This is the twelfth in a series of blogs on 'Spatial Justice in Dublin 8' (SJD8 #12), as a contribution to Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022.
Geography is interdisciplinary and open to the world. From activists in Inchicore, we learned of issues that are geographical and spatial, but that are much broader than the purely academic (see Duff, SJD8 #9; Brophy, SJD8 #10‘). When we, as a class, visited Kate O’Shea’s studio in Rialto, it opened up my mind to the world of art and in the links it might have with the discipline of human geography. We sat in an extremely colourful, vibrant artistic space as we listened to Kate speak about her work, as well as take part in writing activities which allowed us to open up about why we were doing this course. All in all, it made for a positive change of scenery which allowed us to engage in our studies through an artistic lens, and consider art more deeply in our studies (see Till, ed. ‘SJD8 #13: ‘Art and Spatial Justice in Dublin 8′ and SJD8 #14: Artistic Activist Responses to a Wounded City’).
Kate’s work with Common Ground has allowed her to engage with the community of Dublin 8 and instigate a wider discussion about the ways artistic practices can communicate effectively the problems faced by the communities of this area. Upon further research, I have realised that art is an incredibly useful, powerful and creative medium in which to bring about social change.
Art, Geography, and the Family Resource Centre
Over the past two decades geographers have broadened their interest in the arts, beyond painting, and indeed, beyond the visual arts in general to embrace a wider range of creative practices (Hawkins, 2012: 52). More specifically, politically engaged or ‘activist’ art has become increasingly important in characterising a new direction in the production of art, following major global events which brought us into the post-colonial era (Mesch, 2013: 1). The tradition of activist art owes much to the legacy of Joseph Beuys, as described by Lerm Hayes and Walters (2011, cited in Till, 2012: 5) who write about Beuys’ belief that art is inherent in human work. This notion of grounding art in everyday life helped me appreciate the work of Kate O’Shea with the Family Resource Centre (FRC) in Inchicore, as addressing legacies of marginalisation and violence. Karen Till’s (2012: 3) work on ‘wounded cities‘ helped me see the ways that the trauma of past periods of exclusion and broken promises are passed down through generations to shape life chances and expectations in the present.
The work that the Family Resource Centre does contributes to a sense of well-being, amongst a community that once lived in a place that could be viewed by many as ‘wounded’. The Family Resource Centre was set up in 1986, by a number of local women, including Rita Fagen, and a Sister of Mercy, all of whom lived on St. Michael’s Estate. It was established to respond to the ongoing difficulties of poverty, deprivation and marginalisation that was occurring in SME (Bissett, 2008). The FRC’s Annual Report of 1999 (cited by Bissett, 2008: 33) gives the motivation for creating the centre: ‘the growing inequality, poverty and exclusion, which characterise Irish society are linked closely to the structures by which our society is organised’. The FRC addresses these injustices and inequalities by taking action, while involves those groups that experience exclusion, ‘ie. Women, the unemployed, the working class, the gay community and travellers’, and believes that working with these groups is essential in order to bring about social change (ibid). All of this work is carried out as a distinct approach to community development advancing social and structural change (Family Resource Centre, 2020). The work is also carried out from a ‘position of solidarity’ with people from the locality (Bissett, 2008: 34).
When we spoke to Rita Fagan (2021), I asked if the same sense of community existed amongst the FRC members, compared to when St. Michael’s Estate (SME) was still in existence. She said she believed there was a very strong community spirit, stating that you can’t expect it to be the exact same as it was before, but that residents were still very much connected. Undoubtedly, the FRC is having a positive impact on upholding the friendships that were made between residents when living on the Estate, and carrying those connections on today, even in a more dispersed community.
TIll (2012: 5) argues that if neighbourhoods of a city are wounded through displacement and other factors, so too is the city itself and its citizens more broadly (ibid: 5). This can be seen in the demolition of SME. Although this decision was ultimately favoured by the former residents, there is still trauma to be found in the landscape, with past memories of drug abuse, crime and urban deterioration lingering. This sense of a wound is a product not only of the political neglect that had caused the estate to appear so toxic to many residents, but also of the failure of the planning authorities to deliver on a promise of good-quality family housing nearby so that the community could have reconstituted itself (see Duff, SJD8 #9: ‘Activism and Housing In/Justice in Dublin 8‘).
Kate’s work with Common Ground and the FRC takes up the difficulties of making a caring environment for residents in a ‘wounded city’. Till (2012: 11) suggests that artists and residents of wounded cities teach one how to ‘attend to past injustices’ that continue to shape current urban processes, such as planning and styles of governance, and how to use the area’s past as a valuable resource with which to imagine a different urban future. In our readings for ‘GY607: Field School’, we also looked at Mouffe’s 2007 essay on ‘Art and Democracy’ and related it to Kate’s work. Mouffe (2007: 1) asks whether artistic practices are able to play a crucial role in the current societal climate, in which the differences between advertising and art have become blurred and are difficult to tell apart, and in a society in which cultural workers and arts have become an essential part of capitalist production. Mouffe sees public space as an arena for competing powers, and asks how artistic practices might undermine hegemonic powers in public space. She expresses a personal view that artistic practices can aid resistance against capitalist domination.
