It’s ten minutes to 7pm, and two women with white hair and fancy cardigans walk down a shaded alleyway across from the old Mother Redcaps Market in the Liberties.
They turn towards an open cast-iron gate and disappear through a brick archway.
Someone inside is warming up a guitar, and the sound floats out onto the street.
I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay
On the other side of the archway, the song carries over the hum of voices, lots of them, in the tree-shaded courtyard in front of Tailors’ Hall.
The building has been used as a meeting place for over 300 years – as a guild hall, an army barracks, a courthouse, and the “Back Lane Parliament”.
Now it’s used as a venue for events. An Taisce headquarters is here. There are weddings here sometimes.
But tonight, the only rousing speeches will be by the staff of the South Inner City Community Development Association (SICCDA), or by a Sinatra-crooning jazz singer, and the audience will be a large crowd of women, and a few men, dancing on their feet and in their chairs at the annual Liberties Festival Blue Rinse Ball.
Halfway up the stone steps to the building, four ladies hold wine glasses and survey the crowd.
This is Joyce Reid’s second year at the Blue Rinse Ball.
So called, says Joyce, “because, in our mother’s generation, when ladies grew older, they didn’t want to look old, so they put a blue rinse in their hair. And that made them very attractive.”
“But we’re in our 70s now, and I don’t think that we look too bad,” Joyce says.
Joyce is from the Liberties. For 51 years she’s lived with her husband on Catherine Street, in a 101-year-old house that used to be his grandfather’s.
“Tonight is a celebration of what we are in the Liberties, and they honour us by inviting us,” she says.
The three other women are her sisters-in-law: Mary Reid, and twin sisters Chris Finnegan (née Reid) and Frances Molloy (née Reid).
Chris and Frances grew up in a family of 12 children. They remember the first time they met Joyce.
Scrubbed clean in good Sunday clothes, ready to meet the girl their brother was bringing home. “Weren’t we lovely, Joyce?” asks Frances.
“Gorgeous, gorgeous. Very mannerly,” she says. “But I have another bit to add to the story.” Her youngest brother also married their youngest sister, says Joyce.
“Little freshen up ladies? Little top up?” says Liam Waldron, as he glides up with a bottle of white and a bottle of red.
He’s lived in the area for the last 10 years, and volunteered at the festival for three. All the ladies know him.
He’s attentive. “That’s my job!” he says.
Down at the ground-level courtyard are blue velvety chairs, all full now, and aimed at the guitar player. The sing-song gets going.
I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
The ladies on the steps don’t sing. Instead, they talk about growing up in the Liberties.
There are stories about the twins’ grandmother, who kept pigs – the wall of the pig yard is still there, in Pimlico.
They remember her big, white apron, and the slop bucket she kept outside.
“Women had a lot of troubles in their lives, but they were hard-working and never felt sorry for themselves. They just got on with it,” Frances says.
They talk about their mothers throwing a few coppers out to the tenors that used to sing in the streets; how their parents met; how they met their husbands.
Joyce talks about the fight to make life better for people in the area. The Liberties is like its own village, but it was neglected for a long time, she says.
“We’ve been fighting for acknowledgement for many, many years. SICCDA started in my kitchen as a result of the neglect.”
Joyce says the Liberties is changing again as speculators and investors move in.
It’s bringing young people back in, she says. “We’re hoping they’re going to integrate with us, which generally doesn’t happen.”
“And our hope is that they will,” she says. “That they’ll come out and meet us because we don’t bite and we don’t eat our children … anymore anyway.”
Down the steps, Frances and Chris spot a woman they went to school with and haven’t seen in 30 years.
A few minutes before 8pm, the music stops. The whole courtyard makes a procession up the stairs and into the hall.
Inside, in the meeting room with a spectacularly high ceiling and almost equally tall windows, are tables with white tablecloths.
On the buffet table, outside in the foyer, there’s chicken, salmon, two types of quiche, roast potatoes, and salad, all homemade by Lovin Catering on Francis Street.
The event is so popular – tickets go quickly, organisers say – that not everyone can fit in the main room.
More tables are set up downstairs, in a room with stone walls, a dark wood ceiling, and a huge open fireplace, not lit on this summer night. There is tropical bunting and fairy lights on the ceiling and neon green palm leaves on the tables.
At one of the tables sits a bowling team from Rialto. Tomorrow morning at 11am, they’ll be up and out again, competing at another festival event – the annual “Older Bowls” seniors bowling competition.
At the table next to them, Chrissie Lyng sits across from her friend Margaret Cooling. Lyng is wearing a sparkly black cardigan with a big red flower on it.
“There’s lots of things going on all through the year. It’s a fantastic community to live in,” says Lyng. “But the highlight of the year is the Blue Rinse Ball.”
She takes out her iPad – a gift for her 91st birthday – and asks for a photo for the table. She knows how to use it, she says. “I got a Silver Surfer Award.”
Volunteers wearing red lanyards come downstairs bearing pear tarts and lemon roulades, while the first few notes of the jazz band drift downstairs.
You make me feel so young. You make me feel so spring has sprung. And every time I see you grin, I’m such a happy individual.
The Liberties Festival has been going since 1970, which makes this its 49th year. It’s organised by SICCDA, along with Cuckoo Events.
Lots of the attendees also go to local community groups and development projects, says Carmel Hynes, SICCDA’s director, and chair of the Liberties Festival Committee.
“It’s a wonderful community network of people,” she says. “It’s about having fun and [being together]. It’s a celebration of that and also a celebration of the heritage of Dublin.”
Upstairs, the plates have been cleared, and the Hot House Big Band is in full swing. Two women are up and dancing to a Sinatra tune. Others dance in their chairs.
The singer wears a black suit and tie and charms the room.
“We’re going to head to the ’70s, yeah? Do we like the ’70s here?”
The band plays the first few bars of “Love Is in the Air”. A disco light beside the man playing a keyboard flows red, then blue, then yellow.
Love is in the air
Every time I look around
More and more people jump up to dance.
The band plays for ages, then starts to wind down. “Sweet Caroline”. “Show Me the Way to Amarillo”. A singalong to “New York, New York”. Then, they stop.
As volunteers gather glasses, many of the women move towards the front door. The band exits, carrying their instruments in black cases.
The four ladies from the steps rush out – their night not over yet – onwards to the open-air cinema at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and a screening of Song of the Sea.
Volunteers collect the neon green palm leaves from the tables.
But the lights are still on, and at two tables, groups of women are still talking and laughing, as people stack chairs against the walls.
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