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John Bissett enters the blue meditation room of St Andrew’s Community Centre with his hands full.

On a nearby table, he plops down a neon-orange cable-knit hat, a balled-up red rain jacket, a pair of gloves, a half-demolished bar of 70 percent dark chocolate, and tea — black, no sugar — in two stacked paper cups.

Once seated, he stretches out and crosses his legs at the ankles. “Alright? How’s it going?”

The centre, an ornate terracotta red brick with granite keystones and a sheet-metal spire, has been his place of work on and off for over 30 years.

In a past life, the building was a Methodist church, he says. Hence the high climbing ceilings, and hexagonal shape.

Now, the building houses community groups including his working space for the Canal Communities Regional Addiction Service (CCRAS), where he works as community worker.

In his spare time, or when he can get a day or two off, Bissett assumes the role of sociologist and researcher, writing and publishing on issues like housing, class relations and capitalism’s effects on local communities.

His latest book, It’s Not Where You Live, It’s How You Live: Class and Gender Struggles in a Dublin Estate, published by Policy Press, continues on these themes.

It tells the story of an urban social-housing estate in Dublin and the lives of those within it.

“[It’s] really a book about conditions,” says Bissett, with a long, pondering stare into the distance.

“It’s saying, these are the conditions that people live in, and these are the ways they struggle against these conditions,” he says.

It’s How You Live

The observations within the book were gleaned over six years from 2014 to 2019 in Bridgetown, the fictional name given to the estate to protect the identity of participants.

Bissett embedded himself in residents’ daily lives. He trailed them to the hairdressers, the bingo, or to the religious-run charity houses where they would stock up on free food.

“I kept going, kept linking in. Still in the day job, and I’d go over there, I’d sit with them,” he says.

The fleeting nature of the estate gave Bissett the impetus to write the book. “They’ll be gone soon,” he says of the flat complexes which are in the process of being evacuated, and its residents scattered, to make way for newer buildings.

He wrote this book, in a way, for posterity, he says. To capture what life was like for residents at this moment in time.

The story starts on the steps outside Maxine’s flat – “a social orbit” in the estate, as Bissett tells it – where cigarettes, cups of tea, and tips on navigating the social-housing list are traded. She’s lived in Bridgetown her whole life, we’re told, first with her parents, and later as a single mother with her own children.

On this particular occasion, Maxine’s kitchen tiles are being replaced by a council maintenance man, who tells her, “You can have any coloured tiles you like as long as they are white”.

The anecdote serves as a salient reminder that Bridgetown residents are, as Bissett sees it, trapped in a social structure that plays out through lack of choice — whether in seemingly innocuous home-decor decisions or those that loom larger in life.

In another part of the book we meet Frank, a construction worker and former union strike leader in his 50s, out of work after the industry collapsed during the 2008 economic crash.

Through much perseverance, Frank manages to get a labouring job on the new housing going up on the Bridgetown site. But he is quickly appalled by what he sees as bogus employment practices, dwindling wages and deteriorating terms and conditions.

“I met him last week,” says Bissett.

“And he said to me, ‘You made me out to be some sort of a radical’ and he was kind of happy,” says Bissett, leaning over to take a single square of dark chocolate and a sip of tea.

“And I went, but you are radical actually. And you have been radical all your life.”

There are moments of light in the book too revolving around working-class Dublin vernacular.

Phrases such as “Is your mammy in? Is your daddy working?” and put-downs like, “I wouldn’t get a kick in a stampede,” are captured and committed to paper.

Bisset found it difficult putting it all together, “I was saying ‘What do I do with these things where two sisters were sitting together having a smoke saying, ‘Remember me ma used to fucking say the Marrowfat peas, the Dairygold butter and the Premier milk’”

He’s not sure what, if anything, the chapter on language means, he says. “Other than we talk like this, we say these things, we have a bit of craic.”

Break From Dominant Narrative

The book’s title came from organic conversations with different residents on the estate.

“‘It’s not where you live, it’s how you live,’ was really told to me as a way of saying, ‘We have dignity, we have respect, we have pride’, right?” he says, through squinted eyes and raised eyebrows.

“So the how you live of dignity, pride and respect comes up against the how you must live under 21st-century neoliberal capitalism,” says Bissett.

There’s real pressure to break under those conditions, he says. “There’s pressure on it in all sorts of ways and lots of people break under it.”

John Bissett. Photo by Stephanie Costello.

Disturbed by how the dominant narrative of social housing is framed through a lens of disadvantage and deprivation, Bissett wanted to put forward another thesis.

“People have much richer lives, and they’re much more textured, and deep and emotional, and full of care, and struggles and heartbreak,” he says.

The residents of Bridgetown, he says, are not the atomized, isolated, fragmented entities he sees portrayed through the media. “They are related into larger Irish society, through class and gender mechanisms that’s shaped over time, currently, and historically.”

