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From a 300-year-old doorway, Liz O’Connor and Mike Murtagh take in the view before them, the giant stone walls and overgrown nettle inside the former Marshalsea barracks.
“I used to have a horse in the stables in here,” said O’Connor, who runs a community group not far away in the Liberties.
Her son, like loads of other kids around here, wanted a horse. She was foolish enough to buy one, she says.
“I ended up having to look after it, coming up and mucking it out and cleaning her up,” says O’Connor.
Last Thursday was the first time O’Connor and Murtagh have seen inside the old Marshalsea, which is owned by the council, for more than a decade. Behind them, a group of people arch their necks to see through too.
A month earlier, the heavy steel door had been prised open. “It took a bolt cutters, a hammer and chisels, and three grown men,” says Austin Campbell, who heads up the nearby Robert Emmet Community Development Project.
But now a larger group has descended. They’re all members of the Community Organisations and Residents Network (CORN).
In late June, CORN won a place on the Irish Architecture Foundation’s Re-Imagine project, which means they have the opportunity to turn this historic structure into a much-needed community space.
“No one had been in there for years, so didn’t really know what we’d hoped to find,” says Pauline McAdams from the Bridgefoot Street Residents Association. “We can’t let this place go.”
“For the first time, people can actually see in,” says Josephine Henry, the urban planning and education advisor for Dublin City Community Co-op. “All their lives they’ve seen the wall, only very few people have seen in.”
Ideas for the Marshalsea have long ricocheted around the area. “Since a long time. Twenty year, isn’t it Liz?” says Murtagh, chairperson of Bridgefoot Street Residents Association.
“We need a building,” says O’Connor flatly. “Whatever’s put in here, it has to benefit the community.”
Steeped in History
The Marshalsea barracks were a spread of buildings around the Thomas Street area, says Cathy Scuffil, a historian-in-residence for Dublin City Council.
What is still standing was built in the 1700s to house a debtors’ prison, she says. “It was purpose-built. In it’s time, it would have been a state of the art prison structure.”
It was often the landed gentry of 1700s Dublin, living it up in the fashionable Liberties, who were sent to prison, she says.
It was relatively comfortable, she says, hence the handball alleys for entertainment. “There weren’t guards in particular. If you could sort out your bills, you could leave.”
Bad business deals, lost stocks in a sunken ship, or gambling misfortunes sent those pursued by creditors into the prison, she says. Often, they took their family with them to the barracks.
They would hide out until a rich uncle swooped in or the next shipment sailed up and debts were erased, she says.
These days, it would be known as bankruptcy. Back then, “it happened enough for us to have a fairly substantial Marshalsea prison located in Dublin city”, says Scuffil.
In the 1800s, it became a military barracks, she says. With the advent of the Free State, it became housing.
“Today, we would call this emergency accommodation,” says Scuffil. It housed council tenants behind on rent or people made homeless by building collapse.
Says O’Connor: “Families were actually put in there together, and children were born there.”
Some generations of these families still live in the area, she says, and her mother knew families reared in the former barracks. “It has a very strong connection to us.”
Most of the former barracks was demolished in the 1970s, says Scuffil. Just the grey enclosure surrounding the stone walls of the handball alleys still stands, smothered in nettles.
O’Connor fills in some of its more recent history. Three walls cut into the open space, creating three Gaelic handball courts.
Bored kids would play handball off its walls, she says. “It was very popular, because we had nothing else to do.”
Names are sprayed in white on the stone, Jay and Greg among them.
“That’s all their names on the wall. Most of them is dead. So we have to maintain that as part of the fabric – the history,” says O’Connor. “That’s the history of all the kids around.”
The force behind the current push to transform the Marshalsea is CORN, a local network of 46 groups in the south-west inner-city.
Campbell, a group member, applied to the Irish Architecture Foundation’s Re-Imagine initiative, funded by Creative Ireland and the Department of Heritage. The project was picked.
Bernadine Carroll, engagement officer for the IAF, said that the selection panel were really impressed with the groups themselves and the groundwork they had done.
“Their own passion and drive for work they’d already done, and also that the groups represented their community really well,” she said.
Under the scheme, Marshalsea’s new custodians get dedicated time with architects from the foundation to think creatively on new designs for the protected structure.
“We’ll meet the architect in the next couple of weeks,” says Campbell. “They’re going to provide us with an architect for ten and a half days over the next six months.”
Robert Parkinson, a town planner, stands in a clear patch inside the Marshalsea. Long nettles arch overhead.
