Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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From 'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage' (MPG, 2009) by Turtle Bunbury.


The history of housing in the Docklands is in itself an extraordinary tale. Three hundred years ago, there were no houses here with the exception of the small fishing hamlet of Ringsend. Most of the land was underwater with the occasional watchtower, customs outpost and pilgrimage hospice along the waterfront. The reclamation of the North and South Lotts in the 18th century was a largely commercial initiative and there is little record of any residential development before 1780. During the Victorian Age, the industrial magnates who operated the railways, coal-yards, shipbuilding, gasworks, canals and warehouses built many of the terraced rows in North Wall and East Wall for their workers.

The onset of cholera and typhoid in the late 19th century obliged the Pembroke Township to build new and better homes in Ringsend and the South Lotts before the Great War. In the 1920s, the Rev DH Hall inspired a major building programme in East Wall, echoed by Dublin Corporation. A decade later, de Valera’s promise to clear the slums resulted in the creation of suburban estates like Kimmage and Whitehall, as well as the East Wall terraces and the infamous Sheriff Street Flats. Elsewhere in the inner city, thousands of families continued to live in the dangerously decrepit and overcrowded tenement houses of Westland Row on the southside and in the crumbling Georgian buildings of the once formidable Blessington estate on the northside.

During the 1950s, there were approximately 22,500 families living in the Parish of Westland Row alone. Most were crammed into the old Georgian tenement houses and run-down mews cottages on the back alleys. Conditions were emphatically sub-standard. In many cases there was one tap and one toilet for four families. ‘We lived in a Big House’, says Sonny Kinsella, who grew up on Townsend Street. ‘Between the parents and the children, there were 54 in the one house, in 10 rooms. Over 1,000 people lived on the street then’. One wonders how any one of them got any sleep with the horse-drawn coal carts rattling down the cobbles outside throughout the night. In June 1963, storm conditions sent a spring tide and heavy rain crashing into Dublin City. A pair of four-storey tenement houses on Fenian Street collapsed, killing two small girls. The tragedy was the catalyst for a hard-line response to the inner city housing crisis. Dublin City Council sent in the demolition men and, north and south of the river, nearly all the tenements came down. The population were scattered amongst new housing schemes in places such as Crumlin, Drimnagh, Ballyfermot, Donnybrook and Ringsend.

By 1970, the massive slum clearances meant the total population of the two parishes of Westland Row and City Quay was little over 6,000. The northside population similarly plummeted from 50,000 to 16,000, with many of those squeezed into the Sheriff Street flats. In the mid-1990s, Dublin Corporation likewise dispatched the ‘Sherro’ residents to the suburbs, sent the bull-dozers in and the flats came tumbling down. Docklanders still regard these displaced families as ‘our people’. Many frequently return to socialize, shop and visit relatives who remained in the area.

One of the pioneering achievements of the Docklands Authority, inspired by the Docklands Council, was the ‘Social and Affordable Housing’ initiative, subsequently adopted by the Irish government. In order to ensure the local community stood a reasonable chance of buying a house in the area where they grew up, the Docklands Master Plan outlined that 20 per cent of all residential developments in the Docklands Area had to be ‘Social and Affordable’. The ‘S & A’ concept emerged after consultation with London dockers who had expressed horror that the extensive developments along the Thames waterfront in the 1980s meant their own children were unable to afford a house in the area where they were born and reared. As such, the Dubliners were ready when the Docklands Authority sought opinions on local housing policy in 1997. They were determined that the developer would not reap all the benefits. The Docklands Authority concurred and the 20 per cent clause was adopted. This ensures that, by about 2015, the local community can expect to be in ownership of 2,500 new homes in the Docklands. This means that at least 80% of the local community will be able to live and move around within the area where they were born and raised. Administration of all such housing is facilitated by a recently established Housing Trust whose current directors are Seánie Lamb, Gerry Fay, Betty Ashe, William Prentice, Aidan Long, Ciaran McNamara and Gerry Kelly. As representatives of the Docklands community, this board is indicative of the Authority’s policy of encouraging the local community to take responsibility for resolving their own issues. Also telling is the fact that the 20 per cent Social and Affordable Housing clause negotiated with the Docklands Authority is now standard in all new housing schemes across Ireland.

The annual Social Regeneration Conference gives everyone an opportunity to air their thoughts on how best to improve the situation for all in the community. In 2007, for instance, the Docklands Authority initiated the Play Space Guidelines to encourage developers to create a specific play area in apartment schemes. Planned public parks such as Chimney Park and the Royal Canal Linear Park also have strong child-friendly cores. The residents of the apartment blocks in North Wall and the Grand Canal Docks are blessed with the revamped campshires and new public spaces such as Mayor Square and Grand Canal Square. Poolbeg promises a whole new green parkland landscape for Dubliners while on-going work at Seán Moore Park and Irishtown Nature Park will ensure they become ever more attractive visitor destinations. Community Centres like the Séan O’Casey Community Centre and the St Andrew’s Resource Centre are also playing a vital role in keeping the community spirit alive. After five decades of downtime, the inner city population is rising steadily.

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