Following the release of her debut EP Up De Flats, singer Gemma Dunleavy beautifully captures the spirit of Dublin’s Sheriff Street flats, and the community that will be displaced and the history that will be lost if the gentrification of the city centre continues…[restrict]
You could describe me as a true Dub. My family came from the overcrowded tenements on Railway Street. A generation later, they moved to Sheriff Street Flats and eventually they ended up in the houses built in their place. My great grandmother, known in the area as The Granny Dunleavy, was made an honorary midwife by the Rotunda Hospital for her work delivering babies in the dreary tenement houses around Dublin’s once famous red-light district of “Monto.”
She was also known for protecting the sex workers and wasn’t shy to put it up to any of the pimps who she felt needed a stern word, or in some cases, a backhander. A fearless woman with strong roots, my Nanny often told stories of my great Granda having the bed sheets taken off the bed during the night to be washed for “so and so’s” baby. The Granny Dunleavy believed that every new baby, no matter how poor they were, deserved a fresh crisp sheet so her own beds were often stripped and washed in order to provide for the newborns.
I was born in 86 Phil Shanahan house. Community is in my DNA. That constant search for and need to create a web of soulful trustees around me is what gives me my sense of home. No matter where I am in the world, it keeps me grounded. I hear my nanny’s old sayings roll off my tongue and I feel comforted knowing there’s still an essence of her resilience floating around in 2020 even though she’s long gone.
The flats were our safe haven. Outside, we were demonised for the crime, drugs and poverty that was inevitable in an area left to neglect by the government and given empty promises by politicians, which – might I add – still happens today. I experience it daily. You only have to search on YouTube to see people driving by in cars filming like they’re on a safari watch.
What people on the outside failed to see was that inside the blocks of flats was a rich community. Kids weren’t raised by just their parents, they were raised by their neighbours on the balcony and beyond. The neglected playgrounds were often filled with rusty burnt out cars and old sofas but that didn’t matter. “We’d nothing but we had it all” my nanny would always say, and she was right. There’s an essence within people from our community. It’s extremely rare to come across but you can find it in the glistening eye behind a stern frown of a five-year-old old soul and in the gritty voice of a 70-year-old woman who raised and lost children to the system but is still out doing home-help for her neighbours because in the words of our Thommas Kane-Byrne, the actor and comedian, “rearing is spearing”.
I was raised by women who held the house down, rearing gangs of kids on pittance and dressmaking while the husbands were out at sea. Doing the best to make sure their kids didn’t slip through the net and become victims of the heroin epidemic or become another tragedy at the docks, many of whom did. These women were pillars, towers of strength. Many of them were seamstresses and dressmakers; a beautiful metaphor for how essential their working hands were for knitting our community together. Their foreheads, reading lines of sorrow from the hardship but their instinct to power on despite everything can’t be matched.
Cut to today and Dublin is rich in many different ways. We have a rich abundance of poets, writers, boxers, musicians and creatives but we are also rich in aggressive redevelopment putting our inner city communities at risk. This worries me so much because Dublin is somewhere I will never wash my hands of. I can’t just walk away because it’s not working for me and I certainly can’t watch while my community is being torn apart by developers.
In times of despair, when I sit and think “why am I still here?” I remember all of the faces of the people around me and their resilience. I think of my generation and I get goosebumps. We have young people who care deeply about social justice, communities and future generations. They’re out making a change, marching for peace, equality and fair living conditions. Out of the young creatives I spend time with, no one is here because it’s nice or easy, they’re here because they love this city. They love the people and they want to protect it. That’s not gonna last forever with such a flawed and unfair system.
I can’t help but wonder how long we can stay in the box room, stressed over finances or our inability to live an adult life here. I want artists to be able to sustain a career and not feel like they’re constantly funding a hobby. I want my nieces and cousins to grow up knowing they can at least afford to rent the apartments washing out our community. I don’t want my elderly aunty, who’s already working two jobs, to have to make space for her daughter and four grandkids in her two-bedroom house because they can’t afford to rent anywhere.
There’s a poem by North Wall writer Michelle Byrne where she describes the buildings growing up like weeds around us. This is all too familiar around the North Wall, Spencer Dock and Seville Place areas. Set for Dublin’s first skyscraper, we’re looking at construction for the next five years with constant shade over our houses and community school. The lack of light serves as another metaphor for the darkness our community is left in when a full-time working 29-year-old can’t afford an apartment in the area where they were raised.
Tech workers with rent subsidised by their companies fill the area, parking their gleaming cars on the road while asking the kids “is it alright to park here, it won’t get broken into will it?”. Then they’ll trot around the corner behind the high grey wall with barbed wire that separates Sheriff Street from the shiny chrome and polished concrete IFSC, further perpetuating the class division and frustration that comes from the people in our community.
Maybe it won’t be long before the Sheriff Street community and communities are something we only find on an Old Dublin Memories page on Facebook. But not on my watch. I think of my great nanny, The Granny Dunleavy, and how terrified she must have been to stand up to the pimps in the Monto, and then I feel her sense of injustice and I see her fear dissipating. I imagine the fire burning in her belly when she sees no other outcome but protecting these women. I often feel that same fire burning in my belly, that same sense of instinct to protect my community, to preserve the “old souls”, to protect our city. Dublin’s character lives in the grit of the street traders, the flower sellers, the dock workers, the dressmakers. These are the people who I’ve come from. No matter where I go in the world I feel like I have an etheric cord to this city, to the North Wall in particular.
I’m incredibly proud of my city and my community and wherever I am in the world I’ll find myself talking about the essence of community in Dublin. I want to keep it somewhere I’m proud to shout about and I will do whatever it takes to protect that and so should you.