“There’s not that much work in Ireland that does this,” says Bissett, whose glasses rest atop his crown, pulling back his neck-length brown hair to reveal prominent sideburns.

“I’m not saying I’m going to be the best at that,” he says.

Kathleen Lynch, professor emerita of equality studies at University College Dublin (UCD) and author of Care and Capitalism: Why Affective Equality Matters for Social Justice, says she thinks Bissett is uniquely placed to tell this story.

“He was an activist on the ground, who was reading and writing and intellectualizing his work, and trying to bring that back into the community to inform,” she said, on the phone recently.

She’s known him for over 20 years, she says. First through community development work and then through his scholarship. Acting as a mentor of sorts, she helped with funding and reading drafts.

Lynch was drawn to this work, she says, “to contradict this narrative that everybody who lives in public housing or social housing is kind of living in a pathological condition”.

She put her stamp on the book by insisting it consider gender. “That is one little battle I did have with John,” she says playfully.

“Class isn’t singular in its manifestations and working-class women’s experience is not identical to that of men,”she says.

For Lynch, it was impossible to ignore the fact that women predominantly occupy social housing. In the case of Bridgetown, 70 percent of residents are women. “Women do the care work, women are left holding the baby.”

“You Just Fall into Things”

Bissett left formal education in 1981 before completing his Leaving Certificate, which, he says, not many people did back in those days. “I was probably going to get thrown out anyway,” he says.

Raised in Dolphin House flats as one of six siblings, he got an apprenticeship in the Irish Glass Bottle factory in Ringsend, which tided him over until curiosity got the better of him, he says. He packed it in and headed to Australia in search of adventure and work.

There, he got his first taste of trade-union activism, working in construction in 1986 with Welsh ex-pit miners on Darling Harbour, Sydney.

“I ended up being the trade-union delegate,” says Bissett. “Don’t ask me how, you just fall into things.”

It wasn’t until an injury in Canada in his mid-20s that Bissett started to question whether there was more to life.

“I kind of damaged my back by carrying a big limestone windowsill up these stairs in this really rich people’s house in downtown Toronto,” he says. “I said, this is such a mug’s game, construction.”

He came back to Dublin and enrolled in a bachelor’s programme in English, philosophy and sociology in Maynooth University out of, he says, a desperation and a yearning to know if there was more to life than he had so far experienced.

“And it was just an explosive experience,” says Bissett, “in terms of education.”

It was there, he says, that he became class conscious, reading about themes such as “alienation, you know, political economy, class, status”. He reams off a long list of influential sociologists and academic theories.

Supported by scholarships and his job in community work on the side, he stayed in the formal education system for another 10 years, doing a master’s degree and then completing a PhD in UCD in 2000.

“He’s just full of energy and full of ideas of thinking that things are possible,” says Jim Lawlor, the former manager of Rialto Youth Project, who worked with Bissett for decades on literacy and arts-based projects.

Since then Bissett has worked on various initiatives including organising as part of Housing Action Now, and writing his first book, _ Regeneration: Public Good or Private Profit?_, about the regeneration of St Michael’s Estate in 2009.

“Whatever it is, I’m dogged,” he says.

The “Organic Intellectual”

Out of the meditation room and around the back of the centre, through a series of labyrinthine corridors and a fire escape, sits a steel shipping container that Bissett calls his office.

“They leave me alone out here,” he says.

On his desk, a dog-eared copy of Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, and an empty packet of crisps, crumpled up and thrown in the bin as he sits down at his desk and opens up his email.

There are many historical reasons why “working class” is considered a dirty word in Ireland, he says.

“Historically, the Catholic Church attacked socialism,” he says, “Noël Browne, public health reforms, ‘We’re the people who provide supper and support and we do it through the work of God’, right, as opposed to ‘Let’s institutionalise a welfare state.’”

Lynch, the UCD equality studies professor emerita, says she thinks it is a sad reflection Ireland that Bissett doesn’t work in academia. “He was essentially the organic intellectual.”

“He doesn’t suffer from the hubris of the elite, which you meet in a lot of scholarly people, unfortunately,” she says. “He has humility about him, he listens to what people are saying.”

Above Bissett’s head at his desk, a large poster depicts the major Greek gods. He had no inclination to become an academic after his PhD, he says, “Nobody said anything to me that ‘You know what, you might be good at this.’”

An email comes through his inbox. It’s from an academic website that tracks citations.

“There’s some John Bissett who writes about molecular cell analysis, right?” he says, “And they keep sending me emails – ‘Please view you 3,560th mention’, and you go ‘No, it’s not fucking me.’”

Stephanie Costello

Stephanie Costello is a freelance reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She covers community news and the jobs beat. To get in contact with her, you can email her on

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