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By Fr Edmond Grace


Edmond Grace SJ

Beside each of the canals which circle Dublin’s north and south inner city sits a motionless figure on a bench. This silent figure is a statue of one of Dublin’s many writers. On the south side Paddy Kavanagh sits beside the Grand Canal not too far from Leeson St. Bridge. He looks across the quiet water at La Peniche, the barge-restaurant which was not there in his day but is a reminder of an earlier and more slowly moving time. ‘Remember me where there is water.’ He would be pleased that the low flung elegant Georgian terrace on Mespil Road remains unchanged. As for the second generation of glassy office blocks which make up the rest of the neighbourhood, that has to be a different matter. It is hard to imagine him being pleased by their presence and not too hard to imagine him being vitriolic at finding himself in a busy moneyed neighbourhood. Change can be a source of pain and grief even when English continues to be spoken.

Brendan Behan sits on the banks of the Royal Canal looking around with his hands on his knees. On the other side of the canal, the long silent wall of Mountjoy Prison remains in place. ‘And the auld triangle went jingle jangle….’ There is not an office block in sight. If he turns to his left a short walk leads to Binns Bridge and Dorset Street. He might keep walking towards town, crossing North Circular Road and turning down Gardiner St.. He might keep going, leaving Mountjoy Square on his left, turning into Gardiner Place where he will see the steeple of Finlater’s Church. There he will turn to his left and, passing by the Gate Theatre, he will arrive in O’Connell Street.

The north-east inner-city will seem so powerfully familiar but for two very striking difference. The colour of many people’s skin suggests that they have not been here for too long. If his trip from Binns Bridge to the city centre is typical, he will not hear one word of that language in which he, and so many like him, have used to talk and laugh and cry and sing about Dublin. He would certainly be sad to see the language he loved no now seldom heard in the place that he loved. You might ask how he would react to the many non-English speakers now living in this part of the city. Would he be for them or against them? He would want to be able to laugh and to have others laugh with him.

North East Inner City Dublin is certainly a great deal better to look at than in his time. Local people growing up in the 1960s will have memories of playing among the half-collapsed slums. It was dangerous, of course, but when you are ten years old you think about the fun and not the danger. The slums were cleared and new blocks of flats were built, but the poverty did not disappear.

Then three things happened – drugs, organised crime and homelessness. People were able to cope. The new actors - the addicts, the dealers, the homeless - were neighbours and family members. It was sad, even heart-breaking and at times terrifying but everyone knew who they were dealing with. People did what they could to look after their children, getting them into treatment and and getting them through to the other end. Others stood up for their neighbourhoods with great courage and sometimes with success though the success was never permanent.

Then came something altogether unprecedented. We Irish had been well used to leaving our homeland and going elsewhere to begin a new life. In this world of migration we knew what it was like to be the migrants. We also knew what it was like to come from a poor country. For the first time in many centuries Ireland began to leave poverty behind, though not all of us did. People began to make their way to this newly – but not equally – rich country, with this part of Dublin accepting a large proportion of these new-comers.

There had been waves of migration before in Irish history but the Vikings, the Normans, the English and the Ulster-Scots all came as conquerors.

These latest arrivals on our shores were like the Irish in America and Britain and Australia were attracted by the opportunities offered by a wealthy country. We were able to flatter ourselves for many years that we could empathise with the ‘new Irish.’ We knew what it was like. Members of our own families went to other countries and did well.

Something has gone wrong with this happy story. Our relationship with the ‘new Irish’ has lost its shine. Much of this change, though not all, is due to that feature of humanity which is most immediately recognised when we see another person - more even than gender. It is impossible to ignore the colour of a person’s skin as they stand before us. It always has a story to tell and can respond to that story either with friendship or with hostility.

Rose is a highly respected figure in her neighbourhood and with good reason. As well as being generous and courageous she has good judgement and people look to her in challenging times. She leaves her home to go to work each morning and on her way she passes a group of dark skinned young men who are hanging around on the footpath, having been turned out of their hostel at a very early hour. One particular detail still registers with Rose from her first encounter with these young men. They did not stand aside to let her pass. She had to step off the footpath and onto the street to walk around them.

It is understandable that she should feel angry at this group of big silent sullen dark skinned young males blocking her path. She is not a timid sort. It is also understandable that a group of young half-awake young men far from home on a cold dark city street might fail to realise the effect they were having on a woman who has to walk around them because they are standing in her way. Neither they nor she were given the opportunity to meet or understand the position of the other. They were, quite simply, thrown together.

Hatred is not too strong a word to describe Rose's attitude towards these young men, but a local businessman takes a different view. ‘Those lads are harmless. If everyone was like them, I'd have no problems.’ Rose's views are not confined to her morning neighbours. She talks about Ukrainians and how they milk the welfare system. A friend of hers works in the department.

Anne, another north inner-city resident insists that no one is against immigration ‘in any way shape or form as immigrants have been living alongside our community for a number of years with little or no problems at all.’ She has a point. In the year 2000 Gardiner Street National School had ten nationalities. Even then migrants were a significant presence in the north-inner city so what has happened? Anne talks in terms which echo Rose’s experience: I feel the lack of knowledge of these men in our community has brought a fear like no other for our safety and that of our children.’ She refers to the riots of 23 November: ‘Between the acts of violence and the feeling of not knowing what to do or say to your child when they ask are they going to be safe in school every morning since this happened.’

