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Michael Dignam always felt a bit behind in school.
So he ducked out at 16 and apprenticed as an industrial screen printer, making the kinds of posters you find in the insides of bus stops.
“That’s what you did back then, you worked in a factory,” he says, with a laugh.
Dignam came top of his class in Tallaght in school aptitude tests, but still struggled with class work. It wasn’t until years later that he was diagnosed with dyslexia, but by then he was already long gone.
These days, Dignam works part-time in furniture design in London, and spends the rest of his hours on his own art projects.
Next week, though, he will be back in Tallaght with an exhibition at Rúa Red called Suburban Cookie Collector. (It marks the end of his Creative Ireland bursary.)
It’s a video work about his early life in the south Dublin suburb in the 1990s and early 2000s – against a backdrop of dance music, new housing estates, and an economic upturn.
A Wake-Up Call
Dignam was good at art at school, but it was never on the table really as a future profession, says Dignam. “That was a condition of growing up in a working-class family.”
A sickness in the family and a string of “crappy jobs” in his early twenties were a wake-up call, though, he says, that “life is too short to be working for an asshole in a dead-end job”.
He did a portfolio course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education. That opened up a path to National College of Art and Design (NCAD), where he specialised in sculpture.
Next stop was a master’s at Goldsmiths University in London. It doesn’t seem like it but that was five years ago, he says.
While at NCAD, he had made art about Tallaght. But after the move, he started to lose touch with the people back home. “I wanted to reconnect; to give something back to Tallaght,” he says.
Lots of his work before this was about living and working conditions. While studying at Goldsmiths, he was the poorest he had been in his life.
So his work turned on “forms of labour, zero-hour contracts, bullshit jobs”, he says.
“I don’t like naming things, I don’t think anyone does,” he says, but Suburban Cookie Collector has several meanings. “It’s not too heavy or specific.”
It’s cribbed from a band from the 1990s, the Urban Cookie Collective. But, it also alludes to the Jacobs Biscuit Factory, he says. “It was a massive part of the community.”
The piece is a “twenty-minute artist moving image work”, he says. It’s in two parts; audio and visual.
Dignam teamed up with a friend, Al Keegan, an electronic-music producer also from Tallaght, who scored the piece. “I wanted the sound to be as important as the image.”
He finds the era when he was a teenager fascinating. “I get these flashbacks of Tallaght at the time: pre-Internet, pre-mobile phones. It was a generation that got to experience both worlds,” he says, “just before you discovered who you are”.
For the audio slice of the show, visitors can don headphones to hear interviews with some of Dignam’s old friends from growing up, as they talk about what Tallaght was like for teenagers in those years.
Those include the actor Emmet Kirwan, and DJ Pauly Doyle. There’s also mental-health advocate Ciara Glynn, DJ and producer Al Keegan, and producer and broadcaster Paul Chillage.
Dignam also interviews writer and engineer Colm Reynor, who wrote a short story to go alongside the exhibition.
“It was really interesting interviewing them. I hadn’t spoken to some of them in years,” he says. Formal interviews, also, were different to party talk.
The footage in the film is pieced together – some is found, some he shot himself. It comes from “on an old Super 8, drone footage, and old video footage”, he says.
There’s colour and landscapes. Landmarks such as the Hellfire Club, and the Jacobs factory, and The Square in the 1990s. There is also overhead drone footage of the estates, and the lanes he used to hang out in as a kid.
“Everything seemed new at the time. I first discovered electronic music, pirate radio stations, girls, smoking, drinking, raves,” he says. It was exciting. The Celtic Tiger.
There were jobs. Buildings going up. People had cars. The Internet was taking hold, and mobile phones, too. “It seemed like the future was going to be good. It was a hopeful time,” he says.
But the timeline isn’t all upbeat. There are ups and downs.
“Some morbid scenes, some uplifting,” he says. “The Jacobs factory was replaced with an Amazon factory, which is a nice reflection of the world now.”
Dignam hopes people get a sense of Tallaght from the piece, “and what’s possible in Tallaght,” he says. “It’s harder for people from Tallaght to go on and study, so I hope it opens people’s eyes to what they can achieve.”
He wants people to come away and realise where creativity can come from. “Some of the most creative people I know are from Tallaght,” he says.
It’s changed a lot since he was a kid. There’s more urban sprawl, a new theatre, a library.
He worries that social media spreads the worst news. “But anyone who has friends from Tallaght knows it’s a decent place,” he says.
“When I left it was an entirely different situation, there was half-built apartment blocks, empty factories and a much more pessimistic view of the future,” he says.
He’d love to move back to Dublin someday. But right now, it’s too difficult for artists to find work and pay rent, he says.
In Suburban Cookie Collector, he wants to delve into his past, and reconnect with it through old stories and memories.
Suburban Cookie Collector will run from 8 to 13 October at the Rúa Red Gallery in Tallaght.