In a diverse area, the Deaf community of Dublin 7 is thriving

In 1846, a little girl called Agnes Beedem made history. She became the first student enrolled in St Mary’s School for the Deaf. St Mary’s, located in Cabra, was the first school in Ireland to provide specialised education for Deaf children.

For nearly two hundred years, a Deaf community has formed around the school and expanded into the surrounding area of Dublin 7. Dublin’s west inner city is a melting pot of communities and cultures – the Deaf population in the area is rarely mentioned, but, you’ll find it’s one of the strongest and most culturally rich communities around the area. 

Gillian Byrne (left) and Gabrielle Kelly (right), both Deaf, socialising at Mad Brothers Sign Language Café Photo: Sarah Donoghue

When St Mary’s was set up it was only a school for girls, however, in 1849, they began to accept boys. The school continued to be co-ed until 1857, when it was separated into St Mary’s School for girls, and St Joseph’s School for boys. This was the beginning of the community that persists to this day.  

Today, there are 12 different organisations dedicated to supporting Deaf needs in the area, as well as the beating heart of the community, Deaf Village. Sylvia Nolan, the manager of Deaf Village Ireland and someone who has been a part of this Deaf community since birth, explains that Deaf people in the area “have access to a wide range of services tailored to their specific needs – whether it’s education, employment assistance, healthcare, or social activities.”  

Deaf Village is home to many of those services, including Chime, a charity supporting Deaf needs, HSE mental health services, and Irish Sign Language (ISL) training and registration. On the social side, the village is home to a sports centre, a hub for socialising and relaxing, and Ireland’s only Irish Sign Language (ISL) cafe, Mad Brothers.  

Cabra is a place where Deaf people fully embrace their culture. “They can freely use ISL and immerse themselves in Deaf culture, that provides them with a supportive community where they can communicate and interact comfortably,” Nolan says. 

List of organisations based in Deaf Village Ireland Photo: Sarah Donoghue

Deaf culture and other disability cultures are often disregarded or forgotten as cultures by able-bodied people. But this community has a palpable culture that is difficult to overlook.

“Sometimes I feel like they don’t understand it because they’re not aware of it. But when they’re exposed to it, they do appreciate it,” Maggie Owens, a Deaf teacher at Holy Family School for the Deaf, told me.   

Most of the community are very proud of Deaf culture, a lot of them come from Deaf families and have been immersed in the culture since they were born.

“The deaf community, its culture, its language – Irish Sign Language is so beautiful and its richness in culture is second to none,” Nolan says. “It makes me so proud to be a part of it and it enables me to embrace my identity as a deaf person with pride.” In Cabra, “Deaf culture is embraced and respected.”

The community is filled with both Deaf families and Deaf people from hearing families who moved to Cabra for the facilities. The area “provides a unique and supportive environment tailored to the needs of the Deaf community,” said Nolan.  

Along with the facilities, many people move there simply to connect with their community. “Deaf individuals often feel a strong sense of belonging and connection within the Deaf community. Being part of a community where Deaf culture is understood and celebrated can be empowering. [Deaf people] are more likely to feel a sense of identity and acceptance, which can positively impact their well-being and quality of life,” says Nolan.

Owens, who lives in Kildare but works in Cabra, says the social life here “makes me feel more normal. I do wish we were next door to connect more.”

Amy Hanna (left), and Ryan Connolly (right) working in Mad Brothers Café Photo: Sarah Donoghue

In 2016, St Mary’s and St Joseph’s joined together into Holy Family, a new mixed school for Deaf children. Deaf schools have been pivotal in the history and expansion of the deaf community. Many children who went to the school choose to stay in Cabra, among the community they’ve already made their home, after graduating.

“The experience of attending Holy Family School can create strong ties to the local community, fostering a sense of belonging and connection that encourages them to remain in the area,” says Nolan.  

They also make friends at school that they keep into adulthood – friendships that define the atmosphere of the community.

“The presence of former students in the community contributes to a tight-knit and friendly atmosphere. Staying in the area allows them to maintain relationships with classmates, teachers, and other members of the community, which strengthens community spirit,” Nolan says.

Owens herself is an example of this, she joined the community when she began attending St Mary’s for secondary school. She trained to be a maths teacher in London, but when an opportunity came up to teach in her beloved community she couldn’t turn it down. “The deadline was the very next day, so I faxed over my CV and the rest is history,” she says. 

However, even though the school and the facilities have improved the lives of Deaf people in Cabra and the areas nearby, the number of Deaf services concentrated in one place has led to issues for other deaf people across the country. Nolan says this “can lead to a disparity in access for people living in other parts of the country, especially rural and remote areas.”

Outside of Dublin, there are only four dedicated places for Deaf services, and three of them are run by Chime. This can have effects on not only Deaf people’s physical health but also mental health. “Lack of local resources can cause feelings of isolation and limited support for people who can’t access services in Dublin,” says Nolan. 

There is a need for charities, government organisations, and community groups to share resources to address this problem. The Deaf community is thriving in the confines of Dublin 7, but efforts need to be made to bring the same supports nationwide.

As Nolan says, society as a whole needs to work toward “a more inclusive and supportive environment for all members of the Deaf community”. 

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