Straight outta Sheriff Street: A love letter to inner city Dublin

Gemma Dunleavy told David Hennessy why she wanted to celebrate her Sheriff Street community and also about the realities of being from a disadvantaged area that gets no help and still feels the effects of the heroin epidemic of the 90’s.

Singer-songwriter Gemma Dunleavy describes her debut EP Up De Flats as a love letter to where she grew up in. Celebrating the Sheriff Street area of Dublin, it also aims to challenge the preconceptions people have of it. Mixing the genres of garage and R&B, the EP was Gemma’s response to the planned developments that she says will destroy her community. Each track is about a different character or stereotype associated with the North Wall community that was ravaged by the heroin epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s and that Gemma says is still feeling its effects.

Gemma, who is also a film-maker, told The Irish World that the EP actually started as a documentary: “I wanted to make a time capsule of my area because there’s big developments going on here and we’re not going to be able to fight against it because permission has gone through.

“I was so angry and frustrated and upset about it because I don’t want to lose our community so I was like, ‘I can’t sit back and do nothing. I can make a time capsule of what our community is now because I can see it dispersing by the months’.

“And while I was doing the documentary, Dr Martens reached out to me and said, ‘Look, we would love to support you doing a project. You can do whatever you want. We’ll support you doing it’.

“I was like, ‘Unreal, that’s brilliant’. My head wasn’t in music. Music kind of felt fickle to me almost, sitting there writing songs, working on a release when I had actual, real problems in my sitting room that I felt like were a whole other priority.”

Sheriff Street residents have been concerned about two planned 13- storey tower blocks. Gemma says it is an area that gets little and that is why she is able to make things happen for herself. She also says it is a place where people help each other.

“I was kind of like, ‘Do you know what? This is an opportunity for me. I can use Dr Martens as a platform to shout about the things that I wanted people to be listening to for years and years and no one ever, ever listens to us down here. No one does: Not the authorities, not the politicians, not the media, the police. No one listens to us. Especially not anyone who isn’t working class, they all think that we deserve to be this way because we’re spongers or whatever. This was an opportunity for me to be like, ‘Here, this is how rich we are, we are so rich in character, in community and I want people to know that’.

“That’s how it came about. It was all very unplanned. I think if I didn’t go into this blindly, I wouldn’t have done it. I just would have felt like it was such a big task. That’s why it feels so surreal to me.

“I think I was just in such a state of frustration over my community being torn apart that I just became a vessel for the stories really. I went into the project not even looking at it as a music EP, I looked at it as five personalities, five different people and I was going to tell their stories. I was going to become those characters for each song and I was literally to step into that character and tell the story based on experiences that I’ve had with those particular stereotypes or characters: Some of them are people I’ve been, some of them I am, people I’ve lost, people I’ve loved, people I still have in my life now. It was very, very cathartic for me as well to be able to give the voice and give the other side of the coin to some of the negative stereotypes. That was so important to me.

“We were left to rot since the heroin epidemic here. We were left to rot by the authorities. They just left us in a bubble, ‘Leave them to it’ kind of thing. Everyone got sick and tired of just being ignored and it wasn’t just being ignored looking for houses. Kids were dying. Young kids were dying of heroin addiction, there was a lot of suicides, there was a lot of crime. There was serious, serious things going on. People weren’t looking for handouts or freebies, they were desperately looking for help. If you came down to the flats in the 80’s or the 90’s, it looked more like a prison than a playground.”

Sheriff Street gained a bad reputation when the streets of Dublin were flooded with drugs in the 80’s and 90’s. Although the drugs problem is now less obvious, Gemma has seen the harm drugs can do firsthand.

“That’s something that was kind of normalised to us growing up. Drugs got into the flats in the 80’s and wiped out a lot of young people and that didn’t die out with the 90’s. It stayed there. When drugs stopped littering the streets so much, it didn’t really stop littering our community. I had friends that I would have lost to drugs when we were in our 20s. That’s kind of mad to think of all the opportunities that one person can have. They just slip through the net and that’s all it is.

“I never had any opportunities handed to me. I worked for everything. I was very determined and I always had a lot of high energy. I also wonder if I wasn’t determined and I didn’t know what I wanted to do maybe that high energy would have gone somewhere else. It could have ended up going down the wrong road and I do feel privileged and lucky every day that I had that sense of purpose from a young age. I know that energy would have gone elsewhere and where I live elsewhere wasn’t a good option. Elsewhere was the norm of hanging around the streets and getting caught up in the stuff that a lot of my friends got caught up in. A lot of the faces that I’ve had to say goodbye to over the years. That’s hard. I know that even as teenagers we were just lucky to not slip through the net. So many people in our community slip through the net and it wasn’t because they had less money or they were less fortunate or whatever. It was literally just luck and pure chance and time.

