“Our biggest problem at the moment is a lack of space for teenagers to drop in and see us,” says Solas CEO Eddie D’Arcy.
Solas, a youth project in the Liberties, has been struggling to find a central place to operate since losing their home on Marrowbone Lane last November.
Since then, the organisation has been split across four different premises around the Liberties, D’Arcy says.
Standing outside Solas’ office on Long’s Place, behind St James’ Primary School in the Liberties, he says: “This place is fine but it’s more offices than anything else.”
The inside of the building is brightly lit, with an open space for desks and chairs. But it’s not the kind of place he would like to see young people relaxing in, D’Arcy says.
Solas isn’t the only community project that says it’s finding it difficult to get suitable space in the neighbourhood. It’s down to an issue that keeps cropping up, say Dublin city councillors: a lack of money to fund community spaces in the city.
Not a New Problem
“It’s always been an issue for the Liberties to find community space,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh.
Community spaces in the area began to decline when properties were left derelict, Ní Dhálaigh says.
Now, that dereliction is being addressed, she says. “But it’s being addressed by people who are building student accommodations and hotels so there is no gain for the community.”
While Dublin City Council is building some new houses, they are not getting enough funding from the government to build the necessary community facilities too, says Ní Dhálaigh.
People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh says that community amenities have been pushed out as tourist attractions move into the Liberties.
“There is an intention to change the nature of the Liberties from an inner-city residential neighborhood, that it has been forever, and to focus on attracting more tourists,” says MacVeigh.
“When I started community work back in the ’90s you could open a door and work in a cold draft building,” says Marja Almqvist.
Now, there are so many regulations, insurance, she says. “We can’t actually afford to open some of these places.”
Almqvist runs the Weaving in the Liberties project. They’ve been working out of a room in the bottom of the Timberyard apartments on Cork Street.
“It’s the size of a large living room,” she says. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful because the Dublin City Council are providing this premises for free.”
The Weaving in the Liberties project is growing. But Almqvist says she’s not sure if the room in the Timberyard will be big enough to fit them.
In the past, Almqvist has worked with Solas, too. The folks at Solas made weaving equipment for her project.
“I went to the knitting and stitching show earlier this year in the RDS and I came back with a load of orders from friends,” she says. They wanted Solas to make equipment for them, too.
But Solas couldn’t fulfil these orders. They don’t have enough room for their woodworking equipment after they lost the premises at 40 Marrowbone Lane.
D’Arcy says they knew they wouldn’t be able to stay in their spot on Marrowbone Lane forever. “We always knew that we were there for a temporary basis,” he says.
After the organisation got a notice to leave in January 2019, they did manage to cling on for many months until last November, he says.
Since then, though, Solas has been working out of four buildings: their offices on Long’s Place, a premises on Meath Street, St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street, and a flat in Basin Lane.
The Meath Street premises is in bad condition but they don’t want to start spending money on it unless they know Solas will be there for a long time, says D’Arcy.
Solas uses St Catherine’s Church every morning and most afternoons and nights. That’s a real intrusion on the people in the church, says D’Arcy.
The fourth premises is a flat on Basin Lane that they use for their after-school project for six- to 10-year-olds. “It’s completely unsuitable,” D’Arcy says. “The worry for me is that the staff is quite isolated at times.”
There’s been a big loss in the neighbourhood too, says Sinn Féin’s Ní Dhálaigh.
“The nail in the coffin was when Carman’s Hall was changed from a community centre into an emergency homeless accommodation,” Ní Dhálaigh says.
Many social groups used the hall on Francis Street for relatively cheap, she says.
When, in late 2016, Dublin City Council turned it into homeless accommodation, “It was a real loss of community space,” says D’Arcy.
MacVeigh, the People Before Profit councillor, says that there’s talk of young people hanging around on streets, making others feel unsafe.
“We can’t be having those conversations about young people and at the same time be stripping out supports for the community and vulnerable young people,” she says.
How to Pay for Them
Ní Dhálaigh says the council needs to get more funding from the central government so that community infrastructure can be built. “It’s just as important as the bricks and mortar of residential units.”
A lack of central government funding for culture and amenities is a long-running complaint from Dublin city councillors, who have said they want to see a hotel bed tax, or tourism tax, that would help plug that funding gap – rather than land sales as has been the case, and as is currently on the table.
Since Solas first asked, Dublin City Council has come up with three venues in the Liberties that the group could look at moving into.
“It’s interesting because they were telling us that there were no buildings in the area and suddenly they were able to produce three buildings that they own in the area,” D’Arcy says.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said, not counting social housing, it owns four vacant premises in the area.
When it comes to tenants, groups are evaluated on a case by case basis, they said. “First time community groups are usually given a one-year licence to assess how the service progresses.” Councillors have to vote and agree any lettings of more than 12 months.
There aren’t that many premises owned by the council that are suitable for community groups, they said. “Not all vacant properties are available for letting due to their poor overall condition and in some cases the need for extensive refurbishment.”
Solas will see if the three premises that have been highlighted now are suitable over the next few weeks, D’Arcy says.
Dublin City Council is putting together a masterplan for a derelict building, an old school on School Street. In the past, Solas had asked repeatedly to be allowed to move in there, but the council said the building was unsafe, D’Arcy says.
Says MacVeigh, of People Before Profit: “I have asked the council to put into that masterplan that a significant proportion be given to providing community amenities.”
A spokesperson for the council said that a community needs assessment has been carried out by the Inner City Community Development Association (SICCDA). It’s due to be published soon.
After that, the council will decide on the best way forward. It is “currently looking at all available vacant spaces with a view to making then available to local communities”, they said.
[This article was updated at 11.40am on 1 February to include responses to queries from Dublin City Council.]