“We Can Do It Differently” – That Social Centre


Posted 3 months ago in More

With creative community spaces vanishing overnight in Dublin, Adhamh Ó Caoimh sat down with Sage and Shane of That Social Centre to discuss the importance of these spaces and how they have been re-energised by collective resistance.

As you pass the prison, along the road into one of the world’s coolest neighborhoods, a derelict block looms over Blessington Street Basin, separate from the red brickwork that otherwise describe the environs. Pocked gray stone, weather stained and worn, broken wood, shutters overlaid with graffiti pinned with legal notices and bright new MDF boards emblazoned with the call to Free Palestine. Along with what seems like about a third of Dublin, the structure has been left to fall apart.

A number of these shops were busy until the beginning of 2019, when they were told to vacate their premises. Some, like Supply Hub, all but disappearing, and others like Gents of Dublin moving up the road, close to the custom they had built over their years working the shopfronts.

The collapsing property that once housed Des Kelly’s showroom is one of the spaces owned by Garvagh Homes Limited, who were recently refused planning permission for “overcomplicated and fussy” luxury apartments in Malahide. Northern Irish developer Padraig Drayne, director of the firm, also owns half of the Jervis Shopping Centre as JSC, a company he and partner Paddy McKillen have registered in the Isle of Man. Similar plans for an apartment development here face rabid local opposition.

In recent weeks, studios like the Icon Factory have had to shut their doors as D-Light is scrambling for survival. Sweeney’s is now some sort of tourist trad bar. The pandemic was a deathblow for so many creative spaces, self-sufficient hubs of culture and inclusivity like Jigsaw and Baba Jaja. We find ourselves fighting for institutions like The Cobblestone to stand in the face of yet another hotel.

While the government responds characteristically slowly to address uncomplicated issues, as a new creative community flourishes in the wake of the pandemic, it seems the spaces that facilitated the expression of that creativity are dying, and with it, the city.

In Stoneybatter in 2021, a group of activists reclaimed a space that had lain dormant for a decade, naming it Sunnyvale. The folks involved in That Social Centre, as they are known online, made a short lived but important space for people to live, to work and to belong.

A violent and controversial eviction left a number of those people battered and bruised, with supporters like Dublin artist Spicebag donating proceeds of one of his more famous prints to rebuild damage done to the space during that eviction, garnering much support for the people running it, and their message.

This also had the unintended benefit of seeing Fionnán Sheahan make an utter, utter fool of himself. Sputtering through chewing wasps on RTÉ, incredulous that someone might not agree with guards facilitating illegal evictions, while not understanding how Instagram stories work. And that’s always nice to see.

Toward the end of 2023, some of those people organized and transformed that decaying lot that welcomes you to Phibsborough into a social hub, a place teeming with life and vibrancy. It played host to a free shop when you walked in, taking and leaving things as you pleased. The massive space, utterly dormant for years, now saw within its walls several workshops, classes, art exhibitions and music events. Fundraisers for Gaza saw half of Dublin heroes Lankum, dark folk visionary Iona Zajac and members of psychedelic punk legends The Deadlians take to the stage – as well as sean nós legend Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin – to do what they could to try to help in the face of the barbarity of the genocide happening in Palestine.

Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin

All of that came to a close in December of 2023, in the wake of frivolous allegations and repeated, documented attempts to evict the occupants, despite court stays. Before this, I had the good fortune to be invited to speak with the people who organized the space to discuss  what they do, why they do it, and how funny it is that a multimillionaire Tyrone born property tycoon stalks their social media pages.

I wanted to know about the history behind the collective, as well as perspectives on Squatting and activism that are often overlooked by our national media.

“I feel like since COVID, a lot of the community places have died. If you think about Baba Jaja, or Jigsaw, those places didn’t survive. It felt like Dublin was dead. There was sort of a resurgence with Sunnyvale, two years ago,” Sage begins. Their adorable dog, Morgan, sniffs curiously at my hand.

“To be fair, Sunnyvale didn’t get to do that many things. Maybe two concerts, a birthday party, a bike workshop. And there was no real indoor space. We had a couple of caravans, but…”

“‘Have you ever seen Trailer Park Boys? That’s why we called it Sunnyvale.” Shane tells me.

“I feel it pulled the community in more during the eviction. I think it brought people together because there was a need for that space,” Sage continues, “Suddenly there was this space that had a little bit of freedom to do things. The moment it got shut down people took to the streets. It was a really powerful display of collective resistance.”

