Our national epic has yet to be written – James Joyce
If you’ve ever listened to the song Running to Stand Still from U2’s Joshua Tree album you will have heard about the Irish town of Ballymun in the lyric “I see seven towers but I only see one way out.” Located on the northern periphery of Dublin city, Ballymun was at one time Ireland’s largest and – at least as much as my own experience has led me to hold – most unattractive public housing estate. Hastily conceived through a confluence of public and political pressure in response to a housing crisis in Dublin in the early 1960’s, the Ballymun Housing Project was missioned with providing relief from the wholly unsatisfactory conditions of the collapsing inner city slums for the region’s poorest and most desperate. Upon the project’s completion in 1966, the Ballymun estate featured seven fifteen-story tower blocks, nineteen eight story deck access “clusters”, ten four-story “walk-up” blocks and 400 two-story houses. Publicized as a “model new town”, the new dwellings featured a larger-than-the-national-average living space, running hot water, flushing toilets and central heating: these convenience were not at all a common feature in Irish housing at that time. The estates appeared as towering havens of gleaming concrete and prospective tenants were excited at the idea of their new homes. At least, that is the way the official record of history has chosen to remember how things went down. The truth of the situation and what lay underneath the politics and spin, eg. the anxieties and reservations felt by those being moved toward this entirely new neighborhood – not to mention the multitude of emotions they must have felt as to the fact that they were being quite physically separated from their previous locale – may never be known.
As has so often proven to be the case with large scale government sponsored housing programs, the story of Ballymun is one of blind optimism swiftly followed by catastrophic failure (take, for example, the case of the Pruitt Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, a story admirably presented in Chad Freidrichs’ 2012 documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth). While the Irish press and Dublin Corporation were enthusiastic to highlight the architectural achievements of the Ballymun project, the vital social as well as recreational resources required by such a community had been carelessly overlooked. As much as a decade after the project’s ostensible completion, the promised health services, shopping facilities, office accommodation, community centre, meeting hall and swimming pool remained incomplete. In 1974, Ballymun had only the swimming pool, snack bar and two pubs – even today, with a population exceeding 22,000 people, just two police cars are stationed at Ballymun. Here you had a fragmented and disorganised population, annexed miles from their home city and significantly lacking the basic amenities necessary for the conducting of their daily lives. These were already vulnerable people, remember, with many lacking the skills to make any sort of functional lives for themselves in this foreign, barren and entirely new township.
When the global economic recession of the late 1970’s and 1980’s hit Ireland, Ballymun went into social and economic free-fall. With increased unemployment and reduced government spending came the familiar problems of poverty, drugs, crime, exclusion and alienation. By the early 1990’s, the area had a reputation as being one of the most distressed and crime ridden neighborhoods in the entire Republic. What had at one time been heralded as the solution to Ireland’s housing problem was now essentially an economically, socially and physically exhausted ghetto.
In Ballymun was found all the indicators and cliches of an underclass: joblessness, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed households, crime, violence, welfare dependency, substance abuse, and high rates of school dropout. Try to imagine what it must have been like to live in this kind of place. The thoughts going through your head as you made the journey home to your apartment complex after a day spent traipsing the streets of Dublin city centre, trying to find absolutely any kind of work, unsuccessfully. The elevator is broken so you have to take the stairs to your 9th story flat, which is work enough in and of itself, but as if things couldn’t get worse, on the stairwell you have to dodge both the yet-to-be-cleaned-up dog shit that has been on that step for 2 weeks now and the heroin addicts who see no problem in shooting up right there in the communal hallway. The place stinks of trash, urine and vomit and the council won’t be sending anybody to clean it up any time soon. You live in constant fear of being robbed or attacked or worse. Every day is like this, there are no prospects, no support, no relief, no future. Try to imagine this is you and what this would do to your sense of reality. Imagine trying to raise a family in this kind of environment. This was the everyday reality of life in a place like Ballymun. Oscar Wilde is quite wrong in his essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, when he writes that “misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralyzing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering.” The poor and dejected in Ballymun knew exactly what was happening to them. These were not a people ignorant of their suffering. Ballymun was more than aware of its place in the pecking order; at the very bottom of the scrap heap; shit out of luck. What we’re talking about here is hopelessness as a way of life. Despite several refurbishment initiatives being attempted by interest groups, statutory agencies and the hard work of many community task forces, the region deteriorated to the point whereby it was difficult to conceive of anybody actually being able to conduct any sort of tolerable existence in such a place.
