Darragh Power

Rebel City: Dublin 1916-2016

The entire apparatus of the Irish state has been mobilized to commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, widely recognized by historians as the opening shot in a protracted War of Independence with the British Empire that finally ended with the (partial) independence of Ireland in 1922.

To some extent this public celebration of the rebellion is unprecedented since the 50 year anniversary was celebrated in 1966, as the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the intervening years made any overt displays of political nationalism and republicanism into something tantamount to support for the terrorist campaign of the Provisional IRA.

Remembering 1916.

It is only now, 18 years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement that marked the first step towards an end to the conflict in the North, that the establishment political parties can recognize the insurrectionary history of the state they govern, and even of their own parties. This year the national broadcaster is keeping a continuous stream of creaky period drama, archival documentaries with narration by Hollywood star Liam Neeson, and even a satirical, low-budget effort by surrealist comedy duo the Rubberbandits (confined to 11pm on New Year’s Eve, for some reason). The state theatre has launched a centenary programme of plays, drawing on the Irish nationalist canon and the work of newer playwrights, and the bulky official programme of events lists any number of talks, lectures, exhibitions and debates.

The 1916 Rising was not a broad popular revolt, but rather a vanguardist insurrection of ultra-Catholic poets and militant trade unionists, which was initially opposed by the local population who supported the British Army’s efforts to crush it. Indeed, the closest the general population came to participating in unrest was in the widespread looting of the city’s shops during the week of fighting, in scenes more reminiscent of the London riots of 2011 than of genuinely politically-motivated protest.

Today too, the events marking the centenary tend to acknowledge the revolutionary, violent characteristics of the Rising, but simultaneously keep it at arm’s length. The cumulative result of the endless reams of archival footage, art exhibitions, academic presentations, and the publication of countless historical works on the subject of Easter 1916 is to transform what was in reality a violent rebellion into a dry academic topic to be quietly and passively listened to at lectures and watched on stage, rather than participated in. It has become an event for the elite. Whatever this commemoration of Easter 1916 is, it is not a celebration, with the active popular participation that would involve.

That is not to say there haven’t been attempts to reclaim the legacy of the revolutionary moment of 1916. One group, Reclaim 1916, which includes among its members the artists Robert Ballagh and Jim Fitzpatrick (creator of the famous pop-art portrait of Che Guevara that now adorns T-shirts around the globe), proposes just that. And the centenary programme of the Abbey Theatre, Waking The Nation, met with uproar on Twitter on the hashtag #WakingTheFeminists when one activist pointed out that only one female playwright was among the those whose work was on the list. The ensuing media storm and the public apology of the Abbey’s director may well come to be regarded as a watershed moment for women working in the arts in Ireland.

Elsewhere, when the city council granted planning permission to build a shopping centre on part of the historic site on Moore Street – where the rebels made their final stand – locals, activists and relatives of those who fought in the original uprising occupied the properties that were under threat to halt the destruction of the historic buildings, mobilizing support on the internet with the hashtag #SaveMooreStreet. The occupation continues, with activists working in shifts to protect the site from the developers, and has drawn national attention with the appearance of a Banksy-esque mural at the site. The mural depicted Patrick Pearse, one of the original leaders of the revolt, surrendering to construction workers in hi-vis jackets and hard hats, in a nod to the famous photograph of his surrender to British Brigadier General Lowe.

Context then and now.

Ireland has a long history of urban revolt in the tradition described by Marxist geographer David Harvey, from the Easter Rising of 1916, which took place primarily in Dublin without the support of the rural branches of the republican movement due to miscommunication and organizational difficulties, to the short-lived Limerick Soviet of 1919. Neither should we forget the autonomous ‘Free Derry’ area of the Bogside in Derry, which was avoided by the British forces from 1969 to 1972, nor the Falls Road area of nationalist west Belfast, with its murals of solidarity with Palestine, Kurdistan and the Basque Country, which could be seen as the archetype of an urban area in revolt.

In Dublin in 2016, far from the media spotlight at government-sponsored and officially-sanctioned events, yet not a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the original Rising at the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, another very revolutionary movement appears to be taking shape. In a manner reminiscent of the emergence of a left-oriented, politically-conscious archipelago of squats and social centres in Exarcheia in Athens (avoided by the police who want to avoid confrontation with the militant anarchist community there), a wide area that stretches along Dorset Street from Grangegorman at its westernmost end, past Phibsboro and down to Mountjoy Square, is turning into an enclave of resistance. Embedded in the working-class north inner city, yet only metres from the city centre, and down the street from the sites of the proposed regeneration and gentrification of Smithfield and Parnell Square, a network of politically-engaged squats and social centres is emerging from the same urban fabric of dereliction and decay as post-Cold War Berlin – only this time the dereliction has been caused not by the failures of state socialism, but by the excesses of capital.

