Autonomous Spaces in Dublin: Past, Present & Future


Posted May 10, 2015 in Features, More

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If you’re reading this, it’s (probably) too late. 30 people, three dogs, two cats and a rabbit are currently preparing for eviction from the site on Grangegorman Road Lower that they have occupied since August 2013. If you didn’t hear the Garda Síochána helicopter circling over Dublin’s city centre on the 23rd March, you will surely have read about the botched ejection of this group of squatters from the vacant sites it occupies in your media outlet of choice. By all accounts, the second attempt will be more successful.

Squatting bears something of a resemblance to hacking: it picks at rips in a system that relies on a pretence of perfection. Squatting is a provocation to the profoundly inequitable order of property ownership, the ancient root of a plutocratic system predicated on the concentration of wealth (a system regularly propped up by the political establishment and its agents). It’s no great enigma that property speculation was the hot air that inflated the economic bubble to bursting point – even less of a secret is that there has been a failure of our state to prick the bubble for good. The presence of our national police force at the Grangegorman eviction as auxiliaries of a multinational auditory (auditing) firm was symbolic that our state is happy to not only continue its complicity with speculative capital, but to reinforce it.

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Land speculation and rack-renting has been a continuous theme across the country in both urban and rural settings. This can be attributed to the commonly-held interpretation of our constitution as enshrining the primacy of the individual in matters of property. Take a magnifying glass to the constitution, however, and this notion becomes blurry.

In April 2004, the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution questioned whether our inherited property rights should be an obstruction to the common good, particularly in the realm of planning and infrastructure. The report found that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of property rights neither obstructs the reduction of land-hoarding, nor supports the introduction of rent or sale caps – two additions to our national property law anybody burnt by the Celtic Tiger would doubtless herald.

Article 43.2.1 reads:

‘The State recognises, however, that the exercise of the [individual property] rights… ought, in civil society, to be regulated by principles of social justice.’

The ‘principles of social justice’ is a conceptual no man’s land sprawling enough to build an ethical battleground on. However, whether interpreted under the aegis of our inherited Catholic purview or a more universal liberal rights-based approach, the individual right to property exists within a constellation of other rights – the right to shelter, the right to produce, the right to expression, the right to live free from exploitation. There can only be two valid interpretations of this little constitutional nugget: we either prioritise the individual, or we prioritise the community.

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As the completion of the DIT Grangegorman campus and the Luas extension nears, this North Inner City enclave is about to enter a dangerous state of flux. The looming gentrification, unchecked, will do for the existing Grangegorman neighbourhood as all good regeneration programmes do: push property values up, disenfranchise its existing community and mainstream it into the urban typology of our city centre. A bulwark against this is to create spaces of confluence and integration free from commercial imperative; a 21st century community centre. Whether the Grangegorman squat would achieve this is questionable – what it has achieved, though, is drawing a blueprint for just this type of project.

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Dublin’s squatting history pales against that of many of our European counterparts (or, closer to home, Belfast). Like a sort of inverse World Cup, the International Squatters Convergence set up in town last September, aiming its bid at establishing an infrastructure and transnational support network for the nascent squatting movement. The Convergence’s call-to-arms instructed attendees to ‘bring yourselves, bring your workshops, bring your friends, leave your jobs, leave the bullshit, leave the landlords, fuck the landlords! (don’t FUCK the landlords…)’. Some of those who came for the Convergence, stayed for the vacant spaces – the Convergence was a fertilisation moment for Grangegorman.

While the positive press around Grangegorman refers to its value as a community space (which relies, really, on how many people you think constitute a community), the Convergence’s strident polemic as stated above demonstrates the general attitude of the hardcore squatter. Squats become conduits for ideology, and, as typifies many left-wing movements, tend to devolve into intellectual factions to generally negative effect.

It is worthwhile framing Grangegorman within a short recent history of our city’s alternative spaces.

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The Garden of Delights was a short-lived space on Castle Street that functioned as an anarchist bookshop by day and a centre for campaign meetings and shamanic drum groups by night. Writer Chekov Feeney (NB: we were unable to confirm if this is his given name) reminisces about its 1997 heyday: ‘The parties were the high-point. The guests represented an eccentric slice of the population – druids, anarchists, artists, musicians, writers and ravers. They were good parties, but they seemed too wild to sit easily with maintaining a fancy bookshop. At the second one, somebody pulled the toilet out of the wall.’

Garden of Delights took Euro-scepticism to a new level by installing a street-front banner declaring the European Union as the Fourth Reich, leading to one of the many police raids that shut it down within a year of opening.

Parnell Street’s Disco Disco (so-called for the neon ghost sign from its former life as a dance hall) was established on the 13th July 2003, and was closed down on the… 14th July 2003. The building, which had been vacant for eleven years, was subject to a well-marshalled occupation by squatters armed with DIY kits and paint, borrowing some logistics experience from seasoned Dutch occupiers. Within 24 hours, the activists were removed by bailiffs with no citation of ownership of the building, backed up by – hear the echoes – a squad of Gardaí.

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The Magpie Squat had a little more longevity, lasting from August of that same year through to the following spring. This Upper Leeson Street project quietly renovated a dilapidated house into a space for political groups, marginalised artists and organic gardeners – bearing more of a resemblance to Grangegorman and, more presciently, the Seomra Spraoi autonomous space that is still going strong today. There is barely any point building a dramatic narrative arc towards its conclusion: the Gardaí, inevitably, shut it down.

What defines these spaces has been their combustibility – and perhaps a supernova-like life is what politicised squats should aspire too. As protest actions, occupation sublimates the spatial to the temporal, political and symbolic. Or, in current technocratic parlance, occupation is disruption. A conundrum is posed: what good is an anti-establishment establishment?

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On the international scene permanence is a more vital component of occupation. Transition Heathrow is a multi-faceted squatting movement that has sprouted up in an abandoned market garden site in Sipson, a village that has been given its last rites. Rather than jump ship to the fungally-expanding Greater London Metropolitan Area as Heathrow prepares to tarmac over it with its new, third runway, locals have developed the space into a symbol of ‘community resistance to the economic, ecological and democratic crises’. It is an experiment in new models of non-hierarchical organisation and in self-sufficiency. The community has been built around a sustainable ethos that allows it to exist off-grid, to keep its members well fed and to re-green a drab, grey expanse.

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Deeper inside the organism that is the London metropolitan area lies the shell of Well-Furnished, an alternative space that stood in resistance to the development of Yet Another Bloody Tesco in East London’s Homerton district. As with Transition Heathrow, Well-Furnished combined ethos with activity, developing into a rich community space running anything from polygender cabaret to yogic rejuvenation classes. It has become a paradigm for bottom-up regeneration.

‘I don’t think it’s our role as activist communities to provide social space (or other services) to wider society,’ an author rails in a 1998 zine titled (ironically?) Direct Action Against Apathy. ‘That’s not to say that our actions and spaces cannot have an impact outside of our own political and social circles.’ For a movement founded on solidarity, squatting communities can err towards the insular, away from the evangelical. It is difficult to see beyond this drop-out complex as painfully adolescent.

What Transition Heathrow and Well-Furnished offer is a conscientious, inclusive and attainable alternative vision: they have not only chosen a battle worth fighting, but thought through the tactics necessary to win it. If, as noted earlier, our battleground is taking back ownership of the ‘principles of social justice’, what Dublin needs next is a well-stocked barracks.

Words: Daniel Gray

Photos: Steve O’Connor

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