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‘I personally don’t want to see another Ballymun again’: the lessons of urban planning and regeneration

Ballymun new

Ballymun under construction, still taken from short video see (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O7G8weRc98) (26 May 2016)

By Adrian James Kirwan

On the 10 May the master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, speaking at the new Dáil committee on homelessness highlighted many of the lessons that can be learnt from the rapid construction of social housing projects without detailed planning stating: ‘I personally don’t want to see another Ballymun again’. Honohan was highlighting that the town had become a byword for the mismanagement of urban planning and management. Perhaps it is important as the state appears set on a new phrase of rapid construction of social housing to re-examine the history of Ballymun, to see what lessons we can learn from it and if those lessons are being implemented.

Ballymun was a direct response to a housing crisis which Dublin was experiencing in the 1950s and 60s. Dublin’s housing stock was not only under pressure from a rising population but also, in the city, extremely poorly maintained. Between the summer and end of 1963 tenements across the city collapsed or were evacuated due to safety concerns. House collapses in Bolton Street and Fenian Street led to the death of four people, forcing Dublin Corporation to adopt ‘emergency measures’ to deal with the crisis. These measures included the removal of over 1,000 people from homes deemed to be dangerous, leading to a doubling of the Corporation’s housing list.

The answer to the surge in housing demand quickly came from central government: pre-fabricated buildings. Such building techniques had become popular in Britain and Europe in the 1950s/60s and offered the government a relatively cheap and rapid way to construct homes. For some the use of such modern construction techniques and the introduction of high-rise living also signalled that Ireland was entering the modern age of public housing. Alongside the provision of spacious homes, constructed to high standards, the planners and government would meet the other needs of the new community, these included: shops, schools, green spaces, playgrounds, community halls and meeting rooms, a health clinic, a swimming pool and landscaped parks. It was to be a model of high-rise living, providing families with every amenity they required. However, as highlighted by Robert Somerville-Woodward, by the time construction began, in 1965, states across Europe were already abandoning such developments due to many of the problems that would scourge the new town, including poor maintenance of communal areas and the social isolation of residents.

File:James connolly Tower 2007.JPG

James connolly Tower, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_connolly_Tower_2007.JPG) (26 May 2016).

The first residents began arriving in the new town in 1966 and were delighted by the homes that greeted them. For many coming from inner-city tenements and others after years in cramped conditions on the Corporation’s housing list, the provision of three and four bedroom flats and houses, with central heating and hot water on demand, was warmly welcomed. However, while the homes were deemed adequate, the lack of facilities, many of which were incomplete even in the 1970s, led to the unravelling of the project. In particular, the town centre, to primarily consist of a shopping centre was not completed until after the completion of all the residential units, meaning that some tenants now housed miles from Dublin city-centre were literally years without access to shopping facilities. Added to this, the inclusion, and hence delay, of much of the town’s social facilities and a health centre as part of the new town centre further alienated the residents. Thus, when the town was formally taken over by Dublin Corporation in February 1969 it lacked much basic infrastructure that was essential for a properly functioning urban area.

By the 1970s the socio-economic demographics of the new town changed as more affluent tenants began to leave the area. This problem was exacerbated in 1985 by the introduction of the Surrender Grant Scheme. This scheme gave £5,000 to residents who decided to purchase their house, but as flats were not covered by the scheme many residents seeking to purchase their home sought transfers to houses. The scheme was an un-mitigating disaster for Ballymun, and in 1985 over 1,000 flats contained new tenants. This turnover of residents was to continue into the future and was in a large part responsible for difficulties creating a sense of community within the town. In tangent with this, many offers of housing in the area were declined, leading to the accumulation of a high percent of those from a social-economic deprived background or with substance abuse problems being housed there, by the 1980s the area suffered from a severe drugs problem.

File:MacDermott Implosion.JPG

Demolition of Séan MacDermott tower, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MacDermott_Implosion.JPG#globalusage) (26 May 2016).

