News, Stories | 01 April 2021

Discovering the city with The National Neighbourhood

The National Neighbourhood group during their final session, January 2021

The National Neighbourhood group during their final session, January 2021

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The National Neighbourhood builds cultural projects with communities, connecting artists, groups and villages with libraries, museums and creative places across Dublin City.

We have been bringing people together through a series of online exploration projects with our cultural partners and artists - discovering all that the city has to offer, and keeping us connected through creativity and conversation.

The latest call to join the next round of The National Neighbourhood is open now, and it will begin on 22 April. You can find out how to get involved here. Below, writer Colm Keegan, who worked with the latest group, tells us about his experience of The National Neighbourhood.

Dublin 2020

Dublin 2020. We’ve all just turned on our devices. Laptops, tablets and phones shine the light and colour of several homes into our eyes, each of us sitting alone, silent, expectant.

We are participants in The National Neighbourhood - a random selection of interested Dublin residents who’ve joined up for a weekly discussion with Dublin City’s cultural institutions. It’s facilitated by Evan from Dublin City Council Culture Company, with me as a supporting artist. My role is to tag along and spot creative possibilities, whatever and wherever they might be.

Finding favourite phrases

In the first week we have an icebreaker, we say hellos and then we begin. I invite everyone to share their favourite phrases, explaining my fascination with them and how I see them as evidence that Language belongs to us. It is malleable, it is ours.

Here are some of the phrases:

Get out of that garden - get up the yard - up to my oxters - shurrup you ya bleedin thick - banjaxed - if you had two heads you’d be twice as stupid - don’t be acting the maggot - scarlet for ya - waitress at the last supper - he’s so gorgeous he’d be robbed on ya - youz and yiz - are you casting astertions on me - durty looking ibex - pardon me for speaking, I just fell off a hearse - not being funny, but - you’re grand - hold on chicken - bye bye bye bye bye - as handy as a pocket in a shirt - lovely hurlin - go ‘way - c’mere to me - how’s your redneck? - head the ball - howya Mary how’s your pains

“Hold on Chicken” strikes a chord with Alexandra, a participant who tells us that in Romania a similar phrase is used as a term of endearment for small children.

Lighting the way at 14 Henrietta Street

In a dark Georgian tenement over a century ago. A small child wants to run down the stairs. It’s late, it’s pitch dark and he’s scared, so he does what a lot of kids did back then. He takes a match and sets a piece of paper alight. When the flame takes hold, he drops the paper and runs down the stairs. The flame at the centre as he spirals down towards earth. This is how the poor lit their way back then, Gillian explains.

Gillian is our first host at our next stop, at our next week - we're "at" the social history museum at 14 Henrietta Street. The burning image hangs in the air and in us. It’s one of many, a constellation of histories, that intersect with our own as we go on.

A question - what’s so resonant about the finite life of that light? And that young boy I wasn’t present to see, but somehow exists now, in me?

Visual thinking at the LAB

Another week we’re at the LAB, applying visual thinking strategies to the work of Iraqi-born artist Bassam Al-Sabah.

Knowing we were going to the LAB I had suggested a short exercise at the beginning, inspired by a line from Kerrie O Brien’s poem, Notre Dame.

“eyes closed filling my heart with the warmth of it until my body was sunlight and roses and the fear fell away in petals.”

It's a beautiful poem of ekphrasis - unpunctuated words paying tribute to a lone moment, and how the light of art can make our bones sing.

We bathe in the light of Al-Sabah's work. We wonder. We discuss.

We learn from his viewpoint, and from each other. His work is beautiful, it shimmers, sparkles of joy, echoes of war.

Explosions at the National Archives

Another week it’s the National Archives, we learn of the Four Courts explosion where the old archive was destroyed during the Civil War, the records of our country mostly blown to smithereens. (Smithereens comes from Smiodar incidentally, a tiny Irish word that’s worked its way into English like a splinter). We muse on all that doesn’t survive.

At this session we learn that Orlaith, (a participant) would like to know the history of her new home, the 150 year old cottage she lives in, and “who else looked out the window I look out everyday.”

The image of the woman at the window, like the flame, falling through time. What if all those people at that window had written something down, what if they’d stored what they’d seen in some way? She could have it in her hand now.

I start to think of the participants as archives. A line comes to me. “Don’t let the image die with you.” A paraphrased imperative I’d heard from New Zealand writer Ashleigh Young, coupled to an anecdote of seeing herself reflected in a gilded mirror once. I drop her a line.

She tells me that the image of the mirror was actually from one of Natalia Ginzburg's pieces, which to Young (a brilliant essayist) illuminated something about writing and the things you hold on to and let go of. This becomes the creative opportunity. What do we want to pass on? The question is asked. The answer recorded.

Making sacred spaces

Each week we move through buildings in this way, entering into special, even sacred spaces without leaving our homes. We move through art and ideas, they move through us. We get to know each other. We are taken away from how restricted we are during the lockdown.

Each week, the group does some writing. We get a bit vulnerable, we laugh, the odd tear is shed, we bond.

A gentle nudge here, a small push there. Always the creative imperative. Slowly we become something together.

In the National Concert Hall we learn of the Bluebell Project, a previous National Neighbourhood project led by artist Sean Millar. We watch videos of participants getting up on stage, their poetry and literary creations elevated by the National Symphony Orchestra. We are inspired.

An agreement is made, to collaborate further and make something of and from ourselves together. Watch this space.


Colm Keegan is a writer and poet from Dublin, Ireland. He has been shortlisted four times for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, for both poetry and fiction, and he won the All Ireland Poetry Slam for his spoken word. His first book “Don't Go There” was released in 2012 to critical acclaim. His latest collection “Randomer” is out now and available from Salmon poetry.

In 2014, he was awarded a residency in the dlr LexIcon, Ireland’s largest public library. He was also the writer in residence for Carlow College St. Patricks in 2019.