This activism is reflected in many of the pieces in Kate’s studio. Through Kate’s work, we can see that art gives a further voice to express their passions, concerns and protests of local communities against urban injustices (see additional images in SJD8 #13). In contesting the hegemonic powers at play in Dublin City, and confronting the challenges of poverty, gentrification and the legacy of urban trauma, the residents of the former St. Michael’s Estate – as represented by the Family Resource Centre – find an ally through the artistic practice of Kate O’Shea.
Artist Kate O’Shea and the Family Resource Centre
From running her own social space/café in Kerry at 19 years old, to creating an artistic space in Rialto that is welcoming for groups such as ours, it is clear from speaking to Kate at her studio, that her art is very much focused on community. Understandably therefore, the collaboration between Kate and those at the FRC was a perfect pairing. Kate’s work with Common Ground has focused greatly on spatial injustices in Dublin 8. She was awarded ‘The Just City Counter Narrative Neighbourhood’ artistic residency award by Common Ground in 2020. Through this residency award, she has established a number of significant artistic projects. Kate’s focused response to the ‘Just City’ involves collaborating with local activists, academics, urban planners and artists in Ireland and abroad, thus reinforcing her use of a community focus for her work (Common Ground, 2020a). Her focus on community can also be seen in a letter she writes detailing her ‘HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH’ project, in which she explains her main passions which include but are not limited to ‘the production of social spaces, collective food making and sharing’ (Common Ground, 2020b).
Another initiative set up by Kate was ‘The Just City Reading Group’, which she created during the 2020 lockdown, which brought together people from all corners of the world to discuss issues of housing and displacement, among other issues (Common Ground, 2020a). This shows the integration of the Dublin 8 community into important global discussions.
Rita Fagan, founder of the FRC, writes that: ‘[a]rt in all its forms is a Family Resource Centre’s value’ (cited in Family Resource Centre, 2021: 2). This is clear from the FRC’s engagement with Kate in recent years. The FRC has done an impressive job of linking up with a wide array of different groups. For example, the FRC takes up labour and broader social struggles and Kate worked on a banner for FRC’s involvement with May Day (Figure 4). The FRC has a particular focus upon women and last year, the FRC worked with Kate to make an International Women’s Day card – made up of photos of International Women’s Day events that have been run in the community by the FRC in previous years (Figures 5 and 6). They also collaborated on a short film with the help of filmmaker Joe Lee (see Brophy, SJD8 #11: ‘Geographies of Violence Against Women and Creating Safe Spaces in Inchicore‘).
Every year, the FRC engages in the 16 Days of Global Action Against Gendered Based Violence Campaign, and in 2020 along with a host of participants, including artists Joe Lee, Kate O’Shea, and musicians Vivienne Long and Miriam Cahill, created a short film set in Goldenbridge Cemetery, which focused on remembering the 236 women that have died as a result of violence perpetrated against them by men, since figures began recording in December 1996 (Family Resource Centre, 2020: 14). This is a powerful example of how art can help to bring a harrowing story of violence to light, in a way that is accessible for all.
It is clear that Kate’s connection with Common Ground, and with the FRC in particular, has brought about positive change and a new way in which the SME community can frame and react to social issues. As the community deals with the regeneration of this land, it will be important for artistic practices and thinking to continue to be a part of the community’s response. It is also important more generally, that as the discipline of geography progresses, that we remember that art has a significant link with human geography (see Till, SJD8 #1 ‘Sustainable Communities and the Publicly-Engaged University‘).
— Isabelle Fitzgerald
Isabelle Fitzgerald is a MA Geography student at Maynooth University. This blog developed from an essay written for a postgraduate Geography module, ‘GY607: Field School’, taught by Professors Till and Kearns, Semester 1, 2021.
Thank you to Professor Karen Till for helpful feedback and suggestions for this essay, and also to Professor Gerry Kearns for editing help to make this a publishable blog. Thank you also to Kate O’Shea for inviting us to her studio for our final class, as I learned firsthand about the power of art.
Bissett, J. (2008). Regeneration: Public Good or Private Profit?. Dublin: Tasc at New Island. 33-34.
Common Ground. (2020a). The Just City/Counter Narrative Neighbourhood Artist – Common Ground. [Webpage] Available at: https://www.commonground.ie/the-just-city-counter-narrative-neighbourhood-artist/ (accessed 22 December 2021).
Common Ground. (2020b). A Letter from Kate. May 5th 2020 – Common Ground. [Webpage] Available at: https://www.commonground.ie/a-letter-from-kate-may-5th-2020/ (accessed 22 December 2021).
The Family Resource Centre (2020). The Family Resource Centre CDP Newsletter.
—–, (2021). The Family Resource Centre CDP Newsletter.
Fagan, R. (2021) Guest lecture and class conversation. For: GY607: Field School (Maynooth Geography postgraduate module taught by Professors Karen Till and Gerry Kearns, Semester 1, 2021), 12 November. Dublin: St Michael’s Estate.
Hawkins, H. (2012). Geography and art. An expanding field. Progress in Human Geography, 37(1), pp.52-71.
Mesch, C. (2013). Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945. London: I.B. Tauris, p.1.
Mouffe, C. (2007). Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space, onlineopen.org. Available at: <https://www.onlineopen.org/art-and-democracy> [Accessed 22 December 2021].
O’Shea, K. (2021) Goldenbridge Cemetery, 2020. The Early Days of ‘HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?’. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/RumpusX (accessed 22 December 2021).
Till, K. (2012) Wounded cities: Memory-work and a place-based ethics of care. Political Geography, 31(1): 3-14.