Despite, and perhaps because of, the difficulties that the community faced, many groups and organisations were formed to aid in the development of facilities and supports. These ranged from youth groups, to the establishment of a credit union, to other groups pushing for improvements in housing and the built environment. In the 1980s/90s a number of reports were commissioned to seek a way to solve the many difficulties that the town’s population faced. The results of these was the establishment of Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. in 1997, which was responsible for the demolition of all flat complex’s in the estate and their replacement with housing. The planners of the ‘new’ Ballymun would seek to address many of the failures of the original project. As well as the replacement of existing social housing, private housing would also be constructed to change the social-economic demographic of the area; schools would be upgraded; a new, modern shopping centre would also be part of the plans, as would a theatre and other recreational facilities. The area would be provided ample playgrounds and of extreme importance would be an investment in the human as well as the built capital of the area. A renewed focus on educational attainment and training would seek to improve not only the physical environment of the area but also provide greater opportunities to engage in the ‘Celtic tiger’. For this was truly a creation of that tiger, Ireland now had the money to correct the mistakes of the past, indeed break with the past, and what better way to demonstrate that the economic miracle was benefitting everyone than the erasure of those tower blocks that had come to signify the inequality of Irish society?

The regeneration of Ballymun has seen the demolition of all flat complexes and the construction of some of the promised facilities including a new swimming pool and the axis theatre. However, with the economic downturn much of the promised amenities have not been delivered. In particular, with the closure of Tesco’s in 2014, the shopping centre’s anchor tenant and one of the last remaining shops, Ballymun is again without a proper shopping centre. (The site of the new proposed centre remains vacate).

Thus, have we learnt the lessons of Ballymun? Like Edmund Honohan, the state has no desire to build large-scale social housing estates again. Rather the ideal for urban planners is a social mix, which house’s tenants from a range of social and economic backgrounds. This type of housing means that those engaged in anti-social behaviour will not become an overarching feature of any area; that amenities for the whole community can be funded by the community; that commercial enterprises, such as shops, will see the benefits of serving such communities. It is these lessons that the government and local authorities seem to have taken from the experience of Ballymun. But for residents of such large-scale social housing projects many of these lessons have been ignored during the recession. As can be seen in Ballymun, the lack of a shopping centre was deemed one of the central concerns of tenants arriving in the 1960s, and yet the same problem exists in 2016. Throughout the town’s existence external financial factors and economic downturn have affect the provision of services. This should be the primary lesson that we take from this case study: that short-term savings lead to long-term problems that are also much costlier to resolve.

Further reading
Robert Somerville-Woodward, Ballymun, a history (2 vol., Dublin, 2002) i & ii; see also Robert Somerville-Woodward, Ballymun, a history, Synopsis (Dublin, 2002), available at Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. (http://www.brl.ie/pdf/ballymun_a_history_1600_1997_synopsis.pdf) (20 May 2016).

Boyle M and Rogerson R J (2006) ‘“Third Way” urban policy and the new moral politics of community: A comparative analysis of Ballymun in Dublin and the Gorbals in Glasgow’ in Urban Geography, xxvii, pp 201-227, available at (http://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/681/1/strathprints000681.pdf) (20 May 2016).

Ballymun regeneration Ltd., Sustaining regeneration: a social plan for Ballymun, available at Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. (http://www.brl.ie/pdf/SRBallymunLowRes_FA.pdf) (23 May 2016).

And for a look at the community’s view of the regeneration:
Ballymun Community Action Program (CAP), On the Balcony of a new millennium, regenerating Ballymun: Building on 30 years of community experience, expertise and energy (Dublin, 2000), available at (https://uniteyouthdublin.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/on-the-balcony-regenerating-ballymun.pdf) (20 May 2016).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.



Book review: Fergal Donoghue, Crime in the city: Kilkenny in 1845 (Dublin, 2015)



On the 10 September the latest books in the Maynooth Studies in Local History series were launched at Maynooth University. This series -edited by Professor Raymond Gillespie and published by Four Courts Press- has been producing valuable local history studies since 1995 and has accumulated a total of 122 pamphlets. These cover a broad geographic spread across the whole of Ireland. The pamphlets normally focus on a particular aspect of their respective area’s history. They offer an informative, enjoyable and accessible insight into the history of selected local areas. Of particular worth is the ability of the series to connect the local to the national and demonstrate how wider national trends played out in a local setting. In addition, the relatively short nature of these publications means that they are ideally suited to those with little time on their hands.

This year six books were published, namely: Gerard Dooley, Nenagh, 1914-21: years of crises; David Doyle, The Reverend Thomas Goff, 1772-1844: property, propinquity and Protestantism; Adrian Empey, Gowran, Co. Kilkenny, 1190-1610: custom and conflict in a baronial town; Pierce A. Grace, The middle class of Callan, Co. Kilkenny, 1825-45; Ann O’Riordan, East Galway agrarian agitation and the burning of Ballydugan house, 1922; Fergal Donoghue, Crime in the city: Kilkenny in 1845.

