Skate Birds: Making skateboarding a sport for all

Going to a skatepark as a beginner is daunting. Going as a woman intensifies that experience considerably.

Allie O’Rourke has recently taken up skateboarding again after a prolonged break. She first learned to skate on improvised ramps as a teenager, and had picked it up again in college, but had since drifted. Now back on the board, she was skating at Weaver Park, in Dublin’s Liberties. Located on Cork Street, the park had only recently opened. On this day, she was the only skateboarder at the park.

While skating, O’Rourke was approached by a group of teenage boys. She did not notice them until she was punched from behind.

Going to a skatepark as a beginner is daunting. Going as a woman intensifies that experience considerably.
Amy McSweeney takes a moment during a Skate Birds meet at Weaver Park, Cork St in Dublin's inner city. Photograph: Aoife Moiselle
Cork Street is probably the most integrated park in Dublin – ‘It’s where you get the [greatest] mix of people. Everyone is different age groups, you get different genders.’
Skate Birds Aoife Moiselle and Chelo Del Rosario skating on UCD campus. Photograph: Oisin Belling

O’Rourke, a transgender woman, had experienced incidents of verbal abuse since returning to Dublin’s skateparks. But this was the first time she had been physically attacked. Shouting slurs and carrying knives, the assailants fled after O’Rourke began swinging with her board.

“I brought a skateboard to a knife fight, and I won,” O’Rourke, a stand-up comic, tells me.

After the attack, O’Rourke stopped going to skateparks around the city.

“There was a level of discomfort and danger going to the skatepark that went beyond falling off my board,” she says.

“It’s incredibly intimidating to go to a skatepark. When I was starting... I didn’t know any girls who skated. It wasn’t unwelcoming, but you still felt out of place

Some time later, scrolling through Instagram, O’Rourke happened across a group called Skate Birds. Describing themselves as “a skate crew”, O’Rourke’s interest was piqued. She sent a message, and was subsequently added to a WhatsApp group used to arrange meet-ups.

Within a week, O’Rourke was heading back to Cork Street for the first time since the attack. There, she met Chloe Christie.

Christie had been introduced to skateboarding some years before through a boyfriend: “He was in the skatepark, and I was just bored watching. I was like, ‘I’m gonna start skating.’”

It wasn’t a minor decision. Going to a skatepark as a beginner is daunting. Going as a woman intensifies that experience considerably.

“It’s incredibly intimidating to go to a skatepark,” Christie says. “When I was starting... I didn’t know any girls who skated.

“It wasn’t unwelcoming, but you still felt out of place, because there was no one else like you there.”

In an area which suffers from a lack of recreational facilities, the skatepark and its surrounding amenities have taken on an important social function.
Chloe Christie carving the bowl at Bushy Park in Dublin. Photograph: Lisa Roth
Skate Birds at Cork Street skatepark. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Allie O'Rourke of Skate Birds at Cork Street skatepark. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Some time after taking up skateboarding, Christie was introduced to a group called Girl Skate Ireland. The group was small, but it ran weekly skate sessions, and allowed Christie to meet other women interested in the sport.

In 2018, membership began to drop off as people began to focus on other pursuits. An opportunity opened for Christie to take the reins. Along with Jesse Donnelly, another skater Christie had met through the group, she decided to rename the crew: Skate Birds.

“When me and Jesse took it on, we wanted to make it a little bit more diverse,” Christie says.

“That was our ethos behind it. We just want everyone who wants to be a part of skating, to join the community and to not be afraid to be in it, basically. Regardless of gender, sex, whatever. Race. Anything like that.”

At that point, Skate Birds was just Christie and Donnelly. “When me and Chloe started Skate Birds, it was just literally the two of us. We’d go to Portobello and skate, or we’d go to Bushy Park and skate,” Donnelly says.

The crew picked up members here and there, all the while growing their social media presence. Two became 10. For Donnelly, who bought her first “proper” skateboard in Temple Bar when she was 12 years old, it was a novel experience.

“We’d always see big circles of lads, so, when we started going around the city centre with a group of 10 women, it was one of the most exciting things ever for me.”

The pandemic came and, with it, a tipping point. People searching for new pastimes, reasons to leave their houses and inventive ways to exercise triggered an influx of requests to join Skate Birds.

“Before lockdown, we had a WhatsApp group, and there were about 20 people in it. Now there’s over 100. And that’s just one WhatsApp group that’s coming from our [Instagram] page,” Christie says.

Other groups began to pop up across the country. Skate Feeks was established in Galway, and NorfsideSk8 looked to diversify the skating community in Northern Ireland. Skate Birds members travelled to participate in meet-ups, forging bonds beyond the Dublin scene.

Skate Birds have carved out a space within the community, providing a platform for those who might not have had the courage to visit their local skatepark before.
Skate crew member Chinyere Enyoazu at Clongriffin Skatepark. Photograph: Aoife Moiselle. 

As Skate Birds has grown, its members have become part of the wider skating community. It’s a community that looks a lot different from the scene that Christie encountered when she first picked up a board.

“I think it’s becoming more diverse, and obviously the domino effect of people now seeing it as something that they can do, when previously it was so male dominated,” she says.

Skate Birds have carved out a space within the community, providing a platform for those who might not have had the courage to visit their local skatepark before.

“Now I just walk into a skatepark, and it’s just a given that there’ll be women there,” Donnelly says. “You feel a lot more fearless... if you see people doing it who look like you, who remind you of you, then you feel like maybe, if they can do it, I can too.”

O’Rourke skates at Cork Street regularly now. “[Skate Birds] gave me the freedom and that support, [it] allowed me to go back.”

Along with the wider skating community, Skate Birds have helped shape Weaver Park to become one of the most diverse places to skate in the capital. In an area which suffers from a lack of recreational facilities, the skatepark and its surrounding amenities have taken on an important social function.

“The great thing about Cork Street is that there’s interaction,” O’Rourke says. “There are local kids there from disadvantaged backgrounds getting looked after, and getting hand-me-down skateboards from the local skaters and being taught to skate.

“It’s probably the most integrated park in general, in Dublin. It’s where you get the [greatest] mix of people. Everyone is different age groups, you get different genders.”

The people we skate with, we’re all friends, and we’re probably going to be friends for life… And it’s because we support each other

There is a sense that places like Weaver Park must be protected, especially when traditional skating spots – such as Portobello – have been clamped down on by authorities citing public order infringements.

“Because of the culture that’s there, and because there’s so many people who have taken ownership of the skatepark, from the local community, from the skate community, from different backgrounds, [anti-social behaviour] isn’t really tolerated,” O’Rourke says.

By bolstering diversity and promoting public space, so much of what Skate Birds is about goes far beyond the activity of skateboarding. Supported by other “pillars” of the scene – such as those connected to Goblin magazine and independent skate shop High Rollers – Skate Birds continue to build a more accessible community.

“Holding people’s hands when they’re trying to learn tricks, or helping them up when they fall. It’s all this relationship building,” Christie says. “It’s not just playing a sport together.

“You have this proper bond with each other, because you’ve started to do this thing altogether.

“The people we skate with, we’re all friends, and we’re probably going to be friends for life… And it’s because we support each other. Not just in skating, but outside skating.”