Ballymun: The making of a transit camp

In this article from 1982, Gene Kerrigan writes that what is needed for Ballymun (then as now) is "a housing policy based on the needs of the tenants rather than an expedient policy based on the political and economic needs of the authorities. Then Ballymun could grow as a community."

The kid is three years old and he's wearing plastic boots, bright red and waterproof; and they'd want to be, because he's standing in a stream. The stream is four foot wide and about thirty yards long, about three inches deep. The kid is stomping one foot, watching the water splash, doing it again and again. Then he makes a little run and watches the calm surface of the stream rip asunder under his feet and then join up again behind him, like magic. The kid doesn't know it but he's learning all sorts of things about physics, gravity, the nature of water. A few yards away the source of the stream is bubbling, gushing up out of a broken underground pipe.

The stream runs past the centre block of Sillogue Road, Ballymun. You go through the doorless entrance to the block and at head height a couple of squadrons of flies are doing an imitation of the Battle of Britain. There's a brownish pool of liquid in a corner of the hallway and a smell of urine and dampness. The bannister is paint-flecked metal, most of the paint rubbed, scraped or flaked off. The walls of the stairway and the first landing are covered with graffiti. Black, yellow, red, blue paint mixed with years of grime. The slogans encompass politics, music, love, hate, gang and parochial loyalties, Bobby Sands, drugs and the masturbatory habits of Old King Cole.

With booze you lose

With dope you hope

 It's like this all the way up the stairs, for eight landings. Four flats per landing, the doors leading out from the stair‡ well battered, sometimes broken. This is one of three stair‡wells on one block on Sillogue Road. There are nineteen of these eight-storey blocks in Ballymun, three of them on Sillogue Road. There are seven of the fifteen-storey towers, all named after Irish patriots. There are ten four-storey blocks.

The buildings are precast concrete, off-white, grimy, flaking. In between the blocks and towers there are well‡ kept stretches of rolling green. Lengths of concrete, with here and there a patch of tarmacadam, are the "streets" at the base of blocks and towers where cars are parked and children play. Everywhere, ground into the tarmacadam, sprinkled on the concrete, are splinters of glass. Here and there a burnt-out or abandoned car, here and there a "shop" - an old van or container from a lorry from which are sold the essentials. Rubbish lies scattered like debris after an explosion. Inside the flats people tend to their homes as people do anywhere. Some sparkling and well-kept, others comfortably untidy, some carelessly so. About 18,000 people live here. A survey in 1974 showed that a quarter of the population was on the transfer list and that almost half wanted to leave. According to the latest figures, of the tenants of the 2866 flats, 1417, or 49.4% are on the transfer list.

Ballymun was built on a foundation of fear and pride. The fear was in the 1950s, when exports were stagnant and capital outflows resulted in a fall in external reserves. The consequent deflationary policies were spearheaded by large cuts in the public building programme. Not only were unemployment and emigration soaring but the amount of public housing being built fell steadily from 1955. In 1961 Dublin Corporation built 279 new houses and flats.

 The pride came after the fall. With the expansionary fiscal policy of the 1960s, the Lemass boom and the economic programmes, came the need to tackle some sordid social problems before they exploded. Emigration slowed, people needed housing. Houses were falling down in Fenian Street, people were sleeping in tents in Capel Street, massive protest marches were the order of the day. Ballymun, announced in 1964 by Minister for Local Government Neil Blaney, was to solve a lot of problems. It would take 2866 families off the housing list. (There would also be 400 houses built around the estate.) There were special interviews for prospective tenants - you couldn't be just anyone and get into Ballymun. The ideal was a couple with two kids and a car. The complex would skim off the cream of the working class, those with the better jobs, extracting a sizeable section of the stronger elements of the working class from the cockpit of discontent. Also, there was a sensible attempt to allocate the flats to people who liked the idea of a flat - a' market which is currently booming.

Finally, Ballymun would be a showpiece of the new go-ahead Ireland. The Ballymun Amenities Group was not wholly in jest when it suggested in a report prepared in 1974 that the choice - from all the sites available - of a location near the airport was not a random one. Jet-lagged IDA executives could casually direct their clients' attention to the symbol of the new Ireland.