Typical of the high calibre of the series is Fergal Donoghue’s Crime in the city: Kilkenny in 1845 (Dublin, 2015). The book provides a fascinating insight into the nature and punishment of crime in Kilkenny city in 1845. The book begins by providing much context in terms of the social condition of the city in the period. It demonstrates that well-known generalisations such underemployment and the lack of a wage economy created a significant underclass in the city. In doing so the book also highlights the conditions in which this underclass lived. The author is also careful to guide the reader through the nuances of the locality and demonstrates that there were two sides to the city: one living in poverty alongside another living in relative wealth. The second chapter places justice and punishment in the city in a national context and gives the reader a good understanding of how the justice system in the Kilkenny operated in 1845.

The final chapter of this short book is a testament to the great efforts of the author to garner as wide a picture of crime and its punishment in the city as possible. The author demonstrates not only the effects of the famine on crime in the city but also through careful and insightful analysis of the statistics highlights how the study of sentences can provide an insight into the fears of the city’s elite.

Overall this short book offers a fine contribution to not only our understanding of crime and punishment in Kilkenny city but also to the wider national history of this subject. In doing this the author provides a valuable insight into the motivations and fears of those responsible for the punishment of crime in mid-nineteenth century Ireland.

This book (priced €8.95) and the rest in the series are available via the Four Courts Press website at: http://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/browse/history/maynooth-studies-in-local-history/


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.

Free workshop at the Royal Irish Academy: Teaching and learning using the Irish Historic Towns Atlas at third level

Academy House, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. Date: Thursday 10 September, 09:30-16:30

This is a one-day workshop aimed at those who are either currently or intending to use the Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA) as a tool for teaching at third level. Those regular readers of this blog will know that the IHTA is an ongoing project of the Royal Irish Academy which aims to trace the morphology of towns and cities through time and space. The projects has completed a number of towns and cities, of varying sizes, throughout the island of Ireland, thus, proving extremely useful for the comparative study of the development of urban centres. Each atlas consists of a number of useful maps on the development of these towns. It also contains a valuable topographical gazetteer which allows the researcher to trace the purposes to which various sections of the town were being used through time. The gazetteer –which is divided into various sections- can also help in understanding how various social aspects of the city, such as religion, impacted on the built environment. This means that each atlas can also provide an important tool for the student to investigate the development of individual urban centres.

At the heart of the atlas project is its reliance on primary sources. This allows students, very early in their studies, to access a wealth of information based on primary source material. It also provides a staging post from where students and teachers can explore the usefulness of the topographic and cartographic record while broadening their understanding of the need to explore other material to gain a fuller picture of the historic urban centre and the society which inhabited it.

This workshop would appeal to individuals across a range of disciplines including history, geography, local studies, archaeology and digital humanities. The workshop is open to not only lecturers but also to third-level tutors, demonstrators, heritage professionals and anyone who would like to be exposed to new tools and methods for teaching. It is presented as an opportunity for discussion and debate about the uses the atlases can be put to and it is hoped that this will feed back into the general atlas project.

With a board range of talks from some well-known and respected researchers and lectures in various fields this promises to be not only an interesting and informative day but also the start of a period of expanded use of the atlas as a tool for third-level teaching.

For more information and registration go to: http://ria.ie/Events/Events-Listing/Teaching-and-learning–using-the-Irish-Historic-To

Or click on the file below:

IHTA T&L workshop 10 Sept (1)

Museum of the Month: Science Museum, London.

Cooke & Wheatstone five-needle telegraph

Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraph

By Adrian James Kirwan

The Science Museum, London, was founded in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, becoming an independent entity in 1909. Its foundation can be traced back to the Great Exhibition of 1851; this generated both the interest and money needed to found the museum. From early in the museum’s existence it was acquiring items of interest to the history of science and technology, including an early Boulton and Watt beam engine and Stephenson’s revolutionary locomotive ‘Rocket’.

Spread over a number of floors the Science Museum is divided into galleries which focus on different aspects of the history of science, technology and medicine. These include ‘Glimpses of Medical History’, ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’ and ‘Making the Modern World’. The displays vary in their focus with some concentrating on the historical collections and providing context to their creation and use while others are more concerned with the museum’s other central aim: the education and promotion of the sciences. Therefore while some displays are concerned with the preservation and contextualisation of the museum’s vast collection of historical scientific, technological and medical instruments and objects, other displays are much more interactive. These displays are more concerned with engaging and entertaining the museums younger visitors. The amount of children who were at the museum, and enjoying the experience, was definitely a defining feature.


