Catherine McSweeney tows two traffic cones to mark where people can gather outside of the boarded-up Donore Avenue Youth and Community Center.
Early arrivals set up chairs on the building walls, facing a guardrail that separates the walkway outside the center from the street.
Elderly ladies recline in chairs and peer out while children appear along the street with their parents in tow.
Older people and children most need a local space for activities, says McSweeney, secretary of the Tenters Residents Association. “We tear our hair out.”
Last Wednesday’s protest marked a year since a fire broke out in the upstairs rooms of the community center, leaving shattered windows, scorched walls and a hollow building.
At the time of the fire, groups using the center said they hoped it would be open again within six months. The city council has not yet set a date for the reopening.
Those gathered on Wednesday said they were keen to meet somewhere in the meantime.
At the front of the building, McSweeney stands next to community signs. “We need green space for our children to play,” says one. And another: “We need our community center now.”
James O’Toole arrived at the protest early with a shopping bag.
He stood stoically in front of the building where he used to help organize homelessness and housing campaigns, he says, like Take Back the City or the Housing & Homelessness Coalition.
Having a local center means more people are more likely to come to things like this, he says. “People come to a meeting when it’s more accessible.”
Renting a room for an evening at the Donore Avenue Center would cost around €12, he says, while other places could cost up to €100 for an evening.
O’Toole looks around at the turnout so far.
Locals would have expected the building to open much sooner after the fire, O’Toole says. “But I think people are starting to get desperate now, you know what’s the schedule? How long it will take?”
Joan Hughes stands with her elbows on the guardrail. She looks at Joan Reid and Tina Mills next to her.
“It’s our only community facility in the area,” says Hughes, “and it provides so many services to the community, not just for the children but for the elderly as well.”
“Like we have a group here that can’t meet because they don’t have a place to meet,” says Hughes.
Reid says she used to go downtown to the Monday club. “Ah, we played bingo, gambled, had all sorts of things. Functions, lots of functions. Different things. Every day.”
Phyllis Masterson says she misses the walks they used to take to the center’s rooftop garden. “Go upstairs and look out,” she says. “You would miss that.”
Now old people in the area have nowhere to go, she says. “They are all closed. Unless we pay, and we can’t afford to rent an apartment.”
The closure of the center is isolating older people even more than it was during the Covid lockdown, Hughes says. “You’re missing something that should exist.”
On the footpath just below the blacked out Donore Avenue Youth and Community Center sign, Orna Cooke has one foot on a stroller, which she rocks. Her daughter is blowing raspberries in the stroller.
Cooke says she used to come to the community center for gym classes. “Then when it closed there wasn’t a place to go locally.”
She hates seeing the building decay, so she came out to support the protest, she says. “If you just let everyone else come, nothing will happen.”
Missing summer projects
After the protest, Jen Cummins and Monica Grogan lean against the barriers and chat with Alice Blake.
Cummins and Grogan’s sons are both in their early teens, Grogan says. They both miss the center’s summer project, which would have been running for the month of July.
“It was great because you knew the people running it. They knew they were safe,” she says. The kids baked, made crafts and went on trips around the area and to Tayto Park and Fort Lucan.
Helping kids establish themselves in the community was crucial, Grogan says.
“It makes the kids that are in the different schools really gel. And that was built in the community, because then you start with the younger ones, who come up
they all play together,” she says.
Blake says that she and others loved being around the young people’s energy. “To see all the kids come and meet, you know, and then run around the place.”
Grogan says older kids would volunteer to look after the younger kids at the summer project.
“It’s a great way to get in touch if they’re concerned about something like this. The older ones would be a great role model for them. So it really built her confidence,” she says.
The summer project would mix kids from different backgrounds, Cummins says. “They just played, there was a chase game, they just played. So it puts them all on one level, not, oh, he’s got this and he’s got that. They’re just sharing.”
