This post deals with the excellent book The Heart of the City, released in 1988. The book was a collaboration between Ronan Sheehan, who wrote the text, and photographer Brendan Walsh. It is a book I stumbled across by chance, but which I consider one of the finest studies of inner-city Dublin produced to date.
Divided into chapters like ‘The New Deal’, ‘The 1930s’, ‘Heroin’, and ‘Moral Issues of the Catholic Church’, it’s fair to say the book isn’t setting out to paint some sort of idyllic picture of life in inner-city Dublin, but at the same time it neither sets out to paint a truly grim picture. It shows the real community of the inner-city, and the good and the bad that comes with life there. The introduction from Peter Sheridan is a good an introduction as I’ve seen in any book.
The city centre is a barometer of how we measure ourselves: ‘inner city’ has become media shorthand for all things negative and I propose its abolition. The city centre is the heart that pumps life to the outer limbs. It is tradition. It is our past. It is now, the living city, and it is intimately concerned with what we are and how. It is collectively owned in a way that Raheny, or Churchtown, Howth or Dalkey could never be. It must be the concern of all when the city is subjected to, at best, atrocious planning, at worst, willful destruction.
The first chapter deals with the New Deal of the early 1980s, and gives great descriptions of inner-city Dublin at the time the writer visits.
More than one wall bore the inscription ‘No Go Area’. Some blocks of flats, indeed whole rows of houses, lived up to the name. The police rarely entered them and when they did they went in numbers, got in and out rapidly, like commandos.
One of the most striking images in the book is that below, of Charles Haughey emerging from a doorway with Tony Gregory behind him. Gregory, Mick Rafferty, Fergus McCabe and other local activists of the period feature in this first chapter, with an in-depth look at the North City Centre Community Action Project and its campaigns. We read that in the course of a radio interview, Tony Gregory had been asked to request a song that meant something special to him. He picked ‘In The Ghetto’ by Elvis Presley, dedicating it to the women of his constituency. The Haughey-Gregory Plan, the book tells us, ‘needed more time to make the impact it envisaged’, yet did bring real, tangible benefits to those living in the inner-city.
The chapter on the 1930s, much like the work of historians like Kevin Kearns, Terry Fagan and others, places strong emphasis on oral history and the folk memory of locals. It’s a grim account of life in 1930s Dublin told by those who knew it,with tales of sickness and disease to the fore.
When I was young and you were reading a paper and saw “Joe Raferty died of consumption”, the paper would be taken out of your hands. You weren’t allowed to read that. People wouldn’t want you to know anything about it. A person died of a “heavy cold” or “pneumonia”. A person died of “complications”.
The pubs of the north-inner city in the period are recalled too, including Phil Shanahan’s now legendary pub, which was to be found on Foley Street in Dublin’s north-inner city.
He was a great man, old Phil Shanahan. It should have been really Liberty House that should have been called after him. Or that park down there should have been called Phil Shanahan’s Park, because on that corner, that’s where he lived for years and years.
Shanahan took part in the 1916 Rising and defeated Alfie Byrne at the ballot box in 1918. His pub was located in the heart of Dublin’s Monto district, but nothing remains of the premises today.
The book looks at the issues of crime and heroin, which both have plagued inner-city life, and there are grim statistics to be found here.
Throughout the seventies a number of factors combined to make the north city seem, in the perception of the public at large, virtually synonymous with crime. In the first place, a lot of crimes were being committed there. According to Garda statistics, the area accounted for approximately one fifth of all indictable crimes in the country by 1979.
The book notes that Gay Byrne once advised listeners to his radio show to ‘arm themselves with spray cans to blind attackers.’ The book gives over a chapter to the recollections of a prisoner, titled ‘A Prisoner Speaks’, which is a truly depressing picture of life inside Ireland’s prison system. The former prisoner noted that ‘Bishops and High Court judges have total access to prisons but I have yet to see one of them go in and make an inspection of the base, the punishment cells.’
This book deserves to be read, and it should be remembered that it was written in the year of Dublin’s ‘Millennium’ in 1988. It is fitting to end then with a quote relating to that year, where it is noted that:
Dublin in its millennium is about the same thing that is has been about for as long as anyone can remember: namely, the relationship between the rich and the poor, between the middle class and the working class. In the heart of the city the working class people have received hand-me-down clothes from the middle classes and they have been on the receiving end of hand-me-down attitudes towards poverty in general.