“When you grow up in a society where you are taught to just accept that you’re left by the wayside, no one stimulates you that you’re just left to your own devices, sometimes the easier option is the one you go to because you’re so drained from looking at people around you suffer that you just go, ‘What’s the point?’ And I think it is an awful shame but I also think the people who are in those situations and don’t slip through the net are so determined that they will not stop.”

Although it may be an area that is associated with drugs and crime, Gemma says Sheriff Street has great community spirit such as neighbours helping each other.

“There’s a line in Up De Flats, ‘We had nothing but we had it all’. If you look back at some of the documentaries from Sheriff Street in the 90’s, we had nothing. The children’s playgrounds were burnt out cars but that was literally all we needed because we had the best community around us and we could make gold out of dust. We’re still like that now. We’re so resourceful down here. We’re so helpful with each other.

“One of our neighbours died over two years ago now. She had six kids and you should have seen our community. She had terminal cancer, she was only 40 and our whole community pulled together. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. We raised hundreds of thousands for her, the whole street was turned pink. We had a parade for her. We did literally everything and our whole community was devastated when she passed away.

“I’m so proud to be able to have that let alone to be able to write about it.”

Gemmas says it makes little difference to residents there which political party is in power.

“I heard on the RTE news the other day, ‘We are in recession’. Working class people don’t even realise we came out of the recession. We have been in a constant recession our whole life.

“I think it’s a great privilege to understand what left and right wing is in politics, to understand which party is the good one or the bad one. We don’t care whose left or right, the people around here are not looking at people’s deeper policies. They’re literally looking at, ‘Who was around here to help me when my son was on drugs and he needed a drug programme? Who was around here to help me when my child wanted to go to college and didn’t know what steps to take and who was the one who helped such and such a person get off the streets?’ They’re the problems that we face down here. We don’t have time or the capacity or the space in our brains to be looking into policies.

“Unfortunately down here, it doesn’t even come into people’s heads who’s looking after the arts, who’s looking after the infrastructure, the roads. That’s a great privilege to be able to sit and think about that.

“Imagine your son will never get a steady job because he has a heroin addiction or your daughter has been trying to get on her feet from the day she got her first child at 18 and now she has four of them and she’s on her own. You want to put people in power that you know have that sense of community ingrained into them that they will help people when they’re like that.

“Growing up, I didn’t know what left or right was. I just knew what was good and bad. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know that good existed in politics or authority.

“Years ago down here if someone broke into your house, you didn’t ring the police. You got even because the police didn’t help you. You had to fend for yourself and that’s ingrained into a lot of people still.”

Gemma says that in the past anyone from the Sheriff Street area interviewing for a job would have to give a different address if they were to have a chance.

“It’s not like that now. But it’s only not like that now because you wouldn’t get away with that now. Nothing has changed with the mindsets. When I was growing up, I was going to ballet with different classes and I was constantly neutralising my accent because I knew that I would stand out for the wrong reasons.

“The worst kind of snobbery and discrimination comes from middle class Irish people and it’s not all of them at all but unfortunately, most of it that I witness is from people in Dublin. I think Dublin is such a classist city and it’s so sad because maybe the people who are discriminatory are trying to protect themselves because I think if they actually took a step out and came into the more inner-city communities, they would realise that we are far more rich than they will ever be and it’s not in money, it’s in grit, it’s in character, it’s in the sense of community, in spirit. It’s in togetherness and that is something you can’t teach. It’s something that money can’t buy and I think a lot of people that have money they’ll never really understand what it’s like to have that because that’s the kind of thing you only get out of necessity. It’s the kind of thing you only get when you’re on your back and you need people.”

Gemma spent years in Liverpool and studied music at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. She speaks very fondly of the city and her time there.

The EP has earned much attention in the media but the reaction that meant the most to Gemma was that of her own community.

“That has been the best thing. When I say I had no expectations with this release, I really, really didn’t. I wanted to give a voice to my area but I didn’t really think about how it was going to go down with music critics or anything like that. The most important people to me were the people in this community. Ultimately, it was their stories I was telling.

“I shot a video for the song and all the community got out. All the kids in the community, all the adults came out. We had a few drinks, a big party all on the road. Everyone was going around singing the song. I was like, ‘Do you know what? I just feel so blessed to have these people around me. I’m looking at all these people and I’m like, ‘I just love this area so much. I love everyone here’. And then I had this moment where I’m like, ‘Gemma, all these faces that you’re looking at, they all raised you. They’re all the ingredients that make you up’.

“That makes me feel so rich inside, it makes me feel so fulfilled. It probably sounds airy fairy but it’s very real to me. That’s exactly how I feel.”

Up De Flats is out now.

For more information, click here.

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