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Wood Quay veteran, hero of the Liberties: John Gallagher's death has deprived Dublin of one of its champions

Gallagher, who passed away recently, kept Dublin and the Liberties in his heart.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

THE DEATH OF John Gallagher has deprived Dublin of one of its great champions. A former Deputy Lord Mayor of the city, Gallagher was a veteran of the Save Wood Quay campaign and many other battles to preserve the heritage of the city, in particular the south inner-city which he knew so well. John Gallagher was, as the song would have it, “as Dublin as could be.”

He was born in the hungry years of the 1930s in one of the last old Weavers houses of the Coombe, and the promotion and preservation of the history of Dublin’s Liberties would remain one of his great passions throughout a long and active life.

In his 60s when he was interviewed by Kevin Kearns for his landmark study Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums, he remembered there was a stigma associated with the area, as “at one time to mention that you lived in the Liberties around the Coombe, that was the lowest place to live. Now the Liberties is very famous, but back then down the Coombe, you had tenements, terrible poverty.”

Dedicated to the Liberties

Many readers will no doubt remember him from the tireless shifts put in at the Liberties Community Information Centre on Patrick Street in the 1980s, where together with a team of enthusiastic volunteers he helped local people – from the elderly to the young and unemployed – untangle red tape and gain access to whatever supports were available to them.

As chairman of the Liberties Association, Gallagher was a leading light in the heroic campaign to save Dublin’s Viking heritage at Wood Quay. The decision to construct offices – and Civic Offices no less- on the founding footprint of the city led to demonstrations, as well as the occupation of the Wood Quay site by protestors, in a daring occupation known as Operation Sitric, in honour of the one-time King of Viking Dublin, protestors, including the writer James Plunkett and architect Michael Scott, seized the site in June 1979 in an attempt to stop construction.

Writing in Wood Quay Operation News, the very-DIY publication of the protestors, Gallagher maintained that in relation to the local community, it was “houses these people want, not office blocks or a dual-carriageway, that turn communities into dangerous traffic islands. If you care about Dublin and the inner-city, support the Save Wood Quay group, who by their efforts are trying to make our capital city a more pleasant place to live in the future.”

Wood Quay was a crushing defeat, but there were victories too. The saving of local landmarks, including the Tailors Hall, now home to An Taisce, was brought about by the same spirit of activism. That time of wanton vandalism of the built heritage of Dublin – often by those who were supposed to protect the city – was perfectly captured by journalist and author Frank McDonald in the title of his study, The Destruction of Dublin.

90342684 Counting the Votes. European and Local Elections 2014. Pictured Labour supporters and brothers John and Michael Gallagher from the Liberties in Dublin at the RDS in Dublin for the Count of the European and Local Elections 2014. Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie Source: Sam Boal

Dublin for Dubliners

The functionality of the city – and questions of just who the city was being laid out for, and who it was designed to serve – greatly concerned Gallagher. In the 1980s he was involved in the Dublin Inner-City Games, which highlighted the absence of sporting facilities in inner-city Dublin. Houses, he insisted, “are no good unless there is space for recreation for the children who live there.”

A reporter who walked the Liberties with Gallagher when researching the games was amazed that he was constantly mobbed by the young, children and teenagers, who recognised the level of work he did in trying to provide amenities for them.

Gallagher utilised the local political structures to draw attention to the issues facing his community – he stood for election to Dublin Corporation in 1985 specifically to highlight the heroin crisis gripping the south inner-city.

He became the rarest of things in Dublin – a broadly popular local politician – and utilised his council seat over many years with the Labour Party to highlight issues of great local concern in the Liberties.

Historical preservation remained high on his list, and he was particularly passionate about the saving and restoration of the Iveagh Markets, which are sadly still currently in a state of limbo.

Not one expense filed

It was reported in 2013 that Gallagher’s council expenses for the previous thirteen years stood at €0.00, Gallagher telling the Evening Herald that “I don’t broadcast the fact that I don’t claim expenses. It’s a decision I’ve stuck with over the years and it’s one I believe in personally. I feel I have independence as a community worker when I don’t claim expenses.”

It was a cruel twist of the current pandemic that the people of the Liberties could not line the streets that Gallagher fought so hard for over many decades to see him home on his final journey.

Singer Imelda May posted that “He was a huge part of my childhood and my local community… I remember watching him cycle off to swim in the sea as he did every day. He swore it was the secret to long life.”

Gallagher lived a remarkable and long life, and a glance at it shows us the incredible personal stories that can exist behind the numbers in the current Covid19 tragedy. His death notice on rip.ie notes that “when the current public health crisis has passed, John’s family look forward to welcoming you to a celebration of his life, which will rival the funeral of Daniel O’ Connell!”

Certainly, there will be much done in the Coombe and the Liberties when normality returns to honour one of the greatest champions of an area that represents the beating heart of the Hibernian Metropolis.

Donal Fallon is a historian and broadcaster. He produces the Three Castles Burning podcast, dedicated to Dublin history.

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Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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