Migrants took no part in those riots, which left many of them terrified. In any population there are people looking for an opportunity to fight and the failure to address relations between migrants and native born people in the north-inner city has provided such an opportunity. When a large number of unattached and unknown young men appear in any neighbourhood, people are going to be afraid. This has nothing to do with the colour of their skin or their unfamiliar accents and everything to do with their maleness and their youth. Young Irishmen would be no different.

When the issue of migration - and race - is added to this all too familiar set of circumstances, the colour of a person’s skin becomes something to be feared. Acknowledging this simple - and disturbing - human reality is not to play into the hands of the far right. Failing to do so most certainly is. The communities and services North East Inner City are straining under the pressure of a rapid and unplanned change of population. Everyone who lives there, native born and new arrivals, is rendered powerless and their potential is ignored. Their situation, and the likely consequences, can be summed up in the words of John Adams, second President of the United States:"To be wholly overlooked and to know it are intolerable."

Those who live in the north inner city know of how their neighbourhood is associated with victimhood, addiction, crime and homelessness. They know that this is part of the story but they also know, and resent, the way in which their neighbourhood is identified with nothing else. Their potential is ignored and this is what it means to be overlooked.

They do find hope in in the ordinary things - in the every day realities of family and neighbourhood. Children play a significant part, as well as the schools where children, with parents from every part of the world, sit side by side in the classroom and play together in the school yard. Those same parents, arriving to bring them home at the end of the school day, see their children playing with their friends and they know that this is a good sign for their future.

Gardiner Street National School is one of the oldest schools in the country. It was founded in 1830 by the Sisters of Charity who managed it until recently when they handed it over to the Jesuits. It is now part of a world wide network of over 2500 schools and 1,700,000 pupils. As in many Jesuit schools throughout the world Catholics are in a minority.

In Gardiner Street children, of different faiths pray together each in their own manner. The teacher will ask each one to name someone they know whom they would like everyone to pray for. There is usually a second round as teacher asks each of them to name someone they don't know and ask the group to pray for that person. This all takes quite some time but throughout it all there is that gentle almost tangible silence which is the unmistakable hallmark of humanity at prayer.

Most people in Ireland today associate religion with half-empty churches, but Dublin's North East Inner-City bucks that trend. There are no less than 23 places of worship in the area, most of them of recent origin including Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh - and most of them very humble indeed. These new worshipping communities are struggling, but not for members. Their small spaces are often overcrowded and the leases are limited. They constantly have to look around for new accommodation which is not easy to find. There is a shortage of space for religious worship in the north east inner city. That may surprise many, but this lack of space cuts into a deep and heartfelt longing for those directly affected.

The new religious diversity in the North East Inner City comes at a significant moment in the history of the world. From viewing each other with suspicion and intolerance the religions of the world have begun to seek dialogue and mutual understanding. Children of different faiths praying together in the same classroom would have given cause for outrage not so long ago. Meanwhile among the many worshipping groups in the North East Inner City a network of fellowship has grown up. It is part of a wider network, the Dublin City Interfaith Forum (, chaired by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Rev. Michael Jackson. It enjoys the recognition of Dublin City Council, the Gardaí and other state agencies.

When people come together to pray, their prayer is shaped by what they have seen and heard in the place where they live and worship. People of all faiths see their prayer as being addressed to a mysterious reality which is ‘awesome and fascinating’ and able to inspire hope and generous commitment. The UN has come to recognise the role played by religiously motivated people, particularly in Africa, in caring for AIDS sufferers.

It is not necessary to look outside the North East Inner-City to see such religiously inspired developments. Two hospitals - the Mater and the Children’s Hospital - and many schools are the result of that same religious impulse which is to be found wherever you find humanity.

The members of the Dublin City Interfaith Forum are quite clear that religion is not a private matter. One example ot this in this part of the city occurred in the mid nineteen nineties. After the assassination of Veronica Guerin the people of the north east inner city rose up in defiance of drug dealers and their rotten ways. In the Hardwicke Street flats the dealers were given twenty four hours to leave and they all went.

The local people set up a committee and they asked me, one of the local priests, to be chairman. They had a specific reason in asking me to play this role. The Gardiner Street Jesuits had long been part of this neighbourhood and enjoyed the trust of both people and state agencies. They figured that I would be able to help them to establish good relations with state authorities and the result of those improved relations are clearly visible in Hardwicke street to this day. Part of the street is now a park put there by Dublin City Council. Where once there was an ugly spread of black tarmac there is now an all-weather football pitch, an attractively built community centre, a creche and little walled gardens outside each of the ground level flats.

It would be impossible to imagine Jesuit presence in this part of the city without Gardiner Street Church and the people who come to worship in Gardiner Street Church. It is part of the story of human worship in place and every age. If people pray - particularly if they pray with others - their relationship to the world is changed. Religious worship goes hand in hand with prayer and it is always lead by designated teachers. They lead, not simply by saying prayers and performing rituals, but by encouraging others to contribute to the wider community. The role of religious leaders to open people’s hearts to God and to the world in which they live. That openness is a witness to the presence of God in our world. The role of religious leaders in the Dublin's North East Inner City is one of public significance. It is good that a number of state agencies accept this in their designs with the Dublin City Interfaith Forum but this role of religion in public affairs needs to be more fully recognised.

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