The videos of the eviction that saw hundreds of people lining Prussia Street amidst a downpour were widely shared, as private contractors damaged activists and property, with CATU and others coming down to respond to the violence they were watching online.

“It definitely grew after that, and we had a couple of events after the eviction attempt. I remember one night after all the ‘publicity’ somebody donated a fridge.” Shane says, “We could have repaired it, but interpersonally we fell apart, which was inevitable in the conditions we were living in. There was only one livable space, and they had cut holes in the roof of it, and poured oil all over everything. It just wasn’t viable.”

The space ceased, despite the activists involved regaining access to the property in late October of that year.

Sage continues, “After Sunnyvale, there was such burnout between the winter and the weather. The conditions were terrible. A space like this takes a lot of work, no one gets paid, you need to deal with coordinating a lot of people, who have personal lives of their own. Fast forward two years, and everybody had collected their energy again. You need to create working groups that autonomously make the space happen, which in itself is a lot of trial and error. Some people live here, and have to compartmentalize their living situation with organizing the social space. And again, nobody is getting paid.”

Looking around, what the people have done with the detritus is astounding. Stunning art adorns the walls, there is a beautiful stage area, common spaces to sit and talk. There is food, there is shelter. It feels like a space for people to gather, and for people to be. It reminds me of Seomra Spraoi, back in the day. Community built and designed, imbued with genuine punk rock charm.

“With all of that said, it has been fucking incredible, these last two months. It feels really homey here, we have a book library, a ‘zine library, a free shop, a tea and coffee station.” Sage says, gesturing at the wealth of (often free) offerings as you enter. “We have gym classes, boxing, Muay Thai, there’s GoGo Dancing today, an Irish speaking circle every Wednesday.  A crafts workshop. It’s just about providing a space to whoever wants to organize something. I feel really proud of what we’ve achieved. Today will be a Gig for Palestine, the fourth consecutive one that’s happened, and that’s raised over a grand each week.”

Image Credit: Sage Against The Machine – Alexandra Reinhardt

“It takes a lot of work and energy to run the space, but as well, the space itself gives you that energy,” Shane says. “I think before it existed, none of us had that energy, and then you walk in, and you think “oh we could do this or we could do that…” and then that energy just comes from nowhere. I’m a big believer in “If you squat it, they will come.”. I didn’t even say the words “social centre”, everyone else started saying it. That just happens, when you have a place like this. Obviously it still requires real work, real commitment but the spaces give the energy that they need.”

Evidently, something like That Social Centre’s Shopfronts is no easy mission, but the answer to my question of how to do it seems embarrassingly simple.

“You need a group of people, and space. When you have those two things, it does kind of just happen.”

Which is encouraging. In the current crisis, spaces like this lying dormant is a special kind of sin. I was however curious as to where they summon the will from to build something, that by its nature, is temporary.

“People that have experience with squatting, you get used to the experience that spaces are ephemerous things, and you just make the best of it while you have it,” Sage explains. “Some of my best memories were in London in places that lasted a single month. You go in and you make the best of it immediately. I think it’s an exercise in imagination. The usual mindset of renting a space is trying to make it perfect,  it’s the exercise of fuck it, if its not perfect, we’ll fix it, but let’s just do it. For me that’s a beautiful thing. I feel a lot of people don’t do that, that they don’t re-imagine things. I think that a lot of people get stuck in the lives that they do because they don’t think they could do it differently.”

“When we walk into a space, we don’t need the bureaucracy of someone telling us how to do something, we just do it,” Shane tells me.

I ask how it is dealing with the Gardaí, and the sometimes brutal nature of dealing with violent private contractors.

“I wont say there’s no danger, I mean I’ve been arrested. I’m more okay with that than some people,” Shane tells me. “Guards don’t like when heavies evict a place without a court order. They will use violence, but it’s usually a strategic mistake on their part. It’s definitely traumatic and it doesn’t come without a cost, but it’s a mistake. It’s not as easy to evict people with force as you might think it is.”

When we were speaking, it was difficult to know what Garvagh Homes Limited had planned for the complex. We talked about Stoneybatter, a few years back also voted one of the worlds coolest neighborhoods by some idiot who had been there once. Now, broken down storefronts line half vacant streets.

“At the end of the day, they’re closing everything along the Tesco mall, the Kung Fu Buffet, the Europalace,” Sage says, “So many charity shops have closed. Little by little, that’s how gentrification works. At this devouring pace. We’re here because of gentrification. When you start building a community, capitalism knows how to co-opt that. We need more spaces like this. Thinking about this one being turned into a car park or luxury apartments, it’s heartbreaking. There are people who came here as kids, I’ve heard rumors about the Ramones playing here when it was a venue. It really should be up to the local community what happens to a place with this history.”

