A tale of two cities
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
Terry Fagan hands me an earpiece and soon I hear the voice of an elderly man, not unlike that of the old man with the distinctive Dublin accent from the Brennan's Bread ads.
But his voice is less confident, vulnerable in some way. It's Paddy Kearns from Foley Street. He talks of the hardship he and many other boys endured at the hands of `Christian' Brothers.
Paddy was sent to Artane Boys School as a child - a glorified internment camp in early-to-mid 20th century Dublin. Boys were sentenced to lengthy periods in Artane for minor misdemeanours, and in Paddy's case it was because of his failure to attend school.
Imagine if we didn't do this. The working-class history would be lost. Historians have never recognised the history of the working class
Paddy left Artane with three teeth in his head. He had been battered, kicked and abused by the Christian Brothers. He had seen them sexually abusing other boys. Everybody knew this was happening, Paddy claims, but no one had the courage to challenge the Catholic Church.
The state is in fear of communities empowering themselves. They are so distant from less-well-off areas that they are oblivious to the horrible reality of the situation
Paddy's case was not unique. Dykie Ruth was `sent away' along with his brother and sisters. He and his siblings had been infected with scabies and were thus unable to attend school. He was sentenced to two and a half years in Artane, while his brother received six. His family was torn apart. When he returned home, Dykie found his father drunk and incapable. His mother had died and his father, ravaged with rage, alcoholism and bitterness, rejected his son.
With nowhere to go and nothing to keep him, Dykie decided to join the British Army. He was shipped off to India, where colonial Britain was massacring unarmed civilians with jingoistic gusto. Dykie could not play a part in this. Ordered to shoot at civilians, he pointed his gun towards the ground.
Dykie was court martialed for his insubordination. He returned to Dublin and poverty, hoping to find his brother. He slept alongside other homeless men in the squalid hallways of tenement buildings. Dykie searched relentlessly for his brother to no avail until, as his hopes begun to fade, he woke up one morning in a tenement to see his brother's body crouched beside his own. He pawned in the last of his worldly belongings to send his brother to England, where he might find new opportunities. He never saw his brother again.
Dykie's story is worthy of a good movie, and it may well get there with the help of Terry Fagan, co-ordinator of the North Inner City Folklore project. Terry is currently converting Dykie's biography into a screenplay. Following his recently published book, `Monto', which chronicles the history of North Inner City Dublin in the earlier part of the last century, Terry is now working on an updated history of the area from 1925, up to and including the present day.
Fagan was born and reared in Corporation Buildings in the heart of the inner city, in an area once known as Monto. His father, Michael, was a docker - the inner city had once been sustained by the industry generated by the docklands. Terry had six brothers and two sisters and grew up with a strong sense of the history and the legend in which Monto was immersed.
`Meals on Wheels' was the unlikely vehicle that led Terry to his chosen profession as a local historian. As a voluntary community worker in the 1970s, he delivered hot food to the elderly, infirm or housebound of old Monto, through the meals on wheels service run by the Daughters of Charity. As a source of stimulating company and regular contact for many of these people, Terry also became aware of the wealth of history and culture contained in their anecdotes and reminiscences. In 1981, Terry joined the Alliance for Work Forum and the North Inner City Folklore Project and he has been producing books on the history of the North Inner City area ever since.
His current project is a study of contemporary Inner City Dublin and the factors that have shaped it since 1925. The building of new flat complexes after the demolition of Monto, the Eucharistic Congress, World War II, the decline of the docklands, the arrival of illegal drugs, the scattering of the inner city population and, at least to some extent, the fragmentation of the community as a whole. These are just some of the massive events in the recent history of Dublin's inner city.
``The docks were the lifeline of the Inner City,'' Terry says. ``The decline of the docks was also its death knell''.
``When the docks were thriving you could leave school at 14 and walk into work on a timber yard, steel manufacturers, the coal yards, the ship yards, in fertiliser plants. Whole families remained in the area. This begun to change as the docks went into decline.
