herald

Friday 23 February 2018

Long-forgotten stories and lives that form the capital's rich tapestry

Come Here to Me! Volume 2 offers a fascinating exploration of the alternative history of Dublin and its people, writes Dermot Bolger

Five Star Internet Cafe on Talbot Street
Five Star Internet Cafe on Talbot Street

Many Dubliners reading this article on Sarsfield Road, Decies Road or Cremona Road in Ballyfermot may think they know their area's history, but I wonder if many know about dire warnings in 1952 that these three streets might be renamed Lenin Road, Stalin Road and Deasy Road.

The ecclesiastical apparatchiks who ruled Dublin during the 1950s were so obsessed by imaginary red scares that - for a brief, forgotten period - they feared that Ballyfermot was being engulfed by the most dangerous revolutionary conflagration since the 1917 October Revolution.

The spark they feared would turn this peaceful Dublin suburb into a Petrograd, with red flags flying from the Inchicore CIE works, was a grocery shop that opened on Grattan Crescent in Inchicore then moved to Decies Road, run on a non-profit basis by the Inchicore-Ballyfermot Co-operative Society.

Unafraid

George Russell had pioneered Irish co-operative movements before independence, and Dublin's radical Mount Street Club - founded in response to chronic unemployment in the 1930s - allowed unemployed men to co-operatively farm land in Clondalkin.

But the Mount Street Club survived because it was established by two prominent Protestant businessman, unafraid of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, despite McQuaid regarding their efforts to help the poor with the same suspicion as he regarded The People's College, The Legion of Mary's efforts to fraternise with Protestants, mixed athletics meetings and the erotic dangers of tampons.

In comparison, Ballyfermot's co-operative committee stood no chance, partly because some members, such as Joseph Deasy from the Ranch (who the right-wing Catholic newspaper, The Standard, equated with Lenin and Stalin in warnings about roads being renamed), also belonged to the left-wing Irish Workers' League.

Their shop's closure was spearheaded by Ballyfermot's parish priest, Father Troy - recalled by Joe Duffy as "a larger than life country parish priest transplanted into a sprawling, uncontrollable, volatile urban area… who smelt a whiff of communism in the co-op notion and bullied people into turning against it".

At a time when any attempt to prevent exploitation was denounced as communism - with Brendan Behan's mother's house nicknamed The Crumlin Kremlin - the story of Ballyfermot's co-op might easily be forgotten.

However, it's one of dozens of hidden Dublin stories reclaimed in a fascinating new hardback book, Come Here to Me! Volume 2 (New Island Books, €19.95), which contains alternative Dublin histories by three historians and archivists, Donal Fallon, Sam McGrath and Ciaran Murray, from their popular Come Here to Me blog.

Every Dublin street corner has forgotten stories waiting to spill out from behind the bricks and mortar. This sort of book makes me realise how little I truly know about the interweaving tapestry of past lives that makes up Dublin's DNA.

How often, for example, have I passed the Five Star Internet Cafe on Talbot Street without knowing it was built as a Welsh Presbyterian Church, with many services conducted in Welsh for Welsh sailors?

But Come Here to Me! isn't just concerned with Dublin buildings. Here you get accounts of rows, ranging from infamous 18th century faction fights involving gangs such as the Liberty Boys to the less violent but equally bitter fight to keep Shamrock Rovers at Milltown.

You have accounts of Daniel O'Connell's last duel, Dublin's first gay bar and the shock of traditional GAA supporters when Hill 16 suddenly swarmed with the new boisterous generation of Heffo's Army.

Despite dire warnings in The Standard, no Dublin street was named after Stalin, but it's a travesty that no street has been named after Herbert Simms.

A hero in this book, Simms was Dublin Corporation's Housing Architect, who in the 1930s declared war against the slums of Dublin. He designed and built fine homes for thousands of working-class families in estates like Cabra or in superb Art Deco blocks of flats like Chancery House, which has a plaque to his memory.

Passionate

Eventually, overwhelmed by his ceaseless commitment to housing Dublin's poor, he threw himself under a train, his suicide note reading: "I cannot stand it any longer, my brain is too tired to work."

Because Simms didn't design buildings for the rich, he has received little recognition in his adoptive city, unlike, say, James Gandon.

However, as an architect passionate about good social housing he is deservedly honoured here. For that alone, not to mention its numerous other tales, this book should be cherished.

Dermot Bolger's new play, Bang Bang, about the legendary Dublin street character, runs at lunchtime in Bewley's Cafe Theatre from December 4 to 23

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