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The short history of squatting in Dublin: Rejecting consumerism and being 'a bit punk'

Fiachradh McDermott examines the first squat in Arran Quay through to Grangegorman.

Rosie and Jason (did not want to give last name) outside the 'squatters' complex in Grangegorman in Dublin
Rosie and Jason (did not want to give last name) outside the 'squatters' complex in Grangegorman in Dublin
Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

THE LATE 1960s saw one of the earliest organised squatting movements in Ireland, the Dublin Housing Action Committee (1968-1971), followed not long after by the Dublin Squatters’ Association (1976).

Organising squatting actions for young families who were homeless, they both aimed to put pressure on the Dublin Corporation.

Members of the groups rarely squatted but their actions were largely successful.

While squatting has a long history in Dublin, political actions similar to movements in cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin or Copenhagen have never flourished.

Many squatters today rarely cite Dublin as an influence, preferring to reference European cities instead.

Barcelona - Okupa y Resiste View of logo of the anarchist group Okupa y Resiste on the roof of a squatted house in the quarter Gracia in Barcelona, Spain, 14 May 2013 Source: DPA/PA Images

The earliest political squat traceable here dates to 1995.

Motivated by the lack of affordable or suitable housing in the city, activists and people who had squatted abroad opened a building where Arran Quay meets Queen St, which lasted for almost six months.

Modelled on what they had seen in Europe, it also served as a meeting place for leftist activists and art groups.

Fearghal, a founder of the squat, had squatted in Cologne but never in Ireland, and thinks that “with very little precedent of politicised squatting in the city, our feet were on un-firm ground”.

He adds that, at the time, “there was very little opportunity for a larger multi-purpose space that we could live in, do art, politics or whatever we wanted”.

Considering this, they opted for taking a space.

Intending to create a “homemade culture around entertainments and arts”, the only comparable actions happening around that time would have been in the rave scene.

Early on, the squatters realised they had awoken a wider community of interest, and it was the first time Fearghal saw “there were serious anarchists in the city”. In his eyes, the squat was an “important starting point for a lot of exciting autonomous projects that happened in the years that followed”.

Before this, he feels “there was less fantasy, there was less belief that people could actually defy the landlord culture and live autonomously in a society like Ireland at the time”.

90341514_90341514 Squatters outside a house on Barrow Street in 2014 in support of the people who have occupied a house that they say was owned by Nama and otherwise would be vacant. They say that if they are not left there to stay they would be homeless. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

While he’s aware of the squatting actions in the late 1960s and 1970s, Fearghal sees Arran Quay as a precedent for that style of squatting; the politicised rejection of mainstream culture, something prevalent in many squats afterwards.

The squat re-evaluated property, “not just in terms of living, but also in terms of what it could provide to groups and communities”.

To Fearghal, it marked “the beginning of a new era of autonomous thinking in constructive anarchism, and a new approach to housing and space”.

The next traceable public action was Disco Disco (DD), opened on Parnell Square on 13 July 2003, in a building that had been vacant for 11 years.

Though there was a stir in the media, they were evicted the following day.

Members had been involved with squats in the Netherlands before setting up DD, but like others before them, had little knowledge of squatting in Dublin before setting out.

Having opened and occupied the building, some preliminary meetings were held but Cian, a member, says little else happened. There were intentions to paint the building and make it more inhabitable, and while energy was abundant, time was short.

The squatters wanted a space to promote activism in Dublin and settled on the building as, though derelict and filthy, the central location was perfect.

Intended as a “fully open public action”, Cian says the idea behind DD “was to plant the seed of ideas for future things”.

None of us felt that it was necessarily going to be a long-term project in itself.”

While it lasted one night, he says they wanted “to make a point about squatting – that it could be done – and to raise awareness around squatting”.

Since many of the squatters were relatively inexperienced, it got them “from zero, upwards,” and Cian sees it as a forerunner to many squats that happened in the city afterwards.

Enjoying a short lifespan, DD stands out to Cian “as a tiny but colourful blip in the history of the squatting movement in Dublin; possibly one of the more colourful blips or moments”.

Not long after DD closed, some members went on to form the Magpie Collective. August
2003 saw the Magpie Squat opened on Upper Leeson Street in a building that had again been vacant for about a decade, but the Collective later opted for abandoning the space in April 2004 after becoming exhausted with resisting repression.

The squat served as a living space with a vegetable garden in the back. Events included the ‘Bad Books’ library, weekly discussion groups called ‘Bad Thoughts’, and a variety of
others.

Like many before them, the Collective wanted a space modelled on what they had seen in
Europe.

However, Domnall, a member of the Magpie, says “Disco Disco and the Magpie
were, for these groups of people, really the first experiences with squatting in Ireland.”

From large meetings and collective organisation to “small internal things where we could
paint murals on the walls”, Domnall feels the Magpie was a place people could exist outside mainstream society.

He sees it as “a challenge to ideas of private ownership of space and who has control over resources”.

Though persistent surveillance put pressure on the Collective, Domnall thinks the squat was successful as they chose to leave on their own terms rather than being kicked out:

It does seem like a failure, but I think because we decided collectively, that’s a success for me.

Squatting remained relatively quiet and hidden from the public eye until a squat in Grangegorman was opened from 2013 to 2015, and re-squatted again in 2016.

90374390_90374390 The gardens in Grangegorman Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

However, while Grangegorman may not have been as explicitly public, a radical space was opened in the occupied Neary’s Hotel on Parnell St in March 2015.

The Barricade Inn lasted about a year, closing in February 2016. Remnants of the squat still remain on the doors of the old hotel.

After months of cleaning and renovating, the Barricade was opened complete with a vegan café, a gig space and a general social space on the ground floor.

The first floor held an arts and crafts room, a multi-function ballroom which could host a cinema and another meeting  space for events such as squatting workshops. The many squatters that occupied the building lived in the hotel rooms on the top two floors.

Hannah, who was involved with the Barricade, says the intent was to “forward anarchist
ideals and to foster a sense of community in which we didn’t have to spend money to hang out with each other”.

An anti-capitalist ideology was ingrained in the Barricade, and Hannah notes that when
meeting friends one usually has to get a coffee, a drink or go for dinner:

There’s always a transaction involved, and we wanted to delete the transaction from the sense of community.

Squatters in Dublin had a base, just as activists had a meeting space and punk bands had a venue to play.

As well as this, it offered a safe space for people who may have felt rejected by society, or who didn’t want society.

It promoted a collective identity, and to Hannah, “spaces like the Barricade promoted a kind of subjectivity that was rooted in rejection, rooted in resistance, and rooted in opposition”.

Positioned in rejection to the “capitalist culture of consumerism,” the Barricade offered
something a bit different to people in Dublin.

For the moment, however, squatting remains quiet and relatively outside the public eye.

Though the history of squatting in the city is largely an unwritten one, a common thread
appears to be that of searching for a difference in a country where straying outside the
mainstream has always carried a negative stigma.

To Fearghal, the autonomous activity he has seen over the past 20 years has had more or less a similar character to that which was established in Arran Quay. People have opened spaces for artists and community activity, rather than simply solving an accommodation problem.

With a laugh, he says: “They tend to be a bit freaky, a bit ‘punk’, colourful… I think we set
that precedent.”

Read: Why aren’t unused army barracks used to provide shelter for the homeless?

More: Irish retailers on course to record best Christmas season since 2007 

About the author:

Fiachradh McDermott

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