By the early 2000’s, as a result of Ireland’s new found economic prosperity (referred to internationally as the Celtic Tiger), the decision was finally made to pull down the 7 towers and to reinvent the area. A fresh start, so to speak. Ballymun was the target of a €1.8 billion regeneration scheme intended to create a self-sustaining community of 30,000 people. The idea being that this new strategy would be more successful than that of the 1960’s, they would get it right this time. The regeneration scheme was in full swing when, in the summer of 2007, I came to rent a room in the centre of Ballymun.
As I saw it, the amendments to the area, including the construction of higher quality housing and investment in local business were entirely cosmetic. The truth is that, in Ballymun, I was exposed to such a degree of urban decay and decrepitude that it still astonishes me that a country would allow such undiluted misery to exist for so long. The scale of the degradation I encountered is incomparable with anything else I have so far experienced. There is nothing to be gained from kicking and demonizing the vulnerable, nor will romanticizing or patronizing their situation get us anywhere, I aim only to tell what I saw.
First of all my still vivid memories is the level of physical deprivation, especially around the old flat complexes: abandoned tenements, vandalized blocks, litter, graffiti, torched cars, drug paraphernalia, nettles growing high between paving stones, animal excrement, uncollected rubbish everywhere, broken furniture, kitchen appliances dumped in the middle of the street etc.The danger of broken glass kept young children away from the local playgrounds, instead teenagers hung menacingly from the frames of long-ago broken swings, harassing passers-by for cigarettes, money or both. It may be true that these teens came from perfectly respectable homes and were simply bored due to a lack of adequate entertainment, but with such dilapidated surroundings, their appearance could not but take on an air of the sinister.
Almost without exception, the uniform of the Ballymun casual – at least as of 2007/2008 – is the cotton tracksuit, accessorized with a pair of name-brand training shoes for males and puddle-stained ugg boots for females. Never jeans, and most certainly never a suit. The locals, regardless of age, had the most terrible skin. A condition I attribute – though I have absolutely no description of professional qualification to make any sort of formal diagnosis – to their grease-saturated, fast-food diet. Nearly everybody smokes; eyes closed and cheeks sucked tight against acme-pocked jowl, pulling on a cigarette as if for dear life. I never saw so much as a single person reading a book on the bus heading in or out of the neighborhood. Answering the door to an unexpected visitor was a definite no-no, you heard too many horrific stories to even consider such a thing.
Ballymun is the sort of place that strangely seems to suit the rain. Not that such weather makes the place look any better, but the grime of a raw sky and the wasteland of grey-sodden concrete just somehow seem to compliment one another. In the morning, conspicuously young mothers could be heard yanking their hysterical children in the direction of the local preschool, usually pushing another equally hysterical child in a rickety pram. Fathers were rarely ever to be seen on the streets with their children. Older children loitered in the doorways of the many abandoned blocks,smashing the windows of vacated flats, kicking the corpulent metal shutters that sign-posted a building’s condemnation – its eardrum perforating clang reverberating through the neighborhood with each kick like a corrugated banshee’s scream – and generally being a nuisance to anybody who happened to walk within shouting distance. One such 16 year old lad – no more than a kid really – died of a stab wound 100 metres from my back yard during my second month in the area.
