Gemma Dunleavy‘s infectiously popular Up De Flats ep finally had a live iteration in 2021, culminating with an electrifying sold out show in The Academy, surrounded by family and friends on stage. Her Uncle Billy Scurry is a stalwart of the DJ scene in the city and, needless to say, a huge influence on her. They both sat down to talk about their Sheriff Street roots and how it informs their lives. We listened in at Billy’s kitchen table over some red wine, Guinness and WKD Blue.
“The ghetto is not short of talent, it’s short of resources.”
“Gemma was born on the day I was 20, (April 22nd). We’re two Tauruses, two bulls,” says Billy, acknowledging that the star sign transfers loyalty and a stubborn streak to both of them. “My grandmother and Gemma’s great-grandmother would have lived beside each other in Liberty House. Me Ma Farrell which is Gemma’s great-grandmother would have been very instrumental in the raising of the family.”
“Wasn’t there 15 babies in yer ma’s family?” interjects Gemma.
“No, there was more. My grandmother had 22 children, three sets of twins and she died at 55.”
Billy recollects her raising them in a two-bedroom flat with “three sets of bunk beds in the hallway…You had a toilet and a bath which was part of your scullery. On Saturday afternoon they’d be just heating pots of water to fuck into the bath. I’d be always in last, course, bleedin’ manky…”
His first memory of Gemma is on Paddy’s Day, “the most townie day…I’d probably have been playing somewhere, hanging, but I’d go cross town with me brother Johnny and Nanny Johnson. Jackie and Larry (Gemma’s parents) were walking into town proud as punch with Gemma in the buggy and I walked past, I’m sure I was not intoxicated (he scoffs) but I was like, ‘Oh fuck, leprechauns do exist’.” Gemma was dressed to the nines for the day. Dress-making skills have always been to the fore in their family being passed down between generations.
“We lived in the flats in Sheriff Street and when they got knocked down we moved to the flats in Coburg Place. Billy’s ma would have been in our place constantly,” says Gemma. “The women that raised us did their duty in making us feel that everything was grand at the time.”
One such incident she fondly remembers is when she had the chicken pox. “I was covered in them. Nanny was looking after me and Darkie (Billy’s ma) would come round three times a day. I was waiting, sitting in me knickers, half-thinking I can’t wait to get this Calamine lotion on me and half-crying at the hearth of the fireplace. Every time she puts on lotion I started screaming and she starts saying, ‘Aaaaaah fucks saaaake!’ to distract me. And here’s me nanny with the rosary beads saying ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ every time she curses. We needed that growing up.”
“You can’t let the dark in cause it’s dark enough,” notes Billy. “It’s a defense mechanism of getting through what you had to get through. We had nothing but we had it all, we had each other,” he says, pinching lyrics from Up De Flats.
Growing up in the inner city came with an acute stigma which Billy keenly remembers. “There was a Catch-22 coming from Sheriff Street. You couldn’t get a job because of where you were from. My brother went for a job as a messenger boy in P&T (Posts & Telegraphs) under our address and didn’t get it. Then he applied under one from East Wall and got the job. So, men were downtrodden and emasculated. I’m not making excuses for them, there was a lot of alcoholism but there was 98% unemployment. It was the women that had to go out and run everything and do everything.”
He likens the predicament to the current times in which people say, “Isn’t it great there’s hotels opening up around the area, it means jobs. You mean zero-hour contracts and minimum wage. They’re not bleedin’ jobs. It was the same thing back then, the women were able to get jobs as cleaners, in sewing factories; men weren’t able to. I’m sure a lot of anger came from that.” They reference proximity to the port and its significance in providing food for the table. “The men were out working on the ships, seven months of the year, just by necessity. The women just felt like they held up the place,” adds Gemma.
In dipping into her family history to illustrate the resilient streak which flows through the bloodlines, Gemma references her grandad’s brother Austie who was shipped out to Russia during the Second World War but got torpedoed on the way back and was assumed lost at sea. “Then a Spanish ship is on the way to Argentina and he’s floating in a raft in the middle of the ocean. They were going to shoot him until they saw the Irish flag so they bring him to Argentina. Everyone at home thinks he’s dead and have set up a shrine. Six months later he rocks back up in the tenements, so we have this theory there’s a load of Dunleavy’s in Argentina.”
