In front of the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Ballsbridge last Sunday, a group of men, their hair covered with turbans or bandanas, stood in a row, and rolled up an enormous yellow flag. It’s a ritual they perform every year.
“In India, the gurdwara flag is posted very high so travellers can find it for food and rest. The philosophy of Sikhism is, ‘You are welcome,’” says Satwinder Singh, of the Irish Sikh Council.
Hundreds of people come to the gurdwara every Sunday to worship and eat together, according to the temple’s board members. And Satwinder says it’s not just people of the Sikh faith – many others “come for the community”.
The building, just off Serpentine Avenue, is the site of the old Oscar Cinema. The fledgeling Sikh community bought it, with some help, in 1987, and it’s been the focal point of the community ever since.
Most Sikh families, however, live in places like Lucan and Adamstown, and many are finding it difficult to get to the temple on Sundays and Tuesdays – when services are held.
“Because Ballsbridge is a very expensive area to live in, that’s why the majority of people live in Lucan,” says Karan Singh, one of the directors at the gurdwara.
After years of asking politicians for help, the latest proposal to change the city’s bus network under BusConnects may make it easier for some Sikh families to get from the suburbs to the gurdwara at the centre of their community. But, they say, this wouldn’t completely solve the problem.
Seven or Eight Families
Dr Jasbir Singh Puri bustles into his house in Lucan between meetings. He’s just been to Christ Church Cathedral, checking out the space for an exhibition next month to commemorate the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru.
Along with the exhibition, a Sikh service is planned inside the cathedral on 11 November, at the start of Inter Faith Week. He was there with people from the Gurdwara, figuring out where the stage, canopy and holy book will go.
He touches down at his house briefly, perching on a stool in his sitting room. Soon he will head out again, this time for an interview on the weekly Punjabi Radio programme on Dublin South FM.
Dr Puri moved to Dublin in 1989, initially living in Palmerstown. He worked as a consultant anaesthetist, but he’s retired now.
He became a regular at the gurdwara right away, he says. The building had been empty for years and was “derelict-looking initially, but we kept improving it”.
Dr Puri talks about how the cinema slowly morphed into a place of worship – of pulling out theatre seats, because Sikh worshippers sit on the floor as a mark of equality. The old ticket booth is a storage room now, and the kitchen is where the green room used to be.
The projector room upstairs became part of the priest’s living quarters when he arrived in 1996.
“When I came here, there were seven or eight families. Now there are more than 200 families here,” he says.
A lot of Sikh students came from India to study in Dublin in the early 2000s, and some of them stayed and now have children in school, he says. The original families have brought up children, and grandchildren. The community has grown.
“Most of the people, as soon as they got settled, they bought their own houses,” he says.
Lucan was growing in the late ’90s and early 2000s so many came to live here. “Around that time, this area was coming up,” he says.
Meanwhile, the gurdwara was located in Ballsbridge.
“Two years ago, lots of people in the Sikh community were asking for help with the travel problems they were facing,” says Ammar Ali, who was a Fianna Fáil candidate for South-West Inner-City in the local elections earlier this year.
Taking public transport – two buses, usually – from their homes in the suburbs to the gurdwara takes about 90 minutes one-way, Ali says. Bus schedules, and heavy traffic, make it difficult for people to get to the temple at any specific time.
Also, the gurdwara doesn’t have a car park, so worshippers who drive have to park in the residential areas around the temple.
“It’s hard for people to come and park in big numbers, so it’s important for them to use public transport,” he says.
Ali says he raised the issue with Transport Minister Shane Ross, asking for a community bus on Tuesday evenings and all day on Sunday.
“I still have the letter from the minister. He just told me he doesn’t deal with those things,” Ali says.
Ali says his next step is circulating a petition around the community and turning that into a campaign to get the government’s attention. He plans to call the campaign “Easy Access for Everyone” and bring the issue up with Minister Ross, local TDs, and councillors.
“We need to look after these communities because they play an important role in the development of Dublin,” Ali says. “People are missing community events because of this issue.”
“It’s the beauty of the government to look after its people, so that’s why it’s very important this facility is provided by the government, rather than hiring a private transport system,” Ali says.
“This is also going to benefit the government, because it will show the inclusion policy they believe in,” he says.
