From 2013 to 2016, ‘Squat City’ at Grangegorman was a hub of activity and a spring for the squatting movement in Dublin. After the final closure of the squat in August 2016, Rachel Mc Ardle- an IRC-funded PhD student (#LoveIrishResearch) in the Department of Geography and the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA)- outlines the recent conflict that has happened in this space over the last number of years. While the most recent group of squatters have been evicted, they have moved elsewhere as squatting continues to increase in Dublin as a manifestation of severe dissatisfaction with the current political system.
Last weekend, the 12th of August, evictions began once more at the squat at Grangegorman. Named ‘Squat City’, the space had numerous facilitates and hosted a range of activities and events, such as a community garden, as well as holding circuses and plays. Before delving into what the latest residents of the squat did, I would first like to track the history of the space. The space, made up of a mixture of residential, industrial & commercial premises ,had been left derelict for up to 15 years (Workers Solidarity Movement, 2015).
The squat’s position is key to its previous success, but also central to its current precarious position. As one of the only places at the very heart of Smithfield, Stoneybatter and Grangegorman, the site has been affected by the ebbs and flows of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath. From 2013 to 2015 the squat attempted to be well-known, and its existence was a symbol of the vast levels of vacancy across the country. With reported recent growth in the economy as well as the development of the new Dublin Institute of Technology Campus at Grangegorman, this site is now being developed again. Places used by alternative cultures are the current targets for gentrification (Shaw, 2005). The paradox of gentrification is that the places sought by alternative cultures like squatting are also the spaces most likely to be revitalised (Shaw, 2005), which is what has happened with Squat City. Squatting in these previously dead spaces “can transform them into places of living, creation and performance” (Chatterton, 2002:6). The vacancy and underdevelopment that attracted the squatters to this area is also what makes it attractive to investors who see its potential. Slater argues that rather than seeing disinvestment as bad, and reinvestment, or gentrification, as good, we instead need to question the politics behind these different processes, rather than viewing them as ‘false choice urbanism[s]’ (2014).
From 2013 to 2015 the space was a hub of activity for squatting in Dublin, hosting the international squatting convergence in 2014, and a number of other activities. According to the residents, it was once one of the largest squats in Europe. Around 30 people lived here and there was a community garden which was worked upon by local families, a warehouse venue for poetry and other events, as well as a ‘free shop’, allowing people to recycle and reuse unwanted items (Hennessy, 2015). Residents, mostly young people, cited the lack of affordable housing in Dublin as the main reason for squatting. Others squatted there for more explicitly political reasons (Doyle, 2016).
In March 2015, NAMA hired the receiver Luke Charleton (Irish Times, 2015) of Ernst and Young to arrange for a private security company to begin evictions of the space in order to regain control and ownership of the site. (Hennessy, 2015). In the injunction court case in 2015 the court heard that there was an alleged illegal eviction attempt prior to the court hearing, and that many of the residents would be homeless should the injunction go ahead (Irish Times, 2015).Despite this, the residents were evicted in July 2015.
Figure 1: Graffiti outside the squat.
Source: Mc Ardle, R. (2016)
In early 2016, the site became subject to a new owner, and security was not kept on site (Doyle, 2016). Figure 1 shows the support the squatters had with some of the local community and once security no longer retained an on-site presence, squatters moved back in, many of whom were residents who had lived there the previous year (Workers Solidarity Movement, 2016). The garden, the community kitchen and the free shop were gone after the eviction, having been removed or destroyed while the space was empty, but the poetry sessions such as ‘Words in the warehouse’ resumed , in addition to open days and circus events.
The company TSAF 1 Brunswick GP Ltd, bought the site from the receivership company and it now belongs to Global Student Accommodation with planning permission granted for 126 apartments (Irish Times, 2016) to be ready for the 2018/2019 academic year. On July 20th 2016, the squatters were given 21 days to leave. They argued that the company who bought the site were not legally allowed to bring proceedings as they had not properly registered the site. They also contested that the same judge presided over both cases; of filing injunctions in both 2015 and 2016. The judge, Mr Justice Paul Gilligan, stated that no rights to remain on the property were provided by the residents, and granted the injunction (Irish Times, 2016). The squatters were evicted the weekend of the 12th of August 2016.
I attended one of these open days in April 2016. After the annual Anarchist Bookfair attendees were invited to come and look at the space and watch a play that was being performed. When I walked up to the door with a few others, we were welcomed in and told to explore the area. The first part you walked into was a huge open space, similar to a courtyard with dirt and plants and debris around the edges (see figure 2). There was a warehouse towards the back, where people were starting to gather, this space was uninhabited and was the location of the performance. There was an entrance way to another warehouse and hill mound to the left. To the right of the main warehouse, was another warehouse, which was bigger, about double the size, which was empty of people or things. It had a lot of graffiti on the walls, which were intricate and displayed a variety of different messages, see figure 3. This warehouse was probably about the size of a football field. Through this was another smaller courtyard with two buildings, filled with mattresses. These two buildings were clearly where the squatters lived, and their openness encouraged privacy and respect for where they lived. As a result I refrained from going in and I noticed how other visitors also steered clear of the area.
Figure 2: The main courtyard of the squat.