Billy reflects on the impact and legacy of his inner city childhood. “We come from great backgrounds but there’s no room for conceit. You shouldn’t get above your station, that’s engrained in you by authority and everybody else who is not from your area. Don’t get notions, and you grow up with that stigma and, yes, as much as you shouldn’t turn into a fucking asshole, that can stop you from having any self-belief. It took me a long time to believe I’m good at this shit, I’m OK with being good at it. You have this ingrained, who do I think I am? The ghetto is not short of talent, it’s short of resources.”
“What Billy said about the ghetto hit the nail on the head,” says Gemma. “I look at some of the kids in the school I was working in and there’s a class full of 30 guys and I’m thinking he’d be an amazing writer…You see so much potential.”
It was clear from a young age that Gemma had the grit and determination to see her own potential realised. “I was in Limerick recently and someone came up to me and said, I messaged you on YouTube. You shared that you were on the Late Late Toy Show. My friend was on it, he was the fella before ya. That was actually gas. I auditioned doing Britney Spears Crazy and then they got me to showcase a karaoke machine and I was ragin’ cause I wanted to sing.
“I remember asking them, ‘Now will I get to sing the first verse and chorus?’ It was the Toy Show but you’d think it was the Gemma show. I designed me own outfit, Beyonce was after doing the Work it Out video for the Austin Powers film and she had the jeans with Virgo across the back of it so I got me ma to diamanté Taurus across the back of mine and I had a little pink halterneck that me ma crocheted. It is so inherently Irish. I got to meet Busted.”
Having set her sights on a career in dance, she diligently trained until the age of 19 when an injury put paid to it and she moved to Liverpool to study music. “I was so focused and engrossed in dance. Looking back on it, it was a coping mechanism to keep me busy and regimented because there was the juxtaposition of how my life was with dance and how unregimented it was outside of that.”
She remembers having an anti-authoritarian streak in secondary school in Killester. “I struggled with authority. I started to understand my upbringing and the oppressions against the working class…We were in pre-fabs freezing in the middle of winter. Now I have to say I was a little bitch,” she laughs. “I loved dancing and would go there straight after school until 10 and come into school the next day wrecked. I’d have no problem saying I was shattered but they would use it against me. I was intelligent but I struggled with the system and the little things.”
And yes, there was a teacher who bucked the trend and saw her talent. “In fourth year, I had an English teacher, Mr. Power. I love poetry and Sylvia Plath and at the end of class on his first day he said, “If Gemma Dunleavy is here could she come see me at the end of class and I’m like, ‘here we go again’. And he waited until everyone left, closed the door and said, “Before I came into this class I had a lot of stuff told to me in the staff room, to look out for a girl called Gemma Dunleavy cause she was going to be trouble, and I want to say that you had the best input today and I really love your flair for poetry and I have a book here that I’d love to give to you. I knew then someone had me back.”
This lesson of bringing an open mind to people and situations is something pivotal to both Gemma and Billy. “I still judge people on that one thing of how would you treat my family,” says Gemma. “The most important thing is are you sound.”
“I probably couldn’t even count on one hand people who come from the same background as me in the arts and I never really notice it, because I don’t surround myself with pricks, but I also have a bit of insecurity,” she says. “I’m a bit of a chameleon in that I can get on well in the arts world and I’m also able watch Telly Bingo with me ma but it makes it easier for me to pass as favourable to people who on other days when I’m not around might judge say me da if they saw him in a shop asking for an orange.”
“He wouldn’t buy an orange,” retorts Billy, to which Gemma cracks up acknowledging, “He definitely wouldn’t, more like orange flavoured Guinness.”
“I remember talking to people at after parties and being meek, going this person wouldn’t be talking to me unless I was DJing,” adds Billy. “I’d just be another bloke from Sheriff Street but then you have to get over yourself and sort of realise that this is me being me. You have to get out of the ghetto of the mind too, I relish the fact I meet different people constantly and it’s because of music.”
