A snapshot of the 1980s: Dublin, the Heart of the City revisited

Peter Sheridan salutes a book of images and essays celebrating inner-city Dublin, a place ‘collectively owned in a way that Churchtown, Howth or Dalkey could never be’

 

I’m delighted that Ronan Sheehan’s incisive prose and Brendan Walsh’s perceptive photographs are to be republished for a new generation. Much has changed in Dublin since those words and images were first seen almost 30 years ago.

The car is everywhere. The moving variety and the parked variety. On the street where I grew up, Seville Place, cattle once held sway. The smell they left behind after their trek to the Liverpool boat gave Dublin an agricultural feel. Apart from the cattle, no one knew where Seville Place was. Now it is a major link in the rush to cross the city via the Samuel Beckett Bridge. Everyone knows Seville Place now, because everyone is in a hurry. No one walks under its railway bridge, though, the widest street bridge in these islands, or past St Laurence O’Toole’s School, where Luke Kelly learned to sing in the school choir, or past the church with the tallest steeple in the city, because it is a steeple from the ground up.

The street was hanging on for dear life back in 1988 – that was the place where boys hung out at corners or played football and girls played piggy beds, or linked arms and posed – but now the street as a playground has passed away. It was on its last legs back then and now it has succumbed to the car.

History is an expression of who and what we are. It is not fixed. We can change things. The Heart of the City was a snapshot of Dublin at a point in time. Some things have moved on since its publication. Tony Gregory has sadly passed away; but the seat he won has become a safe Independent one in the north inner city. Thanks to his political activism, houses still stand on Summerhill and dealers still sell their wares in Moore Street today, although the plan had been to abolish both. His greatest legacy is that others have continued his fight.

Some battles have been hard fought and won. That struggle was reflected and predicted in the pages of The Heart of the City thirty years ago. The war for the city could be lost if we are not vigilant. Let us keep our eyes open to developments in the thirty years ahead.
Peter Sheridan
February 2016

He stood under the dense railway bridge that spans the top end of Sheriff Street, and the river of oily water that seeped through the concrete overhead provided a constant threat to his displayed wares of shoelaces and holy pictures. Every day he braved the danger at his perch by the damp pillar in the shadows.

You noticed the shoes first, as a child: one black, one brown, the toe like a mouth with its protruding tongue of leather, the lips parting puppet-like to his moving toes, the whole disintegrating mass held together by frayed twine in a single knot. The matching mechanism that held the buttonless overcoat together and the open-necked shirt with the impotent stud impressed themselves as you grew to take them in. But it was the eyes most of all, the fixed eyes with the weeping crescent moons that burned red as you passed.

When the blind beggar died he left several thousand pounds to the Little Sisters of the Holy Flower in Sheriff Street, the same nuns who dispense the legendary penny dinners of which he daily partook. O city of contradictions, where shoelaces and the Kingdom of Heaven go hand in hand!

Annie Apple was the custodian of the sister bridge in Seville Place. From her concrete throne at the base of the pillar she surveyed all trespassers. Annie, sober, was a minor ordeal, but drunk even her sublime was ridiculous. A favoured topic, if you were lucky, was the castigation and damnation of the Princes of the Church (nothing spared to the sensibilities of local curates), which led to the general consensus that she was a non-practising Protestant. On crueller days she’d hitch up her skirt, pull down her knickers and pee profusely while she threatened the constabulary if you as much as peeped; but worst of all was the nothing-barred lecture on the proper use of “that instrument between your legs”.

John the Boy, no other name known, was terrified of her to the point of pathological fear. John the Boy, though an adult, was a messenger boy extraordinaire to the community. His mornings were spent collecting slop for two local pig yards: if you thought Dublin anything more than a jumped-up town at the edge of a large farm then the cow-pie Seville Place skating rink, fresh load daily, gave the lie to any notions of metropolitan upperosity.

By afternoon the slop collector became turf deliverer, the goodly vessel (boxcar) laden fore and aft with delicately balanced sacks of million-year-old Mullingar muck. The moving bog became erratic as it approached the bridge, the wheels suddenly seemed nervous, the ball bearings whined, and John the Boy was undecided whether to risk all on a push and shove, eyes closed, or to opt for a standstill and a check of the prevailing tides. On one glorious occasion the ultimate calamity occurred. On a scream from Annie in John the Boy’s ear the boxcar ran aground, the fuel and faeces embraced like long lost lovers; Annie drunkenly attempted to restore the turf to its former state with the aid of her dress, mouthing what sounded like an apology as she did. John the Boy paced backwards and forwards across the entrance to the bridge, repeating several times that she’d have to deliver the soiled goods herself. But he cried every time he repeated the command. The traffic steadily built up on both sides as fascinated citizens patiently waited for the denouement to this drama of the insane and the incensed. O metropolis of contraries!

