Remember Me, My Ghost: Documenting Ireland’s Notorious Ballymun Neighborhood

Ballymun was meant to be a new start. Ireland’s largest social housing complex, built in the 1960s on a sprawling expanse of farmland just a half an hour from the center of Dublin, was built to clear out the last vestiges of Dublin’s inner-city tenements.

But the under-floor heating, constant hot water, elevators and large apartments were shining achievements for only a short time in Ballymun’s history. With no amenities in the area and no infrastructure development, Ballymun became isolated, it’s population booming and nowhere for the people to go. Over the subsequent decades, the area became Ireland’s most notorious public housing complex, immortalized in U2 songs as a tragic and grim place, rife with crime and drug addiction. The buildings were poorly maintained, the elevators often broken, the open land between the flat blocks foreboding and dangerous after dark. A main road divided the community into factions around which criminal gangs organized. By the end of the 1990s, enough was enough. The government and community began Europe’s biggest urban regeneration scheme, dedicated to demolishing all of the existing houses and redeveloping the area completely.

Ross McDonnell

From Joyrider. A boy stands before a bonfire.

My new film Remember Me, My Ghost came out of my experience photographing Ballymun for a project called Joyrider. That project began in 2005, in the middle of this regeneration scheme, when I stumbled upon a scene of post-apocalyptic abandon one Halloween night. Witnessing the transition of a group of rebellious young car thieves into a fully-fledged drug gang seemed somehow alien to Ireland, a quiet and at the time prosperous European outpost. But social alienation breeds these conditions in communities like Ballymun the world over. That truth inspired the project, on which I worked until 2008. In 2010, when the Joyrider photographs had gained recognition and I had completed my first documentary, I was encouraged to think about making a feature-length dramatic film. I went back to the area to gather material, with a commission from the Irish Film Board.

I returned to Ballymun happy that my idea had found support but apprehensive. I knew that the infamous ‘block’ where I had shot the Joyrider images was now gone and that the particular incendiary phase of youth that I had been privy to capture was now in the past. In my mind I understood that an audience wanted a film version of the images. But I knew this was impossible.

There seemed to be no narrative in revisiting the subject matter of Joyrider; no beginning, middle or end to the filming I undertook with my subjects. I decided to scrap all of the work I had completed and make a fresh start: in all my time shooting in Balllymun I had never touched on the feminine, domestic perspective of life in Ballymun, something I had always felt I missed out on in editing the hyper-charged, brattish imagery of Joyrider.

Abandoning my camera and using only an audio recorder I began recording interviews with the women of Ballymun.

All of the women I interviewed, more than 12 in total and from many different generations of women in Ballymun, were strong and courageous. Many of the stories I recorded were both heartbreaking and heartwarming. A community like Ballymun has always had its trials and tribulations—crime and drug use in particular were very public scourges in the neighborhood—but behind the closed doors in Ballymun I also heard many similarities in the stories of the women, stories of domestic violence, drug addiction and absentee fathers. In the classic Irish way the interviews were long, drawn out chats over cups of tea.

One interviewee however—Rachel—was able to tell her incredible life history with such clarity, in a way that stood out from everything else I had spent months searching for in Ballymun, that I felt compelled to use her story as the foundation of the film. Her story had narrative, a sense that having been through many terrible incidents in her life she had emerged on the other side to become a stronger person. With the audio edited I began filming again, asking friends and friends of friends to perform vignettes while I directed them. I was looking for moments that carried a feeling of connection to the story itself but also moments that were clearly not documentary images from Rachel’s life, drawing visual tangents between these different elements of the story.

At the same time the demolition company that was in charge of knocking down many of the remaining Ballymun tower blocks granted me access to the empty buildings to photograph and film in the empty spaces before and sometimes as they were being demolished. Each one of these places, although empty, was filled with the personality and the character of the people who had lived there. I felt privileged that I might be the last person to witness these places intact. Most are now gone, returned to dust.

The film Remember Me, My Ghost, by photographer Ross McDonnell, premiered at the Cork International Film Festival in November, 2011, and is screening at festivals throughout Europe this year.

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