Sitting in the lounge of the West County Hotel in Chapelizod, John Martin leafs through a hand-written book of meeting minutes from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Back then, Martin was an organiser with the Dolphin House Tenants Association, and the council was making moves to increase rents.
The new rents would be unaffordable for many people struggling to feed and clothe large families, he says. “They weren’t looking at what people were left with after they paid the rent.”
When a tenant on rent strike didn’t pay their rent, the council issued a “notice to quit”, telling them they had to move out. “Nobody was moving,” says Martin.
In 1972, Dublin Corporation brought a family from Cromcastle Court in Coolock to court for refusing to pay their rent. The court issued an order for their eviction.
The bailiffs arrived to enforce the order on 17 June 1972, according to the Irish Independent.
Martin says the bailiffs evicted the tenants and took out all their belongings. But once they were gone, tenant organisers simply broke into the flat and put all the furniture, and the tenants, back in.
When the bailiffs returned with gardaí, a large crowd formed to protest and prevent them from entering the flat, he says.
The organisers, including Matt Larkin, the general secretary of the National Association of Tenants Organisations (NATO), gathered with local residents on the balcony of the complex, says Martin.
Gardaí arrested the leaders. “They were taken off in different police cars,” he says. “The word went out and thousands of people marched from all over the city with banners.”
Council tenants all over Ireland were preparing to come to Dublin to join the protest, he says.
The protest was only going to escalate, so within a couple of hours, the organisers were released and they returned to the balcony to say a few words, says Martin.
Thus the eviction was abandoned. Ultimately the strikes worked, says Martin, because it was a massive social movement. “It was people power.”
Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) member Fiadh Tubridy says that “Part of the significance is the parallels between what people were facing then and what is happening now.”
Fifty years on, CATU is putting together the history of the rent strikes and looking to speak to anyone who was involved, says Tubridy, who is also a postdoctoral research fellow at Maynooth University.
A Beautiful Mix
Martin was born in 1950 into a family living in one room in the tenements in Mountjoy Square, he says.
He remembers moving into the one-bedroom flat in Dolphin House at the age of five. “To us, it was like The Westbury or The Gresham hotel,” he says.
At around 12 or 13 he joined the Legion of Mary, going door to door selling religious newspapers, he says, as well as visiting sick people in hospital.
At around 16 or 17, he set up a youth committee to organise sports and recreation for young people.
Soon after that, he was asked to join the tenants association in Dolphin House, he says. Before the rent strikes, they supported tenants in meetings with Dublin Corporation like a trade union representative would for a worker, says Martin.
Lots of people in the tenants organisations were also involved in trade unions, he says. They came from across political backgrounds. “Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour,” he says.
Many were deeply religious too, he says, and nobody felt that there was any conflict in being a union organiser and a staunch Catholic. “It was a beautiful mix.”
He started to train for the priesthood, but he didn’t finish the course. “I found communism, not God,” says Martin, shaking his head and laughing.
Most council housing complexes and estates had tenants’ organisations, he says.
Alone, those local groups didn’t have much muscle though, until they formed the National Association of Tenants Organisations (NATO), says Martin.
Igniting a Strike
After the Housing Act 1966, rents were set to increase for many tenants, says Tubridy, the researcher with CATU and Maynooth University.
For the first time, people other than the primary earner would have their income taken into account, said Martin. For some families, that meant a large hike in rent.
Some tenants also had income from bonuses and welfare payments which also hadn’t been counted up to this point, says Tubridy. Adding those in would mean higher rents.
For people placed on a certain scale over time, bonuses, social welfare benefits and the income of other family members aside from the primary tenant would all be taken into account when the council set the rents, says Tubridy.
In 1966, Dublin Corporation Tenants Central Council organised a protest attended by around 65,000 people. That organisation went on to form NATO in early 1967, she says.
Local-authority tenants would refuse to pay any rent increases, NATO said in a statement it issued in May 1971.
By the next year, the organisation’s national executive claimed they had a membership of about 90,000 households – the vast majority of the 105,000 households living in council housing in Ireland.
Tubridy says that another major aim of NATO was to secure the right for tenants to purchase the home for what it cost the authority to build it rather than the market rate, which was increasing at the time due to land speculation.
There were other issues too, including poor maintenance and construction standards and a lack of facilities like schools and playgrounds in new housing estates, she says.
The rent increases came against a background of inflation and rising cost of living, says Tubridy. Ballymun residents went on strike in 1970. Cromcastle Court residents went on strike in 1971.
“Many of the strikes kicked off with tenants refusing to complete the income assessment forms used to set the new, increased rents,” says Tubridy. “When this happened, local authorities would place them on the highest rent possible and tenants would refuse to pay, thus beginning a rent strike.”
By the time NATO called a national rent strike between September and November 1972, many tenants’ organisations were already on strike.
The leaders knew they had to make it work, says Martin. “If it didn’t work their credibility was gone,” he says.
As Martin remembers it, organising the rent strike was fairly easy as it developed almost organically, he says. “We didn’t build it up, the neighbours built it up themselves.”
Because the communities were close-knit, each time someone joined the strike they persuaded neighbours, friends and relatives to do so too. “They were talking about it in the pub,” he says. “It became a social movement.”
Such was the solidarity among the tenants that they didn’t fear eviction after they stopped paying rent. “They felt within the movement there was enough momentum that it wouldn’t happen,” he says.
“And they had the cavalry behind them,” says Martin smiling and pointing behind him with his left thumb.
The rent strike was backed by the trade unions, he says, and they were very powerful at the time.
In June 1972 the rent strikes were widespread.
As Martin recalls it, after the NATO leaders were arrested at Cromcastle Court, between 3,000 and 5,000 people marched from the city centre to protest.
Tenants around the country were preparing to come to Dublin to join the protest too, he says. “They were all on standby,” he says.
The protest was only going to gather more momentum as time went on so the Gardaí released the leaders within hours, he says.
As more eviction attempts followed the same pattern, the government accepted that they had to work with NATO, says Martin. “They had to treat us as a union,” he says. “They had to negotiate and deal with us.”
Martin says that as far as he can work out the authorities never succeeded in evicting any family throughout that time.
Tubridy says that ultimately the rent strikes were successful. “They got a three-year rent freeze and changes to how the rent was calculated,” she says.
The rent strikes worked because it was impossible to evict tenants. Even after the rent strikes ended, council tenants continued to resist evictions, says Martin.
By the early 1970s there was a housing crisis. “It was nearly impossible for young people to get housing,” he said. So many of them had started to squat in empty council homes.
It was around 1976 when the bailiffs came to evict a young family that had been squatting in an empty home in Dolphin House, he says.
The other residents had mixed views about squatting, says Martin, but no one could stand to see the young family thrown out on the streets. “They couldn’t allow it.”
When the bailiffs came to evict the family, the vast majority of the tenants came out to stop it, he says. “The women bought new pots to bang.”
The situation escalated as the tenants blocked the bailiffs from entering the complex “There was more gardaí than you had ever seen,” says Martin.
A siege of sorts went on for days, and ultimately the tenants managed to keep the family in the flat, says Martin. “They never got anybody evicted,” he said. “Every time they tried the movement got bigger.”
But the sieges were so unpleasant for families with children that eventually, people stopped squatting. “It caused so much worry, so much anxiety,” he says.
The Community History Research Group at CATU is creating a history of the rent strikes and would like to talk to people who were involved about their experiences. Contact [email protected] or 0877197874.