morrissette, but somehow, was not Alanis Morrissette.
Venues that I used to go to have turned into hotels, places in which I used to live cheaply are now unaffordable
I could have a big frothy hot chocolate, whipped cream and tiny marshmallows peppered on top. I could browse HMV for hours at a time, reading the blurbs off DVD boxes and flicking through the poster rack, with images of heavy metal bands, Keep Calm and Carry On motifs, and orange and white prints of the Choose Life monologue from Trainspotting.
But by the time I left Drogheda, the new shopping centre didn’t seem like the metropolis that it once was. HMV was long gone, as were many of the high street shops. A second phase of the development was planned but never completed; he frame of the building was constructed before the financial crash put a stop to it. Its shell remains, with big concrete columns and sheets of brown rusted metal sagging towards the foundations.
I moved to Dublin when I was 20. It was May 2012 and I rented a flat right in the middle of Ranelagh with my best friend Edel. The flat was tiny, but we loved it. We hung pictures of George Michael, Sinead O'Connor and for reasons to do with our burgeoning understanding of irony, Pope John Paul II. We each paid €90 a week, which at the time, we considered to be an extortionate sum. It went up by €5 every year, so that when I left that flat in 2015, just after the marriage equality referendum, I was paying €105 a week. Recently, Edel saw the flat advertised on a property website seeking more than €1,200 a month.
I moved to London when I was 26. Many people I knew had already left Dublin and I was afraid I might be the last one there. It was November 2017, and I moved straight into a central London warehouse, home to 11 other people and one horny cat. The warehouse was 10 minutes from London Bridge, and I could see the Shard from my front door. I paid only £416 per month, which included internet and a fortnightly house shop.
Living there were among the best years in my life. I’d been happy before, but only ever became aware of it after the happiness was already gone. Now, my happiness was big and vivid, and I couldn’t help but notice it.
At the end of 2020, our landlord began the process of evicting us. It was in a prime location and he could make more money off it than we could ever have paid him.
I turned 30 this year. I never thought I’d mind getting older, but in the months of lockdown leading up to my birthday, I found myself getting depressed. The things that had made life possible in my 20s – living cheaply in cities, going to parties, spending time with my friends – had been gentrified, redeveloped and marketed out of existence. Covid, obviously, hadn’t helped either.
London or Dublin didn’t hold any of the promise that they used to, and while only a few years ago it felt that my life and the lives of my friends could take any number of varied directions, it felt as if those lives had congealed into something smaller. People hunkered down, risk-averse, and it felt like the realms of possibility had shrunk.
I tell these stories to give small, specific examples of how a city can change, an intimate history of broader social and economic trends. I’m interested in the ways that political forces shape a person’s emotional life.
In Speak Softly, Go Far, audience members are invited to go to a place in the city that was important to them, but which is now gone. There, they will listen to a 15 minute audio, on headphones, by themselves. They’ll be encouraged to consider their own intimate history of the city, how it’s changed and how they themselves have changed.
Walking through the cities that I’ve lived in, I am struck by how drastically the landscape has transformed in the past 10 years. Venues that I used to go to have turned into hotels, places in which I used to live cheaply are now unaffordable. In Speak Softly, Go Far I question the psychological impacts – on the individual and on society – of living in the cities in which the realms of possibility are so severely curtailed, and in which the future becomes nearly impossible to imagine.
Oisín McKenna is an award-winning writer and artist. Speak Softly, Go Far runs at this year's Dublin Fringe Festival, 2021, from Sept 11-26.