O’Toole previously said he has fond memories of the community center he grew up next to, in the Fatima Mansions apartments. “I remember going to discos when I was seven years old. There was always something going on.”
Both of his parents worked, so the community center had meant he and his siblings had to go somewhere during the day. “Otherwise they never get a break.”
Cummins says she wishes her son could go to the summer project now like her daughter did.
“It’s like being together in a family. If they all go to the same school, they have the same experience,” she says. “So the younger one hasn’t experienced that yet and won’t experience it this year either.”
If the center opens in 2024, he may be too old to be interested, Cummins says.
The center’s closure would primarily hit single mothers, Grogan says, who don’t have a support system to help with childcare during the summer months.
The center also helped feed the kids with the breakfast club and homework club, she says.
“They have nowhere to go,” says Grogan. “All the structure and routine that kids need to get them to be proper 13, 14-year-olds, to be able to deal with their emotions, you know, that doesn’t happen.”
On June 13, in a written response to a request from a city council, the chief executive said the rehabilitation of the community center was being addressed urgently.
“However, during that time there were a number of issues that led to the current process, over which Dublin City Council had no control,” he said.
A criminal investigation by the Gardaí, the site’s clearance, legal matters, a series of investigations conducted by insurers and a second-party forensic team, and the impact of Covid were all factors delaying the renovation, he said.
In front of the community center, McSweeney climbs onto a small stool.
She fiddles with the megaphone for a moment and looks at the assembled locals.
The site needs a temporary place where the children can be supervised during the long summer days, she says. “We asked Dublin City Council for a very workable, simple and walk-in solution.”
McSweeney points to the left of the abandoned flats of St. Teresa’s Gardens, where the ground floor was known as the Donore Stores, a row of shops.
“We asked if we could have the Donore Stores and the little space next door just pending the makeover,” she said.
McSweeney says there’s also a playground and outdoor areas behind St. Teresa’s Gardens. “We asked for the basketball courts and Astroplatz in the back to be opened up for the kids, but again we declined. Everything was rejected.”
The former Donore stores are due to be demolished later this year to make way for the Donore project, which will provide 500 apartments, according to another written response from the council’s chief executive.
The old courts and pitch would be a construction site, so they could not provide playing facilities there, the reply said.
“We gave them all our suggestions and they all got rejected,” McSweeney said loudly into the megaphone. “DCC has to provide the solution, we did our best. Tried everything.”
The tender for a design team to start the renovation was uploaded to eTenders, the government procurement website, on June 3, officials said in a response to a city council.
The council is taking the matter forward as soon as possible, the spokesman said. “While ensuring that all procurement laws, rules, regulations and policies are followed to ensure all processes are fully compliant.”
At last Wednesday’s protest, Máire Devine, a Sinn Féin councilwoman, told the listening crowd that the council should have done so sooner.
“You know you’re going to need a design team, so why not both together? Well, I don’t think proactivity won at the moment,” she says. “I don’t think the Council realizes that you can actually do things in parallel.”
Deirdre Cronin – the People Before Profit councilwoman who recently replaced Tina MacVeigh – tells the megaphone that she is delighted to see the crowd that turned out to protest.
To support the cheering crowd, two children with wooden spoons clatter between the bars of the guardrail separating road and sidewalk, and a woman quickly silences them.
“I think you see the numbers, the composition of the people here, that this is the community that this center serves,” she says.
Children’s roller skates run back and forth following the path of a dog trotting off-leash. A baby is crying. Cooke cheers and grimaces at her daughter in the stroller.
“I know there are a lot of kids here,” Cronin says, waving to the scattered kids on the street. “And I love to sing. So shall we try singing?”
The wooden spoons hit the metal bars harder and louder. People grin at each other and cheer to the top of the building.
“What do we want?” yells Cronin, lifting her ear for the answer. “Our community center back!” the crowd yells back.
“Louder, Dublin 8!” calls Cronin. “When do we want it?”