Kicking Against The Bricks

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From top: Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC) publication entitled ‘Crisis’, 1969; DHAC founding members, from left: Sean Dunne, Mairin deBurca and Eamonn Farrell  in Liberty Hall in Dublin on May Day

The following is a talk given by photojournalist Eamonn Farrell, Director of Rollingnews and former Dublin Housing Action Committee [DHAC] activist, on May Day to launch a photographic exhibition at Liberty Hall focusing on the housing crises in the 20th century and 21st century Dublin.

‘Ironically in today’s newspapers and on the air you could get all the latest stats on the housing crisis. Not pleasant reading. I am not going to bamboozle you with further figures.

But if you will allow me I will try and paint a picture of my experiences as a housing activist in 1960s Ireland

Like many people in the sixties, I moved to England. Not just in search of work. I already had a job as a junior barman. In those days to be licensed to pull pints of the black stuff you had to serve three years as an apprentice and then two as a junior barman.

Ireland then was still in the grip of a conservative Catholic Church. No divorce. No Contraception. Gay sex was illegal. Women had to give up work when they married. Young mothers were being sent to work in laundries and forced to give up their children born outside of marriage. Priests demanded the right to question and interfere in the nature of your activities in the marriage bedroom.

Yes, that was the Ireland in which the tyranny of British occupation was replaced by the tyranny of a church exercising the moral oppression of the population with the compliance of an independent, but supine state.

I had worked in Kirwan House, a pub right beside what was then UCD in Earlsfort Terrace. It was frequented by students who were starting to get the whiff of new philosophies from the European mainland and were reading works not only by Sartre but by Marx and Lenin as well.

Bob Dylan was strumming, Luke Kelly was singing and O’Donoghues pub was only around the corner. For a teenager from Finglas it was heady stuff. But not quite heady enough.

In London I bumped into one of the students I befriended in Dublin and he invited me to come along to meetings of the Irish Workers Group (IWG), headed by Gerry Lawless.

Lawless had ensured himself a place in legal history by being the first person to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights. The IWG would have been described as a Trotskyist group, which meant little to me at the time.

The IWG held meetings every Sunday at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park And on a particular Sunday, I was delegated to speak. Of course I was nervous and nearly vomiting into my tea in the nearby Lyons Cafe, but it was nothing to how sick I was when I discovered the speaker before me was a young curly-haired radical by the name of Eamon McCann!

Now if any of you have heard Eamon speak you will know his mouth cannot keep up with the speed at which his brain is shoveling words onto his whiplash tongue. Needless to say I was a disappointment to myself and my comrades. Always meant to check with Eamon were those curls natural or the result of a perm.

My first task after that miserable performance was to go to a certain hotel where there was an international conference taking place, and at night cut down both the American and Soviet flags.

I duly arrived Stanly knife in hand and shimmied up the pole to cut down the American flag first. As I cut through, which was not easy, as once up the pole, my legs were wrapped around it like a pole dancer, I had only a split second to allow both hands free to cut the rope.

Suddenly blood was squirting from my hand, the flag was still in place, and I dropped to the ground like a fireman on an emergency call.

An ambulance was called, and it took me, siren blaring, through the streets of London, to the nearest hospital.

That was the end of my association with Gerry and the IWG and we never met again.

When I got back to Dublin two years later, all had changed.

Before I left, apart from alcohol and a few soft drinks, the only food you could get in a pub was a slice of cheddar cheese between two dry cream crackers. Now lo and behold, one could order a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, which came in its own cellophane wrapper.

And wait for it….a cup of coffee. Not quite cappuccino, but it still represented a mini food revolution.

A friend, Phil Lynott, had become a rock star, Van Morrison was cool singing the blues,
and Rory Gallagher was just starting to hit those cords. Gay Byrne was upsetting the Bishops.
But of course there were still negatives. Folk had become commercially acceptable, even played on RTE, and as a result the raw salty songs of the Dubliners were being replaced by the likes of Johnny McEvoy rendition of Mursheen Durkin.

