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Shining a light on Dublin’s soul

Dublin: The Heart of the City by Ronan Sheehan and Brendan Walsh

In the 1990s and early 2000s, as all things Irish became popular and the Celtic Tiger flourished and, for the first time, more people came to Ireland looking for work than left, Dublin became an incredibly popular tourist destination. Rents went up, and up some more. Nightclubs and trendy restaurants and art galleries sprang up, one after another.

But what wasn’t noticed or cared about was the history of the actual people and families who made up Dublin’s working poor, or simply poor, on the city’s tougher, grimier and less tourist-friendly north side. This is the real Dublin, and these are the real Dubliners, and the reissue, after 28 years, of this excellent book of reporting and commentary (by Sheehan) and evocative, black and white photographs (by Walsh) portrays a community that has weathered decades of hard times – from grinding poverty to relocations to new, government-made suburban communities to massive job losses to a horrific heroin epidemic in the ‘80s – and come back, again and again, with a toughness and a defiant resiliency.

Dublin is a tough and at times unforgiving book: there are stories of horrific poverty, drugs, governmental indifference, urban renewal that rent the fabric of lives and neighborhoods, and more. We go back to the ‘30s and forward to the then-present day as Sheehan describes communities coming apart and coming together again to fight for themselves. Coupled with Walsh’s extraordinary – and at times extraordinarily bleak – photos (many of which feature sharp-featured, knowing children playing in and around decaying urban landscapes as haunted and blasted as any in the poorer parts of New York) we are given a sense of just how hard it has been, for decades, to exist in a city where prosperity was either not available, or where it passed so many people by.

The people that inhabit these photos, and Sheehan’s sharp, knowing reportage, are, as the title says, the real heart of a city where life, for many, has never been easy, and at times has been only bearable by the sense of belonging to a community that never gives up, never stops trying to better itself, and never gives in. All they have – and all they ever had – is each other and their belief in themselves and, even when nobody else seemed to acknowledge it, their worth as human beings. For anyone who cares at all about Ireland, Irish history and the people who actually inhabit the island, Dublin is an important book, and its return is a landmark for those wishing to understand this most wonderful and intriguing of cities.