“When I was starting out in music it gave me such a great comfort that you were in the world I wanted to break into,” gushes Gemma. “That was a huge sense of pride, reassurance and inspiration. It’s funny that during the time you are sparking that in me you are still battling with that.”
It is this sort of support and encouragement which Gemma is grateful for her as she decided to pursue a career in music. “When I was growing up and said I wanted to do music, my nana and Billy’s mam would tell me, ‘G’wan’. No one asked how much money you’d earn. They just wanted me to do things that made me happy, it was pure encouragement and such a gift.”
And the endorsements are still free-flowing. Billy’s got her back. “It’s beyond amazing seeing somebody that you’ve known and seen grow up put their heart and soul into it and become successful. When I am standing there watching her, I’m thinking of me ma and what she would have thought of it. It’s amazing, Gemma is not only artistically great but a great spokesperson for the area.”
Billy’s relationship with his ma who passed away six years ago is the source of much amusement in our chats. “Two stubborn bastards” is what Billy calls them in a can’t live with, can’t live without sort of way. He remembers lifting lino off the toilet floor, polishing it down and bringing it down to O’Connell Street for his B-Boy routine back in the day. “There’s be a hole in the middle of it where the jacks bowl was. I’m up there one day, getting down and all I hear is, ‘That’s my fucking lino!’. She gave me a battering and gave to Nanny Higgins, the next door neighbour out of spite.”
Indeed, Gemma likens growing up to being in “a constant Saturday Night Live Roast”. The first time Jordan, her boyfriend, came over, “me niece was around six at the time and looking him up and down. He was like, “‘I’ve heard so much about you, I was dying to meet you’ and she was like, ‘where are you from?’ And he said Terenure and she said, “is that in America?” But at the heart of everything is this “gorgeous, lovely, safe warm place” which becomes more evident to her when she steps “out of that bubble.”
“A mad thing now is seeing people making loads of noise suddenly about things you’ve been experiencing for years. You weren’t shy about getting your hair reefed out of you, you earned your way in the social playground by how well you could hold yourself.” She remembers her dad picking her up from ballet in his truck after a day at work and having fellow classmates sniggering. “I’m thinking if I start on them I’ll get kicked out but I don’t want them to get the chance to put someone down who I care about. In moments like that when you’re so heightened that you think the only medicine for you is a few digs and then you have to learn the language of articulating yourself in order not to prove them right. I will get kicked out. So, I’m sitting down imagining them walking down Ballybough and meeting my friends. They wouldn’t last a minute, We’d batter them and I’m just imagining that happening and that was before I even knew what meditation was. It is so hard to be articulate when you’re emotional.”
As they both reflect on the city they call home, it’s with a degree of concern and trepidation about the issues which have engulfed it. Billy, as a veteran of the club scene, knows its decimation is a cause for great concern.
“I was watching Fran Leibowitz’s Pretend it’s a City and she was talking about when the smoking ban came in in the States and Bloomberg was the mayor of New York. And he was going on about being people drunk and high at five in the morning and asking what it was. And she responds, that’s the beginning of culture.”
“Ten years ago we had 500 defined nightclubs and I hate to think what we have now – people talking, getting loose, having chats, shooting the breeze, that’s the beginning of culture. In the nineties I saw it all change from a lot of dereliction to Italia ’90, there was a lot of self belief in the city and country. We started running nightclubs, there was loads of fucking creativity going on, it felt you could do anything. Now everything is defined by rent and money, there are more spaces lying idle in the city that could be artist quarters, that could be hangouts – everything is being taken away for hotels and student accommodation. If it’s progress that doesn’t involve everybody, it’s not progress, its steamrolling.”
“It’s very hard when you see a place you love so much changing so much rapidly but then the structures in place are still the same ones when you were 15 – with all the trauma you are still unpacking right now,” reflects Gemma. “As hard as it is to live here, it’s harder for me to live without those here for me,” A statement which succinctly defines living in Dublin in 2021 for so many.
Words: Michael McDermott
With thanks to Marc at Coppinger Row for providing the location for the shoot.