Communities across Dublin have them, although they’re mostly unofficial.
They could be curtain-twitching busybodies, community activists, or local youth workers – those who are so ingrained in their areas that they’ve become go-to spokespeople.
A few, like Tony “Deke” McDonald, Gerard O’Neill, and Queenie Barnes have had their roles recognised with official neighbourhood lord mayor or neighbourhood taoiseach status.
They can be a sympathetic ear for their neighbours, a valuable source of local knowledge and advice, a link between residents and busy city councillors representing thousands of Dubliners, a ribbon-cutting face of the community, and more.
Maybe it’s time Dublin had more of these official mini-mayors or mini-taoisigh, some say.
McDonald has been a community activist for more than 30 years. In May, he was selected to be the lord mayor of Ringsend and Irishtown for a fixed term of one year.
Although his is a largely ceremonial role – prize-givings, photo ops and the blessing of boats down the harbour – it comes with an added weight. “I can never switch off from the community,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Mini-mayorships serve as tributes to longstanding community members, like McDonald. They also separate community ceremonial functions from the party politics of Dublin City Council.
But few communities in Dublin have – or have had – an official local mayor.
Donnybrook had one in the 1980s and 1990s, said Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey. They were elected annually as part of the Donnybrook Fair Community Week.
“The person was elected on the basis of who could raise the most money [for charity],” says Lacey.
“These were local charities like the youth club, the ladies’ club. They would have been the main groups in nominating candidates to go forward,” he said.
Similar fundraising initiatives took place many years ago in areas like Kilbarrack and Ballybough, says independent Councillor Nial Ring.
But as these community days faded away, so too did the election of a local to the post of neighbourhood mayor.
They had a benefits, though, and they should be brought back, says Lacey.
“Why shouldn’t – when a group comes to Donnybrook – there be somebody who can be the representative, the welcoming voice of the community?” asks Lacey.
Perhaps mini-mayors should even have a bit more clout this time, says Lacey.
A Better Place
For Sue-Ann Moore of the Spellman Centre in Ringsend, the idea behind Ringsend and Irishtown having a lord mayor is simple.
It’s about recognising one outstanding local’s work over the years. “Someone who has contributed to making Ringsend a better place,” she says.
It was the youth of the area who chose McDonald to be their representative, says Moore. “He’s really supportive and he provides a non-judgmental space for them to hang out in, takes them in, teaches them maritime skills.”
His role as lord mayor is voluntary and unpaid. That, says Moore, strips away the perceived notions of elected office.
“It’s good to have an accessible celebrity now, especially for young people in the area,” she says. “It shows you don’t have to go into politics, or you don’t have to be famous, or you don’t have to be rich to have a title.”
For McDonald, his role is clear. He “can convey to the higher authority what the needs of the community are”, he says.
It comes back to his never-switched-off attitude towards his role, one he sees as a from-the-ground-up intermediary between locals and local councillors.
“You have to be impartial,” says McDonald. “I’m a local community person. That means small things, big things.”
Filling the Gaps
The Dublin City Council area boasts a population of 553,165 people, according to the preliminary 2016 census results.
They get 63 councillors elected to represent them across five administrative areas. That’s an average of one councillor for every 8,780 people.
As McDonald sees it, councillors can’t be everywhere at once. Local lord mayors can fill that gap for their community.
Because councillors are paid – some say not enough – and considering 52 represent political parties across several electoral wards, having a local mini-mayor is important, says McDonald, and it’s something other Dublin communities should trial.
Cities further afield, including New York and Cape Town, have mini-mayors to provide a layer of leadership closer to neighbourhoods. Separate from the mayor of London, the UK’s capital has 32 mayors serving its various boroughs.
Dublin might be significantly smaller than these three cities. But the maxim that “all politics is local” is true, says Gerard O’Neill, who has served as the lord mayor of Sean McDermott Street in the North Inner City for 10 years now.
You better believe it’s important to the local community to have an impartial representative, he says. “I still have the chain they gave me. It’s getting a bit old now so if you know anyone that’ll give us five hundred, six hundred quid for a new one?”
His elevation began when he and three other candidates put themselves forward to help represent young people in the area and steer them away from drugs.
“The people do really look up to you,” he says. “They’ll speak to you, give you a buzz, look for advice even though you’re not an [elected] politician.”
Being a “mini-mayor” of a much smaller area means you can tap into the needs of locals more so than a councillor, says O’Neill. “Some people will go to community leaders with a council issue, with a housing issue or a homeless issue. They won’t go to an actual politician.”
That can be tough at times, as an unpaid representative, he says. But it’s been worth it. “I thought, and I knew, that I’d be able to help the community.”
The Taoiseach of Ballymun
Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan says such figures can be helpful, both to their community, and to local politicians.
There are always people – on roads, avenues, and squares – who are tapped into the issues, he says. “I know if they contacted me I know they’d be speaking not just on behalf of themselves,” McCartan says.
While the role of lord mayor of Ringsend and Irishtown is largely ceremonial or “complimentary”, says McCartan, for some that’s enough.
Such titles continue because, it seems, communities want them. And it’s a bit of fun.
Across the city, in addition to the lord mayor of Ringsend and Irishtown, and the lord mayor of Sean McDermott Street, there’s the queen of Moore Street.
And Queenie Barnes became an taoiseach of Ballymun in 1982. She’s held the post ever since.
She fundraises for local projects and beats the competition time and again by raising the most cash. “Some would say, ‘There’s the taoiseach of Ballymun,” says Barnes. “You know yourself, effing and messing about.”
Collecting outside the likes of Tesco, she says, with friends, Barnes now reckons she’d still go up against others collecting for charity to defend her title, even at 79.
“I’ve been going around Ballymun for years and years fundraising for projects,” she says.
The role comes with its perks. Somewhere, Barnes has a photo of herself atop a horse and cart, waving to her citizens, “going around Ballymun”.