``The de-tenanting of the area in the `70s was a massive body-blow to community spirits. Developers were hungry for property and people were scattered far and wide. The likes of Darndale, Ballymun and Ballyfermot were invaded with new schemes and estates, with very few facilities and very little to generate any sense of community.
``Everybody wanted a new life, but they didn't realise that there was no infrastructure in these areas. They were left isolated in badly planned estates. When they closed their hall door they were alone. There was no community.''
With its heart torn out, the inner city was abandoned, Terry says. An overwhelming sense of alienation prevailed.
``When the docks declined, people were disillusioned. The media had also labelled the area negatively and people had to lie about their address when they were looking for a job. This left the area wide open to drug dealers.
``People felt alienated from their own community as friends and neighbours moved out. It left them very vulnerable. They didn't know much about drugs; hash arrived first, then heroin.
``When the communities involved cried out about what was taking place, successive governments ignored them. When they did pay attention, their response was `ah, sure it's the Inner City and we can contain the problem there'. What they didn't realise is that drugs is a cancer. The drug barons had, and still have a grip on the city. It's just become more sophisticated.''
There was a different Inner City before the onslaught of poverty and degradation fractured and eroded the community fabric. ``People were proud of their community in those days. People cleaning door knockers and sweeping their streets were common sights. The heart was torn out of them through many issues: unemployment, drugs, inadequate facilities and lack of social mobility. They didn't know where to turn.
``People become immune to it all and their apathy itself becomes part and parcel of the whole issue. I do think, though, that that's changing now. People have become more educated in how they approach these issues. They are no longer duped by the promises of politicians - they want action. Drug marches in the area were the beginning of a new chapter in people's empowerment and people are now more and more prepared to fight the injustices they face.''
Terry believes that community activism must be more focused on criticism of the Dublin government. ``The government is happy to let people march around flat complexes, but they don't like you marching on the seat of government,'' he says.
``The media also played their part. They painted a black picture of the drug marches - demonising people because they chose to respond to the opression they were suffering. They're not erecting memorials in their communities to dead children, we are.
``The government needs to begin to tackle this situation head on. The millions of pounds seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau should be ploughed back into our communities. But the state is in fear of communities empowering themselves. They are so distant from less-well-off areas that they are oblivious to the horrible reality of the situation. People have the right to protect their children from drug dealers if the state fails to protect them. For too long the state has turned a blind eye and this has facilitated the creation of a big social monster.''
Terry believes that the interpretation, understanding and promotion of history and culture are integral to the eradication of this problem. ``Unless we come to terms with our own social history, we cannot move into the future. The present is a window on the past. We need to document what has happened to communities, we need to counter the flow of media snippets and soundbites that tell us what's happening but don't tell us why it's happening.''
Terry is disappointed that the Folklore Project is not afforded any government funding and that his job, on the FAS-supported Whole-Time Job Initiative, will be cut in March 2001.
``Imagine if we didn't do this. The working-class history would be lost. Historians have never recognised the history of the working class. A lot of people here took part in the 1913 Lockout and the Easter Rising. On the stages of history a lot of people from this area played their part. The people of this area are still struggling.''
The North Inner City Folklore project has gathered an enormous amount of information about Dublin's history - little thanks to the government. ``Mary Harney wants to get rid of us now, she wants to get rid of all that the community representatives have fought for over the years. It is wrong that we are not given the proper resources to collate our own history - they won't even afford us batteries for a tape recorder. This means that we have to go begging to local business.
Terry has been lobbying for a heritage centre. ``The Folklore Project can be a place where people can come in and hear the voices of our past,'' he says. If we can have them in the middle of the Burren, he argues, then why not also in the heart of the Inner City.
``Tourists and Dubliners alike could come and listen and see that this area is not some kind of void, bereft of any sense of belonging. What we need is the equipment, the funding, the interest from the state. As it stands there's only two people collecting history from the Inner City, working on a shoestring budget. This could be a self-sustaining business. It could also be a resource for communities, across the social divide, where people could come and research Dublin's history.
``It can be a way of binding communities together. Inner city people are quite accessible, they're talkative. They see that their views are getting aired in our publications. We put the ordinary people into history, people who never got recognition for the part they played.''