Behind the ugly, graffiti-festooned steel door to an abandoned flat in St Mary's Mansions on Dublin's Seán McDermott Street, there is an Aladdin's Cave of artefacts and memorabilia.
The items that have been saved from tenement homes and from skips, or been donated by residents, and the stories they have told local folklorist Terry Fagan, amounts to a unique social history archive that is crying out for a proper home in the area.
“It needs to stay here,” says Fagan, a 66-year-old north inner city Dub, born in the long since demolished Corporation Buildings on the street of the same name, and now a resident of Buckingham Street.
Inside, two rooms of the abandoned St Mary's Mansions flat is a chaotic, higgledy-piggledy mass of photographs of the crumbling tenements and their occupants (children still barefoot in the 1930s and 1940s), local school roll books, tenement rent books and other ephemera that has little real value, but, for the stories they tell, they are priceless.
Included in the hoard are rent books. One, for James Young of 4 Emmet Street, shows that, in 1939, he was paying 10 shillings and 10 pence a week for his flat and falling repeatedly behind, so that by January 1940, he was £4, six shillings in arrears.
There are roll books for the Pro Cathedral infants school and St Patrick’s National School, and leather-bound records of Dublin Corporation going back to the 1800s.
There is a tenement wall-mounted gas lamp, dozens of photographs of the red light district known as the Monto (and immortalised in a song of the same name, penned in 1958 by the late Irish Times jazz critic, George D Hodnett); trays of coins that Fagan found in the cellars of the brothels; an eclectic array of ornaments, crockery, lamps, dockers' union badges, and a cardboard box filled with photos and letters Fagan found in a skip on the North Circular Road.
In the kitchen of the flat, there are more boxes filled with God knows what and, off-site, more material again. This includes the recordings of more than 150 interviews Fagan has made with residents of the north inner city, since the 1970s.
The collection amounts to a good slice of the collective memory of a community over several generations, embracing the good, bad and the ugly . . . and a slice of Ireland’s revolutionary period.
Today, Seán McDermott Street, Buckingham Street, Railway Street, Rutland Street and Summerhill, are places synonymous in the wider public mind with, since the 1980s, the destruction caused by drug abuse and severe social deprivation. More recently added to this profile is the seemingly unstoppable gang warfare, in which one local family, the Hutches, is being wiped out by a Spanish-based gang, the Kinahans.
In earlier times, however, the area provided much of the workforce for the docks. While the resultant earnings brought some economic stability in the 19th century and up until the decline of the docks from the 1960s on, the area was never really prosperous.
Tenement homes and the often grinding poverty associated with them predominated, and there was the social notoriety associated with Monto – Montgomery Street (now Foley Street), the setting for the Night Town episode in Ulysses.
Fagan began collecting stories and objects because of the people he met when he began working with a Sisters of Charity meals-on-wheels type of service to local residents in the 1970s.
“I used to go into the tenements, up the stairs,” says Fagan, “and I found when I was giving food, they always wanted to talk, wanted me to sit down.”
People spoke of 1916 and of the War of Independence. Seán Heuston, one of the executed 1916 leaders, lived in the area. Paddy Heeney, composer of the music for what is now the national anthem, came from Lower Macklenburgh Street (now Railway Street). He died in poverty, aged just 29, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Drumcondra.
The area had numerous so-called safe houses during the War of Independence, including the home of Seán Fitzpatrick on Lower Gloucester Street (now Seán McDermott Street), pubs that were used by the IRA, and was intimately caught up in the events surrounding Bloody Sunday.
Fagan was one of 14 children – “about 10 survived,” he notes, and his own family has an extraordinary story. His brother Christy was arrested as a child and sentenced to seven years for stealing some beads for a rosary. Shunted between the Artane Christian Brothers, who beat him in front of his mother, and industrial “schools” in Letterfrack and Clonmel, he was eventually rescued by docker and Corporation Buildings resident Jemmy Gunnery.
“Jemmy was the northside Oskar Schindler,” says Fagan, rescuing children sent to industrial schools by a legal system and church that inflicted cruel punishment on poverty.
Enda Kenny recently visited Fagan's time capsule flat in St Mary's Mansions, with Paschal Donohoe and local Fine Gael councillor Ray McAdam. Fagan was impressed.
“He was amazed at the stuff, really amazed. I have to say he spent time here looking at the stuff . . . He said something has to be done. He’s a different person to what I’d see on the television. He’s a bit of craic.”
That something is, for Fagan, a permanent home in the area for the collection, where it can be displayed properly, open to researchers and built on.
“I’m trying to tell the story of the history of this area,” he says. “It’s important that this collection stays in the area and people can come and they can listen to the voices of the people that lived here – their grandmothers and grandfathers, the whole lot – they can listen to the stuff that we collected. Researchers can come, no problem. I’d love to continue collecting the history because there’s a lot more to be collected. There’s a lot more.”
Terry Fagan is the author, with the North Inner City Folklore Group, of Monto – madams, murder and black coddle, currently out of print and seeking finance for republication. He may be contacted at 087-921 0673.