One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen this year was at the Drop Everything festival on Inis Oírr in May, when the opening event centred on a new amenity for young people on the island. The person who runs the festival, Mary Nally, had contacted the skateboarder Philip Halton, and he and others crowdfunded the construction of a mini ramp on the island for local children to use. Before the ramp was built, young people on the island had no skate facilities. “All they had was a road,” Halton told me, “and that’s not safe.”
If Inis Turk can claim the most picturesque setting for a GAA pitch in the country, Inis Oírr now has the most spectacular backdrop to a skateboarding amenity in Ireland. With the ramp complete, groups of children and young people tested out what they had come together to design, build and now use. Watching them skate, you could see their smiles, ambition, and skills expand in real time.
When I spoke to Halton last week, he had just landed back on Inis Oírr. Halton is the founder of Goblin Magazine, director of the Irish Skateboarding Association, and is also involved in Skate D8, which is an advocacy group for integrating play and skateboarding in Dublin city. He was brimming with positivity about what the young people on Inis Oírr had achieved: “It was entirely designed with their input and what they wanted to see. They were given a sense of involvement. They really felt the achievement, because they were the ones advocating for it. I’ve seen them become confident, and get over fears not just in skateboarding, but using lessons from skateboarding in other parts of their lives. The local community has been so grateful and supportive. It just shows the positive impact skateboarding can have on a societal level.”
Back in Dublin, skateboarding was raised at a Dublin City Council South East Area Committee last Monday. One of the items on the agenda was a presentation on the design of a public space at Portobello Plaza in Dublin 8, which has been closed off for some time because of a hotel development. This is a hugely important space for skateboarding in the city, and Dublin’s skateboarding community has been advocating for their needs to be incorporated into the design. They’re not asking for much, just to be able to continue to use the space.
A number of councillors posed questions about the inclusion of young people in the development of the public space, and touched on remarks that some residents didn’t want skateboarding facilitated there. Claire Byrne from the Green Party queried whether there was going to be an open design competition for the space. Her party colleague Hazel Chu prodded at the generalisation of residents’ opposition to skateboarding, saying not all residents were consulted and not all fed in. She argued that, therefore, saying a “majority” of residents don’t want skateboarding “may actually be a bit of a stretch”.
But the most passionate speaker on the matter was Fianna Fáil councillor Claire O’Connor, who pushed back at the broadness with which residents’ concerns were being represented. “I’m really struggling with this concept of why skateboarding wouldn’t be favoured by residents,” she said, “Is it the case that residents have difficulty with the noise levels of young adults skateboarding? Because I’d imagine they only skateboard in the daytime and not in the dark, cold winter nights. We are desperately trying to encourage people to be outdoors, to be off mobile phones, to be not drinking or taking drugs, to be engaged in sports to support their mental health. Is it the case that residents simply don’t like the sound of something? This really perplexes me. I think on balance of those two rights, we have to favour young people.” O’Connor is correct. As she said, residents don’t have a right to an area in the middle of the city being silent. Public space is for everyone.
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Street skateboarding is at its very essence a dialogue with the public realm. It’s a creative act that reimagines paths, ledges, bollards, steps, curbs and gaps, and responds to them in a mode of expression. Skateparks – such as the fantastic Weaver Park on Cork Street – are wonderful, but there’s also room for less expensive, more open, multi-use spaces that are skate-able. For over 15 years, this small pocket of the city has had a thriving skate culture. This culture is not limited to skateboarding, but all of the artistic expressions that flow from it, including filmmaking, apparel and board design, visual art and, most importantly, community.
When it comes to utilising public space, teenagers and young adults tend to be viewed with suspicion. Simply hanging out is often characterised as loitering. Framing skateboarding as a noise issue or a nuisance is a bizarre approach to young people engaging in an uplifting, creative activity that also happens to be an Olympic sport. We should be striving to make as many areas of the city as possible skate-friendly, not hostile. The skateboarding community deserves more, because wonderful things can happen when their simple needs are met. Just ask the kids of Inis Oírr.