The best laid plans were demolished by the urgency of the housing crisis. The careful selection of tenants was abandoned, the priority became getting people off the housing list. The Balency method of system building, a French method implemented in Ballymun by a Swedish architect, quickly went out of fashion. As did the grandiose plans for ten thousand feet of office accommodation, a cinema, dance hall, skating rink, restaurant, community centre, swimming pool and playgrounds.

Parents on the fifth, tenth or fifteenth floor found out the hard way that these structures were no place for raising children. Some let the kids go down to the handful of swings, the glass and the traffic, more kept the kids with them in the flat and reached for the valium. Perversely, housing policy was such that this estate unfit for children was swamped by them. The Amenities Group survey in 1974 showed that 47.79% of the population of Ballymun was under ten years of age. In the population as a whole that age group amounted to 21 %. Using the 1979 transfer list figures it can be established that the 1793 tenants then on the list had between them 8084 children. From these figures it appears that of the approximately 18,000 people in Ballymun flats about 13 ,000 are children.

At the same time, the percentage of the population of Ballymun which was between the ages of 10 and 20 was only 9.3%. This was in comparison with a figure of 19% in the population as a whole. This resulted from the housing policy and from the high turnover of families, leaving before the kids became teenagers and being replaced by new young families. Using the 1976 transfer list figures it can be established that the 1793 tenants then on the list had between them 8084 children, indicating that the percentage of children on the estate is still way out of proportion to the rest of the population. It is believed by those involved with tenant and social work, however, that the percentage of teenagers has increased in recent years as the children of those families who settled on the estate have grown.

Estimates are sketchy - estimates of everything in Ballymun are sketchy. There is little collation of statistics as the relevant authorities have no need of them. The relevant authorities have no plans for the place. There has been no assessment of the reasons for the failure of the complex just an acknowledgement that there has been a failure and a resolution that Dublin Corporation will never again build flats. Meanwhile, the population of Ballymun must stew in the juices of the fear and pride of the politicians and planners.

There are teenagers in Ballymun, but the overwhelming impression is of very young children. The place is a transit camp. You get to know the names of the three other families on your balcony and within the year they are gone. Before most of the kids can grow up they are gone to another place, hopefully better, and there are more kids to take their place amid the rubbish, the scattered glass, the stream from the burst pipe.

You want the third floor, say, or the fifth. So you look at the battered buttons in the lift and figure out that this one here is probably for the basement, so we count up, one, two, three ... There are no numbers, long since rubbed and chipped away. When you're in the lift there are no lights blinking to tell you what floor you're at, just the whine of the mac‡ hinery and guesswork based on experience. The walls of the lift are covered in graffiti, the rectangle in the door that used to contain glass is covered with steel plate. There is no smell of urine. That was last week. A plate has been removed from the bottom of the wall at the back of the lift. This is to accommodate the coffins when they bring down the dead. Wouldn't do to have a coffIn standing upright in a little lift like this.

The lifts don't just look bad, they're dangerous. There are photocells which are supposed to stop the door from closing when someone blocks the light by passing through the doorway. They are broken and not replaced. Recently a child wandered over to an open lift, the door closed, her finger was smashed. Lift faults are legendary in Ballymun. One woman was trapped between floors, she smelt burning, thought there was a fire. The alarm button didn't work. She screamed, pounded the door. Eventually someone got the door open with an iron bar and she, eight months pregnant, climbed up from the out-of-position lift. Today, the child which she was then carrying is running around the flat - but the woman still won't travel by lift. She lives eight floors up.

Figures for one month (January 1980) show that the lifts broke down an average of 3.3 times each. A few didn't break down at all that month, others broke down nine and ten times. There is vandalism. (The story is that some kid came back from living in a tower block in England with the technique for getting out onto the roof of a lift car. The technique got around and the kids found a new fun thing to do, riding up and down on top of the lifts.) But an analysis of the cost of repairing the lifts in 1980 shows that of the £116,710 which was paid to VBS, the company with the maintenance contract, just 26% of the cost was for repairs following vandalism. The rest is due to "natural" faults.