And when this place closed, it did not mean the end for the collective, who are currently working on a new, as yet undisclosed space.

“Our wealth is community. We have numbers, we have people who’ll show up, we have people who want to be part of the space, I feel proud of that. and even when this place finishes we’ll be able to set up somewhere, in the future where there is us, or people who have come here and seen the space. It takes a bunch of anarchists and communists to say ‘We can do this differently.’ It empowers people to think outside the box and realize they are also able to do things like this. That’s the beauty of creating something, and not being attached to it. While we don’t want the building to go, we make the best of these spaces while we have them, and look for the next one when we need to. We know that it will happen somewhere else.”

In the current, unprecedented accommodation crisis the country faces, and the inefficiency of our government to address or make an impact on those issues, I admired the self deterministic approach the group had taken when it came to dealing with the failings they saw around them.

“For some, even if they’re squatting a long time, people have this thing in their head that they’re doing something wrong, and I think that’s all nonsense. Even if it’s residential squatting, if you tell neighbours what you’re doing, most of them understand it pretty quickly. I think people should know they’re doing nothing wrong,” Shane notes.

“I do agree that we should normalize the fact that there’s an empty building, and we take it because we need a house. It shouldn’t be controversial,” Sage says, but warns the lifestyle, admirable as it may be, does not come without drawbacks.

“I don’t want to get into a situation of glamourising squatting. A lot of people have been  severely damaged by the experience, and if you have mental health or substance abuse issues it can be very, very tough. Some people have eviction trauma, when they hear a knock on the door that’s slightly louder than you’re used to, you panic. It takes a toll. I’m not going to say squatting has been terrible or amazing. I feel there’s some people who’ve had horrible experiences, and will enter that mindset, and I want to clarify that it’s not for everyone. It comes with a lot of risk, a lot of grief, a serious mental health toll, but it also can come with incredible freedom, amazing community building and other ways of dealing with trauma and isolation, as well as that creative re-imagining. It’s got good and bad. “

Shane adds,  “The grief that you mentioned is very real. I’m particularly sentimental, it always takes me time to get over losing a place. There’s different ways to cope with that. I lived in a house between 2020 and 2022 called ‘Piss House’. I’ve really struggled to get over that. It was a really unique living situation, and I haven’t been able to recreate it since. I’ve been back, and while all the stuff has been moved, it still has that sense of home, of familiarity. It’s a precious thing to be able to get back into a place after having lost it. Just to experience it again, one last time.”

I hadn’t considered that perspective before. The inevitable attachment to things and places that we, as humans, always develop.

“I realized as I was walking around, if I think of how many houses I’ve lived in over the 12 years I’ve been squatting, and developed that sort of connection with, over the course of my life,” Shane continues, “How many houses have I done that with? How many places would most people get to do that with? Each one is a whole lifetime in itself, so I feel like I’ve lived much more life than if I’d just stayed in a few places. There’s a lot of overhead to it, once you get a place it’s a lot of work to get it up and running. I work full time as well on top of that. I have very little free time as a result, but even the instability isn’t all bad. There’s a way you can look at it where there’s a positive to it. I’ve lived in so many different types of house. It’s very nice to live in Dublin 4, which I never would have known otherwise.”

Sage Against The Machine

“I feel like squatting, you have to find a way to embrace that uncertainty and impermanence. Which feels a little like, Buddhist or something, and there’s obviously grief. But there’s also that exercise of letting go, which I find spiritual and beautiful.” Sage tells me.

“There was a person who came who told us that they used to come here when this shop was open, and that it used to sell Christmas and Halloween decorations, exclusively, all year round.”

“In another house, we got a knock on the door one time, and we answered to this stranger outside who told us that he had grown up in the house, that his mother lived there until she had to be taken care of. She had died at the age of 99, and there was a statue that was deeply important to her. We were able to get it back to him, and he took us on a tour of the house, showing us where he built the sink.” Shane says.

I pet Morgan as Sage explains to finish, “These are people’s stories that end up being wiped out. Maybe they have no family. Nobody wants to claim the memories. There’s something about being in places like that, in a way, you’re bringing back the memory of the people who lived there.”

@thatsocialcentre

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Words: Adhamh Ó Caoimh

Images: Sage

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