Dublin is unique in the depth of its contradictions, oppositions, contraries, tensions. Specific historical and social factors have made it a festering sore at the edge of an imperial grand master, one that could never live, with domination or submission; a city that boasted slum housing and infant mortality rates comparable only to Calcutta yet almost asphyxiated in giving birth to the trade union movement; that had its native language suppressed only to rear, in the adopted tongue, great literary pioneers; that boasted the greatest Catholic city in western Europe and the first designated red light district; that promised hope to migrants fleeing the ravages of famine while it exported its native sons and daughters to the four corners of the globe.

Tonight over pitchers of beer in the bars of New York, Montreal and Sydney, Dubliners will wager their lives on naming all the pubs in Talbot Street from the train station up, right and left. Will anyone know that Kelly’s is no longer there? Around firesides in London, Manchester and Glasgow, Anna Livian sons and daughters will try to recount all the shops in Parnell Street from the Chief’s monument to Capel Street. Will they know that they’re now only memories? Like Summerhill, Gardiner Street, the Gloucester Diamond?

I was standing down the Point, I was, and I looked into the river and there rising up out of the water was a monster, a gigantic monster, a gigantic steel monster with claw-like hands. And the monster unfurled his fingers and from his palms, in a never-ending stream, flowed a tar-like black mass. When the dust had settled the river was no more. And where water once bobbed and ducked, flowed and eddied, was a still sea of green grass. Two dockers looked down upon this scene, held their breaths in disbelief, their heads shook from side to side and they muttered in unison, “a dream, a dream, all a dream”. But it was not so, for my eyes beheld the monster. And from his entrails when he burst swung the two unbelievers, snottered to the beast by their dockers’ hooks. This is the truth for I have perceived it so.

This apocalyptic vision will likely come to pass; dock work is no longer the economic lifeline that was once this community’s raison d’être. The proposed Custom House Docks development may indeed be the greening of the water. The question remains, however, as to whether the government, through the aegis of its industrial and training machinery, will provide an alternative economic lifeline. Or whether the social evils attendant upon developing and deepening unemployment levels will be used as the formal excuse for the bulldozer and dispersal.

The city centre is a barometer of how we measure ourselves: “inner city” has become media shorthand for all things negative and I propose its abolition. The city centre is the heart that pumps life to the outer limbs. It is tradition. It is our past. It is now, the living city, and it is intimately concerned with what we are and how. It is collectively owned in a way that Raheny or Churchtown, Howth or Dalkey could never be. It must be the concern of all when the city is subjected to, at best, atrocious planning, at worst, wilful destruction.

The centre city communities have fought tenaciously to regain control over the factors affecting their lives and their struggle has been peppered with successes of late. Tony Gregory’s election and subsequent deal with the government was confirmation that things could and would change. The local organisations – NCCCAP, Tosach, Lourdes, Vincent’s Day Care Centre – braved the world with a new confidence and conviction. The Inner City Looking On Festival and City Workshop testified that control of the means of cultural production was not only possible but popular. The scourge of heroin and its pushers were driven out after years of inaction by the authorities. First-class houses on the site of the old tenements were living proof that poorly constructed flat complexes need not be the lot of the working class.

The centre city will not tolerate being the blind beggar peddling shoelaces for society’s loose change; nor is it the slop gatherer at the table of plenty. The city centre is fighting back, yet we daily face the spectre of law-abiding street traders trying to evade the custodians of law (is it something from the colonial past?). We may have removed the cow shit from our streets but we now boast the highest level of lead poisoning from petrol in western Europe. And we plan a motorway to boost the problem and enhance our children’s educational performance. O smog, we love you! Profound contradiction seems to be the nature of things where Dublin is concerned, but as before community vigilance and community action will expose it for what it is.
Peter Sheridan
March 1988

Dublin, The Heart of the City by Ronan Sheehan and Brendan Walsh, is reissued by Lilliput Press, at €15

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