On Saturday afternoon, two men led their horses along the edge of the slim, winding road just outside of the M50, a kilometre or so north of Charlestown. 

A pair of cyclists slowly tailed each other along the road. Meanwhile, cars slipped by, close, one after another.

Later, Fezeka Kanu picked her way through a trail of horse poo on the footpath next to the road as she strolled towards the bus stops.

Kanu and her son have lived in the Balseskin Reception Centre on St Margaret’s Road for a year and a half. “I don’t have a stranger in my room, thanks to God,” she said, smiling broadly.

The Balseskin centre – open since 2001 and with space for more than 530 people – is where newly arrived asylum seekers are first processed before they are sent on to other centres. In recent times, though, people have been staying longer and longer.  

For residents of the centre, getting out and about on daily errands, whether to church on Sundays or down to the shops, isn’t always easy.

At an area council meeting on 7 September, Labour Councillor Mary McCamley, who represents the Mulhuddart area, asked officials if there were any plans to improve access to the centre for people on foot, bikes or public transport. 

There’s only a footpath on one side of the road, and it’s narrow and disappears totally in one direction from the centre, McCamley said. It’s difficult for wheelchair users to cross the road to the bus stop, she said. 

“Cars drive very very fast down this road because it’s coming from the airport, and they speed around the bend there,” she said. “It’s very frightening.”

She had been contacted by a few people on behalf of residents there, she said. “There’s a lot of things that they need, and they haven’t been asking, and that’s why I think it’s so important.”

In a written response, a council official pointed generally to how the Fingal Development Plan promotes walking and cycling. 

The road is part of the planned Greater Dublin Cycle Network too, says the response from Paul Carroll, a senior council engineer. “But there is no provision within the current Fingal Capital Plan for this proposal.”

At the meeting, a council engineer mentioned a few small changes the council may be able to make soonish, while it draws up the next capital plan.

Standing in the rain

The bus stops on St Margaret’s Road are poles rather than shelters. 

Kanu, the resident who lives at the centre with her son, says that’s not ideal. It rains a lot this time of the year, she says.

During downpours, their umbrellas flake, she said. “If they could help us with a shelter here,” she said, gesturing to the road that leads to the city.

The stop for buses headed towards the city is on the other side of the road from the centre, the side without a footpath. There is some space in a small opening that leads to the gates of a muddy farm field.

Maybe there’s just not enough space for a proper bus stop with a roof, says Kanu. “Maybe they just can’t do anything.”

The bus stop near the reception centre. Credit: Shamim Malekmian

A spokesperson for Fingal County Council said that the issues around public transport access fall under the National Transport Authority (NTA). 

A spokesperson for the NTA said it doesn’t have any plans to provide bus shelters at those stops for now. 

“While its desirable to provide bus shelters at all bus stops, many locations are not suitable for the installation of bus shelters due to space constraints,” they said. 

There’s little footpath space available for stops on St Margaret’s Road, they said. 

Also, NTA statistics from 2019 showed that few people were using the outbound bus, said the spokesperson. “One passenger per week.”

More used the inbound stop in 2019, they said. Buses picked up around 10 passenger a week there, they said. 

But again, the lack of a footpath and “suitable apron” connecting the spot mean it isn’t a great location for one, they said. “In addition to the presence of an adjacent access point to the lands located behind the stop.”

What’s needed

During the meeting on 7 September, McCamley, the Labour councillor, said wheelchair users at the reception centre struggle to cross the dangerous rural road in Balseskin to reach one of the bus stops. 

“The ramp is far away from the bus stop, and there’s no path on the bus stop side,” she said. 

People who contacted her are asking for traffic-calming measures like speed bumps and lowered speed limits, she said. “Wider footpath or, in the interim, hedges being trimmed,” she said. 

Bike lanes would be welcome, too. “The road is very narrow there, I don’t know how they could do that”, she said. But cycle lanes would be good as the centre is looking for a shared bike scheme there, she said.

McCamley also asked for CCTV cameras to be installed, for security, especially outside the reception centre. 

And, Fingal County Council should build a footpath in the direction of the local Applegreen petrol station, where the residents often go, she said. 

Other councillors spoke in support of her motion and the need to make sure residents in the centre aren’t isolated.

Pamela Conroy, a Green Party councillor, said she noted that the officials’ response said there was no capital-plan money for this proposal.

She wanted to know off the back of the discussion whether it could be included in the next capital plan.

Gerald Curley, a council engineer, said that the next capital plan would be brought forward later this year. “It’s something that will be considered.”

In the meantime, the council can look at trimming back some overgrowth along the footpath, he said, and look at putting in a dropped kerb to help people cross to the bus stop on the other side.

They are also looking at doing a speed survey on the road, he said. 

The Sunday service

Public transport is a problem too. People can’t come and go as they like, especially on Sundays, said Kanu.

There’s a dedicated bus service for the centre that runs from 8am to 4pm, she said, counting with her fingers, eyes closed.

But on Sundays, it starts running at 10.30am and stops at 1pm. Sundays, Kanu said, they need the 83 bus the most.

But “Route 83 does not serve this stop on a Sunday”, said a sign elevated on the yellow pole at the stop.

 “It doesn’t come at all,” says Kanu.

She and some other women at the centre like to attend the service at the local church, she said. “And I like to do my shopping on Sundays because it’s quieter.”

But the bus that runs on Sundays drops them off at Charlestown Shopping Centre so they have to stagger back to the centre carrying their groceries on foot on the slim footpath. 

According to Google Maps, that takes about 17 minutes.

A man leads a horse on the footpath outside Balseskin Reception Centre. Credit: Shamim Malekmian

On Saturday, a woman wearing a long blue shawl strolled gently towards the centre, putting her shopping bag on the ground and picking it up again, changing hands, over and over again.

“I mean, we need it,” said Kanu.

Kanu says workers have recently fixed one patch of the footpath that was muddy and messy to cross on, though, and she was happy to see that.

A spokesperson for NTA said it plans to replace the 83 bus serving Balseskin during 2024 with a route 24 bus, which would run from Dublin Airport to Merrion Square. 

“Running seven days per week, every 20 mins Mon-Sat and every 30 mins on Sundays,” they said. 

During the council meeting, McCamley said a few times that residents in the centre rarely ask for anything.

Despite the problems, Kanu, like other residents at the reception centre, is afraid to complain, she said. She was reluctant to put her name to her grievances.

Kanu worries that saying anything negative would impact her future prospects in the country, she said, like when she eventually applies for citizenship.

Life at the centre isn’t bad either, and she’s thankful to the government for that, and for allowing her to build a life here, she said.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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