You've got maybe a burst pipe or a door hanging off and you go across to the maintenance office to report it. The maintenance office, in the basement of Thomas Clarke Tower, is like a tank. There's a tiny piece of glass, set at an angle, to which you must bend down and through which you must shout your complaint. There was a time when the Tenants' Association persuaded the Corporation to give tenants a chit for each complaint, so that if they had to return to complain that the repairs had not been carried out they could prove that the initial complaint had been made. This practice was abandoned when tenants started turning up at the maintenance office with fistfuls of chits for complaints which hadn't been dealt with.

No one can pinpoint exactly when Dublin Corporation decided to let things slide. A productivity deal was done which required the maintenance people to do work in other areas of the city. Painting and repairs were left undone. The Corporation argued that stairwells were communal property and were the responsibility of tenants - yet such areas are open, free to all and availed of by all, even those who don't live in the block. They are as public as the streets in other housing estates. The degeneration of the estate and the consequent transience of population meant that people who were coming in for what they hoped were short periods paid no attention to the Corporation's entreaties that they should take care of the public areas of the block. Anyway, the place had been in a bad state when they came, why should they fix it up before leaving?

The vicious circle continued. It was added to by what all sides refer to as "I-don't-like-to-use-the-term-problem-families,-but,-well,-problem-families." It takes only one careless family to throw litter at the rubbish chute, miss and let it lie there on the balcony - or just throw a bag of rubbish off the balcony and let it explode on the ground below to ruin a block. Similar behaviour happens everywhere else, but all it means then is a dirty or untidy garden - in Ballymun it affects others.

Primarily it affected that hard core of people who were determined to make a go of Ballymun. A sizeable proportion of people had made friends, established relationships , with others on the estate. In their attempts to fashion a community they were battling against not only the usual problems of resources and apathy, but an official policy which undermined their efforts.

The consortium of Cubitt-Haden-Sisk began constructing Ballymun in February 1965. By the time they finished, in February 1970, construction costs had risen from the estimated £9.6m to £11.6m and Ballytnun was already a place to get out of, an inhospitable assault course on the way to a house. Tenants had begun moving in in July 1966. Ballymun became - in the crudest terms - literally a breeding ground. Do your time in Ballymun, have some more kids, this will get you points that will move you up the housing list. There were cases of people having three and four children in a one-room flat refusing to move to a larger flat as remaining in such cramped accommodation would increase their number of points towards rehousing and speed their departure from Ballymun. In the early 1970s a credit union went bust when within a short time a large number of people drew on it for deposits for houses elsewhere.

While a large proportion of Ballymun is transient, going in and getting out as quickly as possible, the transit camp policy of the authorities has been augmented by a dumping ground policy. The majority of people being housed in Ballymun today, according to the Corporation, are homeless or have been evicted. Many of these - plus deserted wives with children, Single parents - will remain in Ballymun.

The use of the place for housing people with problems was never objected to by those tenants who have tried over the years. to fashion a community from the flow of transients. People were people. Yet the policy of funnelling large numbers of people with problems into a single area devoid of facilities or a settled community created the image of a ghetto - which in turn increased the incentive for getting out, and diminished the morale of those who could not.



 Over the years Ballymun has been involved in two rent strikes. After the last one the Corporation instigated a policy of demanding a set sum each week to payoff the arrears. For those who had put aside the rent money, this was a boon. An interest-free loan. For those who had not, the problems were only starting.

The set sum would be paid for several weeks, then maybe a kid's shoes fall to bits, or a bill comes in. Perhaps the ESB, and you don't mess with that crowd. Pay up or be cut off - so the tenant would go to the Corporation and offer that week's rent and say the set sum would be paid next week. No deal. You can't pay your rent until you've paid the set sum - so the rent wasn't paid, the arrears increased. And with arrears of maybe several hundred pounds you're not going to get out in a hurry.

Minimum rent in Ballymun is 30p a week, maximum is £14.86. It's calculated on a differential basis, with allowances for children, unemployment etc. You must go back every six weeks to be reassessed, and many tenants prefer to pay the couple of quid extra for the maximum rent in their category - even some unemployed - rather than have the Corporation poking into their affairs on a regular basis.

The Corporation estimates income from rents at around £680,000, with costs of maintenance etc. at £1,600,000. In 1977 they spent £800,000 reinforcing wall panels and £344,277 waterproofing rooftops. Some time ago they were spending £400,000 a year on security, to prevent squatting. (This policy has changed and now a stock of steel doors are kept to install in flats as soon as tenants move out - such is the housing crisis, however, that squatters have been known to lower themselves by rope onto balconies from the flats above and get in through the windows.) Repairs to the lifts cost in excess of £ll6,000 annually. The loss on heating costs amounts to over £1,390,000 (at a conservative estimate).

