On a serene Friday afternoon, musician Gemma Dunleavy is giving a guided tour of Sheriff Street, in the north inner-city of Dublin where she grew up, and begins to laugh as she recalls friends from outside the area who would think twice about coming to visit.
Walking beneath the imposing stone arches on Saville Place that support the railway bridge outside Connolly Station she continues to chat as she pinpoints it as one of her favourite spots in the world.
These arches were the inspiration for a lyric in her new song “Stop the Lights”, from her debut EP Up De Flats, which was released digitally on Friday 17 July.
“A lot of that song sounds very gravelly to me and I kept imagining the arches. When I’m making the music I’m constantly visualising the area. I don’t know if that comes across,” she says.
Up De Flats is a love letter to the tight-knit community of Sheriff Street, the cradle of dock workers at the beginning of the century and birthplace of legendary trad musician Luke Kelly, whose statue adorns the upper end of the street.
Alongside songs celebrating the area, Dunleavy is also keen to talk about the slew of redevelopment and regeneration projects in the area, which she thinks can only erode the spirit of the place she holds so dear.
Up De Flats
Up De Flats is Dunleavy’s first full EP following a series of standalone singles over the past five years. Mixing electronic and R&B influences with Dublin’s storytelling tradition, her accent seeps through the traditionally smooth soul cadences.
References to her home are scattered throughout her lyrics, including a mention of the landmark boundary wall on track “Cruisin”.
“We go flying down the Boundary feeling the breeze / I’ll let you do a donut if you bring me for a spin / And they can keep on talkin’ until the morning we’ll be keeping everybody up.”
Dunleavy spent her early years in Phil Shanahan Flats which were demolished in the late 90s and, according to Dunleavy, who now lives across the road on Oriel Street, governmental promises of investment and social projects for the area weren’t kept.
“Years ago when we had the balcony on the flats, one family would make dinner and everybody would go into that house for dinner,” she says.
Everyone from the flats living on the same balcony “was like one big family”, she says.
“I grew up thinking everybody lived like that […] The older I got, I realised that’s actually quite unique to where I’m from. I could see it as we got dispersed and left the flats.”
After finishing school, Dunleavy studied dance at the College of Dance in Dublin and after an injury forced a stop to that, moved to New York. This time abroad, she says, strengthened her resolve that what she had in Sheriff Street was unique and worth cherishing.
“I’ve lived in loads of places […] and there’s just nowhere with the people like in my community, ” she says.
“You have neighbours you feel as close as family with, family members you find out later in life aren’t blood-related. It’s just the way we grew up.”
Although Dunleavy has fond memories of life growing up in Sheriff Street, she’s also experienced “a lot of judgement”, from other people towards the area. “We can’t forget that Dublin is laced with classism. It still is today,” she says.
Growing up, she says she witnessed her parents and even her grandparents putting a different address onto their CVs because being from Sheriff Street meant they wouldn’t be hired.
Sheriff Street Regeneration
“Now that other developments are happening and houses are being knocked down, we’re being spread out even more; we’re losing a lot of that [community],” she says.
She says the next five years will be an uphill battle because residents are going to have to put up with a hotel at Connolly Quarter going up in the middle of a community that is already on its back due to lack of resources.
There’s a real sense of distrust among locals in the area, Dunleavy says, as historically developers came and made promises that never amounted to anything.
“They came and promised this and this, like they’re going to do this for the community to shut people up,” she says. “But they told us this in the 80s and we never got fuck all.”
You Don’t Have to Be Posh to Do Ballet
While much of the record is gritty and contemporary, the single “Up De Flats” gradually strips away the layers to reveal a bare chant of “they’ll be shouting Up De Flats from the rooftops”.
It’s particularly meaningful for Dunleavy as the voices that close out the song are those of the family and neighbours who, she says, have unconditionally supported her.
Sheriff Street may be undergoing a rapid transformation at the moment but Up De Flats, and a documentary Dunleavy is working on about the area, which is yet to be named, aims to show a side of the community many ignore.
“I don’t want my nieces and nephews being ashamed of where they’re from or being ashamed to introduce themselves. I want all the kids in my area to know you don’t have to be posh to do ballet or you don’t need a lot of money to do x, y or z,” she says.
Dunleavy wants working-class people to embrace the attributes that make them different. “There’s a quality in all of these people where I’m from that money couldn’t buy,” she says.
“People want it – it’s a currency, and that’s a really valuable currency they’re never going to be able to take away from you or buy from you. They might be able to try and copy it, but there’s no longevity in it. Put that on my gravestone.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 1.46pm 22 July 2020 to include the flats Gemma Dunleavy grew up in, and to add in the hotel development at Connelly Quarter instead of Castleforbes Bussiness Park as was previously mentioned. We apologise for the error.]