Speech at the opening of the Thornton Heights Housing Scheme
Inchicore, Dublin, 9th September 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends and residents of Thornton Heights,
Tá áthas orm bheith libh ar fad anseo. It gives me great pleasure to be back in Inchicore to officially open Thornton Heights, the attractive new dwellings that now stand in the place of St. Michael’s Estate.
I remember vividly the evening I spent here in April 2003. On that night we had a fireworks display to mark the move of the final residents from three of the old blocks. We celebrated the rich history of the lives of the residents of the flats, including the many stories they told against themselves: it was a wonderful exercise in people’s history from below.
That 2003 visit had not been my first, but that evening was special in that it extolled the use of art and culture in recalling the local folklore and imagining alternative futures. None of us could have guessed, then, that it would take another decade for the second phase of St. Michael’s Estate’s ‘’Regeneration Project’’ to be completed.
I wish to thank Mr. Finbarr Flood, Chairman of the St. Michael’s Estate Regeneration Board, who kindly invited me to share today’s happy event with you all. I am delighted to have this occasion to meet again with some of St. Michael’s Estate’s residents and those community activists who supported them throughout their long and testing journey, including my friend of so many years, Rita Fagan.
As most of you here know very well, too many draft plans for the betterment of this neighbourhood have been put on the table since the late 1990s without ever materialising. Too many new starts have been announced. Too many times have St. Michael’s Estate’s residents hopes been dashed, their work and efforts gone to waste.
There was a squandering of trust and of the hard-won relationships that had been forged over the years. The housing needs of the residents were left to the fortunes of speculative ventures. But that now is the past, from which – I hope – we have learned.
Today, therefore, it is both a relief and a great joy to celebrate the opening of the 75 apartments and houses that make up Thornton Heights. It is truly exciting to be gathered here together, among these new dwellings into which families have started settling over the past few weeks. The new inhabitants are already setting about putting their personal and family touch on their new interiors, and instilling new life in this place. Tréaslaím leo agus guím gach beannacht orthu ina dtithe nua.
“Regeneration schemes”, we must never forget, are not just about plans, structures or budgets. They are not just about the physical houses provided. They are about communities that are enabled to thrive and flourish. They are about people who are being acknowledged and encouraged to develop a proud sense of their identity, to nurture feelings of belonging that empower them to shape their present circumstances and imagine their future.
Indeed place-making, a sense of place, of home, of neighbourhood shared in solidarity and responsibility, is critical to our living together.
May I, then, congratulate all those involved in the design and completion of Thornton Heights: the teams in Dublin City Council, who have worked hard to devise the successive regeneration plans since the 1990s and who have shown resilience; the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, who made available the necessary capital funding under the National Regeneration Programme; the builders, architects and engineers who constructed these new homes; and Circle Voluntary Housing Association, who are taking care of the daily management of Thornton Heights.
But above all, I wish to salute the commitment and tenacity of the residents, tenants groups and local community associations. Indeed, the fact that the project we now see completed ever got off the ground is due in large measure to the perseverance and courage of the St. Michael’s Estate’s residents, and to the work they conducted through various organisations, such as the “Blocks Committee”, as it was called back in 1986, and then through the St. Michael’s Estate Task Force.
I want to pay special tribute to the staff and volunteers of St. Michael’s Family Resource Centre, who deserve so much credit for having consistently provided essential support and services during those decades that saw the Estate’s social fabric come under pressure: the arrival of drugs in the area and the attendant misery and suffering, the slow decrepitude of the tower blocks, all circumstances that made daily life so challenging for many of the residents.
May I, finally, commend the members of the Regeneration Board for their dedication in ensuring the delivery of this important housing scheme. The successful completion of Thornton Heights is testament to the spirit of the community and your determination as a Regeneration Board to overcome the difficulties placed in your path.
The Regeneration Board is also to be commended for its emphasis of the historical significance of this corner of Dublin city. As you know, this place used to be the site of an old British army barracks called Richmond Barracks. The building was renamed Keogh Barracks by the Irish Free State. It later came into the possession of the Dublin Corporation and was used to house Dublin families who were on the local authorities’ housing list. The Corporation built Keogh Square, which was demolished and replaced, in the early 1970s, by St. Michael’s Estate.
Today’s site still harbours the remains of three former army buildings. All of them are listed buildings, and one is of particular significance as it held the 1916 leaders prior to their detention in Kilmainham Jail.
I salute the work undertaken by St. Michael’s Regeneration Board, in conjunction with a local Inchicore Heritage group, in bringing to light this lesser known chapter of the 1916 story. I know that you are hoping to find a place in the upcoming centenary celebrations, and I wish you well in your endeavours.
Amongst those who were briefly incarcerated in the Richmond Barracks following their arrest in 1916 was Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton, a physician and distinguished member of Cumann na mBan, whose name was given to this new housing complex. And although I must admit that I quite like the old name, I am delighted that you elected a woman as the new patron saint of this place. There are still too few streets, buildings and public amenities bearing the name of women in contemporary Ireland.
Brigid Lyons Thornton was a remarkable woman who is remembered both as a rebel and a doctor. After her implication in the Easter Rising and her release from prison, she continued to work for the welfare of the Irish citizens. Of all her achievements, the most remarkable is perhaps her fight against tuberculosis amongst the poor in Ireland, and her role in pioneering a BCG vaccination scheme in the 1950s which contributed to ridding Ireland of the plague of TB. The residents of Thornton Heights can rightly be proud that the name of such an inspirational woman is associated with their home.
I was told that this choice of name was suggested by some of the local women, and I wish to avail of this occasion to salute the women, who played such a crucial role in fostering the regeneration project, and who, at a broader and deeper level, did so much to keep the community together throughout the difficult years.
And now it only remains for me to wish the residents of Thornton Heights – both those who previously lived on St. Michael’s Estate and the newcomers to the community – a happy future in their new homes. As I visited one of the houses earlier this morning, I was pleased to see that the new dwellings have been designed with enough space for families to live and grow – that they have high ceilings, spacious and bright rooms, and good insulation. There are even solar panels on the roofs that harness the heat of the sun to provide power to the common areas and storage areas.
This new residential community also includes a crèche with a playground, several other playgrounds for children of various ages, and a community facility. I was particularly delighted to see that the homes are grouped around a courtyard. The square, as a public space, is such an essential feature in facilitating and promoting the forms of sociability that define the city across Europe: may this courtyard be the site of many encounters, conversations, exchanges of stories and children’s games.
You have a beautiful new place; I have no doubt you will make it thrive and give it its distinct identity. I wish you all the very best for the future: may you lead long and prosperous lives in your new homes!
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.