Karan Singh, one of the directors at the gurdwara, says transport was one of the issues they discussed with the taoiseach when he visited back in April. “At the same time, we tried to contact different people from politics.”
“We’re still waiting to hear from them,” Karan says.
Karan says it’s hard to travel across the city, on multiple buses, especially for families with small children.
Gurjit Singh, another community member, says there was some talk of hiring a private bus company, and they got quotes from one or two. “But it’s quite expensive,” Gurjit says. “Almost €11 or €12 per person.”
Ideally, Karan says, one of the bus lines originating in the western suburbs – the 25B, for example – could start in Adamstown, go through Lucan, and extend from its current last stop (Merrion Square) to Serpentine Avenue. “That would be helpful to the Sikh community.”
Says Dr Puri: “I know there’s a transportation issue within the whole country, as such, because the local transportation is not very good.”
If a community bus was available, it would reduce the number of individual cars driving across the city every Sunday, he says. It would be more environmentally friendly.
“We know our gurdwara is quite far off. If we get some help from somewhere, we will certainly welcome it,” he says.
At the entrance to the gurdwara, there is a basket of scarves and bandanas for people to cover their heads with. There’s also a little room full of shelves, where people leave their shoes and socks.
Just inside the door is the quiet prayer room, where the holy book is open, and people sit in rows on the floor, facing it.
Behind the prayer room is a bustling dining hall, where an elaborate meal cooked and served by volunteers, and funded through donations, is eaten.
Dilmeen Kaur, a director at the gurdwara, sits in a row of people on a long rug on the floor, her back against one of the large heaters along the wall.
While she talks, a metal tray appears in front of her crossed legs, then a metal cup of water. One by one, volunteers approach her, carrying serving bowls of vegetarian curry, lentil dahl, salad, chapatis, parsley chutney, and sweet rice pudding. They do the same for everyone who doesn’t yet have food in front of them.
“The free kitchen, community service – you’re supposed to give 10 percent to the poor and needy … That is our religion in a nutshell. We’re supposed to do these things,” she says.
There are neighbourhood clean-ups around the temple every November. And every Tuesday for the last three years, members have served food to the homeless outside the GPO.
One of the things on Kaur’s agenda is starting language classes for children.
“Transport was the reason we were having difficulty with the children’s language classes we want to teach,” she says. Parents, if they don’t drive, find it difficult to bring their children on the long bus journey in and out of the city.
Kaur says, ideally, parents could send their older kids to the gurdwara to do some community service and come back. “It’s a very good thing for teenage kids.”
“We have told our big community that you need to try to carpool, and they’re quite good at that,” she says – but it would be better if they didn’t have to drive.
A spokesperson at the Department of Transport said questions about the issue would be better directed to the National Transport Authority (NTA).
The NTA hasn’t yet responded to questions sent on Monday about how the bus network responds to issues like these in communities, and what it takes to change an existing bus route, or add a new one.
The BusConnects plan is to arrange the city’s bus network into eight main arteries from the city centre outwards, and to implement these changes over the next 10 years.
“The plan also includes 10 orbital routes which will reduce significantly the need for passengers to travel into the city centre,” the announcement said. Passengers would, in theory, be able to change buses quickly and conveniently.
A local area map published Tuesday shows two proposed bus routes – the C1 and C2 – (part of the larger “C Spine”) starting at Adamstown Station and ending at Sandymount Green, which is about 600 metres from the gurdwara.
“We welcome the change of the new bus routes for Dublin West, and are optimistic that the frequency of timings will be the same as previous running buses,” says Dilmeen Kaur, one of the gurdwara’s directors.
Elderly parents and grandparents visiting from abroad who might be daunted by switching buses, could more easily get to the temple, along with grandchildren. “That would really help us,” she says.
But for those who live over in Lucan, two or three kilometres from Adamstown Station, the latest iteration of BusConnects probably will not provide a solution.
Jagpreet Singh, who was on the gurdwara’s last committee, says most Sikhs live in Lucan, so the new routes won’t help all, or even most, people in the community.
“It would really help if either [route] started from Adamstown, went to Lucan, then took the motorway” into town and through to Sandymount, Jagpreet says.
He also wonders how long it will take for the new routes to start operating. “If they say it’s going to take years … We need [it] as soon as possible.”
Maybe, in the meantime, he says, existing bus routes could be rejigged to move towards a solution. “There are buses there, they just have to change the routes.”