Roam just four miles north of the Liffey and the frenetic buzzing of boomtown Dublin gives way to the hollowed-out urban desert that is Ballymun. Known affectionately as The Mun, Ballymun flats is the most flagrant example of Irish social planning gone awry. In the late 1960s, seven fifteen-story towers, each named for an Irish revolutionary, were built on farmland near Dublin Airport. The government’s plan was to clear out inner city Dublin’s tawdry, teeming slums, but it provided the area with no infrastructure–no jobs, no stores. Ballymun’s decline was swift and dramatic.
Dublin burns on Halloween night. Each year, as the Irish pagan celebration of the dead is revisited with firecrackers and gasoline-stoked bonfires, the lurking menace of the city is uncorked. In 2006, Ross McDonnell was photographing one such blaze when he was approached by a kid in a tracksuit drinking a bottle of Budweiser.
“Here mister, you want to see something mental?” the kid asked. McDonnell was escorted to a derelict building known as The Block that local teenagers had transformed into a “mix of Mad Max and New Jack City.” From that night, McDonnell began documenting the lives of the youths who grew up in shadows of Ballymun’s towers, inside crumbling buildings and the surrounding wasteland, where cheap thrills and illicit rituals turn boys into men. “These pictures document the transition from anti-social behavior to criminality, from childhood to adulthood without a ‘youth’ in between,” says McDonnell.
Nothing quite typifies this abandon like the nightly pursuit that gives this piece its name. In practice, joyriding involves robbing a car from one of Ballymun’s housing estates, racing it down residential roads while dodging stoplights and Garda cars, before finally burning it beyond recognition. There is no material gain in joyriding, only the sheer, fleeting pleasure of speed and destruction. McDonnell envisions joyriding as a philosophical response to life lived in the cracks of Irish society. The subjects of these photos are “kids who are willing to dive into a world of drugs and guns, kids without any fear of prison, of fatherhood, of violence,” McDonnell says. “It’s a short life, a joyride all the way.”
The stakes have gotten higher in recent years. Drug abuse has festered in Ballymun almost as long as its towers have stood, but a shadow criminal underworld has exploded almost in tandem with Ireland’s vaunted Celtic Tiger economy. The block will get rich or die trying. Here, in black & white, McDonnell has captured the desperation of Dublin’s underclass.