It’s a cracker of a Sunday afternoon down at Smithfield Square, where the first in a new series of summer picnics is taking place.
It’s not packed, but there’s a good crowd of people camped out, picnicking on the grassy verge at the north end of the square. Little kids are running around, playing with play-pen balls or hula hoops, or getting their faces painted.
Some of the older kids and adults test out their skills on the life-size chess and drafts boards. Other games seem as though they’ve been made up on the spot but look like the craic, like a keeping-a-roll-of-toilet paper-between-your-knees race. There’s workshops in arts and crafts, drumming and even capoeira, a Brazilian martial art.
As well as all this, music is provided first by a singer with a guitar and then by a DJ.
The goal of the Smithfield Summer Picnics, organised by the not-for-profit enterprise group Bluefire, is to encourage more people from the community to use the square as a social and recreational space.
According to Bluefire founder and CEO Keren Jackson, Smithfield Square is the most underutilised public space in the city. Her claim is not unfounded.
Speaking at the City Intersections forum on urban issues in 2013, David O’Connor from DIT’s Spatial Planning Department discussed the results of field research on public squares and parks in the city. It had found that every public space they surveyed was popular with the public, except Smithfield.
Smithfield was described as “alien, unwelcoming and difficult to occupy”.
Author Colin Murphy gave a talk at the same forum. The regeneration of Smithfield Square was envisaged as this wonderful new space for Dubliners and tourists to congregate, he said. However, unlike in the film Field of Dreams, when it was built it, they didn’t come.
There are some events there. The Smithfield Market Fair, a monthly event of market stalls, music and food offerings, located in the Generator Dublin centre right on the square, celebrated it’s first birthday last Sunday too.
It is popular and attracts large numbers to the square. But while it has been a positive leap in addressing the issue of vacancy in the area, it takes place only once a month. For the other three weeks, Smithfield Square is ghostly.
That’s one of the reasons why the Smithfield Summer Picnics will be running every Sunday until September. “If we’re here every week as opposed to once a month, it gives people an excuse to engage with the square, to use the space more frequently,” Jackson says.
The picnics also aim to bring people from different cultures living in the community and Irish locals together.
Last September, Bluefire organised its first Bluefire Street Fest in Smithfield Square. It showcased music, culture and arts from the diverse range of people, communities and cultures that call Dublin home. Jackson said a crowd of 10,000 turned up for the event and that it was a huge success.
However, she later found out from local community groups that very few of the Irish locals went to the Street Fest. There was a perception among the locals that these types of events were for outside organisations and didn’t really concern them, she says.
Jackson, who lives in Smithfield, looked into the claim and found it to be true. “The heart and soul of Bluefire is about community,” she says. “That’s where the idea for the picnics came about, to say hi to the community and encourage them to use the space.”
Local Councillor Janice Boylan thinks the picnics are a brilliant idea. The Irish have a tendency to be a little clannish, she says. “We go off in our own little corner and say ‘we’re fine, we’re grand here.’” But, she believes this tendency is fading and that events like the summer picnics go a long way in helping this.
It’s clear that there’s a diverse mix of Irish, non-Irish nationals, locals and not-so-locals at the picnic this afternoon. They may be sitting in their own groups, but they’re all here using the space together.
Three Dubs from the area, Shane Byrne, Erica Lyndsey and Dionne Carey, have come out to bask in the sunshine and take in the festivities.
Lyndsey thinks the picnics are a great idea, great for the kids. Byrne agrees. He says that there is no playground for children and that usually the square is only used for drinking.
Jenny Jones and her daughter Chelsie have come all the way from Naas to check out the picnic.
They’ve only been here about fifteen minutes, and while maybe they were expecting a little bit more, they’re enjoying it so far. Liz Reid from Montpellier Gardens and her granddaughter Michaela Mullhall are sitting down, soaking up the atmosphere, after a few games of life-size drafts.
Catalans Marta Mesa and her boyfriend Mark Marti are locals to Dublin 7 and have come along to the picnic with their friends Karin Maruyama and Sujin Gong. In Barcelona, social events like this happen all the time, Mesa says, although they’re usually on a bigger scale. All four are enjoying the opportunity to chill out in the square and say that they’ll be coming back
The theory of the summer picnics is certainly working in practice: people out making good use of and enjoying the public space of Smithfield Square. Let it no longer be said, it is one that is underutilised.
Smithfield Summer Picnics will run every Sunday from 12-3pm until 27 September.