Half way through my writer in community residency at the Dublin Adult Learning Centre (funded by the Irish Writers Centre with support from Dublin City Council), I went for a walk with the five members of the creative writing group I’d been working with for the past few weeks. We’d spent that time talking about Dublin’s North Inner City, exploring through their memories the vibrant and unique community that extended from Mountjoy Square southwards towards the Liffey. I wanted to see the sites these students had been speaking so passionately about, and had been capturing in their writing.
The area immediately around Mountjoy Square, where DALC is based, corresponded neatly enough with my students’ stories. The square was largely still intact, and whilst individual houses had been replaced by later replicas, the replacements were close enough to the originals to continue to give a sense of what life must have been like when these writers were children, playing around the steps of the Georgian houses, or ranging around the lanes and alleyways behind them.
But once we walked further down Gardiner Street the traces of their childhoods became fainter. Huge swathes of terraces had been torn down; the shops and factories and public houses they remembered now replaced by apartment blocks and student accommodation. An entire International Financial Services Centre covered the area where one student, from Sherriff Street, remembered playing as a child or where another recalled hanging off bridges and swimming in the canal at Spencer Dock. The park off Foley Street contained the only traces remaining of the huge complex of Corporation Buildings that once housed a thriving community of men, women and children, whose eerie echos could be seen in the old photographs lining the front windows of the Lab on Foley Street.
Words on the page seemed the only way of recapturing those lost communities, of preserving so many vibrant personalities. So we sat around the table in the basement of 3 Mountjoy Square and talked about this gradual removal of the old Dublin they recognised and its replacement with somewhere they didn’t recognise, or couldn’t always feel a welcome part of. We were at times angry, sad, bewildered, but more often than not we were laughing at the stories, the memories, the sheer energy and fun of those times. Perhaps we always remember our childhoods with that sort of nostalgia, but there was no rose-tinted glasses being worn by anyone in the group. Times were hard, but people were resilient. They had to be. And it was that resilience that group members returned to again and again as we talked through their experiences. They’d seen a lot in their time. They expected to see a lot more. But they knew they had the capacity to adapt, to find a new route through unfamiliar surroundings.
By Nessa O’Mahony, writer, poet and teacher.