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The squatters in the Debtors's Prison in Dublin. Persons Unknown
debtors' prison

“This makes us homeless" - Tough choices lie ahead for squatters in abandoned Dublin prison

Squatters at the Debtors’ Prison could face a real jail over disobeying a court order to leave the premises.

PEOPLE SQUATTING IN a disused historical prison in Dublin’s north inner city wanted to turn it into a creative centre for the community, but could now face jail time for defying a court order telling them to leave.

The squatters broke into and occupied the disused Debtors’ Prison on Halston Street two weeks ago after being evicted from the nearby Grangegorman complex.

The building is listed as a protected structure by Dublin City Council, and has been largely unused over the past 30 years.

It is owned by the State and under the stewardship of the Department of Public Expenditure (DPER) and the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The State moved quickly to have the squatters removed once they occupied the building, citing health and safety concerns for those staying at the prison.

The prison – first built around 1790 – is in a derelict condition, and the State argued in court last week that it needed to have the squatters removed as a matter of urgency for their own safety.

An interlocutory injunction was granted to the State last week against the squatters, with an order for them to have vacated the building by midnight last Sunday (two days ago).

However, many of the squatters remained in the prison yesterday morning, when the case appeared again before the High Court.

One of the squatters, John Roche – who did move out of the building on Sunday – appeared before the court yesterday, stating that a week wasn’t enough time for the squatters to leave, and asking for a month.

However, Ms Justice Deirdre Murphy said the court did not have the jurisdiction to amend the order, and gave the State 48 hours’ leave to bring a motion forward to have the squatters committed to prison for refusing to obey the court order.

5/4/2013. The Four Courts File photo of the Four Courts in Dublin. Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Open day

On Sunday evening the squatters hosted an open day in the courtyard of the old prison, inviting the community in to show off what they had been doing with the place before their court date the following morning.

The Debtors’ Prison is a U-shaped building with individual cell windows looking down onto the courtyard. It is three storeys in height with a basement “dungeon”.

There were stalls set up with literature to do with the prison, as well as leaflets on anarchism and socialism. There was also a small makeshift garden with plants growing and art work set up around the place.

14081291_10208003833637914_1488107511_n The view onto the courtyard from the Debtors' Prison. Persons Unknown Persons Unknown

The building itself was off-limits to the general public, with the squatters citing the order from the OPW to keep people out as it is not safe.

( requested access to enter but was not given permission by the occupants).

At its peak, about 120 people were in the courtyard – there were several families with children present, as well as members of the wider squatting community and others from the local area.

The squatters themselves moved among the crowd or watched down from the prison’s many windows.

Impromptu performances – music, magic and puppet shows, short dramas – all took place from the prison as the evening progressed.

Speaking to at the event, Roxanne – who was living in the building – explained the purpose of the event and why the group moved into the prison following the closure of Grangegorman.

download (6) Photo taken last year of the Grangegorman complex. Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

“It’s a beautiful, old empty building and it’s very close to where we were before. We noticed it was being disused and has been for quite some time now,” she said.

Roxanne said that as well as a home, the group wanted to use the building as a base for creative projects and community and housing activism.

“There’s not really a lot of spaces in the city where you can come to where you don’t have to pay so we’re trying to sort of challenge the idea that you have to pay to be somewhere,” she said.

We want it to be more open and not turn anyone away because they can’t afford to come.

A number of the squatters addressed the crowd at different times, and the main event of the evening was a short play about the prison in Victorian times, which was performed from the windows of the building.

Local historian Noel Hughes (82) also addressed the assembled crowd and gave a short history of the prison.

“I hope to God you people who are living in the building at present… that you are left in it,” he said, to loud cheers from the crowd.


At the centre of this group of squatters’ case to be allowed to remain in the Debtor’s Prison is the contention that it is not currently in use in any capacity.

The group maintains that it would refurbish the building, and provide a community service in the holding of exhibitions and tours with a particular focus on injustices from the past to present day.

14054725_10208003830637839_196166148_n One of the squatters surrounded by artwork inside the prison. Persons Unknown Persons Unknown

It is similar to the arguments posed by those who had been living at the Grangegorman building.

People had been staying there in varying numbers since 2013. They had come under pressure to vacate the premises last year but had stayed resident there.

The squatters were finally evicted earlier this month, and many relocated to the prison.

The squatters are supported by the Irish Housing Network (IHN) – a collection of different activist groups with the aim of addressing homelessness in Ireland.

Latest figures show that homelessness is still on the increase, and there is a belief among activists in the IHN and the squatters that vacant buildings should be used to house those who have no home.

A report from the Housing Agency in May showed that there were 230,000 vacant properties around the country, while figures from July show that there are 2,751 vacant social housing units in Ireland, with 372 in Dublin.

25/8/2011 Ghost Housing Estates A ghost housing estate pictured in 2011. Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

The squatters said last week that they were seeking a dialogue with the Department of Public Expenditure and the OPW over the future use of the Debtors’ Prison.

In response to a query from last week, a spokesperson for the OPW said that it would not be entering into any dialogue with the squatters as they were trespassing on State property.

“The OPW has taken a High Court challenge as the current occupants broke into the State owned building and are currently trespassing,” the spokesperson said.

The OPW will not be entering into dialogue with any group that is trespassing on State property.

“This makes us homeless”

The State will bring a motion before the High Court tmorrow to attach and commit to prison the remaining squatters at the Debtor’s Prison for contempt of court as they failed to vacate the building in time.

Aside from John Roche, who appeared before the court (and who obeyed the order to leave by Sunday night), the other squatters did not present themselves before the court, and are listed in court documents under the collective title of “Persons Unknown”.

Judge Murphy expressed concern yesterday over how the court could attach an order to commit to prison “Persons Unknown”.

However, the barrister for the State said that there had been precedent for this before.

Roche attempted to argue on behalf of the squatters yesterday, but was informed by Judge Murphy that it was not the appropriate time to do so.

“This makes us homeless,” he said, referring to the order to quit the prison.

Judge Murphy said that the matter the court was dealing with yesterday had to do with a defying of a court order to vacate the premises, and that any defence the squatters had would have to wait for a full hearing.

When contacted by yesterday evening over whether they would obey the court order to leave the prison, the squatters said that they had no comment to make.

While there is no hard and fast rule on why and how people squat, Roxanne said on Sunday that at the centre of the Debtor’s Prison squatters’ way of life (and the Grangegorman group) was communal understanding and working as a group.

“We do try to run cooperatively in our collective,” she said.

“If the State wants to get us out they’ll get us out.

But of course you can’t get rid of us, we’re going to keep popping up.

With reporting from Saurya Cherfi

Read: Court tells squatters to leave disused Dublin prison

Read: Squatters in disused Dublin prison could face jail over contempt of court

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