Catherine McSweeney lugs two traffic cones to mark off where, outside of the boarded-up Donore Avenue Youth and Community Centre, people can gather.
Early arrivals set up chairs against the building walls, opposite a crash barrier that divides the footpath outside the centre from the road.
Older ladies lean back into the chairs, peering out as kids with parents in tow start popping up along the road.
Elderly people and kids are the most in need of a local space for activities, says McSweeney, secretary of the Tenters Residents Association. “We’re pulling our hair out.”
Last Wednesday’s protest marked a year since a fire broke out in the upstairs rooms of the community centre, leaving smashed windows, burnt walls and a hollow building.
At the time of the blaze, groups that used the centre said they hoped it would be back open within six months. But council officials have not yet set a date for reopening.
Those gathered on Wednesday said they desperately want somewhere to meet in the meantime.
At the front of the building, McSweeney stands alongside signs from the community. “We need green space for our kids to play,” says one. And another: “We need our community centre now.”
James O’Toole arrived early to the protest holding a shopping bag.
He stood stoically before the building, inside which he in the past helped to organise campaigns on homelessness and housing, he says, like Take Back the City, or the Housing & Homelessness Coalition.
Having a local centre means more people are more likely to show up to things like that, he says. “People come to a meeting if it’s more accessible.”
It would cost around €12 to rent a room for an evening at the Donore Avenue centre, he says, whereas other places could go up to €1oo for an evening.
O’Toole takes a look around him, at the turnout so far.
Locals would have expected the building to open much sooner after the fire, says O’Toole. “But I think people are now starting to despair that, you know, what’s the timeline? How long is it going to take?”
Joan Hughes is standing with her elbows on the crash barrier. She looks to Joan Reid and Tina Mills next to her.
“It’s our only community facility in the area,” says Hughes, “and it provides so many services to the community, not just for the children, but for the elderly.”
“Like we have a group here who can’t meet because they don’t have premises to meet in,” says Hughes.
Reid says she used to go to the centre for Monday club. “Ah we’d play bingo, play, have all sorts of things. Functions, loads of functions. Different things. Every day.”
Phyllis Masterson says she misses the walks they used to do to the garden on the centre’s roof. “Go up the top and look out,” she says. “You’d miss that.”
Now, old folks have nowhere to go in the area, she says. “They’re all closed down. Unless we pay, and we can’t afford to pay to rent a place.”
Hughes says the closure of the centre is isolating older people even more than during Covid lockdowns. “You’re missing out on something that should exist.”
On the footpath directly under the blackened sign for “Donore Avenue Youth and Community Centre”, Orna Cooke leans on a pram with one foot as she rocks it back and forth. In the pram, her daughter blows raspberries.
Cooke says she used to come to the community centre for exercise classes. “Then when it closed, there was nowhere locally to go.”
She hates to see the building derelict so she came out to support the protest, she says. “If you just leave it to everyone else to come, nothing will happen.”
Missing Summer Projects
After the protest, Jen Cummins and Monica Grogan lean on the barriers, chatting with Alice Blake.
Cummins and Grogan’s sons are both in their early teens, says Grogan. They’re both missing out on the centre’s summer project, which would have run for the month of July.
“It was great because you knew the people that were running it. You knew they were safe,” she says. Kids did baking, arts and crafts, and would go on trips locally and to Tayto Park and Fort Lucan.
It was crucial to helping kids get established in the community, says Grogan.
“It’s getting the children that are in the different schools to really gel. And that’s what was built in the community because you’re starting then from the younger ones coming up
they’re all getting to play with each other,” she says.
Blake says she and others loved to be around the energy of the young people. “To see all the kids coming up and meeting, you know, and running off then around the place.”
Grogan says older kids would volunteer to look after the younger kids at the summer project.
“It’s a great way to pick up if they’re anxious about anything like that. The older ones would be a great role model for them. So it really did build their confidence,” she says.
The summer project would mix kids from different backgrounds, says Cummins. “They just played, there was a game of chase, they just played. So it brings them all down to one level, not, Oh he has this and he has that. They’re just sharing.”