However there were radical rumblings in the colleges. Students for Democratic Action, (SDA) were being set up by people like Deaglan deBreadun in UCD. Eric Fleming and Co in the Connolly Youth Movement were shaking up the Communist Party (CPI). The Maoists were in Trinity College, the B&ICO (the British &Irish Communist Party) were asking serious questions of
Irish Nationalism, and Jim Kemmy was making noises in Limerick.

The Labour Party proclaimed the 70’s would be Socialist, Fine Gael had Declan Costello and the Young Tigers. Fianna Fail were going backward with Taca and Charles Haughey. But most surprisingly, musty old Sinn Fein was speaking less about a United Ireland
and more about public ownership of rivers, fishing rights, citizens advice bureaus,
civil rights, and housing.

Just to be clear, the Sinn Fein I am speaking about was the one which became Official Sinn Fein and later the Workers Party, after the split in the Republican Movement.

Among all those to the left of the Labour Party, there was a buzz in the air regarding what was happening within Sinn Fein. Were they moving to the left? How far would they go? Names were being mentioned in hushed tones.
Roy Johnston, Eoghan Harris, Sean Garland, Dick Walshe, Seamus Costello, Eamon Smullen and of course Cathal Goulding.

And on the front line carrying out the direct action on the streets were Mairin DeBurca, Sean Dunne, Sean Kenny and the recently departed Bard of Drumcondra, Ger O’ Leary, to name a few.
Now things were truly getting heady.
The Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC) was set up by Sinn Fein,
but members of the Labour Party, Connolly Youth Movement, B&ICO, The CPI and some homeless people who were politically active, became involved, including Bernard Browne and Dennis Dennehy. From the trade union movement people like Sam Nolan, Mick O’Reilly, and Des Geraghty got involved.

The DHAC was responding to a serious housing crisis in the city, exemplified in the main by slum landlords, overcrowding, and a FF Government which had moved away from a history of providing social housing, to an association with builders and developers pursuing wealth through property speculation.

It was illegal to demolish property which could be suitable for housing people, but all over the city, buildings were either bulldozed during the night by persons unknown, or left unlocked and open to be vandalised, no longer fit for human habitation. And therefore ready to be demolished and replaced by gleaming new office buildings.

At this stage married and with a child, living in cramped conditions but with no chance of getting onto an ever growing social housing list, I joined the DHAC and eventually took over from Mairin deBurca as secretary of the committee.

The chairman Bernard Browne and Dennis Dennehy were both squatting in a building on Mountjoy Sq, which was owned by a well known rackrent landlord. Dennis was arrested for contempt of court and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail. Where he went on hunger strike.

His campaign brought the plight of the homeless to the attention of the national media and from then on the committee started to seek out suitable vacant private properties to house homeless famlies in.

Most of these were large houses in the Ballsbridge area, which we believed were being deliberately left vacant so they could be vandalised and demolished.

During the course of the campaign there were 20 plus homeless famlies including children, housed in these properties. Including buildings on Stephens Green, while around the corner architectural students took over buildings in Hume Street.

We had disagreements and debates with them over many issues, with on one occasion Garret Fitzgerald acting as referee between well know TV personality Duncan Steward and myself.

In response the government brought in the Forcible Entry and Occupation Act, which made it possible to imprison a person squatting but also for anyone for making a public statement encouraging the occupation of a property.

I believe that legislation is still on the statute books and can still be used today, even in the case of workers staging a sit-in on the factory or shop floor.

In the course of the DHAC campaign there were four major events, the evictions in Sarah Place, the sit-downs on O’Connell Bridge, and College Green and the chaining of homeless protestors to the Cuchulain statute in the GPO.

Courtrooms were blockaded in the Four Courts etc, over the imprisonment of two families, through the use of the new act, but at the core of the campaign remained the housing of homeless famlies in vacant private buildings.

The campaign came to an end for three main reasons, the forcible eviction under the new act of families, including from two houses on Pembroke Road. The rise of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, leading to what is usually referred to as the Troubles, and the opening up of Ballymun housing development on the Northside of Dublin.

For the eviction on Pembroke Rd, the gardai for the first time purchased riot helmets and shields. During the event chainsaws were used to gain entrance to the front and the back of the house. While gardai also accessed the roof and broke in through it.

We always had a good relationship with the media and informed press photographers and TV when we were going to organise an event.

