Sunday, 10 July 2011
Blowing it all out of proportion?
I am currently on my second reading of 'Understanding Limerick', a collection of essays focusing on the problems that exist and have existed in Limerick for many years. Edited by Niamh Hourigan, this book is a must read for anybody living in Limerick with any form of social consciousness.
For too long Limerick has been a tale of two cities where the privileged have chosen to ignore the underpriviliged leading to a society where the isolated have found themselves in a spiral of hopelessness and despair leading in turn to a rise in criminality, drug abuse and gang culture.
On so many levels Limerick is a proud city. It is a historic city and a city that has so much potential. Hourigan’s edited collection of contributions from leading scholars in the field of Sociology, Social Policy, Criminology and Urban Geography is both enlightening and moving. It is inspiring and infuriating. It should be compulsory reading for anyone living in this city.
Hourigan quotes the journalist Fergal Keane, who worked in Limerick as a court reporter in the 1970’s:
‘The defendents were almost exclusively drawn from the city councils estates. Their crimes ranged from the theft of a church poor box to hideous gang rape. They were whey faced and thin, coughing from cigarettes. They were destined for jail followed by unemployment and jail again. The system regarded these young men with contempt and they returned the compliment. Meanwhile anybody who suggested the city’s crime problem might be getting a little out of control was roundly condemed. It was in Limerick that I first heard that favourite phrase of the politician: “you are after blowing that all out of proportion”. A journalist who hears that must realise he is on to something good. The reckoning for Limerick would come long after I left the city.’
One could suggest that Keane was writing in the not too distant past, just 30 years ago. Maybe our city has not had a long standing battle with exclusion, deprivation and social inequality. Perhaps those who got a little put out by Mr McCourt’s famous document are right. Perhaps we really are blowing it all out of proportion. Well then let's go back to 1909 and to the travel writer Thomas Johnson’s perception of the city, also quoted by Hourigan.
‘I could not help but wonder what strange notions of comfort the inhabitants of that city must have had to crowd their homes together in such a fashion when so many square miles of open country lay all round about. But, when I took a walk along those lanes and alleys , my wonder was turned to disgust when I found that these houses were not only crowded into congested areas but many were unsanitary and unfit for human habitation...Evidently on this planet it is not a crime to take advantage of a man’s poverty and make a profit out of a death trap.’
Strong language, eh? We all know what transpired when the powers that be realised that overcrowding was a problem. The pressure to respond to the problem resulted in a lack of thought out, joined up thinking. Entire communities were removed from their comfort zones and placed in the many square miles of country that lay just outside the city boundary. The development of Southhill (1967) and the construction of Moyross in the 1970’s was the result. Instead of creating a new sustainable local authority housing solution the Corporation simply focused on providing houses, bricks and mortar. No shops, no community centres, no schools, no bars, no pubs, no medical facilities, no heart, no soul. It makes one wonder what, in the name of God, they were thinking.
Comparisons can be made to that other farcical housing solution in Dublin – the ‘futuristic’ Ballymun development. You could be forgiven for forming a conclusion and saying the the cause of Limerick’s problems today was an inept authority with a lack of forward thinking. However we are where we are and no amount of dwelling on the past can show us the way to the future.
Over the past week I had the pleasure of being part of the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s Music Factory project. Music Factory is a summer camp the ICO runs every July, brings children together from across Limerick city and the region to have fun, whilst developing their interest in music and the arts. The camp is devised by ICO violinist Diane Daly and run by Diane, along with ICO education officer Kathleen Turner.
This year the camp took circus as a starting point, and developed a series of different plays, based on life in and elements of circus life. The children devised the stories, designed the set and created the songs and music.
Since 2008 the ICO has worked in partnership with Bank of America Foundation to help children develop their inventive skills, providing them with access to music and the ‘hands on’ experience of composing and playing musical instruments, encouraging talents that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. In addition, the project works to break down social barriers, bringing children from different backgrounds together to work to achieve common goals.
I had been aware of the excellent work Kathleen Turner does with various schools in regeneration areas around Limerick and remember being particularly impressed with the performances her children presented to the Dalai Lama during his recent visit to the city.
To be part of a camp where half of the children were from regeneration areas was a joy from start to finish. It was noticeable how the children came together as a whole. Friendships were made across all social spectrums. No one was excluded. What resulted was a week of happiness, fun, constructive group creativity and a sense that, for the week, all problems that these children may encounter at home could be forgotten. The Irish Chamber Orchestra must be commended for their work in this field.
Recently, on a visit to the city, the Minister with responsibility for arts and heritage Jimmy Deenihan commented that Limerick must focus on its excellence in the fields of arts and culture in order to move forward. This is exactly what 'Music Factory' and 'Sing Out with Strings' is doing.
Reading Niamh Hourigan's book we realise that the future must lie in the young people of Limerick. The same young children, all of whom have been touched by things with which even adults cound not cope. The same young children who can together compose a piece of music around the theme of forgiveness. If we can continue to get funding for projects such as Music Factory then maybe, just maybe, we can solve the issues that bricks and mortar cannot.