Somewhere in D7, past the craft beer joints and coffee places, beyond the quaint little bookshops, free from the sight or smell of pulled pork, lies Squat City.
From 2013 to 2015, it was home to dozens of squatters, many of whom were very public about their use of the premises. They were eventually evicted, though, and, in June 2015, the keys were handed over to the guards.
Squat city was closed. Security guards patrolled the premises.
Until it was eventually sold. It lay vacant for eight months, barren and, for some, a symbol of the lack of affordable housing in Dublin. But the new owner did not keep the guards in place, and squatters soon reoccupied it.
So after months and months of lying vacant, people are now calling the complex home once more.
It’s an enormous concrete courtyard with several warehouses, shacks that people live in and the remnants of a garden. It is nestled cosily in an otherwise gentrifying part of the capital, in Grangegorman, and it houses about 30 people, free of charge.
Squatting as a Political Act
Here’s Luke Lavaine, a Grangegorman resident. He’s been squatting in Dublin for about two years, and I’m greeted with a grin as I meet him in a squatted house in the north of the city.
The house is a little dusty, but it’s clearly people’s home, and the dimly lit kitchen is full of vegetables, pots and pans. To my left is a window; I can see a narrow garden engulfed in green bushes and growth.
There’s a dreadlock or two in the long hair that frames Lavaine’s bearded face. He recently injured his eye in some kind of accident, and says that that’s why he’s not making eye contact, so please don’t think he’s being rude.
I tell him not to worry, and I blow on my hot tea as I thank him for it.
Tomorrow we’ll rendezvous again for a quick tour of Squat City, but for now we sit in the kitchen and chat about squatting in Dublin. Residents of the house are periodically coming in and out, and I say hello.
I ask Lavaine for a profile of the kind of people who make up Dublin’s squatting community, a description of the standard squatter. He pours me some more peppermint tea.
He explains that while anarchists, socialists and activists account for a portion of people who squat in Dublin, a number of others do it purely out of necessity, and are not informed by any particular political philosophy.
They “might be squatting just for housing reasons, which isn’t explicitly political. They just really need a place to stay,” Lavaine says. “When I’m squatting, though, it is explicitly political.”
As we’re talking, a resident walks in and begins looking at the small potted plants on the window ledge next to me. Lavaine tells her that we can move to the house’s living room if we’re in her way. We’re fine, she says.
Lavaine continues: “I have a political critique that I want to make while I’m doing it. I would say that I’m very anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian: libertarian socialist, if you have to use a label. I don’t agree with the concept of private property.”
There are people from a variety of sexual orientations, genders, political beliefs, and backgrounds who squat. But they all agree one thing: that the state has failed to house its citizens. As do the experts.
“Homelessness is caused by government policy, it’s not caused by recession,” Father Peter McVerry told Newstalk in February. “Last year we had the best year we’ve had for years: we had the highest economic growth in the EU, we took in €3 billion extra that we hadn’t anticipated, and yet here we have a record number of families becoming homeless.”
McVerry has called for the government to declare a national emergency to address the situation. Focus Ireland, and the Dublin Simon Community have also said the government is not doing enough to address housing and homelessness issues.
Squatting, for many, must be viewed in this context: of a state which has failed to provide affordable housing.
Initiatives by some independent groups to provide housing have been opposed by the government. When activists in Dublin occupied an empty Dublin City Council-owned hostel on Bolton Street last summer and attempted to open it to house homeless people, the council said it had safety concerns, took them to court and forced them to stop.
It used to be better furnished.
Squat City was previously equipped with a community kitchen, a “free shop”, to which people could donate unwanted items for others to take without charge, as well as a community garden, where residents grew their own fruit and vegetables.
The garden was bulldozed and demolished after the eviction in June, and a large mound of clay now rests in the middle of the courtyard.
Based on the accounts I hear about from residents, I’m surprised the earth wasn’t salted so that nothing would ever grow here again. During the numerous eviction attempts during the previous occupation, residents claimed they were assaulted.
But new signs of new life are emerging. Kale and nettles are now growing, and there are pots filled with flowers scattered throughout the squat.
As we walk around, it’s quiet. Other than somebody building a shack, there doesn’t seem to be much going on.
The warehouse ceilings are high, maybe forty or fifty feet up there, and there are piles of clothes scattered around. It looks as if someone has been sorting through them.
A space as large as Grangegorman, as this place is often known, has a lot of potential, and the residents have plans for it to be used by the public at no cost. Last month, they held an open day, for people to come visit the squat.
A semi-regular spoken word and poetry event, “Words in the Warehouse”, takes place in Squat City. There are also workshops and a space for art exhibitions.
“Because squatters have less financial pressure, there are a lot people – musicians, artists, poets, and so on – who are able to pursue what they want to do,” Lavaine says.
A number of weeks ago, Grangegorman hosted a circus, which performed free of charge for an audience of at least 100. Acrobats performed in the candlelit warehouse. Artists and musicians from the squat also took part.
“A stereotype of squatters is that they’re unhealthy and dirty,” Lavaine says, “but I actually feel like a lot of squatters have a decent standard of living, and can put time and money into pursuing what it is they want to do . . . using their money wisely – which isn’t paying money to some rich fuck.”
“I want more people to live in Grangegorman,” Lavaine says. “There’s space for people who can’t afford to rent, and space for camper vans, and more shacks. Squat City could definitely house a lot more people.”
I ask Lavaine about plans for the future, and how he sees the space being used.