It is said that in a city, you’re never more than two feet away from a rat, in Ballymun, the same can be said of junkies. While you might occasionally spot one or two during the day, the bulk came out at night. Their otherwise surreptitious movements detectable only by their shouting up to unspecified block windows. The calls, though difficult to decipher, pertained exclusively to ordering – often pleading – for scag, before the scurry back into the night, returning a few days later for a top up. A pilgrimage of both habit and necessity. Their days devoted entirely to the business of scrounging and robbing money for drugs in the city centre.
It should go without saying that there are honest and hard-working people in Ballymun and that this group is vastly underrepresented in most news coverage of the area. The simple and stark truth – quite plainly put – is that a story involving a man being dismembered in a pub brawl will always be a lot more headline grabbing and eye catching than one covering the construction of a community art wall. My live-in landlady, Lucy, was a Ballymun native and a figure of both dignity and conviction. She kept an immaculate house and, while well aware of the Ballymun’s various shortcomings, would staunchly defend the area against anyone who spoke ill of the place. I would go as far to say that she was in possession of a greater sense of honesty, humility and strength of character than I have encountered among the middle-class bohemians and pseudo-intellectuals in whose company I have found myself.
Lucy was, however, very much a product of her environment. Here was a person totally desensitized to a great many of things from which your average law-abiding, god-fearing, tax-paying citizen would be eager to shy from. It was, as one might imagine, worth taking note when she quite candidly informed me that one of her former boyfriends had been arrested during a police sting operation on account of his involvement in the attempted armed robbery of an armored car. Though never a user herself, I would frequently return home of a Saturday night to find Lucy sat next to a different guy each week- her partner for the night – who would be chopping mounds of coke (other controlled substances are available) into neatly arranged lines on the living-room coffee table. The gentleman was usually a different but the gear was always the same. One side effect of cocaine use – as any anti-narcotics campaigner will tell you – is impotence. To account for such a possibility, 2 emergency Viagra tablets were always to be found in the top drawer of her bedside locker; one for the line chopper, one for herself.
Two memories, the first an example of the indiscriminate violence that can erupt in Ballymun at any moment, the second, I think, giving a certain insight into the arbitrary nature of crime in the neighborhood.
I remember quite distinctly, walking home from the bus stop one otherwise forgettable day, listening to the radio through the headphones of my cheap-ass mobile phone, only to be unexpectedly jerked from concentration by the terrible crack of cement meeting concrete at my feet. To my immediate left, an eviscerated Coke bottle (other colas are available) spilling fragments of hard cement – its filling – across the pavement. To my right, on the roof of an 8 story tenement block, a troupe of teenagers hurling every imaginable expletive in my direction. On realizing the heft and density of the bottle’s former contents, the initial surprise of the impact turned swiftly to one of confused panic. Few things are more terrifying to me than the idea of indiscriminate violence; of being the unwitting and randomly designated victim of another’s whimsical inhumanity. What if that solid bottle had made contact with my skull? From that height, forget about it. Even if the bottle had been filled with water, from 8 stories, it would still mean lights out. It is probable that their intention had been simply to spook me for their own adolescent gratification. A shot across the bough for shits and giggles. To think that this thing was actually aimed at my head is a little too much to consider. Either way, it was a calculated act of violence. I think it’s got something to do with the ability to snatch a person’s control in a situation. To prompt fear at will. These are the same sort of people that prank call fire and ambulances services only to pelt the responding units with rocks and glass bottles when they arrive. They are cruel activities, perpetrated by cruel people. It is a hostility caused by the misery and rage and depression of desperate circumstances. It is absurd but understandable. The behavior of people without a sense that a better life is in any way attainable. The way out of poverty, of course, is not through violence but education. This, however, wasn’t the occasion for proselytizing.