Yet, it's a small price to pay for a concrete cooling system through which the authorities can run a large number of people in order to take the heat off the housing crisis. Even if it means that what community exists disintegrates as fast as the lifts.

Friday evening in The Penthouse, one of Ballymun's two pubs. A dozen men, who have been sitting in different parts of the pub for the past hour, get up and leave together . Young people have, in the course of the hour, been coming in and out and engaging in financial transactions with several of the men. Drugs. Ballymun is a natural for drugs. Lots of nooks and crannies, empty basements, where the ceremony can be per‡ formed. The dealers and some of the users come from outside the estate.

Despite its bad image, Ballymun has never had much of a reputation for vandalism. The last major break-in at the shopping centre occurred last Christmas. There's a garda station on the estate, but the closeness of the population, the transience, and the multiplicity of community organisations resulted in an absence of the kind of vandalism which might be expected in an urban estate with few facilities and high unemployment. However, vandalism has been on the increase over the past year and illegal drugs in parti‡ cular are a problem. (Down through the years, say residents, doctors have dispensed legal drugs such as valium like they were Smarties.)

Throughout the 1970s there was a strong centre of steel running through the flaking concrete of Ballymun's com‡ munity. When the authorities reneged on the promise of a library, tenants began pulling together a collection of their own. They set up a library of 2,000 books in a basement and were swamped with borrowers on the first day. Eventually the authorities were shamed into building a public library, one which is now well frequented.

A local paper was set up, the Ballymun News, which sold out its two thousand copies each month. The paper ceaselessly harried the Corporation and politicians and was strong enough to refuse advertising from large supermarkets which, the editors felt, might influence criticism of such businesses. The paper kept the cover price low and depended on small scale advertising - which collapsed with the recession, as did the Ballymun News.

When the site allocated for a swimming pool was threatened with becoming an "ornamental car park", the tenants picketed until the plans were dropped and the swimming pool built. Central to many of the more imaginative and determined community initiatives was the Ballymun Tenants' Association. Year in and year out the activists, some unemployed, led the fight against Corporation policy and attempted to build community organisation. Some, spending several hours a day, several days running, fighting cases in the Corporation offices in Jervis Street - and then having to walk home because they didn't have the bus fare - became cynical about being used by the authorities as unpaid social workers, but fought on. Eventually, bickering by representatives of political groups and manipulation by one of those groups, drove most of the best activists out of the BTA and the Association foundered.

An Irish school was founded, again on the initiative of tenants themselves and teachers with commitment to the area, and is today widely-known for its academic standards. It is non-denominational, co-educational and effectively managed by the parents - and there's a waiting list. On the initiative of women from the area and with Corporation support a couple of dozen pre-school playgroups have been set up.

Tenants raised £20,000 towards the building of a Workman's Club, with a promise from the Corporation of another £100,000. The Club is scheduled to open before the end of the year and as well as helping finance itself with a bar (providing competition for the two pubs on the estate - one owned by a Fianna Fail hack, the other by a Fine Gael hack) will provide a meeting place and a centre for community activities. The struggle to get the Club built has been a long one, with one obstacle after another being placed in the way. The tenants insisted that it should be managed by themselves, with no establishment figures on the committee. (One of the main problems in building community organisations has been the simple lack of a place to meet which was not controlled by the Corporation, the church or other interests which would seek to limit and define the function of the group meeting.)

Residents point to nearby Poppintree, built after Ballymun, which has a community centre and which didn't suffer the same bureaucratic harassment which dogged Ballymun's efforts - and which allowed establishment figures on the committee.

 It's September, so the central heating goes on. Doesn't matter if the sun is splitting the bricks. Come the end of May, the heat goes off, no matter if the snow is still in the gutters. The heating coils are in the floor' and ceiling and the temperature is controlled from a central point. Tenants have no control over it. "Central" heating with a vengeance. Whether your neighbours upstairs have lino or carpet will affect the level of heat in your flat. When it's too hot the windows have to be kept open, even in winter. Four in the morning and you can't sleep with the heat and you might go out and lean on the balcony to cool down. Ballymun is noted for its bronchial troubles.