He notes the old 18th-century stone walls and the single way in, as he muses on what constraints there might be.
“No better way to get to know your site than in the flesh,” he says, as he studies the walls and pulls his phone out for photos.
Henry, of Dublin City Community Co-op, said they’re just letting ideas flow at the moment.
“We’re not really looking at realistic,” she said.“Too often, with planning in this, it’s like, let’s do something on how realistic it is.”
“That’s the brief in anything when you begin here, it’s to reimagine it, to imagine what could be, while taking account of what is here,” she says.
Now the doors are open, Henry says she imagines a future beyond a debtors’ prison, or a barracks, or something authoritarian.
“But rather something that can actually help build a community. That’s the gift of being able to reimagine something,” she says.
O’Connor says the group is all on the same page. “We all want a building,” she says. “Whatever’s needed for further education, it can be done here.”
“If they were to dig down into the thing, you’d get a three-storey building here no problem,” she says.
“Easy, easy,” says Murtagh, leaning one arm on the doorframe. He imagines space for snooker, arts and crafts.
“To have somewhere, come in out of the park, come in here and they’re off the streets,” he says.
Kids at the moment just have the tarmac square in front of the Marshalsea to play on, he says. “Nothing else, and they’re on the road on their bikes, it’s too dangerous.”
Says O’Connor: “But it needs to be a centre for older people to come in and meet up and chat and do everything.”
“Oh yeah. Come in, have a coffee, and a yap. For the whole community, the whole Dublin 8,” says Murtagh.
Carroll says that funding will have to be sought for whatever avenue the Marshalsea goes down.
“They might decide that they want to preserve it in place and not do anything,” she says.
“And that’s gonna require a lot less money than let’s say, redesigning it and turning it into a new centre or whatever,” says Carroll.
For the Kids, and Others Too
On the tarmac in front of the Marshalsea, Kirsten McGrane wipes sticky ice-cream from her daughter’s hands.
She and her neighbours are sat in a circle of deck chairs, enjoying the weather, beside the parked cars and a kids’ goalposts.
“It’s a shame that it’s there all them years,” says McGrane, gesturing towards the foreboding steel door, locked since she moved into an apartment on Robert Emmet Walk.
“We’re used to it,” she says, “but it is an awful waste to know that there’s nothing here for the kids.”
Across the street, the new Bridgefoot Street park is close to done, with wooden climbing frames and swings, seats and grass – replacing a long-derelict council site.
McGrane’s neighbour, Sylvia Kennedy, leans forward with her hands on her knees, thinking of how the derelict barracks might be better used.
A community centre, she says. “So somewhere that we could bring the kids even, you know, when it’s raining, to do arts and crafts.”
McGrane points at the kids’ goalpost, in the centre of a small tarmac circle. “That’s where they play. That’s literally all they have. They don’t have anything, like.”
They could use a centre for Christmas parties, summer projects, sports days, she says.
“Like I know the park is getting built but it would be great if we had an indoor thing as well.”
Says Karen Johnson, another resident: “Even for the old folks, even for them to go in and have a coffee morning, or bingo.”
In the Meantime
Campbell and two helpers heave shut the rusty steel door and slam the latch into place with a metal hammer.
The door won’t be opened again until it’s replaced, says Campbell as he wipes his brow. The council has said it’ll put in a safer door in the meantime, he says.
Some people have noticed a crack in the concrete above the door. “That might be a nuisance,” says Campbell.
“That door is as old as Brian Boru,” says McAdams, with a chuckle.
At the Robert Emmet Community Development Project office, nearby, the group reflect on the state of the building and how it might be used short-term while the longer-term vision comes good.
They’ll need to figure out insurance, says Campbell. And “we might have to wait a couple of years until we get to acceptable planning, funding to build in it”.
There are constraints, says Henry. “Let’s be honest, there’s one way in, there’s planning issues, protection issues, there’s wildlife issues, we’ve just been discussing them, there’s rats.”
Given that the inside is overgrown and abandoned, it is a prime location for swifts and bats that need to be accounted for.
Community members could maybe get involved in a swift walk or bat-spotting evening, says Campbell.
The biodiversity officer could give a talk to kids in Oliver Bond and Bridgefoot Street, he says.
Says O’Connor: “You could even bring a group of little ones over to the bats as well and get them involved. They’re learning about the bees here.”
Others suggest a handball tournament, a haunted house for Halloween, a Christmas market.
“You get the double value of people coming in and seeing it, people having an activity in it, and then people coming out safely,” says Henry.