That did not mean that every editorial or article was favourable to us, but we understood to get our message out and increase support for our cause we needed the media and independent objective journalists reporting our story.

However this eviction took place in the early hours of the morning and with  our only means of communication a phone box on the corner, we could not get word out to the media.

As a result I don’t believe there are any photos or TV footage of the actual event, which was probably the most dramatic involving protestors and gardai, apart from the riot at the British Embassy in Ballsbridge.

What did the campaign achieve? In my opinion only bringing the issue of homelessness and a housing crisis to the fore. Within months the media was consumed with the events in Northern Ireland and the housing issue disappeared from the pages.

Now it is back with a vengeance. Worse than it ever was. With thousands of families with children living a Purgatory-like existence in hotels and hubs, in cars and on the streets. And once again protestors are out in force calling for solutions and decrying empty buildings while people are homeless.

New technology has meant that protestors now have the means to take their own photos and videos and live-stream on social media and are not dependent on what is referred to as mainstream media. And this is sometimes evident in their reaction to the presence of mainstream journalists at a protest.

We can be viewed with suspicion, dismissed, or in some cases threatened. This is a serious mistake. Because if you ignore mainstream platforms, all you are doing, despite the array
of technology at your disposal, is speaking to yourselves.

If you want to widen your base of support for a campaign, you must engage with those who either don’t support you or don’t know about you. And you can’t do that by consistently chatting to the converted within your own social media group.

It’s my job as a photojournalist to record what I see without fear or favour. If I see gardai attacking protestors, I will record it. If I see protestors attacking gardai I will record it. It is for others to make a call on the rights or wrongs of what we cover.

It is my duty to give an independent objective assessment of what I see. Protesters filming gardai and gardai filming protesters, produces subjective and unreliable content, which in the end will be trusted by no one.

Our agency, RollingNews.ie is one of the few media platforms which refuses to hand over content to the gardai in relation to protests, unless a warrant is produced, because we believe it is important we are not perceived as the eyes and ears of the State and we believe it is wrong to force us to do so and puts our journalists safety at risk.

Independent media and independent journalists still have a role to play and they deserve your support. Lyra McKee lost her life doing her job, so did Veronica Guerin, and so did Martin O’Hagan of the Sunday World.

These were people whose objective was to tell the truth, no matter which media platform they worked for. They paid a heavy price for it. There are hundreds of other journalists working in the media today who have the same belief and if necessary will pay the same price in pursuit of the truth. Do not confuse them with those who employ them.

Finally in relation to the current housing crisis. It is unique and different to what we have experienced before, because despite the great work the McVerry Trust, the ICCH, Focus Ireland and others are doing, it is being undone daily by home repossessions, the eviction of famlies from their rented accommodation, and the sale of existing and new properties to vulture funds.

Not only can we not build new private or social homes fast enough for the existing numbers of homeless people, but we insist on adding to the numbers in a way which is going to create a social tsunami like we have never seen before in this country.

We bailed the banks out with our money. But when it came their turn to respond in kind for home owners who through no fault of their own were in negative equity and could not keep up their original repayments, they were not offered debt write-downs that would have allowed them retain their homes and their dignity.

But yet the same homes are sold to vulture funds at knock down prices!

And what is the excuse? Moral Hazard.

What is Moral Hazard? According to the Oxford dictionary it states: Moral Hazard is Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences.

What the banks meant of course and what the Government accepted, was the possibilty that in the event some homeowners were getting the benefit of a debt write-down on their mortage, some less scrupulous people might deliberately get into debt to avail of the process.

Of course we will never know to what extent this may have happened, if at all.

But how come Moral Hazard was not mentioned when the State gave 64 billion of our money to the banks? I don’t believe there is any evidence to suggest the average citizen is anymore less honest than the banks.

But apart from explaining what Moral Hazard means, I can demonstrate to anyone
here what it looks like, if they wish to join me any evening and take a walk down Grafton Street, or up Henry Street and see the men, women and sometimes children, sleeping
in the doorways of our two main shopping streets.

That my friends is a Moral Hazard.

Eamon Farrell, May 1, 2019.

Previously: Free Tonight?

Pic: Leah Farrell