Source: Mc Ardle, R. (2016)
Back in the main courtyard, in front of the hill mound where people where lounging, there was another building. There had been various attempts at wooden art projects, the results of which were hanging around the place. At the back of these there was another small courtyard and another building. The graffiti in this courtyard was beautiful, and looked fresher than anywhere else on the site. One of the pieces of graffiti displayed a woman on the outer wall, which can be seen in figure 5. The building consisted of two floors, and the upstairs contained exercise mats and a sound proof room. There was a sign on the main door of this building which informed us that that this was the Violet Gibson centre and that there would be a meeting here at 7.30pm. It is named after famous Irish woman Violet Gibson who once shot at Benito Mussolini (Hughes-Hallett, 2010).
Figure 3: Examples of graffiti at the squat.
Source: Mc Ardle, R. (2016)
My initial reaction to being at the squat was amazement. The space is huge, and the atmosphere felt communal and energetic. There was an atmosphere of positivity and an excited buzz in the air. There was no formality, structure, or direction to the way we were allowed to roam the squat. This was characterised by a certain feeling of isolation but also a sense of freedom. In a way it was almost as if we were tourists visiting while the locals kept to themselves. I was surprised at the diversity of ages and ethnicities which challenged the stereotypical image of a squatter that I had in my head. I hadn’t expected so many women, so many different nationalities and so many people, who although they didn’t live there, were interested in and supported the squat -the place was jam-packed.
The play which was performed was a mock-eviction that was loosely based on the then recent eviction attempt. It was a very realistic portrayal of the struggles that squatters go through when dealing with the Gardaí. The play explained that squatting is a civil, not a criminal, matter. It also showed the everyday running of a squat via the enactment of a morning meeting and a discussion of the types of issues they would normally discuss. Furthermore, it showed the horizontal nature of the organisation, which means making decisions based on a consensus being reached. This was displayed in the play via the use of waving hands, which the audience also had to participate in. It also showed the daily annoyances of living with other people and how the squatters dealt with this through gently airing their grievances with one another and reconciling them. The play taught me a lot about the everyday nature of squatting which I had not known before. I was struck by the non-hierarchal nature of their interactions with each other, and how this imbues a sense of community and belonging that is palpable.
Figure 4: The play at the squat.
Source: Mc Ardle, R. (2016)
The Violet Centre was to be Ireland’s newest autonomous social centre, and although based in the squat, Squat City wanted it to be run autonomously by its users (Grangegorman Squat, 2016). It would model itself along the lessons learned from the likes of Seomra Spraoi and the Barricade Inn, two examples of autonomous spaces both of which closed in 2015. It was to be a community, non-for-profit space that would hold events and classes. It is shown in the picture below.
Figure 5: The Violet Gibson Centre.
Source: Mc Ardle, R (2016).
More recently (4th of August 2016) I attended a screening of United in Anger, a documentary about the HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP in the US in the 1980s and 1990s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The event was attended by two activists who had been involved in the US movement at the time the documentary was shot. After the documentary, these two activists were given the chance to give an insight into their own personal experience. They also used the event as a chance to launch ACT UP Dublin, a new group committed to direct action to end the HIV crisis. Another speaker at the event was a female activist who created a solidarity group in Dublin at the time of the documentary, in the 1980s and 1990s, and she spoke about her experiences as an activist during that time.
Not only was the night itself inspiring and interesting, the very space of the squat contributed significantly to the atmosphere of the event. It showed how the broader community support the squat. Some squatters attended the event, but the majority of attendees were interested people from the radical left, who feel solidarity with places like the squat. The squat is an open, free place to hold events and talks, which is basically non-existent in a place like Dublin, and is inclusive enough for groups who may feel unwelcome in other places. For a fledging group like ACT UP, the not-for-profit ethos may also have added to the appeal of the squat. The fact that the squat keeps getting evicted could mean that the social centre will eventually not be a part of their aims and objectives. With the close of Seomra Spraoi and The Barricade Inn last year, would this mean an end to radical social centres in Ireland?
However, there is hope! According to the Workers Solidarity Movement many of the Grangegorman residents have moved into the Debtors Prison on Halston Road, a kilometre away from their previous home at Grangegorman (2016b). In the 18th and 19th Century the building was a debtor’s prison housing up to 100 Dubliners who couldn’t pay their debts, and more recently it is in the hands of the Office of Public Works (OPW). The building has been neglected by the OPW, on the grounds of a lack of funding, and those who have recently moved in are being threatened with eviction on the grounds of safety. These residents claim that their rights to the space are no less than the state’s and have been given until midnight Sunday (the 21st of August) to be out of the space. The residents contest that they are willing to care for the property, and that money spent on bringing them to court could be better spent (Resist Grangegorman’s Eviction, 2016). On Sunday the 21st of August 2016, I attended a play at the space, see Figure 6. This play was the same day as the eviction order so the play was potentially the only event they will get to hold in the space. This play was about the history of the prison and was based on real life prisoners who once inhabited it.
Figure 6: Play at Halston Street Debtors’ Prison.
Source: Mc Ardle, R. (2016)
The play was advertised as a family friendly event, and neighbours were invited in. There was a talk afterwards about direct provision and the history of the prison service in Ireland. It was interesting to see how these two actions were tied to what the squatters were doing. After the play one of the squatters announced that they were up in High Court on Monday the 22nd 2016, to see how long they would be allowed stay in the space for. The court ordered the removal of the squatters, and the squatters face arrest if they chose to stay on the premises (The Journal, 2016). This is part of the power of alternative spaces, that they reappear and shift in the city (Shaw, 2005), but remain a presence in the background always. Spaces like Grangegorman Squat show us what spaces in the city could be, and show the best parts of a city, not one run for profit, but spaces where people can have a community, and an open, inclusive, diverse, free space.
Rachel Mc Ardle
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