Historians discussing and writing about the 1916 Rebellion make sure to place it in its social context – a city overflowing with miserable tenements. Yet after 100 years, the social and urban fabric of today’s Dublin has not changed all that much. Homelessness and drug addiction are spiralling problems that are immediately evident to anyone walking through the city, yet the statistics relating to homelessness among children in the city (1,570 children homeless in Dublin as of February 2016) show us just how much bigger the crisis is than that which we can see on the streets.

Most of these homeless families are single-parent families, forced to live in below-standard, unsafe, private bed-and-breakfast accommodation paid for from the public coffers, while state spending on social housing has been at a standstill for years, ever since the demolition of the infamous Ballymun Towers symbolized the ideological triumph of neoliberalism over any concept of state responsibility towards its weakest citizens. All of this is happening at a time when rental rates are rising through the roof (anecdotal accounts from last year tell of landlords raising the rent by 70% overnight). Despite the collapse of the property market that sparked Ireland’s lasting recession in 2008, rental rates never fell to match property values, and in the last two years have begun to soar again, so that one can easily pay €500/month for the privilege of sharing a room with two others anywhere near to the city centre. Meanwhile much of the city remains vacant and underused, and ghost estates built during the boom years of 1995-2008 remain unoccupied around the country.

At the same time massive numbers of properties which have come under the control of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama), a state body founded at the height of the crisis to manage the toxic assets that had passed into state control when the Irish government bailed out insolvent developers, are lying idle or being sold to vulture capitalists at discount prices rather than being turned to the social benefit of the citizens whose taxes funded (and continue to fund) the bailout. The government’s fainthearted steps towards the creation of social housing continues to follow the capitalist logic of growth by investing in the construction industry, rather than forcing the landlord class to end the urban decay by putting the vacant buildings in their possession to use at affordable rents. An attempt by the reformist Labour Party to impose Berlin-style rent controls was blocked by their right-wing coalition partners earlier in the year, and meekly accepted by the junior coalition partners.

New movements and social centres.

It is in the context of this unending housing crisis, and the absence of political will to protect the weakest members of society, that a new movement of civil disobedience is emerging in the form of a network of squats and social centres on the city’s Northside. Many of the squats are the response to necessity and the rising cost of rent, yet there are several that provide more than a mere residential space. They are all within shouting distance of each other, which gives them a close-knit support network in the event of any attempted illegal evictions.

The long-running Seomra Spraoi off Mountjoy Square is an example of a social centre that provided a base for much political activism and a venue for fundraising. It was closed in the last few years, like so many other similar social centres across the city (such as Mabos in the Grand Canal Dock area, the Exchange in Temple Bar, and the rooftop Dublin Urban Farm – all of which were closed on spurious health and safety grounds, i.e. the same health-and-safety regulations that are routinely flouted by the landlord class). Seomra Spraoi has since been reopened under the moniker of Jigsaw and continues to host events and provide a workspace for activist groups such as the Irish Calais Refugee Solidarity Group. The use of health and safety considerations as justification for the closure of these non-commercialized spaces are representative of a new bureaucratic and biopolitical tactic used by the forces of the state to close down threats to the the legitimacy of capital by limiting our political autonomy on the basis of the health and wellbeing of our bodies.

Meanwhile the Barricade Inn, a squat in the tradition of the European anarchist squatting movement, was opened at the top of Dublin’s main street, providing a leftist library, regular events and activities and free, non-commercialized public space in a city where normally you have to pay for a coffee to find a place to sit and relax with friends out of the rain and the cold. It was evicted at the beginning of February, but as it closed the Grangegorman Community Collective – a squat and artist collective that had been evicted under a court injunction in 2015 – was reopened, having changed ownership and thus voided the previous injunction against the occupation. It now puts on weekly events for local young people and Dublin’s broader activist community, providing a space that exists outside of the privatized, for-profit logic of capitalism. In July and August 2015 the Irish Housing Network occupied a building owned by Dublin City Council (that had been earmarked to work as a homeless shelter but was instead left vacant) and opened it as a hostel for the homeless – the Bolt Hostel. This cat-and-mouse game with the forces of the state, often in the face of violent repression by the police and private security, is testament to the dogged persistence of this network of activists.

