Exploring the potential for cultural regeneration in the Republic of Ireland
Anna Carnegie (University of York) discusses her research trip to the Ballymun flats in North Dublin.
My research focuses on the conditions for successful estate regeneration in the Republic of Ireland. While the themes of my work are consistently evolving and being shaped by my time in the field, one area I am particularly interested in is the role that the creative arts play in housing regeneration schemes. I wish to explore how the arts are used by both communities and state actors in shaping place identities. Facilitated by my BAIS bursary, I have been able to visit a number of communities which have engaged in cultural regeneration strategies and hear from the people directly affected by current and past redevelopment schemes.
Most of my time so far has been spent in the largest of my case study estates – Ballymun in North Dublin – that experienced an extensive redevelopment programme which began in 1997, lasted for almost 20 years and, in the eyes of many, remains incomplete. As this year celebrates the 50th birthday of the original Ballymun flats being constructed, oral histories of life in the flats have formed a cornerstone of numerous interviews. At their time of construction in the 1960s, Ballymun’s original tower blocks were considered by many as innovative and iconic, the first of their kind in the Irish state:
“This was a brand new world. We’re going to be Europeans living in, like, New York you know? It was on the films. People going into their flats, you know? It was something off the movies” – resident
However, the area soon fell victim to negative media coverage and was often portrayed negatively in popular culture, with Ballymun used as shorthand for a site of crime and anti-social behaviour. While the area did experience some problems, these simplistic media and cultural portrayals negated the powerful community bonds and strong traditions of activism in the area. A number of steps were taken throughout the regeneration to attempt to re-address these negative connotations and cultivate a ‘destination Ballymun’ which the wider public would want to visit and settle in. The creative arts have proved a core element in these attempts. Breaking Ground, for instance, was a public arts initiative under Ireland’s Per Cent for Art programme, which attempted to attract national and international attention onto Ballymun through the medium of visual art in the early 2000s – including the controversial idea of ‘Hotel Ballymun’ which involved an abandoned tower block being converted into a short-stay hotel for a one month period.
Running in tandem with the regeneration was the construction of community and cultural hub – the axis Centre, where I have spent a great deal of my time whilst visiting Ballymun. Axis aims to play a dual role, as both a community centre and a leading cultural venue. Performances – such as Dermot Bolger’s triplet of plays The Ballymun Trilogy – have helped to put forward alternative, more nuanced identities of the area, which recognise and celebrate the positives in the area, whilst also acknowledging persistent issues and challenges.
Yet although such projects have challenged negative perceptions to some degree, the majority of interviewees consulted to date expressed the belief that Ballymun remains a heavily stigmatised area amongst the wider Dublin – and Irish – public.
My fieldwork has involved various different aspects – including observation, interviews and focus groups – all centred in the local areas which I am studying. Throughout my attendance at community events and meetings, visits to cultural outlets and interviews with local residents and other stakeholders, I have become increasingly interested in the impact that regeneration schemes have on communities. As has become apparent in Ballymun, one primary implication of the regeneration has been the decimation of many once-active community groups throughout the area. The disintegration of local, informal creative arts groups were one pertinent example of this, amplified by the retrenchment of national funding for community-based groups. Although the area is home to a theatre and community space, it lacks many of the transport and retail facilities promised under the regeneration, which is a source of frustration for many.
One area where grassroots creative activity is still apparent is in Ballymun’s Irish traditions. Built 50 years on from the Easter Rising, with the initial tower blocks named after the Rising’s seven leaders, the area retains a strong connection with traditional Irish – and indeed Dublin – heritage still reflected in some of the cultural activity currently on display today (from Irish language and music projects, Gaelic games in the local GAA club to past axis projects which have involved the fusion of hip-hop and sean-nós singing).
Yet although its activist qualities have – according to some – been dented over the regeneration process, spending time in Ballymun I have been struck by the forceful sense of local pride, humour and identity. These attributes have enabled the local community to persevere through testing circumstances and in some cases, develop innovative solutions for their area (such as new housing models).
Given that my work stems from social justice traditions and involves getting the perspectives of communities who are so often excluded from decision-making processes, the views of local people – not only in Ballymun, but in estates elsewhere in Dublin and Ireland – have been central in informing my work. The findings from these trips will contribute to my PhD thesis, as well as other associated research outputs. The bursary provided by the BAIS has been an invaluable source of support for carrying out this work.