Since the heating system is more of a problem than a facility, the Corporation have had trouble when they tried to raise the price. It ranges from 31p per week for a single room to 86p per week for a four-room flat. The income is £130,000 a year and there has been no increase since the estate was built. The cost of the two million gallons of oil the system uses each year is estimated at between £1.5 and £1.8m.

Such subsidies help maintain Ballymun at a level at which it can be used as a stop-gap by the housing authorities, but the resources needed to match the efforts of those trying to build a community are not on the authorities' agenda.

When three kids died of drug overdoses in 1980 awareness spread of the drug problem in Ballymun. A public meeting was held and a youth action group formed - again, tenants acting themselves to deal with their problems. Two years later they are still trying to get a flat allocated to them as a centre. The public spending cuts make less probable any official funding for the group.

The Ballymun District Development Association was formed eighteen months ago, with representatives on the committee from most of the organisations in the estate. One of their main aims is to convince state bodies to encourage local industry. It's an uphill struggle.

Monday lunchtime in the bar of The Towers, Ballymun's second pub. About fifty men are watching a soft porn video tape on the large screen in the corner, cracking wise as the actors huff and puff. It's something to do when you're trying to stretch a pint as far as it will go. The Corporation estimates unemployment in the area to be 30-35%. A survey carried out by the Labour Exchanges on behalf of community welfare officers put the figure at 45%. As this survey included other areas in the vicinity it is likely that unemployment in the flats is higher still.

There is little potential employment in the area. Industrial estates in Coolock or Finglas tend to employ people from their own areas - and few enough of them. Ballymun has little political clout. Until the last revision of constituencies it was divided in three. The area had twelve TDs, but the breaking up of the estate and the transience of the population meant that no TD could rely on it as a power base - or had to respond to it as such. Few bothered to canvass the flats.

Even now Ballymun is bisected for purposes of local authority elections. Five of the seven towers elect representatives to the County Council, which has no responsibility for Ballymun, and have no vote for the City Council which does.

Every block of flats in Ballymun has a basement. More than anything else these units are symbolic of what was done to the people of the estate. Cavernous, windowless, usually doorless, the basements were intended to house launderettes. The launderettes fell through a crack in some architect's plan and haven't been seen since. Now the basements lie open, often abused. The Corporation and social services use some of them for offices, others are used as makeshift premises for youth clubs or playgroups. The empty ones are sometimes used by kids taking drugs.

 The estate, like the basements, started out to be one thing, changed into another. There is no official policy to attempt to rectify the problems created by the ad hoc official policies of the past. If the economy continues to deteriorate, say tenant activists, so will the estate_ If the economy picks up over the next decade or so the estate may be knocked down, as similar projects have been in Britain. The lifts, for instance, can continue only so long with the current patchwork repairs, and the cost of replacing the lift system might be such as to make the whole project cost more than it is worth to the authorities. .

Such a move would be rejected by a sizeable minority of Ballymun tenants, those who have with energy and commitment worked for years to create a community on the estate. Despite the problems, such a community spirit does exist among those who comprise the stable community in the flats and houses.

The problems did not arise from the fact that Ballymun is a high-rise estate and its social problems are no greater than those on many other estates. The problems arose from the authorities' housing policy from the early 1960s onwards. The social problems were made worse by concentrating them in a small area unsuited to coping with them, diminishing morale and compounding the problems.

Official support for the aims of the Ballymun community would require a massive shift in policy. It would mean the allocation of flats to people who want to live in them and there are many - and possibly an end to equating public housing with family units. It would mean a suspension of the penal bureaucracy which harasses the most simple progress (like the family that lived on the eighth floor and when a flat three floors down became vacant applied to move in. Permission granted - same block, same lift shaft, but a new rent category at a fiver extra per week). It would mean the encouragement of autonomous organisation by tenants. It would mean massive investment in public housing which would reduce the pressure on Ballymun.

In short, it would mean a housing policy based on the needs of the tenants rather than an expedient policy based on the political and economic needs of the authorities. Then Ballymun could grow as a community instead of serving as a mechanism for the sleight of hand used to ease the pressure of the housing crisis.