I got mugged in the broad daylight of a Saturday afternoon. I was making my way to an off-license to pick up a few beers for the weekend. Apart from my trusty cheap phone, I had a wallet containing 7 Euros in the loosest change (the cost of a six pack) and a backpack holding my winter hat and a few miscellaneous papers. A kilometer long stretch of road, one side lined with disused flats the other with the high perimeter wall of a newly built housing estate, separated my house from the store. I minded my own business, walking alone through the cold air of this queasy November afternoon. It was a good day to have stayed in bed. Helplessly outflanked, it is only with hindsight I can appreciate how easy and tempting a target I must have appeared. I remember, even just from the sound of their footsteps from behind, that I was about to be in trouble. I was knocked stupid by how suddenly it all happened.
The business of mugging, as I have come to see it, is not necessarily undertaken for any material gain to the aggressor but is more immediately concerned with the seizure of power. When you are on the receiving end of the knife, you are certainly not the one in any sort of control. No-one comes away from this sort of situation any the more romantic or interesting. I did my best to cooperate with the scumbags conducting the exchange, the knives they held at me would make swift work of my gut and I was in no mood to have my gut swiftly made work of. What surprised most was how utterly charmless this episode played out. While one of the bastards held his knife at my neck, the other rifled through my pockets. Money changed hands and they were gone.
There is a saying that only a coward steals from the poor. What is to be said, then, when the poor are robbing from the poor? I had nothing to my name in those days. There is something very pathetic about the low tier street crime. It is, as far as I can see, a practice with few results other than its own unpleasantness. When I got home, I called the police – on my landlady’s phone – but no unit ever turned up. In the days that followed, it is embarrassing to admit, I was somewhat hesitant to leave the house. At one point, I even considered carrying my own knife but ultimately decided that this was more likely to cause more trouble than it could ever possibly remedy. When winter really got going, I made a decided effort to be home before the sun went down.
While living in Paris, the minimalist playwright and author Samuel Beckett was stabbed in the chest by a pimp named Robert-Jules Prudent. The knife narrowly missed his heart and left lung, confining Beckett to a Parisian hospital for over two weeks. When the writer met his attacker in court, he asked why had he done such a thing. Prudent responded “Je ne sais pas, monsieur. Je m’excuse.” In an act of incredible sympathy, Beckett chose not to press charges, believing his assailant to be “more cretinous than malicious.”I wish that I was capable of that kind of compassion. It is a brutal truth that violence is a part of the fabric of everyday life in Ballymun and despite my best efforts, I am unable to empathize with the mind that would derive pleasure from such a practice. Modern liberal thinking has ruled it unacceptable to simply hate the people of areas like Ballymun, preferring instead to patronizingly lament the desperate measures to which these people have been driven. I can tell you that in that particular moment, with that knife pointed at me, I hated them. I could not have cared less about the socioeconomic circumstances that drove them to this, I wanted them erased. It is one thing to moralize on the plight of the disenfranchised, it is another to have its most unpleasant qualities bearing down on you. It may be true that crimes of this sort occur to all manner of people, in all different cities. On this occasion, however, it happened to me and here.
I moved out of Ballymun just as Ireland was sliding into a similar economic quagmire to that which it had spent most of the 1990’s crawling out from. I cannot help but wonder what effect the bubble bursting has had on that already derelict town. For decades, the people of Ballymun have been the underdogs and as long the neighborhood exists they will remain so. And why should anyone care about a place such as Ballymun? As Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Some people get rich and others eat shit and die.” The condition of Ballymun reflects an unpleasantness in us all, something quite unsavory, existential even. It is not a case of them and us, only us and what we have allowed. The term underclass is a dirty word with ugly connotations, but I struggle to find a more descriptive term for many of the people I encountered in Ballymun. These were a people failed by local government, by the state, by official policy, by their Dublin neighbors and by each-other. The people of Ballymun know they are hated and well aware that a great number of people would soon enough forgot the place even exists, much as they would so many other of the country’s failures. But the buck stops here, it doesn’t get much rougher than this. That isn’t to say, of course, that it couldn’t always get worse, but for the sake of civility, let’s hope it doesn’t. At least from what I’ve seen, the poor may be virtuous but there is no virtue to poverty, and little charm to be found in squalor and misery.