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seven towers The stunning images from Ireland's greatest social housing disaster

Photographer reveals stories behind his stunning shots of real life in the Ballymun flats

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 Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

It was the greatest social housing disaster in Ireland's history - one which promised new beginnings for countless tenement families but became ground zero for the heroin epidemic.

When the State ordered the demolition of Ballymun's seven towers to make way for new housing it hoped to wipe away the mistakes of the past, but one of the country's most promising lensman was there to record the end of an era.

Now, 16 years later, the Emmy-award winning filmographer Ross McDonnell has published a collection of iconic black-and -white images taken after he wandered into a concrete wasteland on a Halloween night.

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Portrait of photographer and filmmaker Ross McDonnell by Rich Gilligan

Portrait of photographer and filmmaker Ross McDonnell by Rich Gilligan

Portrait of photographer and filmmaker Ross McDonnell by Rich Gilligan

The book, Joyrider, documents the coming of age of a group of teenage friends in the abandoned flats, which had become their playground as they emerged into adulthood surrounded by the embers of a community ravaged by unemployment, drugs and crime.

McDonnell who has gone on to work on renowned documentary investigations into Mexican drug cartels, Honduran people smugglers and who has won numerous awards for photography and film across the world, says he learned his trade in Ballymun after a chance meeting in 2005 with a cheeky young teenager who invited him to a bonfire.

In an interview for this week's Crime World podcast, McDonnell, from Howth in Dublin, talks about his work in Ballymun as he captured images which he collected over a number of years as he became an observer of life on the edge.

"I had been abroad for a couple of years and I was very taken aback by the Celtic Tiger atmosphere in Ireland.

"I felt I hadn't really engaged with my Irish identity and now that I was sort of growing into my practice as a photographer, I was really trying to capture what I felt was disappearing," he said.

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 Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

"I was trying to follow in the footsteps of street photographers that I really admired and respected and I was trying to get a project together, to go down the rabbit hole in Ireland.

"I was travelling to Donegal, to Ballinasloe to capture this sort of days of being wild, Irish pubs traditions. I did some work in Fatima Mansions before it was knocked down and I was just really rolling around with my camera.

"I had studied in DCU so used to get the 17 bus past Ballymun all the time, not really thinking it was a place that I would create work in. But when Halloween came about I knew it would be a good place to go for bonfires and all those traditions - for bangers, rockets and air bombs I suppose.

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"And I went and the big towers were coming down and there was a big event and a lot of people sitting on couches in front of the blocks watching these big fires. And I was there and a young man came up to me and he said if you want to see what is really going on you should follow me."

McDonnell did follow the teenager, who led him around to one of the blocks at Balcurris and introduced him to a group of friends who had a car they were using for handbrake turns and to joyride in.

The meeting marked the beginning of a long friendship that has survived to this day.

While some of the group didn't mind their photos being taken, McDonnell treaded carefully and over a period of years earned their trust as they slowly pulled back the curtains to show him what life was really like in Ballymun.

Often they stole tools from nearby building sites and broke into vacant flats, many still furnished with contents which belonged to the families that once lived there.

Some were shooting galleries where tragic addicts were being introduced to crack cocaine and methamphetamine as the ever greedy dealers saw ways of making even more money from their illnesses.

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 Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

Image from Ross McDonnell's book 'Joyrider' (2021)

The group played around the blocks, scaling the balconies sometimes to the top of the towers, swinging from windows and trashing doors and empty flats.

All the while, McDonnell's lens shuttered as he realised he had captured something that would one day be completely gone.

One iconic picture is that of a silhouette of a child wearing devil horns and taken that first night in front of a raging fire. Others show cars flying through the air, drugs being cut and figures kicking around the empty concrete buildings.

"The poet and playwright Dermot Bolger wrote to me once with the best line about Ballymun. He said it was 15 storeys high and a millions stories deep. It resonates so much," says McDonnell.

The pictures that McDonnell captured featured in Time magazine, the New York Times and toured the world in exhibitions and features but 62 of them now make up Joyrider, a stunning collection of the black-and-white images.

Joyrider is available from rossmcdonnell.com and galleryofphotography.ie.

Crime World is available wherever you get your podcasts.

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