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In 2017, a group of women met at St Andrew’s Community Centre in Rialto.
Some had grown up in the nearby flat complexes of Fatima Mansions and Dolphin House in the 50s and 60s. Others came from housing estates in the nearby area.
The first thing the women did was name their new group, Step By Step.
Over the following two years, they met every week to talk about their lives and emotions, families and relationships, and health.
Facilitator Joanie Whyte wanted to help the women understand their emotions and where they were coming from, she says, over Zoom.
“People started seeing that they had a lot of fear in their lives, from when they were very young all the way up,” says Whyte, who worked with Step By Step group.
At the heart of this fear were issues of addiction and poverty. Some talked of family histories that drew in struggles with alcoholism, low wages, poor living conditions and neglect.
To meld together their collective stories, the group dreamt up the character of Sissy, a child growing up in a block of Dublin flats in the 50s and 60s.
Artist and animator Gareth Gowran worked with the group to develop the character of Sissy and make a narrative around her life.
The result was The Blocks, a short animated film about Sissy’s childhood that casts back to an earlier Dublin, dealing with fond memories as well as with the legacies of trauma and addiction passed on down generations.
For Whyte – who was a group member as well as a facilitator – it was important that The Blocks showed how the fallout from addiction can be felt through generations of a family.
Whyte grew up in the Fatima Mansions flats in the 60s and 70s, she says. The area was different to now, she says.
Many suffered from addiction and alcoholism, even if it wasn’t clocked as such. “It was never seen as being an alcoholic, it was seen as, ‘Oh, he likes a drink’,” says Whyte.
But people didn’t talk about how alcohol damaged home lives, whether by worsening poverty or neglect, she says.
“Then the hurt and pain that comes through that. Being a child and being very overburdened. Trying to make sure the mother was okay,” she says.
While the women in the group come from different backgrounds and areas, many of their childhood stories overlapped.
These stories are what make up the scenes of The Blocks, which was produced by Gowran.
Through animation, the women could work through issues and tell their stories collectively and with anonymity, says Gowran.
“They didn’t have a voice. They didn’t have an outlet for expressing their experiences that they had,” he says.
“We wanted to capture them and relate them in some way that felt safe and honouring and would also be supportive to other people who may have had similar experiences,” he says.
The ten-minute animation, which has its own trailer, is made up of vignettes from Sissy’s early life,. She plays with friends and minds her siblings.
Her mother fights with another woman over a washing line. Sissy tracks her dad down at the pub to try to get his wages before they disappear on drink.
The animation has striking imagery. In the pub scene, the men are depicted as glasses of alcohol of differing amounts. The final scene casts addiction and the hurt it can cause as a kind of shadow creature.
The Blocks is the first in a planned trilogy of animations focused on Sissy’s life. The next two parts aren’t made yet.
But they’ll deal with later parts of Sissy’s life, says Whyte. In particular, the struggles women faced in an Ireland dominated by the Catholic Church.
“They’ll show the way women were treated particularly around the church and sex and shame and things,” she says.
The animation is important to show what life was like for women and working-class families in that period, a part of Irish culture that is rarely discussed, says Whyte.
“That’s the way it was for us. We’re coming from a completely different era from what you’re coming from,” she says.
Rialto Community Drug Team is making a workbook based around the animation and its themes, says Alan Cleere, a project leader with the drug team. The hope is that it’ll be ready next year, he says.
It can be used alongside the film to discuss issues with addiction or with family support groups, says Cleere.
“It’s a very moving piece and it’s going to trigger a lot of things and provoke a lot of responses,” says Cleere.