Earlier, O’Toole had said he has fond memories of the community centre he grew up next to, at the Fatima Mansions flats. “I remember going to discos when I was seven. There’d always be something on.”
Both of his parents worked, so the community centre had meant he and his siblings had somewhere to go during the day. “Otherwise they never get a break.”
Cummins says she wishes her son could go to the summer project now, like her daughter did.
“It’s like the consistency in a family. If they all go to the same school, they have that same experience,” she says. “So the younger fella hasn’t experienced that and he’s not going to experience it this year.”
If the centre does open in 2024, he might be too old to be interested in going, says Cummins.
The centre closing would particularly affect single mothers, says Grogan, who don’t have a support system to help with childcare over the summer months.
The centre also helped with feeding kids with the breakfast club and homework club, she says.
“There’s nowhere for them to go,” says Grogan. “All the structure and routine that kids need to build them to be proper thirteen-, fourteen-year-olds, to be able to cope with their emotions, you know, it’s not happening.”
On 13 June, the chief executive said, in a written response to a query from a councillor, that the refurbishment of the community centre is being treated as a matter of urgency.
“However during this period, there have been a number of issues resulting in the current process over which Dublin City Council have had no control,” he said.
A criminal investigation by the Gardaí, the clearing of the site, legal matters, a number of examinations carried out by insurers and a second party’s forensics team, and the impact of Covid, were all factors delaying refurbishment, he said.
Outside the community centre, McSweeney steps up onto a small stool.
She fiddles for a moment with the megaphone, and looks out at the gathered locals.
The area needs an interim place for kids to be supervised during the long summer days, she says. “We requested from Dublin City Council, for a very feasible, easy and walkable solution.”
McSweeney points over to her left, towards the vacated flats of St Teresa’s Gardens, where the ground floor was known as Donore Stores, a row of shops.
“We requested, could we have the Donore Stores and the small space next door, just to the basic level of refurbishment,” she said.
McSweeney says there’s also a playground and outdoor spaces behind St Teresa’s Gardens. “We asked for the basketball courts and the astro pitch in the back to be opened up for the kids, again refused. Everything was refused.”
The former Donore Stores is scheduled to be knocked later this year to make way for the Donore Project, which plans to provide 500 homes, said another written response from the council’s chief executive.
The old courts and pitch would be a construction site so they could not provide play facilities there, the response says.
“We gave them all our suggestions and everything has been refused,” said McSweeney loudly into the megaphone. “DCC needs to provide the solution, we tried our best. Tried everything.”
The tender for a design team to kick off the refurbishment, was loaded up to eTenders, the public procurement website, on 3 June, said a response from officials to a councillor.
The council is progressing the matter as quickly as possible, said the spokesperson.“Whilst ensuring that all procurement legislation, rules, regulations and guidelines are adhered to ensure that all processes are fully compliant.”
At the protest last Wednesday, Máire Devine, a Sinn Féin councillor, told the listening crowd that the council should have done this sooner.
“You know you’re going to need a design team, so why not do them both together? Well, I don’t think proactivity at the moment has won the day,” she says. “I don’t think the council realises that you can actually do things in parallel.”
Taking to the megaphone, Deirdre Cronin – the People Before Profit councillor who recently replaced Tina MacVeigh – says she’s pleased to see the crowd that have shown up to protest.
To support the cheering crowd, two kids rattle wooden spoons between the bars of the crash barriers separating the road and the footpath, and a woman quickly shushes them.
“I think you see the numbers, the make-up of the people here, that this is the community that this centre serves,” she says.
Kids roller skate back and forth, following the path of a dog trotting about without a leash. A baby screams. Cooke cheers towards her daughter in the pram, making faces.
“I know there’s a lot of kids here,” says Cronin, waving at the scatterings of kids on the street. “And I love chanting. So will we try one chant?”
The wooden spoons hit harder and louder off the metal bars. People grin at each other, and woop towards the top of the building.
“What do we want?” cries Cronin, and lifts her ear for the response. “Our community centre back!” yells the crowd back.
“Louder, Dublin 8!” calls Cronin. “When do we want it?”