Tales of the city


A vast, oppressive cobweb of corrugated iron and broken glass overwhelms St Joseph's Mansions in Dublin. Aside from the odd splash of colour from graffiti and the washing lines of the few remaining tenants, this desolate flat complex is without life. Standing on the top floor amid boarded-up windows, the emerald city that is the IFSC rises in the distance - a steely green monument shimmering like a beautiful mirage in the late evening sun.

St Joseph's Mansions, in dramatic contrast, remains at the centre of an urban holocaust. "This is what drugs does to a community," says Terry Fagan, who single-handedly runs the North Inner City Folklore Project, which is part of the Alliance for Work Programme, which is coming to the end of its three-year life span. "Maybe if the government had listened to the community in the beginning, we wouldn't be at this point today," he says.

Fagan has made listening his life's work. He started working with Meals on Wheels for the elderly 25 years ago. "It takes them a couple of minutes to open their doors, they have so many locks.

But I am already part of the community. I have that access and have earned their trust. This working class history is being ignored. It's through the past that we learn about the future, so we don't make the same mistakes again."

St Joseph's is a painful and relatively hidden reminder of one part of 21st-century Ireland. The IFSC - we are told - heralds a new, brighter future, while those Dubliners living in the intricate network of side streets between the two are a tenuous, living connection with the past. "We need our own heritage centre," Fagan believes. "Two of our greatest sculptors, John Henry Foley and Edward Smith, are among the many characters who lived here."

Walking these streets, Fagan talks of the pub on Foley Street that was a meeting place for Michael Collins and where he ran a team of newsboys to watch the movements of the British army; the boy who got seven years in an industrial school - Gothic horror 20th-century Irish style - for merely stealing a pair of rosary beads; and the ex-Madam from Monto (Monto was the famed red light district of old Dublin, and today would be bordered by Railway Street Lower, Corporation Street, Foley Street and Beaver Street) who sold religious statues on the street during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 - a move, you might say, from private to public enterprise.

"I'm getting nearer to the hangman's noose," Fagan says of the project's imminent demise. "But as long as I'm alive, I'll fight to keep it going. I've made it a lifetime commitment to record Dublin life. I've had to go around cap-in-hand to keep the project going. Does the government put value on Dublin's oral history? If it did, we wouldn't be facing closure. Our working class made Dublin what it is today, yet they are the forgotten people."

The fact that the project exists owes much credit to current job initiative schemes. But much work has yet to be done. It should be renewed, Fagan says, despite it being given a six-month extension.

Dublin Corporation, the Inner City Trust, which is part of the IFSC, and local politicians and legal professionals have supported the North Inner City Folklore Project. But it still faces closure. Fagan has published numerous books. His latest, Monto: Madams, Murder and Black Coddle, was almost entirely dependent on donations. Already immortalised in Joyce's Ulysses, Behan's The Quare Fellow and, of course, The Dubliners' Monto, Fagan's book is different. The Monto story is told by those who lived there.

Diana Preston, born in 1919, talks about the Madams' girls. "One day me and my pal were playing around outside (Becky Cooper's house) in our bare feet. Two of the poor unfortunate girls came over to us and said, `Come with us, we want to buy you something.' They brought us down to Talbot Street and bought me and my pal a pair of shoes each. We were delighted with them. You know, they did that a lot for a good few children in the area. They were good girls."

Fagan's cramped office on Amiens Street is jammed with tapes, full of the aged voices of inner city residents. Every word, pause, and breath is recorded intimately. Covering the four walls are stark black and white photographs of landscapes and unknown faces of Dublin by Philip Magee, who commonly pays for the photographic materials out of his own pocket. "I knew the real Rashers Tierney," Fagan adds somewhat surreally when I mention Plunkett's Strumpet City. "He was a neighbour of mine."

As his project faces extinction, Eneclann, a research group for Irish history based in TCD, has been commissioned by Ballymun Regeneration Ltd to record the area's local history and is taking great inspiration from Terry Fagan. Fiona Fitzsimons is project manager for the scheme, which will include a community archive and the management of BRL's official records. Lisa Godson, an architectural and design historian, will give a commentary on the tower and spinal blocks, while Dr Rob Woodward will provide a narrative history of Ballymun.

"I've read works from America and Europe," Fitzsimons says. "Unlike many of them, (Terry Fagan's work) is not from the `rare old times' variety of oral history. Looking through the series of books he has produced since 1981, you can see he has honed his craft." Yet, the work of the North Inner City Folklore project is not recognised by academics and fund-raising bodies. But the thinking is, if Eneclann's scheme takes off, it may improve the chances of other oral historians.

The Ballymun scheme, which starts on September 1st, will run for a 12-month period and should be sufficiently developed by this time for the community to assume full control: 10 to 20 members of the community - as opposed to Terry Fagan's one - will be charged with gathering stories. As an added incentive, they will get accreditation as well as pay for their time (details are under negotiation).

"Oral history is based on ordinary people's knowledge, which tends not to make it into the history books," says Laurence Cox, a sociologist at Maynooth who is employed by Eneclann as part of the oral history team. "It enables us to think about the world differently. A community isn't something that just happens, it is something people do. This is their history. Our job, therefore, is mainly transferring skills."

Although the scheme is commissioned by Ballymun Regeneration Ltd, Cox says, "We're not working for that organisation. Our job is for the people of Ballymun." Understandably, residents are very sensitive to how they are represented, particularly the media's usual images of urban decay. Trust is the key. If locals don't want Eneclann's project to go ahead, it won't. It's that simple.

But they are most likely to embrace it, says Seamus Kelly, editor and owner of local paper Ballymun Concrete News, especially as there will be local people involved: "For the first time here, the regeneration itself is being done in consultation with the community."

"There are a lot of fascinating, true stories to be told," Kelly adds. "Many people have beautiful homes inside the tower blocks. Obviously, it's essential that we're having some kind of archive or documentation to record our history - not just the negative aspects." The fact that those gathering the stories will receive an accreditation will also play a role in the project gaining momentum, he believes.

Fagan, meanwhile, continues transcribing his interviews. Trips by the Belvedere Newsboys' Club from the city streets to the sand dunes of Co Louth is one of the many tales he's working on. Being close to his subjects, he occasionally recognises his own past. For instance, he attended the infamous Rutland Street School, nicknamed the "Red Brick Slaughterhouse" by one interviewee in his book, Monto. He left at 14 and even went back as caretaker. He has since completed a two-year National University of Ireland "Diploma for Social Entrepreneurs".

In fact, it was only a matter of time before he began committing his own memories to paper. Preserving such stories remains his life's work. "Sometimes I fall into despair, thinking, does anybody care?" he says candidly. "But the next morning always brings another story that needs to be told." Tower blocks may crumble, but only with the vital existence of oral historians will memories abide.

For information on how to make a donation to the North Inner City Folklore Project, Tel: 01-8551076.

Monto: Madams, Murder And Black Coddle is available from Easons (£5) or directly from the North Inner City Folklore project.