It’s hard to believe how important Tallaght was to the historical development of Dublin city – at least it was hard to believe something like that when I grew up there. Nowhere seemed further from the dense, decaying streets of the city centre in the 1980s than Tallaght, with its vast and oppressive open spaces threaded with sinister-looking electricity pylons that you could hear a low buzz from when you stood beneath them. Tallaght, with its anonymous industrial estates seemingly dropped in the centre of housing developments – estates that, in turn, seemed to stretch for miles without end. Tallaght seemed like nowhere.
Tallaght never seemed part of Dublin, to me. It was distantly flung to the far south-western corner of the city, as if banished from the urban centre for some obscure crime. It was divided from Walkinstown by a large tract of farmland that subsequently, much later, became a park and a motorway. The road from Tallaght to the city – at least the one I was most familiar with – was the Greenhills Road, which runs along a high embankment between Kilnamanagh, where my family lived, and the roundabout at Walkinstown. As you travel north along the road, factories and warehouses stretch out below you to the left, as far as the eye can see. In the distance you can just about see the white papal cross in the Phoenix Park, but, at least from that perspective, that’s the nearest visible green space.
On our bus trips to the city – usually me, my brother and mother, on a 77 bus whose upstairs windows tasted of tobacco smoke when, one rainy day, I wiped my hand on the fogged glass, then licked it – you’d be introduced to the oddly fractured urban planning at work in the city, before reaching the snug terraced streets of the Liberties, the bus taking a sharp hairpin turn at the end of Cork Street before catapulting around the corner down the Coombe, past the disembodied doorway to the old hospital, preserved like an old limb in formaldehyde. Across from St Patrick’s Cathedral, a Dublin Corporation rubbish tip, where street cleaners dumped the refuse they collected along the city’s streets. The inner city intrigued me: it seemed everything Tallaght wasn’t.
Only later did I find out that Tallaght was flung there on purpose. Or at least part of it was. The extensive council estates located to the west of the village were, in part, the city’s response to a long-overdue need for proper social housing to allay the slum conditions in the inner city. Other building followed, as empty landscapes filled up with housing built by private developers on acres of rezoned land.
In the mid-60s, a master plan had proposed the development of a number of new towns in the west of the city, of which Tallaght was one. This expansion formed the western suburbs as they now stand, kept outside the city proper by the boundary of the M50 motorway, which serves as a link between suburbs, and to the roads out of the city.
When the M50 was being built, I still lived in Tallaght, and, before they had laid the road surface, I used to ride my BMX along the flattened earth of the motorway, as far, nearly, as the current interchange in the shadow of the quarry at Firhouse. At that point, there was an urban legend that a local gangster had buried a bag full of money from a robbery somewhere under the road. I cycled along, thinking about it: if you were to start digging, where would you begin? The roadworks were vast, and, by comparison, a bag full of stolen money seemed so small, no matter how much of it there was.
When they had put up a wall along the edge of the motorway, I was still drawn there – the strangeness of this incursion into everyday life had not yet abated. A small stream ran from the estate in Kilnamanagh under the M50. I was intrigued by the way a new concrete riverbed had been constructed to divert the river below the road, and I often pottered around there in the sunlight, watching the water trickle away into the darkness of a moulded cement tunnel. It was surrounded by a grubby scrubland pockmarked with spiky bushes and broken concrete blocks – the detritus of road-building. Discarded, presumably used, condoms could be seen here and there. The stream disappeared under the motorway, and I still don’t know where it emerges.
I went to school at the top of the Greenhills Road, near Tallaght village. Across the field – an open space, really, bordered on one side by an industrial estate, on the other by the Bancroft housing estate – was a small river that smelled like chemicals, but had a rich and intriguing history. The River Poddle had been Dublin’s first municipal water source, and ran from an unspecified source beyond the Belgard Road. It was spliced with a canal that drew water from the River Dodder further downstream, and supplied water to the city for many years. It had become notoriously polluted due to its path through teeming slum areas with virtually no sewage facilities, and had also been used for waste drainage by the tanneries in the Liberties, and, wisely perhaps, it had ceased to be used as a source of drinking water.
When you were out in the field, and you were a primary school child sweating in your uniform on a summer day, you smelled the river before you saw it. It ran down behind the cigarette factory that stood on the other side of the Greenhills Road, before running under the road and through a ditch that directed it eastwards towards Templeogue. The sweet smell of tobacco being rolled into cigarettes wafted across to the school most days – usually in the summer months when the windows were opened in an effort to cool the classrooms.
My abiding memories of Tallaght focus on how separate it seemed from the rest of Dublin. This was partially because of limited public transport, but it was also undeniably physically separate. It still is, to a large degree, thrown off to the edge of Dublin by some powerful centrifugal force.