Dublin 7

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

BERNARD NEARY
Lilliput Press
€20
ISBN 9781843516811

Reviewed by: Donal Fallon

Donal Fallon is joint editor of comeheretome.com, dedicated to Dublin’s life and culture.

Perhaps no Dublin postcode has been as well served by historians as Dublin 7. Not only has the district inspired studies like Kevin Kearns’s excellent oral history Stoneybatter: Dublin’s inner urban village (Gill and Macmillan, 1989) but it also hosts a number of active historical societies, including the Stoneybatter and Smithfield People’s History Project. Much has changed in the area since Kearns’s study of Stoneybatter was first published. Last February, in the pages of the Irish Times, Brian Boyd warned Stoneybatter residents to ‘prepare to be gentrified’. In truth, that process has long been under way, and rising rents have already driven out some local institutions, like the arts space Block T. When the Guardian called Stoneybatter and its environs ‘Little Williamsburg by the Liffey’, a reference to an achingly hip Brooklyn suburb, all but the estate agents cringed.

Of course, there is much more to Dublin 7 than Stoneybatter. The district includes Cabra, Grangegorman, Broadstone and Smithfield, and stretches as far as Ashtown and the Navan Road. This study is not entirely new but builds on Neary’s earlier A history of Cabra and Phibsborough (1982). This book truly is a product of Dublin 7: its publisher is based on Arbour Hill’s Sitric Road, while the beautiful cover is the work of Dublin 7 resident Niall McCormack.

Neary’s study is not intended to be academic; rather he outlines a hope early on that it might serve as an ‘informal walking guide through the district’. With this in mind, chapters are divided not thematically but by district. His broad introduction correctly notes that Dublin 7 ‘is one of the oldest inhabited regions of Ireland’s capital city’, but for the most part the emphasis is very much (but by no means exclusively) on Dublin 7 since the eighteenth century. While the radical political history is well known, from the United Irishmen to the Civil War, Neary also chronicles its industrial history, looking at the industries and markets that provided so much employment.

In his memoir of growing up in the area in the 1950s, journalist Gene Kerrigan recalled the constant sight of cattle on the move, and ‘the bewildered beasts leaving heaps of shit on the road as souvenirs of their passage’. Neary’s work is not such a memoir, though his own experiences of growing up in Cabra West do colour the narrative and were the inspiration behind the endeavour. Only someone so deeply embedded within a community could have access to many of the stories told here, to know the names that have escaped the newspaper archives and other sources. Still, we should not think of such studies as ‘folksy’ or hagiographical, as there is much of substance here. A name that will be unfamiliar to many younger readers is Nora Herlihy, though she is championed by Neary for having ‘sowed the first seeds of what was to become one of the great success stories of twentieth-century Ireland’. Herlihy, appalled by the twin evils of emigration and unemployment which ravaged the country in the 1950s, was one of the driving forces behind the Credit Union movement. Her influence was national, but in West Cabra the Credit Union on Kilkiernan Road was named Nora Herlihy House in her honour.

Featured industrial landmarks that are no more include the Shandon Park mills, the cattle market between Aughrim Street and Prussia Street, and the city abattoir, which sat at the junction of the North Circular Road and Blackhorse Avenue. While many of these sites have disappeared without trace, they are remembered in sometimes-curious ways. Neary writes of how the children of St Gabriel’s School still know Drumalee as ‘the cattler’, while Manor Street’s Cowtown Café is a nod towards the colloquial name bestowed upon an area that straddled two markets.

At times Neary utilises local people and their stories directly, with an oral history dimension that greatly benefits the work. Síle O’Neill, whose father Michael participated in the 1916 Rising, recalls her family hiding weapons from Black and Tans during the revolutionary period. Jack Ennis, once a drover (employed to manoeuvre cattle from market to sale, and finally from the market to the docks), explains the strong trade union culture that existed among the men he worked beside. More of these kinds of contributions would be welcomed; indeed, the scope remains for a separate oral history. It is when Neary writes about and talks to ordinary people that the work is at its best.

Since Neary first published his histories of Cabra and Phibsborough there has been an explosion in new source material, with much of this available digitally. He draws from the Bureau of Military History witness statements, as well as availing of heritagemaps.ie, a Heritage Council initiative that is invaluable for those studying Irish built and natural heritage.

Gripes with the book relate not to its content but to issues of format. Such a well-researched work warrants an index, for example, especially given the decision to divide chapters by districts rather than themes, such as labour, culture and built heritage.

Neary rightly concludes the book by acknowledging the contributions of new communities to the area. Mr Luky from Burundi and Alfie Garcia from Angola are shopkeepers on Manor Street today and, as Neary notes, ‘their stories, and those of countless others, have yet to unfold and await the pen, or keyboard, of the future chronicler’.

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