NeXT computer which Tim Berners-Lee used in the 1980s to develop the World Wide Web

An example of the many displays on offer is the new ‘Information Age’ gallery. This gallery traces the development of telecommunications technology with displays ranging from one of the first Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraphs to satellites (in this case a real satellite rather than a replicate). Not only is there an amazing range of unique and rare telecommunication apparatus but the gallery is very successful in contextualising their development, use and the impact that these technologies had on society. A highlight is inclusion of the NeXT computer which Tim Berners-Lee used in the 1980s to develop the World Wide Web; for a brief moment in time this computer was the only server in operation and therefore it was the World Wide Web. The gallery uses multiple methods to engage the public including written panels accompanying displays, audio-visual, interactive computer panels and the availability of good, old-fashion guides to expand the visitor’s knowledge and understanding of the role that telecommunications played in the development of the modern world. The ‘Information Age’ gallery has an accompanying website which can be found at http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/online_science/explore_our_collections/information_age.

Entry to the museum is free and it is well serviced by the tube and bus routes. Several other museums are also located in the immediate area. More information can be found on the Science Museum’s website http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/home.aspx.


Irish workhouse conference throws light on neglected aspects of Irish history

By Ciarán McCabe

The Great Famine and the Irish workhouse system are surely among the most comprehensively researched areas of the vast swathes of Irish history. Localised case studies for townlands, villages, towns, cities, counties and regions throughout the country have been subjected to detailed historical research and analysis. Yet, as with all subjects, much remains to be done. This was clear from an important conference held at the recent Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, County Galway. Located in the former Portumna workhouse (which was one of the post-Famine workhouses erected in the 1850s), the centre has been conserved and re-developed by a non-profit community development initiative which has undertaken this admirable work over the past fifteen years.
The range of subjects – whether widely examined or still neglected – pertaining to the Irish workhouses were discussed at the conference. For instance, the urban experience of the Famine remains neglected. While Belfast and Cork have been examined in Christine Kinealy and Gerard MacAtasney’s Hidden Famine: poverty, hunger and sectarianism in Belfast, 1840-50 (2000) and Michelle O’Mahony’s Famine in Cork city (2005), there is surprisingly still no comprehensive history of Dublin during the Great Famine, although a chapter in Cormac Ó Gráda’s Black ’47 and beyond: the Great Irish Famine in history, economy and memory (1999) is a notable exception to this historiographical lacunae.
We still know little about the experience of those who entered the workhouses, particularly during the Famine years. It would be fascinating to know how the process of entering the workhouse was experienced by paupers. How and when was the decision made to enter the workhouse? What was the ‘breaking point’ for the family or individual? Are there accounts of the actual moment when the family members were separated and sent off into their respective parts of the workhouse – men, women and children accommodated in separated parts of the building. Was this moment experienced with resignation or resistance? What were the paupers’ perceptions of the workhouse before and after admission? We will, most likely, never have satisfactory answers to these questions, but they must nevertheless be asked, and asked by each generation of historians.
One example wherein we have an account of the paupers entering the workhouse is contained in an RTE Radio One documentary entitled ‘Children in the Workhouse’, first broadcast in 1982 and featuring contributions from Joseph Robins, author of The Lost Children (1980). The programme was played at the workhouse conference in Portumna. Among the most notable vignettes from the 40-minute-long documentary was an account of a pauper family saying goodbye to each other as they entered a workhouse, an all too rare insight into the experiences of the poor as they utilised the Poor Law system. (This documentary can be accessed at http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/lostchildren.html).
Among the most fascinating papers were two – on the Irish workhouse system and the poorhouses of Scotland – by Peter Higginbotham, whose comprehensive website (http://www.workhouses.org.uk) is required reading for those with an interest in any aspect of the history of poverty, welfare and institutionalisation; Dr Laurence Geary’s exploration of health care provision under the Irish Poor Law; and Dr Gerard Moran’s study of the role of women in workhouses riots during the Famine years. Papers by Dr Georgina Laragy and Dr Sean Lucey looked at regional perspectives on poor relief in post-Famine Ireland and poor law reform post-1920 respectively. Dr Laragy and Dr Lucey are both attached to the ‘Poverty and public health in Belfast’ research project at Queen’s University Belfast, which, in examining welfare and public health in Belfast and its hinterland between 1800 and 1973, is greatly adding to our understanding of how individuals negotiated poverty and relief mechanisms in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland. For more on this project, see http://www.belfastpovhist.com/.

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