“We’re open to ideas about things that people who want to put on,” he says. “That could be a circus, storytelling, a writing group, a space to do yoga or planting a garden, whatever. I’d like it to be a semi-public social space for people.”
Here’s Michael Gaffney, “unrepentant working-class anarchist”. Gaffney is relatively new to the squatting movement. Although he currently isn’t squatting, he’s a friend and ally of Grangegorman.
I meet him for a pint in Sweeney’s, and we oscillate between sitting in a quiet corner to chat and taking breaks to go outside and smoke rollies. I ask him about his background, and how he became involved with squatting and squatters.
“Third-level educated semi-professional who has a writing habit,” he says. “I grew up in County Dublin, and felt marginalised growing up because of various reasons, like my sexuality and ambitions.”
He says he got involved in Squat City relatively late. “I was at my first PETTYCASH show, and Hazel Hogan was giving a speech about the big eviction attempt, and how they needed support – of any kind: hands on, artistic, moral and otherwise,” he says.
“So, the next day I went down, not knowing anyone. There was some work being done on the door and a craft-work sale on outside to help raise money. I asked who I could speak to about making a donation.”
The community at Grangegorman helped Gaffney through a tremendously difficult period in his life. Squat City provided a place for him to go, to fill his days doing something productive.
“My engagement was just broken up and I was using a lot of very heavy drugs, almost daily, and was just after a suicide attempt. So, I eventually ended up going down to Grangegorman every day, during a great dash of sunshine. I gradually met more people,” he says.
Gaffney is a poet, and a very good one. He performs at spoken-word events around Dublin, as well at as events put on at Grangegorman.
The community welcomed him, and his life has since improved. “I met another squatter in a squat not so far from Grangegorman, and had hung out with him a lot as we both crashed in one of the warehouses a bit. Then on the day of a mass squatting of a HSE building two minutes from Grangegorman, I went to help.” he says.
“I asked him, this man I barely knew, if I could stay on his couch a couple of days, till I found my own place. He told me not to be stupid. He didn’t have a couch, but he had enough space in his room to move me in. We became roommates, and then my involvement accelerated.”
Though the squatters say the local community around Squat City have been welcoming, popular opinion, generally speaking, is not sympathetic. Several attempts have been made to remove the residents of Squat City, they say.
One morning in February, around the time the Father Peter McVerry said that the homeless crisis was a result of government policy, an attempt was made to once again remove the residents of Squat City. The residents say private security guards tried to forcefully evict them, eventually leaving when they discovered they were outnumbered.
Meanwhile, online, the comment sections of news sites express an almost universal lack of sympathy. A comment under a sympathetic Irish Times article by Una Mullally read: “I dont see whats wrong with a developer trying to do up the site and create REAL jobs and homes – and these people are standing in the way of this.”
Another, below a Journal article, read: “Makes a mockery out of people who get up early and have a long commute, work all day, commute home in the evening, pay their bills and those same people don’t have a pot to p**s in at the end of the week but you don’t seem them moaning about rents.”
There do seem to be plans for the site which is now owned by Global Student Accommodation. The company has said it plans to develop student housing there. (The company didn’t return a phone-call request to talk about the site before deadline.)
I ask Gaffney what he would say to people who maintain that what squatters are doing is immoral; what don’t they understand about squatting? “I see it as very black-and-white,” he says. “The idea that it’s moral to own land for investment and ownership whilst thousands starve on the streets is repugnant.”
“Further than that, though, is a deeper issue. The squatting movement is about more than simply homes and homelessness, although that is a fundamental part of it. It’s about space: space to breathe; space to write; to create space to live in rather than simply exist.”
He continues: “I firmly believe that every soul involved in the squatting movement found ourselves squatting because it provided that refuge. If society is about procuring and securing land for naught but financial profit, then I want no part of that society.”
“The world had no place for us so we found ourselves at Grangegorman with each other. Squatting is about more than the squats we occupy; it’s a society, a subculture – a way of life. The squats are simply the spaces which facilitate that.”
He rolls up another smoke, and begins to tell me about the ethos of Grangegorman’s squatters.
“People hold you as an individual human and soul, not a background or job occupation,” he says. “No one cares where you came from or who you used to be, only who you are. Everyone is accepted so long as they’re not oppressive.”
“If you have a burning to fight back against the monster which is mainstream middle-Ireland today, you will have a place at our table,” Gaffney says.
As with all squatted buildings, the future is, as far I can see, uncertain. While no one living in Squat City can predict what will become of the space in the next five years, the atmosphere seems to be generally quite optimistic.
Though not always explicitly political, squatting in Ireland is in some ways always a political act.
In occupying an empty premises for the purpose of living, one is making (intentionally or not) a statement against an absolutist conception of private-property rights. Against the notion that vacant land cannot be used by people who need it because someone, somewhere claims ownership of it.
Grangegorman lay empty and forgotten before the squatters came. In a time of a shortage of affordable housing, Squat City is now a home to tens of people, and will soon be home to more. And there are more places like it all over Dublin.
Back in the kitchen of the north Dublin squat, I’m finishing my tea. Lavaine is talking about the divides in the last group that occupied Squat City.
“Grangegorman Round One was made of several groups of different people, two groups of people who got along, but weren’t politically on the same page . . . there were differences,” he says.
“Grangegorman Round Two, though, there’s one group that’s pretty much on the same page,” he says. “A lot of us have been involved in social projects together before, so it’s easier to work together this time. Much easier.”