Gemma Dunleavy’s love letter to Dublin’s inner city

‘No one around me was into art. It wasn’t a normal thing in my family or around my road’

On a freezing day in early December 2020, Gemma Dunleavy walked around Grand Canal Dock in Dublin, past empty offices and a lone skateboarder, reminiscing about a time in the recent past, that same year in fact, but a night that felt very far away.

The memory was from February 29th. Dunleavy was on stage at 39/40, a venue on Dublin’s north quays perfect for the sweaty, loud party underway at the time, a long- awaited hometown headline show by Mango x Mathman, with Dunleavy and Rebel Phoenix as the support acts. The gig was viewed as a triumph from all angles, one big rave before the city shut down a couple of weeks later.

“That was so good, the energy at that show, and even after in that club. It was just brilliant,” Dunleavy said, sipping a coffee. “I think back to that night, and I do go – you know when you didn’t realise that something was going to be the last thing – ‘am I over-exaggerating how special that felt because I’m so deprived of it now?’”

It felt to Dunleavy like an energy somehow tipping over. “But again, how much of that is me projecting what I’m feeling now onto the memory of it? They say every time you remember, you’re just remembering the memory. I often wonder about that night. It feels so fleeting because we don’t know when we’ll get it again.”


At the start of 2021, Dunleavy was one of 10 acts chosen by 2FM to champion as part of its Rising initiative. She has been rising for a while, self-managed, self-actualised, self-made. She is ostensibly a singer and songwriter, but really a wide-ranging artist, her mutable approach birthing work across poetry, dance, performance and more, much of it with a sense of identity and storytelling firmly rooted in what and where – as described on her Twitter biog – is “Sheriff St born bread n buttered”.

For a while, her calling card was a video piece from 2018, I Was Never Young But I’m Not Yet Old, directed by Laragh McCann and championed by Dazed magazine. In it, Dunleavy performed to a poem she had written off the top of her head, recorded on her phone one day as she walked through town. The stunning ethereal quality of the piece and its choreography is pierced by the subject matter – the second line is “I’ve seen more death than anyone I know” – as dancers in pink tulle carve out shapes in the air in front of a block of Dublin flats.

In some ways, it occupies a similar space to the work of FKA twigs. Later, her music began to glance in the direction of Blood Orange and Solange in terms of how both artists often allow conversations – sampled and local – to bleed into their recorded tracks. She frequently collaborates with the harpist Roisin Berkley, who adds a heavenly skittish gentleness to Dunleavy’s melodies.

In 2019 Dunleavy released Better 4 U, a song of almost ceramic fragility in a world awash with neo-soul. Again, the Dunleavy paradox was present: that armoured tenderness.

If music is a form of memory, she is also something of an archivist. In 2020 she released the Up De Flats EP, which opens with a woman explaining her surroundings. “We hadn’t got a clue. We weren’t brainy enough to turn around and say ‘refurbish them, or do something.’ You’ll never get anything like the flats. Never.” Documenting loss in real time is unfortunately not a difficult sport in a city that is being rib-elbowed by unwanted, incongruous development. Where people desire cultural venues, there are hotels. Where they need homes, there are luxury student blocks.

As a very young child, Dunleavy loved singing, but didn’t know how to progress. “I used to try and sing over stuff I had taped on my radio. No one around me was into art, it wasn’t a normal thing in my family or around my road. It wasn’t really a thing that you did. I was just doing it by myself. I always wanted somewhere to go to build on that. I didn’t even have the vocabulary to ask for that.”

Instead, she gravitated towards dance, training incessantly for more than a decade, six days a week, with Sundays reserved for competitions. She would compete in multiple competitions in a single weekend in Ireland and the UK, putting the number at “thousands”. She won championships and went to dance college. She was training professionally when her shin started to crack and refused to heal.

It's snobbery. It's classism. It's been there. It was engrained in us

When she was in dance mode, she describes herself as determined, stubborn, insular, obsessive. “I was always like, ‘you should be better’. I’d want a single pirouette and I’d get it, and I’d never go ‘deadly’, I’d be like, double, triple. I was like that with everything. I was greedy with it.” Along with that internally created pressure, Dunleavy was dealing with the external pressures of classism.

As a child, going on The Late Late Toy Show, her dance teacher told her: “now you speak nice”. “It’s snobbery. It’s classism. It’s been there. It was engrained in us.” It took her a while to understand the dance class smalltalk at a ballet class in Portobello. “The kids would constantly be asking me ‘what does your mam do? What does your dad do?’ I never thought about that. never thought about the status of my ma and dad’s job . . . I remember having that revelation: I don’t know what my best friend’s ma ‘is’. I never knew those things. I never asked. It was always: are they sound, are they good to you, do they look after you? . . .

“I remember going to ballet, and them asking me what my ma and da did and me thinking, ‘f**k, they don’t care about the things that I know my people are really rich in.’ They don’t care about that. And the things that they care about, that they place value on, we don’t have. My dad’s not an executive in RTÉ, but he was there, collecting me in his truck, he wasn’t sending a car or a taxi to pick me up.”

The title track to Up De Flats was an instant underground hit. Then the video directed by Rosie Barrett went live, compounding the sense that this joyful love letter to Dunleavy’s environment was something of a victory, an owning of one’s narrative, wrenching it back from what people who don’t know anything impose on a place, or their idea of it.

The song emerged from a bit she started doing at Pharmacia in Limerick, where she was performing with Jack Colley of Club Comfort. As he DJ’d, she improvised over tracks, pulling from her vast bank of memorised lyrics, a love for 1990s R&B and dance tunes born of “spending loads of nights in Fairview Park as a teenager listening to Clubland”. Then “I just started singing the hook, ‘shouting up the flats from the rooftops’, and within 10 minutes the whole of this bar in Limerick were all singing. Me and Jack were in knots, we thought it was gas.”

Up De Flats EP actually began as a documentary – once again demonstrating Dunleavy’s agnostic and dexterous approach to mediums and form – a collaboration with Ellius Grace, to “create a time capsule of our community now”. This set Dunleavy off on the subject of gentrification in the city, where urban communities are being displaced by suburbanites and global capital is rendering many streets unrecognisable. She’ll give you a lesson in social history, planning, housing, community activism, identity and the meaning of place.

“There’s a big grey wall with barbed wire at the top of it that separates Sheriff Street from the IFSC. There couldn’t be a better metaphor for the class system in Ireland.”

Areas in Dublin 1 were demonised and patronised for decades. Now, Dunleavy says, “we’ve our community ripped from under us when really it was all we had. We had neglect from the authorities, from the government, from the media, from the politicians and the TDs. We only had each other . . . We’re not asking for gaffs left right and centre, we’re just asking to let us preserve what we have.

“The whole housing crisis is just turning people against each other. People are on their backs. I know people my age I went to school with living in a hotel bedroom with their three children. We are all we have. Don’t let this divide us. That’s what they want.”

The contemporary concerns about a community marginalised through discordant development are real, urgent, and under-reported. At the same time, Dunleavy’s music and the broad scope of its fandom is creating a strange sort of understanding and unity. She recently posted some of her merchandise – an Up De Flats facemask – to an address in Foxrock, something she and her mother got a kick out of. Another fan expressed a desire to buy the mask but asked with a hint of worry, “Is that cultural appropriation?”

Dunleavy almost folds in half with laughter in recollection, “No! It’s absolutely not!” she replied, “Tell them I said it’s alright!”

Una Mullally

Una Mullally

Una Mullally, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column