Building dual power in late capitalism.

Although much of the rhetoric used by the network of squatters and activists is anarchist and artistic, this movement of civil disobedience in a time of crisis is also an example of the Leninist concept of ‘dual power’. Lenin used this term to describe how during the intermediary time between the February and October Revolutions in Russia, a radical power base developed in the soviets, unconnected to parliamentary and constitutional power. This concept can also be applied to the revolutionary period in Ireland following 1916, when the Irish independence movement held elections and formed a parliament (the Dáil), ignoring the constitutional framework of the British imperialist state and acting as though it had already withered away, even going so far as to set up revolutionary courts that acted as arbiters of justice in place of the British legal system.

Yet even more than Leninism, the activities of today’s rebels come closer to the thoughts of the ‘revolution of everyday life’ proposed by Raoul Vaneigem of the French situationist movement, and the theories of the ‘right to the city’ formulated by French theorist Henri Lefebvre. Their aesthetic embraces dereliction through the occupation of the vacant, post-apocalyptic landscapes that underlie the plate glass and chrome of late capitalism’s surface: they bring to light the disturbing byproducts of what is held to be a functioning system. In considering the global relevance of this form of civil disobedience we should remember that for most of the world’s population, living like this – in informal settlements without any legal title to the land their homes have been built on – is the norm.

Instead of the ‘blood sacrifice’ proclaimed by the revolutionaries of 1916, who hoped by their deaths to inspire the Irish populace to revolt (which was exactly what happened), these modern-day revolutionaries are acting out a revolution of everyday life, which proposes to change how we live and take us in directions that are not predetermined by profit and capital. Instead of seeking national independence, they seek to liberate public space from profitization, privatization and commercialization and give us new ways to think about our cities and how we live in them. Where the 1916 Rising was a modern revolt, inspired largely by the cataclysmic world-shaking events of WW1, this revolution is distinctly postmodern: mobilized by hashtags and populated by young transient precarious labourers, drifting from city to city and from country to country. This is not to say they aren’t conscious of their history. A statement by the Barricade Inn drew on the long history of housing activism in the city, and highlighted how little has changed down the years in Dublin, quoting the Dublin Housing Action Committee magazine Crisis from 1969:

Laws that allow and encourage landlords to knock down sound houses or leave them idle during a housing emergency are immoral, and the courts and judges that uphold them are in contempt of justice… Throughout the city of Dublin there are hundreds of flats and houses lying idle (vacant possession being more important and profitable than housing families) while 10,000 families are homeless…

Disillusionment and the city.

In the aftermath of the recent indecisive elections in Ireland – in which the vote of the once-dominant establishment parties has collapsed and a massive number of Independents have been elected – it is clear there is widespread disillusionment with representative democracy. This in turn highlights the failure of the broad left movement to capitalize on mass mobilizations against water charges and anger with austerity, and turn that anger into a positive movement, as Syriza did in Greece and Podemos has done in Spain. The Irish radical left parties, represented by the Anti-Austerity Alliance, are defined (as the name suggests) by a reactionary, anti-utopian, defensive politics, focused more on defending the social victories of previous generations and piggybacking on popular discontent than on building a future.

Maybe then, what is needed for a powerful political movement to develop is the occupation of physical space in the city, the development of an area and network of spaces defined by shared political outlooks, just as Exarcheia, Athens’ radical quarter, and the network of militant squats in Barcelona and Madrid have provided a base for radical organizing. It is from liberated and politicized spaces like this that a movement, such as the popular democratic movements that have taken control of the city municipalities of Madrid and Barcelona in recent local elections, can emerge. The occupation of physical space by leftist and progressive forces from Tahrir in Egypt to Wall Street in New York acts to give a movement a nucleus, and turn theory into practice. It is free spaces like this that form the living zones of the imagination. We must work to build and defend this incipient urban revolution.

Can it be co-opted or recuperated? Is it common for artist collectives like this to be used as the thin edge of the wedge of gentrification by private developers to drive up the rental value of properties in traditionally working-class communities? Yes, and yet we must not meekly accept the alternative – the decay of the fabric of the city and of society in these communities. Instead we must work to continue the politicization of these social centres and not allow them to submit to being a mere revolt of aesthetics, or aestheticization of revolt.

Photo: Darragh Power

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Published 3rd April 2016

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